At my recent local review I was asked for my views on a couple of specific subjects – the ordination of women and infant baptism. These are standard questions so they weren’t a surprise really. But why, oh why, do I always make life difficult for myself by not giving a simple answer – especially as I don’t have any particular issues with either subject? A simple ‘no problems’ answer would have sufficed, but I have to go and add ‘kind of’ to the end of my reply about infant baptism. This is not because I have an issue with infant baptism – I do think it is justifiable. Nor do I have issues with baptism being a ‘once-and-for-all’. But I am sympathetic to those who reach adulthood, come to faith and look to be ‘baptised properly’. But I’m only sympathetic in the sense that I know what they’re trying to do, but I believe their understanding of baptism is lacking.
Anyway, I decided to give it a bit more thought and, coincidentally, there was a question about this very issue on a forum I look in on. So I jotted down some thoughts and thought I’d share them here so that the gaping holes could be poked at.
Baptism, as practiced by the Jews, was a ritual cleansing, often done at the end of a period of fasting or some other form of ritual purification. As such, it was done repeatedly. But it was purely symbolic. In and of itself it had no intrinsic efficacy. This is essentially the baptism we see being done by John the Baptist. In a sense, all that changes when Jesus is baptised by John and Jesus is given his Father’s endorsement.But, we need to ask the question – when Jesus and his disciples were baptising, were they following Jewish understanding or Christian? I would suggest that the simple answer is that we don’t know. There is nothing to suggest that the baptism they were giving was anything more or less than a ritual cleansing. Arguably it did have additional significance when it was being done by the disciples – that of signifying ‘commitment’ to following Jesus. In a sense it gained the significance of being a membership rite.
We also need to consider the presence of the Spirit. Again, there is nothing to indicate that water baptism conferred the presence of the Spirit. After all, that was to happen after the ascension of Christ. This ‘second baptism’ was not done by water, but the Spirit. Arguably it is the church which has conflated the two.
Does water baptism confer the presence of the Spirit? Scripturally, I think we would have to answer “No”. John the Baptist says that he baptised with water, but Jesus would baptise with the Spirit. In John’s gospel, the discussion over John and Jesus baptising (John 3) is, arguably, simply about purification. There is no hint that there was more to Jesus’ baptism as performed by Jesus and the disciples. It’s even arguable whether Jesus if any baptising himself or it was done solely by the disciples. I would also suggest, as I mentioned earlier, that John’s account is speaking of baptism as a symbol of ‘membership’ (John 4:1-2) and it’s interesting to note that it was being done by the disciples rather than Jesus.
Does baptism with the Spirit only happen during water baptism of a believer? The answer to this must also be “No”, Pentecost being the evidence of that. So that leaves us with little scriptural evidence that links water baptism and Spirit baptism until we get to Acts and the practices of the early church. Acts 2:38 has Peter declaring that we must repent, be baptised and then we would receive the Spirit. But even here, the water baptism is part of the ‘cleansing’ ritual and it is after that we receive the Spirit. Does this need to happen ‘immediately’ or can it happen years, perhaps, in the future? In fact, does it even need to happen in that order? Have a read at Acts 10 towards the end of the chapter. Also, in Acts 19, the gift of the Spirit came through the laying on of hands after the baptism.
I think scripture gives us a very varied picture of baptism and that means that we fall back on a theological understanding of it. As a sacrament, its the visible sign of God’s grace (the simplistic version of a sacrament). It is a sign with a transcendency of meaning. One of the critical aspects of it (in my mind) is the ‘formula’ associated with it (deriving from the instruction of Christ) – we baptise in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit. Baptism becomes a welcome into the relationship of grace manifest in the Trinity. As such it marks coming into the kingdom of God, it marks becoming part of the body of Christ and, as a sign of grace, I would argue that it transcends all age boundaries. This is why I have no issue with infant baptism. Furthermore, baptism is not something we do to establish that relationship with God. It comes from God. It’s a work of God, not of us. It is transcendent, not because we think it is, but because God makes it that way.
If we then talk of “believer’s baptism”, what exactly are we ‘expecting’ at that time? We’ve already established that there is no causal link between water baptism and receiving the Spirit. We’ve also established that the Spirit can descend on anyone regardless of their baptismal status. So, if someone is expecting some piece of Spirit ‘magic’ to happen when they are baptised as a believer, then I think they have misunderstood its purpose and meaning. That’s not, in any way, to take away from the significance of the event to an individual. But I do think that its importance can be elevated to the point where it becomes inextricably linked with what it means to ‘be’ a Christian.
In short, I cannot see justification for a second baptism. I also cannot see any justification on insisting on total immersion In fact, the practice of the early church (Chapter 7 of the Didache) does not even insist on total immersion, albeit that is the ‘preferred’ method. It’s not the sign, it’s the transcendency that’s important – that’s what makes it a sacrament and not mere ritual. I have sympathy with those who want to make a very public declaration of their new-found faith, but I don’t believe baptism is the only way to do that.
There remains, I guess, one more issue. Why not allow a second water baptism if it is requested? I think the answer to this lies with our understanding of baptism in the first place. It’s a sign of being brought into a relationship with God – a covenantal relationship. That relationship cannot be broken and so ‘renewal’ of it is meaningless. What’s more, since it is a God-established covenant, by re-baptising we are calling into question God’s ability to create a bond with us. By insisting on one type of baptism over another or that the baptism of a different faith community is inadequate, then we are suggesting that its importance and efficacy lies in what we do, not what God does. If that’s the case, then it is not a sacrament.
There are, of course, plenty of subtle distinctions that can be made. If it were all as simple then we wouldn’t have as many inter-denominational (and perhaps even intra-) disagreements as we do. But this is my ‘path’ to making sense of why the Church of Scotland does what it does. It may be that my justification has errors of logic or theology but it ‘kind of’ makes sense to me.