One of the core beliefs of the Baptist denomination and which largely remains a distinctive element of the denomination is “believer’s baptism,” the belief that only those who are capable of, and who have, in fact, responded in faith to God’s Word and grace can – and must – be baptized. This inevitably leads to the rejection of the old tradition of infant baptism, and is linked with other core beliefs of the Baptist tradition, such as individual competency (the belief that the individual is capable of a personal relationship with God without the need for a mediator) and the authority of scripture. This essay seeks to analyze the historical development of this distinctive element of the Baptist denomination, beginning with an analysis of sacramental theology, which invariably leads to
the debate surrounding infant baptism, before a discussion on “believer’s baptism,” the question of immersion, its similarities and differences to other traditions and finishing with an assessment of its importance and future.
To fully understand what the early Baptists were responding to in terms of the mode and meaning of the act of baptism, it is important to discuss the historical development of the ‘sacraments.’ The use of the Greek mysterion in the New Testament usually has a
soteriological context and used in the singular, referring to the mystery of God’s salvific action. The early church linked mysterion to the ‘sacraments,’ particularly Tertullian, who used the term in the plural, and Augustine, who labeled these events as ‘sacred signs.’
Furthermore, Augustine argued they enabled what they signify.1 Sacramental theology blossomed in the Middle Ages. Paris theologian Hugh of St. Victor (1096-1141) revised Augustine’s definition, arguing for four essential components: a physical component, a likeness to that which it is symbolizing, authorization and institution, and efficacy in conferring the benefits it symbolizes. Soon after, seven sacraments were recognized.2 At the Reformation, Luther argued against these seven, instead insisting on three (baptism, Eucharist, penance), which became two (baptism, Eucharist). He placed emphasis on the sacraments being visible physical signs.3 He stated,
Baptism is not just water on its own, but it is water used according to God’s command and linked with God’s Word…It brings about the forgiveness of sins, saves us from death and the devil, and grants eternal blessedness to all who believe.4
Hence, while Luther rejected five of the seven sacraments, and argued that baptism and the Eucharist were physical signs, he clearly believed these to be more than mere signs. They conferred in themselves that which they symbolized. Zwingli responded against this, arguing that the sacraments are purely symbolic. They convey – but do not confer – grace, strengthening faith, enhancing unity and are reassurance of God’s promises. Their primary purpose is to signify a believer’s allegiance to the church.5 As will be discussed below, the debate over the efficacy of the sacraments impinges heavily upon the debate between paedo- and believer’s- baptism.
It is not clear if the early church baptized infants. Paul links baptism with circumcision (cf. Col. 2), and it is likely that this, plus certain pastoral needs, such as the concern regarding the salvation of infants – especially poignant with Augustine’s doctrine of original sin – led to the rise of infant baptism. It – or at least baptism in some way – became a universal practice by the 3rd century.6 Cyprian of Carthage and Augustine argued it procured remission of sin. Zwingli rejected the belief that infant baptism conferred forgiveness, arguing that guilt required some sense of moral responsibility, of which infants have none, hence cannot be guilty. However, he believed it to be justified based on its parallel with circumcision.7
The Radical Reformation in the 16th century, and the rise of the English Baptists in the 17th century rejected this traditional practice of infant baptism, believing baptism requires a declaration of repentance. They further saw the New Testament’s silence on infants being baptized as a sign that infant baptism is not biblical, and thus need not be practiced.8 Thacker argues that the logic behind infant baptism does not hold up to scrutiny, and “ends up destroying itself.”9
A general area of contention lies in whether baptism is an ordinance, signifying believer’s faith, or a sacrament, signifying God’s grace. Baptists prefer ‘ordinance’ as a term referring to the acts with Christ has ordained, those he himself instituted, as opposed to Roman Catholic sacraments such as penance, ordination, etc. which were instituted by the church.10 According to Vander Zee, “The primary objection to the baptism of infants…is the fact that in infant baptism one of the most important aspects of New Testament baptism is missing: conversion and the profession of faith in Jesus Christ.”11 Fickett further notes that Acts 8:37 insists that only those who accept Jesus as savior can be baptized12 and Bromiley provides thorough exegetical argument that conversion always preceded baptism in the New Testament.13
A common argument for infant baptism is based on the “you and your household” texts in Acts. Jeremias extensively argued that oikos refers to a family, including children. Furthermore, the phrase is found throughout the Old Testament with reference to families with children. However, this does not prove the infants were baptized, nor is their biblical precedent for vicarious faith. Regarding the tale of the jailor in Acts 16, it is likely that what Luke was saying was both the jailor and his family received the exhortation to faith, hence if the family believed they would be saved; individual faith is still required, not solely the jailor.14
That infant baptism should be accepted due to it being parallel to circumcision doesn’t stand up under scrutiny either. It is an argument from silence, for there is no NT link between infant baptism and Jewish circumcision. In fact, the NT speaks negatively about
circumcision as an act relating to law, in contrast to baptism which relates to grace.15 Furthermore, circumcision leads to a Christendom model,16 which has had a detrimental effect on the church, as many “are deluded into thinking they are spiritually secure because the act has been performed.”17
A rejection of infant baptism is largely what marked the early Baptist denomination as distinctive. In 1608, John Smyth led a separatist church out of England to Amsterdam. Condemning the English church as a false church, Smyth believed his baptism to be a false baptism and came to recognize the true purpose of baptism signified entrance into a covenant with God. Believing there was no ‘true church’ and that he lived in a state of apostasy, he started a new church, and in 1609 dissolved the church he was pastoring and began baptizing (by pouring) himself and his followers. This act is recognized by many as the beginning of the Baptist church. Williams, in America, similarly rejected the English church and its infant baptism. He became on exile on Rhode Island, and in 1639 he and his followers were baptized by immersion, becoming the first immersionist church.18 In 1806, the Mennonite church followed suit, adopting immersion.19
Being baptized as an adult, upon a confession of faith, is a logical outworking of the Baptist emphases on the authority of scriptural teaching and individual’s capacity to have faith (“Individual Competency” and “Believer Priesthood”).20 It represents a conversion that has already taken place. Where Zwingli saw baptism as having more to do with the community, Baptists see it more to do with the individual’s faith and a profession of this faith.21 However, it was originally seen by early English Baptists as a mode of entry into the church, but this changed under Calvinist influence to become a symbolic testimony of God’s grace
within the individual.22
Mullins argued that baptism symbolizes a remission of sin, union with Christ, and a cleansing from unrighteousness.23 Similar to a marriage ceremony, baptism is that public confession of personal faith. Grenz notes three New Testament emphases: 1) entry into church (1 Cor. 12.13); 2) symbolic of Jesus’ death and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-4); and 3) a sealing of a covenant with God (1 Pet. 3.21).24 Furthermore, baptism is an oath, pledging loyal service to the Lord, surrendering to his will.25 It does not bring salvation, but is a celebration of God’s grace within the individual.26
Baptists hold to the belief that baptism should be properly administered by full immersion, rather than sprinkling or pouring. While this secondary to the meaning of baptism, it still warrants discussion.27 Archaeology has provided some evidence that may point toward the early church practicing immersion,28 but this is not conclusive and largely speculative. The most prevalent argument is etymological, in that baptizo is used, which means “to dip” or “immerse.”29 The root bapto is used in other situations, to describe, for example, dyeing and tempering iron. It is used in the LXX twice: Isaiah 21, where it is translated as “affrighted” (KJV); 2 Kings 5:14, referring to Naaman washing in the Jordan to purify himself from Jordan. It is used in Wisdom of Ben Sirach 34:25 and Judith 12:6-9, referring to a ceremonial ritual used to wash off impurity.30 If “sprinkle” was intended, hrantizo would have been appropriate.31 Furthermore, Acts 8:39 and Matt. 3:16 describe going down into and up out of the water, implying full immersion.32 Hence, immersion is the preferred mode.
IS IT DISTINCTIVE?
Believer’s baptism is largely a distinctive of the Baptist tradition, but is shared – as was mentioned above – with the Mennonite tradition, influenced by the Baptist view of baptism. The Anabaptist Grebel in the 16th century was one of the first to question infant baptism, and he and his followers received their name, meaning re-baptists, a derogatory term “applied to those who believed that only adults able to make a profession of faith may be baptized.”33
The Lutheran tradition affirms infant baptism, arguing the stress lies on God’s action, not on the human response. Based on John’s leaping in Elizabeth’s womb (Luke 1:44), Luther came to believe that infants had the ability to exercise faith. Baptists criticize this approach “for abandoning the concept of justification by grace through faith.”34 Both the Episcopal and Methodist traditions places emphasis on baptism as sacramental, conferring grace, through which God adopts his children. As discussed earlier, Baptists reject a sacramental view of baptism, hence reject these interpretations.35 Presbyterians do not view baptism as “bearers of extra grace to individuals,” but are visible signs – similar to the Baptist tradition. The major difference is that Presbyterians see baptism as a community event and hence affirm infant baptism as the equivalent to circumcision.36
Baptists received much persecution at its inception. While in Amsterdam, Helwys’ wife was imprisoned, despite having children. Helwys, expecting immediate persecution and even execution upon returning to England, returned anyway. He wrote A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity arguing for religious freedom in 1612 in London and sent a personalized copy to King James I. The king responded by arresting him and sending him to Newgate Prison where he died four years later.37 Persecution grew climaxing between 1660 and 1680.38 According to Fickett, “Because Baptists through the years have preached the Biblical truth that baptism is a believer’s rite, they have suffered untold hardship, privation, indescribable persecution, and even martyrdom in practically every country of the world.”39
In hindsight it seems petty that so much persecution occurred over something seemingly so small. However, when analyzed, it isn’t as small an issue as first perceived. Baptism was tied very closely with citizenship in a time of Christendom; to deny infant baptism was effectively denying citizenship. What the Baptists were dying for, however, was less to do with baptism itself and more to do with the cause for their belief in believer’s baptism, seen in the other Baptist distinctives of religious freedom, authority of scripture, etc. These Baptists were dying for principal and integrity.
As a Baptist distinctive, believer’s baptism is still an important Baptist belief, because of how it is linked so tightly with individual competency. To say one is less important than the other opens the door to the foundations of the Baptist tradition being shaken. To deny individual competency is to return to a Christendom model and devalues the doctrine of grace. Further, due to the biblical picture that baptism is clearly linked with repentance and faith, and that Baptists hold scripture as having primary authority, the Baptist tradition cannot deny believer’s baptism. It is a vital belief that will remain with the denomination. If the
denomination exists in 100 years, believer’s baptism surely will remain vital.
As is hopefully clear, the Baptist rejection of ‘sacrament’ for ‘ordinance’ is scripturally and logically preferable. The idea that something external to God’s soteriological activity can confer grace and blessing is clearly contradictory to the core of the Gospel message. Indeed a response of faith on behalf of the person is vital, but requiring that response to be what constitutes their entry into the Kingdom of Heaven or not is absurd. The Baptist attention to individual competency and the authority of scriptural teaching inevitably leads to the conclusion of believer’s baptism and rejection of infant baptism. Believer’s baptism symbolizes God’s grace within the individual, a public testimony to the individual’s repentance and clearly reflects the biblical picture of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, in which we participate as children of God. While immersion is preferred to sprinkling or pouring, this is only a secondary issue. This distinctive element of the Baptist denomination is one that will – and should – stick with the denomination and will last into the future. It is a core element that reflects the very faith and beliefs that make up the Baptist denomination: that we, as individuals, a part of the Body of Christ the Church, can participate in Jesus’ death and resurrection and look forward to the future hope of glory.
Beasley-Murray, G. R. Baptism: Today and Tomorrow. London: Macmillan, 1966.
Bromiley, G. W. “Baptism, Believer’s.” In Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by
Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2001.
Fickett, Harold L. A Layman’s Guide to Baptist Beliefs. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan
Publishing House, 1976.
Grenz, Stanley J. The Baptist Congregation. Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1985.
Harmon, Richard W. Baptists and Other Denominations. Nashville, Tennessee: Convention
James Leo Garrett, Jr. “Baptists Concerning Baptism: Review and Preview.” Southwestern
Journal of Theology 43, no. 2 (2001): 52-67.
Jeschke, Marlin. Believers Baptism for Children of the Church. Scottdale, Pennsylvania:
Herald Press, 1983.
Lindberg, Carter. The European Reformations. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.
Luther, Martin. “Lesser Catechism.” In The Christian Theology Reader, edited by Alister E.
McGrath. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.
McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology: An Introduction. 5 ed. London: Wiley-Blackwell,
Mounce, William D. The Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament. Grand Rapids,
Michigan: Zondervan, 1993.
Mullins, E. Y. Baptist Beliefs. Valley Forge: Baptist World Publishing Company, 1912.
Norman H. Maring, Winthrop S. Hudson. A Baptist Manual of Polity and Practice. Valley
Forge: Judson Press, 1991.
Norman, R. Stanton. The Baptist Way: Distinctive of a Baptist Church. Nashville, Tennessee:
Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005.
Thacker, Anthony. “Baptism, Circumcision and Grace: The Debate between Paedo-Baptists
and Believer-Baptists Considered.” Journal of European Baptist Studies 6, no. 1
Tidball, Derek. “A Baptist Perspective on David Wright, What Has Infant Baptism Done to
Baptism? An Enquiry at the End of Christendom.” Evangelical Quarterly 78, no. 2
Timmer, Kirsten Thea. “English Baptist Women under Persecution (1660-1688): A Study of
Social Conformity and Dissent.” Baptist History and Heritage 46, no. 1 (2006): 18-29.
Towns, Lydia. “Faithfulness in the Face of Persecution: Thomas Helwys’ Struggle for a Better
World.” Baptist History and Heritage 45, no. 3 (2010): 80-91.
Ward, Rowland S. Baptism in Scripture and History. Brunswick: Globe Press Pty Ltd, 1991.
Williams, George H. The Radical Reformation. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1962.
Witherington, Ben. Troubled Waters: Rethinking the Theology of Baptism. Texas: Baylor
University Press, 2007.
Zee, Leonard J. Vander. Christ, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Downer’s Grove, Illinois:
InterVarsity Press, 2004.
1 Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 5 ed. (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011). 400-401.
2 Baptism, Eucharist, penance, confirmation, ordination, marriage, and anointing the sick.
3 McGrath. 403-404.
4 Martin Luther, “Lesser Catechism,” in The Christian Theology Reader, ed. Alister E. McGrath(London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011). 473.
5 McGrath. 405-411.
6 Ibid. 420-421. Some, such as McGrath, argue infant baptism was the universally accepted mode of baptism at this time, while others reject this, insisting it was not as universal as many would believe, cf. Derek Tidball, “A Baptist Perspective on David Wright, What Has Infant Baptism Done to Baptism? An Enquiry at the End of Christendom,” Evangelical Quarterly 78, no. 2 (2006). 157-160. Another who argues infant baptism was universally practiced is R. Stanton Norman, The Baptist Way: Distinctive of a Baptist Church (Nashville,
Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005). 94.
7 McGrath. 421-422.
8 Ibid. 422-423.
9 Anthony Thacker, “Baptism, Circumcision and Grace: The Debate between Paedo-Baptists and Believer-Baptists Considered,” Journal of European Baptist Studies 6, no. 1 (2005). 34.
10 Leonard J. Vander Zee, Christ, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Downer’s Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2004). 121-122; Stanley J. Grenz, The Baptist Congregation (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1985). 29, 32. Cf. Winthrop S. Hudson Norman H. Maring, A Baptist Manual of Polity and Practice (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1991). 156 – “Baptism, then, may be thought of as a rite ordained by Christ through which his disciples are to express the humble confessions, the faith, and the willing obedience required of them.” Also, G. R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism: Today and Tomorrow (London: Macmillan, 1966). In 1911, Neighbour said that any Baptist who labeled baptism a sacrament was speaking thoughtlessly (p. 14).
11 Vander Zee. 122.
12 Harold L. Fickett, A Layman’s Guide to Baptist Beliefs (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976). 68-69.
13 G. W. Bromiley, “Baptism, Believer’s,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell(Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2001). 131-132. Cf. Rowland S. Ward, Baptism in Scripture and History (Brunswick: Globe Press Pty Ltd, 1991). 69 – “The Baptist holds that the New Testament teaches that only those actually professing faith in Christ were baptized and that the church, properly considered, consists only of regenerate members who have been baptized.”
14 Ben Witherington, Troubled Waters: Rethinking the Theology of Baptism (Texas: Baylor University Press, 2007). 59-63.
15 Cf. Gal.; Phil. 3.4-5.
16 Thacker. 43-44. Cf. Norman. 93.
17 Tidball. 158.
18 Grenz. 76-79. Cf. Lydia Towns, “Faithfulness in the Face of Persecution: Thomas Helwys’ Struggle for a Better World,” Baptist History and Heritage 45, no. 3 (2010). 85-86.
19 Marlin Jeschke, Believers Baptism for Children of the Church (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1983). 126.
20 Grenz. 88.
21 McGrath. 423.
22 Beasley-Murray. 15.
23 E. Y. Mullins, Baptist Beliefs (Valley Forge: Baptist World Publishing Company, 1912). 68-69. This is similar to what Ficket says of baptism, in that it acts as a testimony, provides identity with Christian movement, and allows obedience (Fickett. 80-82).
24 Grenz. 34.
25 Norman H. Maring. 153.
26 Thacker. 43; Fickett. 77; Mullins. 14 – “Baptism does not regenerate. It is to be administered to those who have previously been regenerated by the Spirit of God. Baptism does not secure remission of sins save in a symbolic way…Baptism is simply the outward symbol of what has already taken place within the subject.”
27 Cf. Jeschke. 125.
28 For example, some wealthy religious homes and synagogues had a miqveh, which was a large bath of 1.2 metres depth, holding 300 litres and had steps for access (Ward. 14-15). Also, Jeschke notes that some early churches included a free-standing structure containing a large tank several feet deep, presumably a baptistery (Jeschke. 125-126).
29 Grenz. 37; Ward. 12; Jr. James Leo Garrett, “Baptists Concerning Baptism: Review and Preview,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 43, no. 2 (2001). 65 – “That the Greek verb baptizein meant in the New Testament era “to plunge” or “to immerse” is now so widely accepted by Christian scholars as not to require the extension of the earlier Baptist lexical polemic.”
30 Ward. 12-15. This is further attested in William D. Mounce, The Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1993). 112 – Baptizo can mean “to cleanse” or “purify by washing.”
31 Grenz. 37.
32 Ibid. 37 – “More vividly than either pouring or sprinkling, immersion depicts the burial and resurrection of Jesus, the severing of ties with the old life in order to seal a covenant with God, and the public confession of personal faith.”
33 Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996). 200. Cf. George H. Williams, The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1962). 91-99.
34 Richard W. Harmon, Baptists and Other Denominations (Nashville, Tennessee: Convention Press, 1984). 18. Furthermore, Luther’s interpretation on Luke 1:44 seems more like eisogesis than exegesis.
35 Ibid. 35-36.
36 Ibid. 60-61.
37 Towns. 86-89.
38 Kirsten Thea Timmer, “English Baptist Women under Persecution (1660-1688): A Study of Social Conformity and Dissent,” Baptist History and Heritage 46, no. 1 (2006). 18.
39 Fickett. 70.