Baptism Debate: An Examination of the Purpose and Merits of Baptism
There is no trick involved in entering the Kingdom of Heaven, but many theologians argue that there are some important steps that must be taken to help pave the way, including being baptized. Issues such as whether complete immersion is required or simply a token sprinkling, who is authorized to perform baptisms and even the fundamental purpose and merits of baptism, have all been the source of enormously divisive controversy within the Christian church for two millennia. To determine the facts, this paper provides a review of the relevant peer-reviewed and scholarly literature concerning different views about the purpose and merits of baptism, and whether baptism is reserved for believers only or for infants as well. A discussion concerning what mode of baptism is biblical is followed by a summary of the research and important findings in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion
Background and Overview
Scholars remain unclear concerning the exact origin of baptism, but baptism today is known generally as the rite of initiation into membership in the Christian church.
Most people likely consider the practice as originating from the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, an incident that is graphically recorded in the New Testament.
Ritual washing, though, or immersion in water was already an ancient and widespread practice before that time and various meanings were attached to it.
In this regard, Tufano reports that, "When Jesus commanded his disciples to baptize, he was not prescribing a practice that was unique to his followers. Gentiles entering the Jewish faith underwent a ritual bath, and John the Baptist baptized as a sign of repentance and conversion. The word that Jesus used to describe what he was telling his disciples to do was the same word that was used for both these actions."
Baptism has become an essential element in the complete experience of becoming a Christian since the earliest days the church and consistently been associated with becoming united in Christ. According to House, "Even the forgiveness of sins is connected to baptism because it serves as the external statement of that internal event."
This observation highlights the perspective of many modern Christians that baptism is a public profession of an individual's salvation in Jesus.
In fact, the term "baptism" appears to be analogous to the "Good News" of the gospel because faith and repentance are clearly expected from believers as explicated in Matthew 28:19:
"Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
The centrality of baptism to Christians is also made clear by House's observation that, "At the least, it was not ancillary to the gospel, but a very real part of it. There is little question that baptism was not optional for one who named the name of Jesus Christ, and it was virtually the first thing a Christian did after responding in faith to the gospel."
An important point made by some theologians, though, is that notwithstanding its importance otherwise, baptism is not an absolute prerequisite for reconciliation with God. In this regard, House concludes that, "With all its importance, however, baptism was never absolutely necessary for a person to become justified before God. The New Testament insists only on the internal work of repentance/faith, this requisite given in the New Testament at least 60 times with no mention of baptism."
The New Testament, though, does mention baptism numerous times with respect to its purpose and merits, and these issues are discussed further below.
Purpose and Merits of Baptism
Because of its centrality to Christian thinking, Christian dogmatists have long debated the purpose and merits of baptism. According to Trigg, "The promise to which baptism is added is simply that of salvation, the forgiveness of sins. Baptism signifies the drowning of sin, and the receiving of an eternal life of innocence."
Other theologians have carefully weighed the purpose and merits of baptism to conclude that people must be sufficiently aware of the act and its significance to gain its full measure. For instance, Trigg reports that, "[Martin] Luther's stress upon the necessity of faith for receiving the benefits of baptism is unqualified. The entire efficacy of baptism, then, is to be ascribed to faith in the word of promise to which it is attached. Like the signs of the Old Testament, the New Testament sacraments are joined to a word of promise, which requires faith."
These are important points because they underscore the fundamental purposes for which baptism has historically been practiced and why it remains central to the way many Christians perceive their relationship with the Creator. Baptists only use immersion for baptism rituals for two basic reasons as follows:
1. Immersion was the mode of baptism in the New Testament; John the Baptist immersed his converts in the Jordan River; Christ Himself was so immersed; and,
2. Baptists regard baptism as a public confession of Christian faith and a symbol of the burial and resurrection of Christ, as stated by Paul in his Epistle to the Colossians. Hence, Baptists look upon immersion as realistic symbolism, through which the life of sin is buried in baptism and the new life of faith emerges.
While the former is universally applicable to all Christians, the latter remains restricted to Christians who have lived long enough to gain the cognitive abilities needed to fully understand and appreciate the nature of the act. Although many other Christian denominations baptize infants, Baptists have long believed that because it is a public expression of faith, infants do not understand or appreciate the gravity of the act and are therefore ineligible for participation. As Rosten points out, "Baptists do not baptize infants because baptism is a voluntary public profession of Christian faith, only persons old enough to understand its significance and its symbolism should be accepted for baptism."
While parents and adult members of the Christian community can provide guidance and support, the decision whether to be baptized or not represents a highly individualized decision that must be young people as they gain the understanding needed to make an informed decision. In this regard, Rosten emphasizes that, "Moreover, Baptists give their children the right to decide for themselves whether or not they wish to be baptized as a public profession of Christian faith. Such a decision makes religion and the ceremony of baptism more meaningful."
Beyond the meaning that the act of baptism confers, an important point made by Rosten concerns the merit of baptism for infants. From the perspective of Baptists, people can go through the motions of baptizing little babies but the net effect will be nil since they are incapable of making the decision to come to Christ in this fashion on their own. In this regard, Holt reports that, "The common belief among such groups was that infant baptism was invalid, that -- just as in the New Testament accounts -- a person needed to choose to be baptized after coming to faith."
The notion of "coming to faith" as a prerequisite to baptism is certainly not a new concept with Christian dogma, but rather represents one of the more poignant controversies that have historically divided the Christian church. Indeed, in response to arguments that cognitive faith was a prerequisite for effectively baptizing infants, theologians such as Martin Luther
considered an infant as a tabula rasa who must learn to love the Word to the extent that they willingly become immersed in it. For instance, Trigg notes that:
When Martin Luther mentions the baptism of children, he does so in anticipation of an argument that may be brought against his insistence upon the necessity of faith. The baptism of infants could be presented as a powerful counter-instance to the requirement of faith; implying either that Luther's argument is wrong, or that infant baptism is ineffective. In the context of 1520, however, this second alternative is not really an alternative at all.
People who are not baptized are buried alongside suicides and other unrepentants, making this issue an important one in a very real way to parents who lose their children before they can be baptized. Even with the Baptist Church, there are different views about the merits and purpose of baptism, but there is a general consensus across the board. In this regard, Bryant advises that, "Baptists have generally been much more certain about what does not happen in the sprinkling of infants than they are about what does happen in the immersion of confessing believers."
Despite this general consensus, there remains some divisiveness today. For example, Bryant adds that, "Typically, Baptists do not discuss baptism in sacramental terms and prefer to view it symbolically. [Some] Baptists consider the view of baptism as sacramental as a viable option. The understanding baptism as 'sacramental' is not a new concept for Baptists but rather is an idea that is firmly rooted both in the biblical text and historically in mainstream seventeenth-century…