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A Deeper Look at the Presbyterian Understanding of Baptism
This article will look at the following areas:
Actual Events, What Is a Sacrament, What Is Baptism, Baptism and Personal Faith, Personal and Corporate Dimensions of Baptism, Who Receives Baptism in the Reformed Tradition, Baptism and Church Membership
Recently the members of a high school youth fellowship group in a local congregation were asked, “What does your baptism mean to you?” Without exception all of them answered, “Nothing.” When their reasons for this response were sought, they replied that it was because none of them could remember his or her baptism. On further reflection they confessed that they were not sure that they understood what baptism was all about and that the church had never made this very clear to them.
In a Presbyterian congregation in a small town, Mrs. Jones, an elder for nearly twenty years, approaches her pastor to ask whether or not next Sunday would be a good time to baptize her grandson who will be visiting for the weekend. Her daughter and son-in-law live in a city several hundred miles away and have not attended church since they were married. Mrs. Jones is eager to have the baptism take place at a time when as many family members as possible can be present. She will be deeply hurt if the pastor does not agree to “do the ceremony.”
A fourteen-year-old girl is asked by her parents to enroll in the confirmation class offered at her church. She is told by her parents that the class will prepare her “to join the church.” She answers with some surprise, “I thought that I joined the church when I was baptized.” Her parents do not know how to respond.
“Is one expected to demonstrate a different manner of living because of baptism?” asked a sixteen-year-old black male. “Is racism accepted behavior? Maybe baptism doesn’t make a difference . . . it’s just another empty ritual.” His cabin director at the presbytery camp, opened for the first time to racial and ethnic minorities, sat and stared at him.
A woman who was brought up in the Presbyterian Church marries a man who is a member of an independent Baptist church. When she seeks to join her husband’s church, she is told by the pastor that she must be baptized again, since infant baptism is not a “baptism of repentance.”
These five vignettes illustrate something of the extraordinary confusion about baptism in the church today. This confusion is so deep and so extensive that it has taken on the proportion of a crisis. It is not, as some might suppose, simply a question of what rites and practices are appropriate. Rather, it has to do with the very roots of what the church believes and confesses about God’s grace, the nature of faith, and the meaning of Christian community. In short, it has to do with the most fundamental elements of Christian faith and life.
These vignettes have been reenacted many times in our country and abroad. They reveal different aspects of the crisis and point to basic questions with respect to baptism: What does baptism mean? Who is to be baptized? What is the relationship of baptism to church membership? What is the relationship of baptism to repentance and personal faith?
What is A Sacrament?
Many church members do not understand what baptism means. Baptism is a sacrament. According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, a sacrament is a “holy ordinance instituted by Christ, wherein, by sensible signs, Christ and the benefits of the new covenant are represented, sealed, and applied to believers.” Presbyterians recognize two New Testament sacraments – Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (also called Communion or the Eucharist).
Both sacraments are signs of God’s initiative, not ours. In them God in Christ takes the first step toward us. The sacraments are signs of God’s reaching out to us in the past and of God’s ongoing concern for us now. The most important aspect of Baptism is not what we do, but what God does. The sacraments are the tangible, concrete “seals” of the promises of forgiveness, freedom, and new life offered in the gospel. In Baptism we are reminded especially of God’s promise: “I will be your God and you shall be my people.”
The prevailing confusion in teaching and practice makes such an understanding difficult to achieve. This is partly a result of the church’s failure to provide adequate theological and liturgical education about the sacraments. Despite the abundance of recent research and writing on baptism, for example, few materials are available for Presbyterian parents and children, for the laity of our congregations, concerning baptismal issues. The problem, however, cannot be entirely resolved by our publishing houses.
What Is Baptism?
Worshipers witness baptisms with some regularity. In Presbyterian churches most of these are baptisms of infants and young children. Baptism is considered a happy moment. Congregations are amused and intrigued by the various responses of babies. But there is little sense that the child is undergoing a profound initiation, a process of cleansing from sin, of entering into the death and resurrection of Christ, and of being received into a new community or family of faith. Few would understand what is happening as a life-changing and transforming event, one with fundamental repercussions for the rest of the child’s life.
Instead, the congregation hears some words spoken, sees a little water sprinkled, makes some formal promises to nurture the child in faith and the whole event is over in a matter of minutes. Nothing important appears to be changed as a result of this ceremony. Even the date when the event occurred, though preserved in church records, is soon forgotten by both the congregation and the baptized. Life goes on as usual. The child may be assimilated into the congregation or may disappear; he or she may be found in later years in the choir, the church youth group or scout troop, or the confirmation class, but it is not really clear whether or not these involvements have anything to do with water and baptism.
If baptism is to communicate the powerful meanings which it has embodied for Christians throughout our history, the rite (or ceremony) itself must be experienced as an event of great importance; it must in fact be the beginning of a process for which the whole congregation takes responsibility. But one of the greatest difficulties in understanding the meaning of baptism is that the Christian believer is cut off from the very events and realities to which baptism refers.
The origins of this sacrament are to be found in ancient liturgical washings, the baptism of Jesus by John and the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Most North American Christians have never experienced drought or flood and do not view water either as a valuable commodity or as having the potential for spiritual potency. A significant exception is the experience of Native Americans and African-Americans. Water has been a powerful spiritual symbol both in Native American traditions and in the African heritage of African-Americans. African-Americans have entered into the experiences of crossing the Jordan to the Promised Land (“Deep river, I want to cross over into campground”), deliverance after wandering in the wilderness (“Tell me, how did you feel when you come out the wilderness?”) and standing on Golgotha at the foot of the cross (“Were you there, when they crucified my Lord?”). These are the fundamental experiences which baptism recalls and to which its rich symbols point. By approximating the experience of Native Americans, African-Americans, and other racial and ethnic minorities, all Presbyterians will be helped to claim those experiences which baptism recalls.
Reclaiming a fuller understanding of the experience of baptism depends, as always, upon powerful preaching and teaching, upon the wise use of the sacrament’s signs and symbols, and upon taking with real seriousness the responsibilities which grow out of baptism as a gift of grace. Baptism itself is one of the experiences of the biblical witness that God has chosen to be gracious, and that this grace comes to us in and through the natural elements of the world which God has created.
Baptism and Personal Faith
In the pluralism and cross-fertilization of America’s Protestant churches, many people have found themselves confronted with the long-standing conflict between Reformed Christians, on the one hand, and Anabaptists, on the other. Generally speaking, Christians of the Anabaptist tradition believe that scripture teaches that repentance must precede baptism and that baptism may be offered only to those who can profess personal faith. This of course presupposes cognition and awareness, which Anabaptists insist are essential prerequisites for baptism. Such a position clearly rules out any possibility of the baptism of infants.
The Reformed (e.g. Presbyterian) understanding of baptism has emphasized God’s initiative. It is God who acts graciously in and through baptism, and it is we who respond and continue to do so for the rest of our lives. Since the days of John Calvin, this tradition has also viewed infants and children of believers as heirs to the covenant of grace. An infant or adult is baptized into the church universal. The Anabaptist insistence upon “understanding baptism” before receiving it poses enormous problems of establishing standards or criteria for what constitutes adequate knowledge, belief, or commitment. Would such criteria, for example, make it impossible for some mentally handicapped people to receive baptism? On what basis could general agreement about such issues be reached? In the Anabaptist tradition an emphasis is made upon the human response in baptism, while the Reformed tradition insists on God’s sovereignty and gracious invitation to the unworthy and unqualified to receive the gift of the kingdom.
In addition, the baptism of some Anabaptist groups is viewed as an ordinance through which Christians enter into fellowship with a local congregation. Baptism is thus repeatable; indeed, it may be repeated each time a person seeks to become a member of a new congregation. In this understanding the church exists only as local congregations, each autonomous and complete in itself.
Such conflicts cannot be fully elaborated or resolved in this brief discussion. But this much can be said: For the Reformed tradition, whether we are five or fifty, we are all infants in the faith when we are baptized, and it is into the one holy catholic [universal] church that we enter by baptism.
Today we live in a secular society in which Christianity is waning in influence and adherents. Those “outside” the church cannot always identify characteristics of Christian living among the baptized that distinguish the baptized from the non-baptized. It is entirely possible that the crisis of the church is really not qualitatively different from the baptismal crisis. The crisis of faith in which belief seems impossible, untenable, or irrelevant may be due in part to the fact that the baptismal realities of belonging to God, being transformed, dying, rising, being joined inextricably to a body of people whose lives are significantly different are sadly “invisible realities.” Yet they are the ones which baptism and confirmation proclaim and of which they are themselves signs. The first step in addressing that crisis is to begin at the beginning, with a rite whose words and actions correspond more accurately and powerfully with the realities they describe. This is precisely what has been attempted in this new order for baptism.
Personal and Corporate Dimensions
On the individual level, Baptism is the action by which we participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In Baptism we are reminded that we have died with Christ to the old life of sin and bondage to sin, and have been raised with Christ to a new life of freedom and service. The waters of Baptism hearken back to the story of
At the corporate level, Baptism places us in the community of those who likewise have received God’s grace in Christ. Baptism is the seal of our incorporation into the body of Christ, the Church, where barriers of race, sex, and social status are transcended. To use other Biblical metaphors, Baptism confirms our engrafting as branches of the vine who is Christ and our adoption into the family of God as heirs of the covenant of grace. In Baptism God claims us and puts a sign on us to show that we belong to God. The images are many but the reality is one.
Who Receives Baptism in the Reformed Tradition?
Baptism inevitably poses questions as to who should receive it and under what conditions it should be administered. These are very old questions in the history of the church. Ever since the legalization of the Christian religion by the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, Christianity has had a close identification with culture. By the end of that century, with the exception of the Jews, to be a citizen of the Roman Empire was by law to be a Christian. With some notable exceptions, close connections between church and state were to characterize Christianity in both East and West until relatively recent times.
For the church in the West, this led to the practice of establishing state churches, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant. Even today, many such state churches exist in Western Europe, financed by public monies and regulated by public policies. This has led to “church registration,” in which a child is born, registered, and baptized without regard to whether or not the parents are active participants in a local congregation. Indeed, unless legal action is taken to dissolve this church connection, the child will pay a tax for church support throughout his or her life. Thus birth, baptism, and citizenship are inextricably bound together.
Events in Europe leading to World War II brought this phenomenon to an unprecedented crisis. Some major theologians challenged ancient practice when they asserted that it was blasphemous to baptize children who would grow up to don jackboots and participate in the persecution of Jews and other non-Aryans. No less eminent a theologian than Karl Barth urged the church to give up the baptism of infants and to place before mature persons the radical decision as to whether or not they chose to live as Christians in a society that could no longer be understood to be Christian. Though Emil Brunner and other prominent Reformed theologians disagreed with Barth’s conclusion, they were no less convinced than he that society could no longer be equated with Christianity.
Brunner refused to give up baptism of infants because it was such a vivid testimony to the conviction that it is God who acts graciously toward us in baptism and that this grace is not earned but freely given; not even our decision merits this divine goodness. Brunner argued that the church should not reject the baptism of infants but seek to reclaim it, by taking most seriously its responsibilities to see that those baptized would be nurtured in faith through participation in the church’s life and ministry. Only if such conditions could be secured could an infant be baptized into the church.
In the United States, with its historic constitutional separation of church and state, we have not experienced the phenomenon of “registration.” Nonetheless, we have inherited some of the attitudes prevalent in Western Europe. For large numbers in our churches, and in society, baptism has come to be viewed as a cultural practice. The association of Christianity with culture in our context is reflected in a phenomenon called American civil religion, which equates God and country as entities demanding the same loyalties and having the same intentions or goals. But baptism is not an initiation into citizenship or the American way of life; rather, it is initiation into the church, where ultimate loyalty belongs to Christ alone and where life must be shaped by the demands of the gospel. Being a Christian is not a function of being a good American. Rather, being a good citizen of this or any other country is a function of being loyal to Christ.
If the church takes this seriously, the renewal of baptism requires that everyone – parents or guardians, and the whole congregation – must see that baptism is administered only to those who will be responsibly nurtured through participation in the worship and work of the church. To do less than this is to empty the sacrament of its meaning and to hide the graciousness of God from those who seek it.
Baptism is administrated to all those whom God calls. Since the initiative lies with God, and since, in any case, we need the Holy Spirit’s help to respond to God’s call, the key factor in Baptism is not the age or maturity of the person being baptized, but rather the church’s corporate response in claiming the promises sealed in the sacrament. Both parents and the congregation are part of that corporate response.
In the case of those who have reached the “age of discretion,” and are able to claim for themselves the promises of grace, Baptism is the seal of their discipleship and the sign of their entry into the covenant community. In the case of children or infants, who, of course, are unable to claim God’s promises for themselves, their parents or guardians respond on their behalf.
Whether the person baptized is an adult or a child, the congregation also makes its promise to nurture the baptized person in the faith. The vow of the local congregation, which represents the church universal, is an important aspect of the Baptismal rite. Presbyterians do not practice “private Baptism.”
Baptism and Church Membership
Baptism’s relation to confirmation (and to the Lord’s Supper) continues to be a source of great confusion. Early in the church’s history in both East and West, baptism, confirmation, and Holy Communion were administered together as a celebration of the entrance of new Christians, whether infants or adults, into the church. For a time this celebration typically occurred during the night before Easter, when the congregation gathered to celebrate the resurrection of Christ. Easter was originally a baptismal feast, thus establishing the closest connection between baptism itself and Christ’s own death and resurrection.
New Christians were baptized, usually just outside the church (in baptisteries) or at the entrance to the sanctuary, thus emphasizing the fact that they were entering the community. The symbols surrounding their baptisms dramatically emphasized that they were renouncing the powers of sin and death, pledging their loyalty to Christ, being washed and cleansed of sin, entering into the dying and rising of Christ, receiving a new identity, and entering into a new community of faith. All this was seen to be the gracious work of God, to which those who had received baptism would respond each day for the rest of their lives. Learning to live the Christian life was thus the responsibility both of the adults and of the children to whom baptism was given.
Immediately following baptism the new Christians were led to the center of the church, where each was anointed with oil (called chrism)’ and received the laying on of hands. This service of anointing with oil included prayers that the Holy Spirit would “confirm” what the church had just done in baptism by living within the believer and empowering him or her to be a faithful Christian. Hence, anointing with oil was associated with the confirmation of the Holy Spirit and thus was always seen in relation to baptism.
Though baptism could be conferred only once, anointing with oil could be repeated again and again. Each time it brought believers in touch with the grace given in their baptisms and reminded them of the promises made. As such it was a renewal of baptism which the church encouraged its members to receive on many occasions: as preparation to receive the Lord’s Supper, especially on the evening of great feasts such as Easter and Christmas; as a form of pastoral care for those who were troubled; and, above all, as part of the church’s ministry to the sick and the dying.
After receiving baptism and confirmation the Christians, including infants, were welcomed to the Lord’s Supper, the final sign that they had been fully received as members into the community.
In the Western church this unity of the three rites was broken by historical accidents. In the Roman or Latin church, only bishops were permitted to perform the anointing with oil. In the East, all three rites could be performed by priests. With the fall of Rome and the disintegration of the Western part of the empire, it became impossible for bishops to be present for all baptismal celebrations. Indeed, it was not uncommon to have years separating the event of baptism from the visit of the bishop. A very different pattern therefore developed, in which baptism was administered to infants, first communion to children, and confirmation when the child was recognized as having come of age. It is in large measure the loss of the unity of the relations of these three events which lies at the root of much of our confusion, since each came to exist in isolation and with theological explanations that only further obscured the simplicity and power of the sacraments themselves. Seen against this background, confirmation understandably now appears, in many of our churches, to be a rite in search of a theology. And the principal cause of this recent problem is that children are now being admitted to the Lord’s Supper earlier than before, when confirmation could still be seen as itself the final preparation for being received at the Table.
Among many American Protestant churches engaged in the study and writing of new liturgical materials, there is a marked tendency to bring these three rites into relations that more closely parallel ancient practice. This is not simply a preference for that which is old, but rather the rediscovery of our common heritage in which ancient practice reveals the meanings of the rites themselves.
The reclaiming of the baptismal rite is moving in the direction of reestablishing the relations between baptism and confirmation. It also encourages the church to bring baptized children to the Lord’s Table as early as possible. The new rite not only contains the laying on of hands but also provides the option of anointing with oil, as the visible action signifying the sealing with the Holy Spirit of one who belongs to Christ. Indeed, the title Christ literally means “the anointed one.” In time this may reopen the rich possibility for anointing the sick and dying and thus reestablishing lost connections to the continuing meaning of baptism in the Christian life. This of course will require careful interpretation. But it occurs when our church is already discovering its own need for a more compelling theology and practice of the sacraments.