Southern Africa’s theological landscape is immersed in the heritage of the Reformers. A tide of persecution in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries washed legions of harassed French Huguenots and Dutch Calvinists up on the shores of the Cape of Good Hope. Their theology was understandably soaked with covenantalism and its most distinctive mark—infant baptism.
Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Methodists are all well established denominations in South Africa. The practical implication for a Baptist pastor like myself is that almost everyone who wants to join our church—old and new believers alike—inquires about why we don’t recognize their infant baptism.
I’d like to piggy-back on Jordan’s excellent post from last week, and offer a primer to help frame the discussion you may have with someone who wants all this explained to them.
This eon-old debate is very nuanced and complicated, and unlikely to be settled by one discussion unless the person is already predisposed to change their view. But this is a primer for the discussion. The following five points are not an exhaustive treatise, but may help keep your head above water in the discussion.
The Meaning. The meaning of the rite as presented in Scripture is not as a sign of a covenant, but as a sign of death to an old life and rebirth to a new life. Baptism signifies an inclusion into the universal Church.
Romans 6: 1 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
This meaning makes no sense when it is performed on an unbeliever, especially one who is too young to have an “old life” or consent to the declaration of death to it.
The Model. Jesus is our model for baptism. He came to John to be baptized and John refused. Baptism was a rite of conversion of Gentiles to Judaism. Submitting to John’s baptism as a Jew was admitting “I’m as bad as a godless Gentile who needs to convert to the true religion of Judaism.” It was humiliating. So when Jesus, the only sinless Jew, arrives for his baptism, John is understandably perplexed. But Jesus insists that it is needed to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matt 3:15). Jesus never made a command for us that he wasn’t willing to submit himself to. (When someone is reluctant to be baptized for reasons of embarrassment or inconvenience, I emphasize this point.)
The Method. The method of baptism in the Bible is always full immersion.
- The word “baptidzo” means immerse.
- The practice of the Jews was a full immersion in their mikvahbaths.
- John the Baptist used the Jordan “for there was much water there.”
- Philip was capable of sprinkling the Ethiopian Eunuch with drinking water, but immersed him when they came to a pool.
To be consistent, pedobaptists should fully dunk their babies (and some do). But the fact that almost all of these denominations have felt the need to reinvent the immersion method of Scripture is a case for the assertion that the whole practice should be questioned.
Another important aspect of their change in the method of baptism is to add the rite of confirmation. Confirmation is necessary to differentiate between baptized unbelievers and baptized believers. This is a hugely important scaffold to hold up their system, and yet it is entirely absent from the Bible. The more one tampers with the method presented in the Scriptures, the more suspect the system is shown to be.
The Missing verses. There is no verse in the Bible that says babies or any unbelievers were baptized into the Church. This is an important difference from circumcision into the nation of Israel, which was at times performed on unbelieving adults and all male Israelite babies.
I’m not making an argument from silence here (yet), I’m challenging the notion that the references to households being baptized is evidence of infants receiving the rite. Households can just as easily consist entirely of people old enough to hear and respond to the gospel.
In the case of the famed Philippian jailer, the text actually says that Paul spoke the word of truth to him and his whole household before they were baptized. The implication is that they all responded.
Acts 16: 32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.
Now for the argument from silence, which is a deafening silence if you ask me: in all of Paul’s many diversions into the obsolescence of circumcision, guess how many times he mentions that baptism is the replacement?
So, the pedobaptists would have us believe that the most obvious and important and argument-winning lynchpin of Paul’s whole point he never mentions even once? Let that sink in.
The Misunderstanding. By this point in the discussion it becomes necessary to explain the major misunderstanding that begets the need for a sign of the covenant. The way God dispensed saving grace to the world from the time of Abraham til Jesus—the Old Covenant—was by blessing the nation of Israel. Israel didn’t send missionaries, it was a kingdom of priests. If a Gentile wanted to worship the true God they joined the nation, as with Rahab and Ruth. The nation was blessed or cursed as a whole, and circumcision of your household’s males was the sign that you were a member of the nation, whether you and your household were faithful or unfaithful Jews.
But the Church under the New Covenant is not the same. The Church does not, by design, consist of a deliberate mix of unbelievers and believers. In fact, the NT says that when a person is unfaithful they need to be removed from the church (Matt 18:15-20; 1 Cor 5:4-13).
The church is meant for believers only. But baptism is what brings you into the church. Baptizing a baby is baptizing an unbeliever into the church. In practice, confirmation is used to deal with this fly in the ointment. But again, one would expect that essential component of the system to be mentioned at least once, somewhere in the Bible. It’s not.
And church discipline would make no sense. Paul says in 1 Cor 5:10-11 that he’s not saying we must avoid associating with unbelievers, but “those who bear the name of brother,” i.e. baptized people.
This is merely an outline for the discussion. It’s not comprehensive, but if you find yourself thrown in the deep end of a debate, having to sink or swim, these five points should help you stay afloat. Please feel free to top up the discussion in the comments section.