Doctrine Ch.3 - Baptism

Jews baptized themselves every day, so baptism wasn’t something new for the early Christians. However, John changed the Jewish practice completely, and Jesus changed it into an initiation. Today different beliefs about baptism divide the modern church—but these are changing again.

Two clergymen were trying to pin down what the other believed about baptism: “What if the person is immersed up to his neck? Is that enough?” asked the Anglican.
       “No,” said the Baptist.
       “What about up to his eyebrows then?”
       “No,” insisted the Baptist.
       “Well, what if only a tiny bit of his forehead remains dry?”
       “No, of course not!”
       “Ah,” said the Anglican triumphantly. “So what you are saying is that the most important thing is to wet the forehead.”

       Despite all the bad jokes on the subject, there are no serious divisions in the church about the method of baptism. Those who use a few drops of water (like Anglicans and Catholics) don’t have problems with immersion—they just don’t think it is necessary. And those who do practice immersion will usually allow exceptions on grounds of health, which implies that they do not believe that full immersion is functionally necessary.

       But what about the issue of when to baptize? Isn’t that a huge bone of contention? Well, no; the church isn’t really divided by this either. Those who baptize babies also baptize adults, and those who only baptize “believers” are often willing to baptize children who are so young that it is questionable whether they have truly decided for themselves.

       What really divides the church is belief about what baptism does. Does it save an individual by admitting her into membership of the universal church, or does it proclaim her Christian commitment (which she has already made) in public?

       Jews in Jesus’ day understood and practiced baptism very differently. They baptized themselves most days. Houses excavated from that time usually have a baptism tank (called a mikveh) carved into the floor of the basement. This was a hole about the size of an upright coffin with steps into it. It wouldn’t have been particularly clean; fresh water flowed into the top of it and overflowed into a drain, but this only really freshened the surface. Its purpose was to cleanse you from ceremonial impurities, rather than to wash off the dirt.

       Impurity in Moses’ law came from sexual activity, menstruation, and being under the same roof as a corpse (Lev 15; Num 19). You could also become impure by touching an impure person or by using something he had used—a chair or cup, for example—so it was almost impossible to avoid. According to the law, cleansing wasn’t really necessary until you wanted to do something sacred such as eating a Passover meal or visiting the Temple. However, Jews in Jesus’ day wanted to be holy at all times, so every day they stripped naked and immersed themselves in the mikveh.

       I almost fell into one of these excavated holes. One rainy afternoon in Jerusalem several years ago, I went to look at the newly uncovered Temple steps. No one was around, and I am sorry to admit that I stepped over the rope—I just couldn’t resist treading on the steps that Jesus had actually walked on. There were also new excavations of the foundations of various ancient buildings close by. I was just about to walk through a large puddle when I recognized its rectangular edges. I immediately pulled back, with my heart beating and visions of newspaper headlines saying “British Academic Hits Head and Drowns in First-Century Mikveh”!

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John the revolutionary Baptist

The way that John (the Baptist) baptized was revolutionary: it was done in public (so presumably the person wasn’t naked); it was performed by someone (John); and it was for cleansing of sin—not for impurity. This was the first time someone had offered Jews a ceremony for marking repentance of moral sins, and it became immensely popular. The Temple sin offerings were for breaking specific laws, such as the Sabbath regulations; they didn’t cover moral sins such as losing your temper with a colleague, or telling lies about him, or hitting him. These types of sin were dealt with by repentance, which later became effective on the Day of Atonement; but John’s baptism gave Jews a way to mark that repentance immediately and very graphically.

       Christians adopted John’s baptism, but they also changed it. It was no longer important who performed the baptism (John 4:2), and it became a one-time initiation, rather than a regular cleansing from sins (Matt 28:19). This reinforced the distinction between Judaism and Christianity: the constantly repeated Temple sacrifices were replaced by the single sacrificial act of Jesus, and similarly the washing away of sin at baptism happened only once.

       These changes introduced two problems: What if you sin after baptism? And are you saved if you die before baptism? The first was a big difficulty in the early church, because there was a widespread belief that any sins after baptism were unforgivable. For this reason many believers, such as Constantine, put off baptism till their deathbed, just in case. This is not a problem today, because forgiveness is no longer tied to the act of baptism, like it was when the ministry of John the Baptist was still a vivid memory. For us, it is obvious that further repentance can occur at any time and doesn’t require the rite of baptism to accompany it. However, the second question has gained a huge importance because it divides the church: Do we need baptism for salvation?

       Some churches believe that baptism enacts admission into the protection of the church, so it is important to baptize people as soon as possible and also baptize babies. Others understand it as a public proclamation of an individual’s repentance, which means it should be delayed until that repentance has actually occurred.

       Paul’s view was this: “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead …” (Rom 6:3-4). This text is important to both sides—it can be used to affirm that the act of baptism confers new life, or it can affirm that baptism is the immersion of adults. However, its message to the original readers was something different, because they faced a different issue that is now ancient history.

From death to life

When Gentiles became Jews, they were immersed in order to “separate [them] from the grave.”1 This phrase was used by Jews to indicate that the person being baptized, like all Gentiles, suffered from death impurity. You could contract death impurity by entering any building where someone had died—which happened at some time or other in every public and private building. Jewish houses and buildings were cleansed after someone had died in them, but Gentile buildings weren’t. This means that almost all Gentile buildings had permanent death impurity. If Jews had to go inside one, they carried out a simple purification ceremony, and after a week they were clean again (Num 19:11-12). But Gentiles didn’t purify themselves, so every Gentile had picked up death impurity at some point. Converts therefore had to be cleansed from death impurity by immersion; otherwise they would bring this contamination into the Jewish community.

       When Christians adopted baptism as their rite of admission, we can imagine that Jews taunted them about using a “baptism for death impurity,” just as they taunted them about God’s curse on any corpse that is hung from a tree (Deut 21:23). Paul answered the taunts about this curse by turning it into something positive: Yes, Jesus took “God’s curse” for us (Deut 21:23; Gal 3:13). He did the same thing with the taunt about baptism and death impurity, saying: Yes, baptism is about death—we share the death and resurrection of Jesus (Rom 6:3-4).

       The church later picked up this reference to resurrection and started teaching that new life starts at baptism. In the sixteenth century, Reformation theologians reasserted that salvation depended only on faith leading to repentance and not on baptism or other ceremonies. This created a permanent split in the church.

       A few years ago, the Catholic Church revised its view significantly. In 2006 Pope Benedict XVI decreed that unbaptized babies do go to heaven and not to limbo. This reversed the belief affirmed as recently as 1905 by Pope Pius X that “children who die without baptism … do not deserve paradise.” Of course, this papal pronouncement hasn’t completely undone the deep-seated division that is based on the belief that baptism is necessary for salvation. Catholic and Orthodox churches continue to baptize babies in the hope that they will confirm their repentance at a later date, while nonconformist churches withhold baptism until that repentance occurs. Anglicans, in their special way, stand in the middle and do both.

       But there is another remarkable ray of hope: most churches now recognize each other’s baptisms. Some might say that aspects of a baptism carried out in a different church were “wrong,” but more and more accept that a person is baptized in the eyes of God, even if the process was not the same in all the particulars. I think this represents a game-changing viewpoint, and we may find in heaven that many doctrinal differences such as this are merely human squabbles. That’s how most non-Christians regard them, and perhaps they are right.

1^ Mishnah Pesachim 8:8 ( Note that this book shortens internet links using to make them easier to type into the address bar of your browser.

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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