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To wrap up this discussion of baptism, I return to the set of problems that sent me on this exploration in the first place: Should individual Christians be willing to compromise their baptismal preferences for the sake of fellowship with and the mission of local churches?  If so, how flexible can we legitimately be on these matters?

I have tried to show in Parts 1 and 2 of this mini-series that, in all likelihood, there was no single apostolic protocol for baptism and, if there was, it does not match any of the baptismal practices on offer within the Church today.  The most probable explanation for why our current evidence for earliest Christian baptismal practices is messy  and complicated is that the historical reality on the ground (or in the water, as it were) was messy and complicated.  InBaptismal font the apostolic period, the Church’s practice and understanding of baptism was evolving from being a Jewish ritual ablution to being a Christian sacrament.  That evolutionary process, like all such processes, probably gave birth to a multiplicity of theological and practical variations, only the “fittest” of which survived.

Now, this picture of baptism’s history seriously problematizes our tendency to want to treat our specific, preferred baptismal practices and theologies (whether we be paedo- or credo-baptists) as rigidly normative for everyone else.  Nobody, no not one, can boast of either an uncomplicated continuity nor a perfect symmatry between their baptismal practice and that of the apostolic generation.

Furthermore, to return to my evolutionary metaphor, as with species of flora and fauna, so also the ability to flourish that constitutes a tradition’s “fitness” for survival depends entirely upon the environment wherein that tradition finds itself.  Just as a species’ fitness for survival depends upon environmental conditions (e.g., climate, sustenance, mates [if needed], etc.), so, perhaps, it is with traditions like baptismal practices.  Perhaps there are environmental conditions to which churchesand individual Christians should adapt their baptismal practices.

For instance, it is (or at least used to be) recognized that the American “Bible-Belt” displays the phenomenon of so-called “cultural Christianity,” a sort of highly-popularized, lowest-common-denominator piety, typically marked out by a handful of seemingly arbitrarily selected dogmas (e.g., biblical literalism, a borderline-Docetic and thoroughly Caucasian Christology) and taboos (e.g., don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t swear, don’t date girls that do, etc.).  In such an environment, perhaps paedo-baptism could be a theological liability.  Perhaps paedo-baptism’s (supposed) proclivity for producing people who believe themselves to be proper Christians simply because a minister splashed some water over them once merely exacerbates the problems inherent in a context rife with “cultural Christianity.”  But, then again, perhaps it is not paedo-baptism per se that exacerbates the situation.

On the other hand, it is often observed that deepy engrained in American culture is a profoundly self-centered, self-motivated individualism that affects everything from how we dress to why we go to school to how we envision salvation.  This inveterate American individualism breeds narcissism both inside and outside the Church, undermines the edification of the community of the Church, the Body of Christ, and diverts resources that ought to go towards mercy, outreach and missions to instead go to endless building funds, sound-systems, and retreats.  Perhaps in this unhealthily individualistic context credo- or “believer’s” baptism, with it’s concomitant (over?) emphasis on my “testimony,” my “conversion,” my “decision,” and my new walk with the Lord, exacerbates the situation, inadvertantly diminishing the importance of the family and isolating Christians from both the living community and the historic Tradition of the Church.  But, then again, perhaps it is not credo-baptism per se that does this.

I do not presume to say which, if either, baptismal practice will best serve the circumstances wherein the Church currently finds herself.  But I would suggest that these sorts of practical, pastoral questions should probably Baptism-christplay a greater role in personal and communal deliberations on baptismal theology and practice.  However, these sorts of questions do not admit of cut-and-dried answers.  Whatever conclusions one reaches must be adhered to provisionally and humbly.  At any rate, bearing these things in mind allows Christians to maintain Paul’s prioritization of evangelism and unity over the particulars of baptism (see 1 Cor 1:10-17) and to exercise a sort of healthy ecumenical versatility as they decide where, how and with whom to worship and serve.

So to return to my initial questions: Should individual Christians be willing to compromise their baptismal preferences for the sake of fellowship with and the mission of local churches?  If so, how flexible can we legitimately be on these matters?  I’ve given my two-cents worth.  What do you think?

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To recap, in my last post I argued that earliest Christian baptism must be understood in the context of other Early Jewish washings in general and is best understood as a development of Jewish proselyte baptism in particular.  Thus, early Christians probably generally followed the normal Jewish baptismal protocol: When the head of a household converted, he and his whole household (wives, children, infants, and slaves) would all be baptized but children who were subsequently born into the household would not require the baptismal bath.  In short, neither modern-day Baptists nor modern-day paedo-baptists (e.g., Methodists, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, etc.) practice baptism precisely the way Christians did during the time of the apostles.  If that precis has left you completely disoriented and confused, read my argument in the last post before continuing with this one…or just stop reading altogether and go on about your business.

 So, picking up where we left off…

3. Thus, a sort of paedo-baptism was probably practiced from the very start of Christianity, although it likely was not the only early Christian approach to baptism nor does it exactly match the subsequent Christian practice of paedo-baptism. As I mentioned in a comment on the last post, there is perhaps some textual evidence of diversity in Christian baptismal practices in the apostolic period.  While most of the NT gives a pretty clear picture of baptism as a singular initiatory rite, in Hebrews 6:2 we find that part of the elementary word of Christ is “instruction about washings/baptisms (baptismw/n, plural!)” (compare with Heb 9:10). Some have noticed definite affinities between the focuses of Hebrews and some of the hot-topics of the Dead Sea Scrolls (angelology, Melchizedek, priestly concerns, etc.). Some have even gone as far as to suggest that the author and intended audience of Hebrews were Essene Christians! If that’s the case, perhaps we have evidence here of an early Christian community wherein members did, in fact, undergo multiple “baptisms,” as did members of the Qumran community and the Pharisees (Luke 11:38).

4. As there was probably no uniform baptismal practice, there was almost certainly no uniform theology of baptismal significance in early Christianity.  However, it needs to be noted that the NT’s language

ca. 4th-5th century, cruciform baptismal font

ca. 4th-5th century, cruciform baptismal font

concerning baptism is disconcertingly high for many Evangelical Protestants who want baptism to be a symbol and nothing more.  For Paul it is precisely in our baptism, not our initial moment of faith, that we are united to Christ in his death and resurrection (e.g., Rom 6:3-4; Gal 3:27).  Nevertheless, for Paul, baptism, in some sense, takes a back-seat to the preaching of the gospel (1 Cor 1:17).

On the other hand, we read in 1 Peter 3:21-22, “Baptism… now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ….”  Likewise, John’s reference to being “born of water and the Spirit” as a precondition of entry into the kingdom of God (3:5) is probably best understood as a reference to baptism.

I suspect that for churches that shared the Pauline belief that baptism united the believer with Christ and somehow transformed the believer’s heart (Rom 6:4, 17-18) it was only natural to connect baptism with the circumcision of the heart (Rom 2:29).  From there it is but a theological hop, skip and a jump to patterning Christian baptismal practice after the Jewish rite of circumcision and, ergo, baptizing children born to Christian parents.

That not all ancient churches would take this hop, skip and jump should be obvious.  Nevertheless, we have here the makings of an explanation for how Origen, writing in the early 3rd century, could assume paedo-baptism to be a practice passed down from the apostles and why Tertullian should feel the need to argue against the (apparently widespread) practice.  The fact that the practice was not explicitlyordained by any NT text helps to explain why in many cases the evidence from Christian children’s gravestones indicates that children were often baptized strictly in cases of emergency and why many in the 4th century, though Christians, postponed baptism until either ordination (e.g., Ambrose of Milan) or death (e.g., Gregory of Nazianzus, Constantine) seemed immanent.  The theological interconnection between the Spirit, baptism and circumcision helps explain why at least some of these baptismal procrastinators (e.g., Augustine, Gregory of Nazianzus) would go on to exhort parents to baptize their children without delay. 

My point is that paedo-baptism as it came to be practiced within the ancient and medieval church was an understandable and probably legitimate development of apostolic baptismal practices and theologies, not that it was the only legitimate development of the apostolic practices and doctrine.  In short, the messiness of the baptismal practices and theologies of the apostolic period begat the messiness of the baptismal practices and theologies of the patristic period, but, nevertheless, therein lay the seeds of what would eventually become the Church’s predominant practice: paedo-baptism.  Now, whether those seeds should have been allowed to germinate is another matter….

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The other week I was having coffee with a new-found friend from the Baptist church I have been attending recently.  Like myself, she is a closet paedo-baptist but, nevertheless, in order to join the church, she gladly submitted to undergoing “believer’s” (ana!)baptism.  For whatever reason this revelation set me to h’rumphing and shifting uneasily in my seat.  Of course, people who have been baptized as infants are frequently (re)baptized by Baptist churches.  That comes as no surprise.  What caught me off-guard, I think, was the realization that some folks who were being (re)baptized had not discounted their christening as illegitmate nor bought into the theology of credo- (or “believers'”) baptism.

As I’ve said before, The Summit is a vibrant, healthy, happening church, and so, in some ways, I suppose I should not be surprised that folks who resonate with the church’s ethos and mission but not necessarily with their baptismal theology, would submit to the latter in order to participate in the former.  And on further reflection, it seems to me that there is something profoundly right about subordinating one’s personal sacramental preferences to the interests of community and mission.

In other words, I don’t think baptismal practice is a hill to die on and for the following reasons: 1) I suspect that, historically speaking, the baptismal practices of Apostolic Christianity were most likely incongruous with the chief baptismal practices on offer today.  2) The practice and theology of baptism underwent processes of development from the time of Jesus through the Reformation and beyond, in response to various practical and theological stimuli.  3) Because of the character of baptism’s history, perhaps the most pressing questions for how churches should practice this sacrament are practical and pastoral in nature.

As for the historical questions, I have several thoughts:

1.  Early Christian Baptism probably arose out of Jewish ritual washings, the function of which was to provide ritual purity.  It is commonly believed that such washings were primarily associated with the Israelite cultus (see e.g., Ex 30:19-21; 40:12; Lev 6:27, etc.).  However, as Shaye Cohen has pointed out, the Torah’s regulations concerning ritual purity pertain not only to the Tabernacle but to the entire Israelite camp, i.e., to the entirety of Israel (Lev 13:46; Num 5:1-4).  Understood thus, the Pharisees insistence upon applying purity to the whole of Jewish existence seems not pedantic or supererogatory but altogether natural.   

Such washings were part of both initiation into and daily life in the Qumran community (see especially, The Community Rule [1 QS III.1-10]).  Washings were also part of the daily life of the Pharisees (e.g., Luke 11:38).  We know that Rabbinic Judaism practiced proselyte baptism, having Gentile proselytes be baptised as part of initiation into the people of God.  The function of such baptisms was to remove the uncleanness that Gentiles necessarily had on account of their pre-conversion diets (see Lev 11).

A mikvah bath at Herodian from ca. 1st century BCE

A mikvah bath at Herodian from ca. 1st century BCE

While, it is often dangerous to assume that practices and ideas of Rabbinic Judaism extend back into the Second Temple period, I think we are probably safe to think that proselyte baptism was commonly practiced by Jews of that time, particularly the Pharisees.  First, there is some textual evidence that this practice may extend as far back as the 2nd century BCE (namely, the Greek Version of the Testament of Levi 14:6 protests Jews using “unlawful purifications” to legitimate marriages to unclean Gentile women).  Furthermore, it is hard to imagine how Pharisees could initiate Gentiles into the Jewish community, into the “camp” without some sort of initiatory ablution (again, think Lev 11).

Thus, it is only natural to place Christian baptism on the map of Jewish ritual washings and more specifically to connect it with Jewish proselyte baptism.  But in addition to the initial plausibility of Christian Baptism arising from this matrix, there are a few other clues that seem to indicate that we’re on the right track in linking these practices.  First, the language of baptism is associated with Jewish ritual washings in a few NT texts.  For instance, Luke 11:38, “The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash (evbapti,sqh [aor. ind. pass of bapti,zw]) before dinner.”  In John 3:25-26, furthermore, it is precisely in the context of a discussion about purity that the subject of Jesus’ baptismal activity comes up. 

Second, there is an intriguing parallel between 1 Corinthians 10:1-4, where Paul says Israel was “baptised into Moses” via the Exodus and later rabbinic discussions of proselyte baptism that explain the practice by recourse to the Exodus (b Ker 9a).  Is it too much to suppose that both Paul and the Rabbis drew this point from a common background of Pharisaic baptismal theology?

2. Early Christian Baptism probably followed the patterns of Jewish proselyte baptism.  Jewish proselyte baptism was typically administered to whole households (wives, slaves, children and infants included) upon the conversion of the head of the household.  However, children who were subsequently born into these households were not baptised (e.g., b. Yeb 78a, ‘If a non-Israelite during her pregnancy becomes a proselyte, then her child does not need the baptismal bath.” etc.) because they were born into clean/pure families and had contracted no ritual impurity.  As for early Christian baptism, not only do we see the language of household baptism being used in the NT (Acts 16:30-34; 1 Cor 1:16) but we also see Paul using the language of ritual purity with respect to children born into mixed marriages (1 Cor 7:14).

However, I say “probably followed the patterns (plural) of Jewish proselyte baptism” because I suspect that there was a variety baptismal practices in early Judaism and, likely, a variety of baptismal practices in early Christianity.  I say this because the Mishnah witnesses an ongoing debate concerning baptismal practice into the Rabbinic period and also because there was diversity in baptismal practices amongst the churches of the 2nd and 3rd centuries (although, the fact remains that paedobaptism seems to have been an accepted practice across all three continents).

More coming soon…

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The other night I was blessed to attend The Summit’s ministry for young professionals (or “Young Pros” as it is affectionately called, or “The Meat Market” as it is less-so affectionately called).  It was an encouraging time of prayer, worship, fellowship, the reading of the Scriptures and the eating of hors d’euvres.  The Summit is a Southern Baptist mega-church of sorts that is sprawled across the Research Triangle.  It is missions-driven, community-serving, thoroughly Southern Baptist and very, very cool

The evening’s sermon text was Acts 2:42-48 and the message was vintage Summit.  But (there’s always a “but”) one bit of the sermon got my theological gears whirring and clicking.  Now, I hate to be “that guy.”  You know the one: the nit-picking seminarian who just can’t let any questionable detail in a sermon go.  And I’m not really “that guy.”  I am much more of an interloper, a post-conservative gadfly with something of an outsider’s perspective than the anal-retentive insider that “that guy” usually is.  So, having convinced at least myself, I will continue.

What got me to thinking was that the speaker took the phrase “And they devoted themselves  (proskarterou/ntej) to the apostles’ teaching” (2:42) to mean that the believers in Jerusalem devoted themselves to “Scripture.”  Of course, the interpretation is understandable: didn’t some of the apostles write some of the books and letters that came to be known as “Scripture”?  Well, yes.  But they had not done so at the time that Acts 2 describes.  Paul had not yet been converted, much less embarked on an apostolic writing career.  It would be several more decades before the Evangelists would put pen to papyrus.  And the pastoral and catholic epistles…well, you get the idea.

The reason that this seemingly innocuous sermonic anachronism has so stuck out to me is that it implicitly misconstrues the Jerusalem church as being essentially a robe-and-sandal-clad, Greek-speaking modern Evangelical church.  But the fact is that the Jerusalem church differed from Evangelical congregations in more than just attire and language.

For one thing, the Jerusalem Christians were still thoroughgoing, practicing Jews, “day by day, attending (proskarterou/ntej) the Temple together….” (Acts 2:46)  In short, the Jerusalem Christians in addition to meeting in each others’ homes continued participating in the Temple services, sacrifices and all.  It is indeed worth noting that precisely the same verb form is used for what the Jerusalem Christians did in the Temple as is used for what the Jerusalem Christians did with the apostles’ teaching (proskarterou/ntej).  While these earliest Christians believed Jesus was the Messiah, had been raised from the dead and had inaugurated “the last days” (Acts 2:16-17, 32), Judaism and Christianity were not yet two fully distinct religions.  Even if they recognized Jesus’ death as having been sacrificial, they did not yet see that as grounds for leaving off the normal Jewish sacrificial practices.

In addition to continued participation in the Temple, we can say that at least some of the Jerusalem Christians (and some who were closely associated with James the brother of Jesus, at that) were concerned with maintaining some semblance of kosher diets and with circumcising Gentile converts (Gal 2:12).  Indeed, it is striking how at variance the letter the Jerusalem Council sent to Gentiles is with Paul’s policy on dietary matters (compare Acts 15:28-29 with Rom 14 and 1 Cor 8).  All of this is to say that we need to be on guard against facilely homogenizing the Church’s historic diversity and really wrestle with the otherness of the Church as it was back then.  We and the earliest believers are parts of the One Body of Christ, but our unity with them is not an uncomplicated one.

Secondly and perhaps more importantly, we must ask, What, then, was “the apostles’ teaching” if it was not their writings?  Well, since it was not yet committed to writing, it was obviously oral and, indeed, careful historical study has given us some windows into the character of this early, oral, apostolic teaching.  Some of this teaching came to be formulated into short, easy-to-memorize creeds.  It is commonly granted that Paul preserves some of these earliest apostolic creeds in his letters.  For example,

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. (1 Corinthians 15:3-7)

This text along with Philippians 2:6-11 and others are often taken to be apostolic traditions that Paul probably inherited from the Jerusalem circle (see Gal 1:18).
But probably better windows into the apostolic teaching to which Acts 2:42 refers are to be found in Peter’s sermons (2:14-39; 3:12-26).  These sermons emphasize the death and resurrection of the Messiah Jesus as the definite plan of God and the inauguration of the last days about which the prophets had spoken.
 
The point here is that seen through these two sets of windows the content of the apostle’s teaching amounts to  the good news of the career, death and resurrection of Jesus, otherwise known as the gospel of Jesus Christ.  It was to this message that that intensely Jewish body, the Jerusalem community, committed itself.  When we look at them we see not a community consulting a how-to book that could be entitled Christianity for Dummies, but rather a community in a particular time and place, with particular baggage, coming from a particular milieu, trying to reimagine life and reinvent themselves in the light of the teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus.  They were a gospel-centered, not an (as yet unwritten) New Testament-centered, community.

I think The Summit is, at bottom, like the early Jerusalem church.  It is a place with all sorts of Southern Baptist baggage, a place beginning from a certain Fundamentalistic/Conservative-Evangelical milieu of thought.  But I also think it is a community that is desperately trying to reimagine life and reinvent themselves in the light of the teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus.  So, in a very real sense, I think The Summit’s practice is better than their preaching (and their preaching isn’t bad).

What then is the point of this post?  First, I want to suggest that Evangelicals need to recover the centrality of the gospel of Jesus and that part of doing that entails not anachronistically reading sola Scriptura into the early Church’s praxis.  We do our Lord and ourselves a disservice by making the Scriptures out to be the source of our life (John 5:39-40) or making the Scriptures out to be an end unto themselves (Romans 10:4).  When the Bible displaces the gospel, things are bound to get out of whack.

Second, I want to suggest that Evangelicals need to get used to the idea that the earliest Church was not a singular community with a tidy, ready-made theology and practice.  In a very real sense, they knew that Jesus was risen and they were making up the rest as they went along.  Sometimes they had hits (e.g., Gentiles don’t have to be circumcised).  Sometimes they had misses (e.g., Gentiles are not allowed to eat meat sacrificed to idols; abstain from marriage if you can, ‘cuz Jesus will be back at any minute).  We don’t have to emulate them in every respect, so we don’t need to sanitize our picture of them either.  And recognizing that fact allows us to emulate the apostolic Church in a deeper, more vital way.  It frees us, as it did them, to creatively live out the implications of the gospel for our own community in our own context and in our own way.

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