How does Baptism work?

I think this may be the last article on children and baptism – I promise; and then we’ll move on after the summer to the even more controversial question of whether children should participate fully in sacramental life of the Church and take communion.  But in this article I’ll address briefly the mode of baptism – primarily for pastoral reasons.  One of the significant questions often asked by those who have been baptised in infancy focusses on whether it really qualifies as a baptism.  This can often lead to the question of whether someone should get baptised again.  Two things seem to feed this insecurity.  One is the fact that, looking back, I doubt that I had faith at the time – or perhaps know that I didn’t.  The other thing that is often thought to undermine my baptism as an infant is that I was ‘only’ sprinkled.  It is not uncommon to hear baptism by sprinkling dismissed as un-Biblical, or portrayed as a pragmatic compromise with Biblical practise. To the first I briefly restate a point made in previous articles:  That sacraments are about what God is saying to us, rather than what we are saying to God, and so its validity is found in His faithfulness, rather than in my faith (or lack of it).


But what about the second question: does it matter how we baptise people?  Often – though not always - when children are initiated into the sacramental (is there any other kind?) life of the Church, it is done by sprinkling.  When we baptise an adult, it is often done – though again, not always – by full immersion. Does it matter?  Is one mode of baptism more Biblical?  … more authentic?  We saw last time that there was a certain historical ambivalence to the way in which a baptism is conducted.  Is this appropriate?


A lot is made in discussions about the meaning of ‘baptism’ (and please let me reiterate my commitment in these articles to be as constructive and non-polemic as possible as I outline my own convictions – I’ll try not to be too cheeky either!).  Over the years I’ve read many pages arguing that it means one thing or another.  At least one scholar has laboured (I think rightly) to show that while bapto/izo can mean tinge, sprinkle, pour or dip, it has a field of meaning that can also include drink, immerse or even drown (though surely we can agree that this last option isn’t an appropriate mode of Christian baptism!).[1] 


We can see this range of meaning even within the way the word is used within the Bible.  Hebrews 9:10 speaks of ‘various ceremonial washings’ associated with the first Tabernacle.  The Greek word that lies behind this translation is baptismois.  But to what does it refer?  Hebrews 9 outlines three ceremonies associated with the Tabernacle, all of which are characterised by sprinkling (9:13; 9:19; 9:21).[2]  To put it bluntly – something that is sprinkled is spoken of as having been baptised.  At the very least we have to acknowledge that baptism by sprinkling / pouring is a viable and Biblical option.  We could also think about the way the word baptism is used when speaking of the Holy Spirit and fire (Matt.3:11).  John’s prophesy is fulfilled at Pentecost, and is recorded for us in Acts 2.  The ‘baptism’ prophesied by John, is described by Joel as a ‘pouring out’ of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 2:18).  It is also prophesied and spoken of (symbolically) by Ezekiel, who again uses the language of sprinkling (36:25).  We’ve seen in previous articles how our baptism represents the pouring out the Holy Spirit on the Church in fulfilment of the New Covenant promises. 


The emphasis doesn’t seem to fall so much on how the water is applied, but what it sacramentally achieves.  A key issue in baptism is that it represents our being united to somebody.  In I Cor.10, the people are united to Moses, so that his destiny becomes theirs - and of course this uniting includes the children and infants among the people who pass through the Red Sea on dry land (Moses’ own comment on this is found in Ex.14:31).  They are identified with Moses ‘ritually’ – though as their continued unbelief demonstrated, they (at least the adults among them, excepting Joshua and Caleb) were tragically not identified with him ‘in reality’.  The glorious truth of the situation is that the children / infants who were thus baptised ritually, were in fact the ones who were also truly baptised and entered the promised land.  They passed with Moses through judgement and with Joshua into New Creation!


We are ritually identified with Christ by His Spirit through our water baptism (so e.g. I Cor.12:13 & 27).  The Gospel is thus proclaimed over us in our baptism.  Positively this includes us being united with Christ in His death and resurrection, not to mention His ascension.  It also points to that union as the source of our being cleansed from sin.  Whether these truths move from our ritualised experience to real experience depends (whether child or adult) on whether we trust in Him with whom we have been dramatically united, and whose history has been so eloquently and visibly proclaimed. 


As I have mentioned a number of times in these articles, I have sought to be as constructive and as conciliatory as possible, and not to ‘attack’ any other main positions on baptism.  I am more than happy to discuss any of these issues further, and indeed there is a great deal more to be said.  But as we are reflecting on the place of children in the life of the Church, it is worth you knowing what your pastor thinks about baptism… 


[1] See Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology III, ‘The words bapto/izo and their cognates are used with such a latitude of meaning as to prove the assertion that the command to baptise is a command to immerse, to be utterly unauthorised…’  See also R.W. Dale Classic Baptism, cited in J.E. Adams, The Meaning and Mode of Baptism

[2] An even more intriguing use of ebaptisanto is in I Cor.10:2, where of course the whole point is that the covenant people of God didn’t get wet.  NB ‘baptised into…’  is used in Rom.6, where Paul speaks of ‘all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus’, with the same language as he speaks of the fathers being baptised into Moses.

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