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Date Posted：16/04/2008 12:05 PM
[The following is a light revision of an essay that was first published by Ian Thomason at www.pleaseconsider.info circa 2003]
The subject of baptism, whether in water after the fashion of John or in Spirit after the fashion of Jesus, remains pivotal to the Christian witness to the world. Unfortunately strong differences of opinion over the rite have caused rifts, schisms and separations within the Church for much of her history, and this has resulted in many ordinary Christians not adequately understanding the 'doctrines of baptisms' (so Hebrews 6:2). The reasons for misunderstanding and confusion are many, but largely appear to hinge on inadequate or narrowly focused denominational teaching. This is certainly true with respect to Revivalism.
The biblical teaching on baptism is considerably broader than simply establishing the proper mode and candidature. Issues that address the relationship of physical baptism to spiritual regeneration, Christian initiation and eschatological transformation are far more important; not the least of these being the relationship that exists between water baptism and Spirit baptism. This short essay will seek to touch upon only the foundational issues: modes, means and meaning. Some attention will also be given to the implications. Scripture will be consulted in order to do this, paying particular attention to the individual contexts of the various passages that are reviewed.
The first area that needs to be addressed is working out the proper meanings of the terms 'baptism' and 'baptise'. There are two principal ways we can do this: (1) diachronically, and (2) synchronically. The first considers the development of the range in meaning of a given word or words over the course of the history of its use. In this way we can establish precisely how the two Greek words rendered 'baptism', and the Greek word translated 'baptise' in our English Bibles were understood from their first recorded usage in the first century, through to their present usage in the 21st century. The second method, which is far more appropriate to the current study, is to consider how a given word or words was understood at a specific point in time. For the purpose of this study, the period would encompass the century from AD 1 to AD 100.
So, precisely what does the data demonstrate?
First, there are two Greek nouns translated 'baptism' in the English Bible: βάπτισμα (baptisma) and βαπτισμός (baptismos) The former was strictly a New Testament word, found only in the Christian Scriptures. The second word was also used outside of Christian circles. For example, Flavius Josephus used the word in his Antiquities of the Jews (18:117) to describe the baptism of John. Key to our study is the fact the two words are nouns, and nouns don't describe actions but things. Simply put neither baptisma nor baptismos involves the action of "... plunging or immersing an object into a liquid". All these words point to is a specific ritual observance we call baptism.
Verbs are a different matter given that they're the action words of language. Two forms are encountered within the New Testament: βάπτω (bapto), and βαπτίζω (baptizo). The former describes the action of "... plunging or dipping an object into water or another form of liquid." Writers as early as the poet Homer have used bapto in this sense, and as has been commonly discussed in more recent literature, it's a word that derives from the action of a ship plunging beneath the waves, or a garment being plunged into a dye solution. Baptizo, on the other hand, is the word that is universally used to describe the action of baptising a Christian in the New Testament. Importantly, it doesn't share the narrow and limited meaning that bapto does. Baptizo, properly speaking, is defined as "...the action of applying water [to the body] in order to make oneself clean, or ritually pure; to purify in a religious sense". Ancient Greek writers including Plutarch and Nicander have differentiated the meanings of the two verbs, and have drawn a distinction between what they mean. For example, Nicander wrote: "In order to make a pickle, the vegetable should be first dipped (bapto) into the boiling water, and then baptized (baptizo) into the vinegar solution."
The same distinction applies in the New Testament. In all four occasions where bapto appears the action of dipping is clearly in view (Luke 16:24, John 13:26 [bis], and Revelation 19:13). However, of the eighty-four examples of baptizo, eighty-two refer specifically to the undefined and somewhat ambiguous action of baptising, while the remaining two refer specifically to circumstances where immersion clearly wasn't intended by the context (Mark 7:4 and Luke 11:38). As always it is individual context that determines what a word means in a given passage. By way of an analogy we can consider a less loaded modern equivalent, and one that serves to reinforce the important principle of context. The English word 'cool', when viewed by itself, might mean: (1) not hot, (2) not cold, (3) fashionable, (4) distant, or even (5) affirmation. Clearly, the semantic range of the word 'cool' is sufficiently broad that its meaning can only be determined by reviewing the relationship that 'cool' has with the other words with which it is included in a sentence or paragraph. Similarly, there are clear examples in the New Testament where immersion properly fits the context in which we find the word baptise being used (see John 3:23 and Acts 8:38, for example). Just as clearly, there are examples where immersion doesn't fit (see Acts 2:41 and Acts 8:12.These two are important passages given that Jerusalem didn't possess a standing body of water capable of accommodating the immersing of 3000 people in six hours; and Samaria didn't have a standing body of water capable of immersing even one believer, let alone the multitudes inferred by the text. Christians didn't use fonts for baptism until the early part of the 3rd century, only naturally occurring streams, rivers and pools, so an appreciation and understanding of the effects of the geography of these regions is fundamentally important to properly discerning the contexts of the passages themselves.
From a strictly lexical standpoint Christian baptism during the first century needn't universally involve immersion at all.
The issue of whom it is that makes a suitable candidate for baptism is closely related to the issue of what it is that baptism seeks to achieve.
Concerning the 'who' question, two issues are important. The first relates to whether or not personal understanding of the issues involved is necessary for someone in order to be baptised. This levels the argument at the preliminary stage of whether infants/children or adults alone comprise the proper candidates for the rite. The second issue, the more important one theologically, is whether baptism is administered to believers or to those who wish to become believers. In other words, is baptism for the saints, or to make sinners into saints? What results obviously has an impact on the second aspect that needs to be addressed, the 'what' question. Does baptism serve as the means by which saving grace is imputed to an otherwise lost person? Or, does baptism serve, principally, to identify the already regenerate person with Jesus Christ as his or her Lord? When we go directly to the sources, the New Testament passages, we discover the following general patterns:
1. Baptism appears to have been administered after repentance (John's baptism ministry in the gospels, Acts 2:38, Acts 19:4)
2. Christian baptism, whilst building upon the concept of repentance, also points beyond it (Matthew 3:11, Acts 1:5, Acts 2:38, Acts 8:12, Acts 10:47, Acts 18:8, Acts 19:3-6, Galatians 3:27).
3. Christian baptism is closely linked with the reception of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:16, Acts 2:38, Acts 8:12-17, Acts 10:44-48, Acts 19:3-6), and yet it doesn't automatically precede it (Acts 10:47).
4. Christian baptism is identified as the outward sign of a person having entered into the community of believers, the Church (John 4:1, Acts 2:41, Acts 9:18-19, Acts 10:47-48, Acts 11:16-18, Acts 16:15, 1 Corinthians 1:13-15, Galatians 3:27).
As is clear from the passages above, many of which are duplicated several times, there's a significant degree of overlap concerning what baptism addresses. For example, whilst baptism is certainly linked to repentance, it also moves beyond repentance towards identification with Jesus Christ, and with his Church. But it's also linked with the reception of the Holy Spirit as well.
Returning to the issue of candidature the biblical material doesn't categorically stipulate, or prohibit, the baptism of adults over and against children. The normative witness of the New Testament seems to indicate that some form of spoken profession of faith is necessary. Occasionally, it appears that a vicarious profession of faith was effective (so Acts 16:14-15 and 30-33); consequently, it seems that baptising people who can't consent for themselves is only illegitimate when a profession of faith is completely absent, either from the person being baptised or from the person functioning as the representative head of the family. This leads us to consider the second part of the 'who' question: whether one is a believer prior to baptism, or whether it's the baptism act itself, which translates one into a believer.
Acts 2:38 is the favourite Revivalist proof-text for the 'one-two-three-step' approach to becoming a believer. In simple terms: someone repents. The person is then is baptised. And, finally, he or she receives the Holy Spirit as God's seal of acceptance. To summarise the Revivalist position, one can only be assured of being a believer after the 'one-two-three-step' process is completed. Tellingly, this position falters at several critical junctures. First, the single verse (verse 38) isn't considered in light of the context of the entire Acts 2 discourse. The nature and historical-theological context of the Pentecost event to a Jewish audience is completely disregarded. Second, Acts 2:38 seems to be directly at odds with the situation that's recorded in Samaria. In Acts 8 the Samaritans had believed in Jesus Christ (i.e. they had repented: 'step one'), and they had been baptised into his name ('step two'), but they hadn't received the seal of the Holy Spirit ('step three'). The grammar of the Greek text of 2:38 clearly spells out that the Holy Spirit is automatically received after repenting and being baptised, but the circumstances at Samaria indicates that they Holy Spirit wasn't automatic at all (in Samaria the Spirit had to be given by the hands of two Apostles). We find a similar dilemma later on, when we review what happened in Acts 10. There the Holy Spirit preceded the baptism! So Acts 2:38 can't be viewed as the singular, happens-every-time key to understanding this subject.
The biblical evidence allows us to state the following with conviction: baptism always followed after the Gospel message about Jesus of Nazareth as Lord and Christ was presented and accepted. And one always had to appropriate and believe the gospel claim before one could identify with him and his Church through baptism. In simple terms, baptism followed from belief, but it didn't cause it! This answers the 'what' question as well: does baptism serve to save, or does it serve to identify? Revivalists appeal to Mark 16:16 and Acts 2:38 as the two texts that they believe categorically links belief/repentance with baptism, in order to produce salvation. We've considered the latter, so now it pays to briefly review the former.
(15) "He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. (16) Whoever believes and is baptised will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned." (NIV)
The first point is that the Gospel message is preached so as to present the hearer with a choice: to either believe, or disbelieve the Good News about Jesus Christ. Salvation, we are assured, is given to the one who believes. The issue for us is whether or not the imperative to be baptised is necessary in order to receive the salvation on offer. Grammatically, ὁ πιστεύσας (ho pisteúsas: 'whoever believes') appears first in the sentence, indicating that the emphasis of the entire command rests on the person believing. The particle καὶ (kai: 'and') therefore has copulative rather than cumulative force, and indicates that the believer will submit to being baptised as a result of his or her having first believed. The passage then goes on to state that it's a person's disbelief alone, and not a lack of baptism, which will result in him or her being condemned.
Summary and conclusion
According to the biblical record baptism in water is a rite of passage and/or identification, one where a Christian surrenders his or her rights of self-ownership to Jesus Christ, and by extension to the Christian Church. The mode, and indeed even the candidature may vary dependant upon the specific circumstances that are encountered. However, baptism was never treated as a process that one undertook in order to become a believer. The significance of baptism isn't magical but representational: baptism serves to identify the Christian with Jesus Christ and his Body, the Christian Church.
Baptism, as a rite of Christian discipleship isn't essential to being saved given that it follows from salvation. And the word 'baptism' doesn't mean to "... plunge, dip or immerse an object beneath water". What Revivalists believe, promote and defend about this issue is nothing but a misinformed and narrow interpretation; one that completely ignores the lexical, historical, cultural, geographical and theological contexts that imbue the various New Testament passages that deal with the subject with meaning.
The major Revivalist positions on baptism may be accessed at each organisation's official website:
Revival Centres International: www.rci.org.au/believe/directive.htm and www.rci.org.au/salvation/index.htm
Revival Fellowship: www.trf.org.au/article25.asp
Christian Assemblies International: www.cai.org.au/sresources/files/whatbiblesays/baptism/sa1003au.htm
1. The lexical references used throughout this study are the academic standards for Hellenistic, or koine Greek. They are: (1) F.W. Danker, et al. (eds.); s.v. βάπτω, etc., in A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed., (Chigaco: Chicago University Press), 2000. (2) A. Oepke, s.v. βάπτω, etc., in: Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 1, G. Kittel & G. Frederick (eds.), (Grand rapids: Eerdmans), 1964-1976. (3) G. Beasley-Murray, s.v. βάπτω, etc., in: New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (rev. ed.), vol. 1, C. Brown (ed.), (Cumbria: the Paternoster Press), 1976-1986.
2. This brief essay was intentionally limited to the biblical material. Consequently it did not introduce a range of pertinent information drawn from the history of Christianity. For example, that the early orthodox Christian manual known as the Didache (c. AD 80) specifically indicated that baptism could be administered by either trine immersing or pouring; or that the baptising of infants and children was a universally attested Christian practice (i.e. in Africa, Palestine, Asia Minor and Rome) from around 200 AD, one specifically promoted as having apostolic origins.