Some Thoughts on Baptism

I taught a class last night on baptism, part of a class on various topics at church (worship, baptism, communion, liturgical year). The framework we followed seemed useful, so I thought I’d share it here. Perhaps it will help others as they work through their own understanding of baptism.

Mode

This is pretty simple. Basically, there are three modes: sprinkling, pouring, and immersion. The Greek word baptizo in the New Testament comes from various roots, all meaning “to wash.” To start the class last night, I brought in a pot of water and a plate, and proceeded to spash water on the plate, pour water over the plate, and submerge the plate in the water. Everyone agreed that all three modes were ways to wash the plate. So, we concluded that the word itself didn’t give us much to go on to distinguish the three.

I then pointed out the verse in Romans that forms the basis for immersion as the primary mode. Since burial is hard to imagine except as being put completely under, we all could see the logic.

Still, we also all agreed that the mode wasn’t really the point. Rather, it was the meaning that mattered.

Meaning

To unpack this, we first had to get into soteriology (the study of salvation). I brought in a baby doll from the nursery, that we named Suzy Imabaptist.

I asked the class if Suzy had a soul. We agreed that she did, even though we weren’t necessarily clear on what that meant. We finally agreed that for our purposes, “soul” meant some part of a person that lived on after death.

We then discussed whether Suzy’s soul was going to heaven or hell, whether there was actually a heaven or hell, and what might cause Suzy’s soul to go to either place. I quickly put a fence around the discussion by noting that we didn’t have enough time to delve into atonement, and I was too tired besides. So, we agreed that for this discussion, we would accept that the Christ event was somehow related to the ultimate destination of someone’s soul, including Suzy’s.

Finally, we discussed the concept of original sin, and when Suzy would be responsible for her actions, either at birth or at some later time. I reminded the group that the phrase “systematic theology” means your theology has to at least make sense with itself.

Having laid all this ground work, we were ready to look at the meaning of baptism. We broke that meaning down to three possibilities:

  • Sacramental — the act of baptism, in any mode, is inherently a means of God’s grace. In other words, being baptized somehow conveys God’s grace and mercy to an individual.
  • Salvific — the act of baptism acts as a means of salvation (getting Suzy’s soul to be with God after death). The baptism can be either a required part of a larger act of salvation, as Campbellites believe, or salvific by itself.
  • Symbolic — the act of baptism is purely a symbolic act, similar to many other symbolic acts we practice in the church. While it is certainly loaded with symbolism, it is neither inherently sacramental or salvific in and of itself. If the person being baptized has not had an inner change of some kind, the act of baptism itself is no more meaningful than taking a shower.

If you put together your beliefs about original sin, means of salvation, and age of accountability (the age at which one is responsible for one’s actions and one’s position before God), then you wind up with the positions on baptism present in the world today:

  • Infant Baptism as Salvific — If you believe that a newborn baby partakes in the sinful nature of all humankind, AND you believe that baptism is itself salvific, then you obviously wind up at infant baptism as a critical act. You don’t want to risk the baby dying and going to hell because you didn’t do this. Once it is done, that baby is good to go from then on. (Apostasy discussion not part of this lesson. <g>)
  • Infant Baptism as Symbolic or Sacramental — Many groups who practice infant baptism would be in this camp. Either it is used as a symbol of baby dedication, or as some means of granting grace to the child. In most cases, the child is then expected to “confirm” their own decision to follow God in Christ at some point later, usually around the same age that Baptists would call “the age of accountability.”
  • Believer’s Baptism as Salvific — As noted above, some groups believe that baptism is a necessary part of the salvation process, and if you don’t do it you aren’t fully saved. This is not a common belief, at least among the Baptist groups I know.
  • Believer’s Baptism as Symbolic — Generally speaking, Baptists and other “free church” groups do not believe that infants are doomed to hell out of the womb, and thus do not see the need for any act of salvation before the child can be accountable for their actions and choices before God. In addition, they maintain that baptism is symbolic, and represents in outward visual form the inner choice and change that the believer has experienced. Thus, baptism is only for persons who have in fact made that choice and experienced that change (“believer’s) but is not necessary for persons to be saved, since the actual salvation is not dependent on the symbol.

We concluded the class by discussing the need for baptism as a requirement for church membership, and we wondered if eventually that symbol would be replaced by other symbols, or by no symbols at all. We also discussed why some Baptists are so adamant to keep the requirement of immersion as a condition of membership, and whether that might change. All in all, it was a good discussion.

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