LINK: John H at Confessing Evangelical is one of six Lutherans in the UK. He comments on some of my advocacy of Wright’s “consensus” position on baptism. In my response to him I reference the document “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry” from the WCC. I know, but it’s really excellent.
Just a friendly warning that I am not going to allow a free for all on infant baptism vs believer’s baptism. The post is on rebaptism.
There is one rebaptism in the Bible (Acts 19), and plenty of contention among Christians about exactly what is going on there. Unless Paul’s cryptic mention of “baptism for the dead” is a kind of rebaptism, then the Bible doesn’t speak directly to the topic.
Christians have demonstrated their inability to agree on the meaning of baptism for at least half a millenium. Jesus didn’t invent baptism, and unlike the Lord’s Supper, the Jewish roots of baptism are unclear. Ritual washings, Essene baptisms, Jewish convert baptisms- no one is really confident as to where John received his baptism- including the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. No one is sure what the disciples understood baptism to mean as they performed it during the ministry of Jesus. There is little agreement on why Jesus was baptized, and no agreement on the mode.
Baptism scholars like David Wright do offer up a consensus that has been helpful to me*: the earliest Christians baptized adult converts, almost certainly by immersion, relatively soon after a profession of faith.
The baptism of infants developed quickly, but was not universally normative. Catechetical instruction before baptism changed the way the church treated those coming to profess faith. The mode of baptism quickly became dependent on less water. The recognizable contours of the “Catholic” view of baptism were solidified by the time of Constantine.
The reformation brought all the issues related to the sacraments to the forefront, and from Luther, to Calvin, to Smyth and Helwys and Alexander Campbell, there was an inevitable rattempt to return to primitive ideas on Baptism among evangelicals and radical reformers. The Anabaptist and Baptist reclaiming of Believer’s baptism was a major break with all of catholic and reformation Christendom. These movements went beyond the moderate reformers and even beyond evangelicals like Wesley to declare that Baptism was for those who were able to declare their profession of faith and enter into membership in the visible church by their own choice.
For much of Anabaptist and Baptist history, a high view of baptism prevailed, precisely for the purpose of preserving the distinctives and the seriousness of believer’s baptism. Baptism was reserved for those able to make an “adult” profession of faith and to knowledgeably enter into the covenant of church membership. Baptism was a one time matter, not to be repeated.
But at the same time, the Baptist movement had to rebaptize. The cost of reclaiming believer’s baptism had been high, and paid in blood and suffering many times. The first generation of Anabaptists had all been rebaptized by necessity. This acceptance of the possibility of rebaptism put Baptists on a constant collision course with those believers who affirmed the baptisms they had experienced in their own traditions as true and obedient baptisms. From the outset, Baptists were rejecting infant baptisms and requiring rebaptism.
So the seeds were sown, from the beginning, of the situation which faces evangelicals and Baptists today in regard to rebaptism, but the difference is significant. Initially, rebaptism was a way of preserving the meaning and importance of baptism. Today, rebaptism is most often a witness to the decreasing meaning of baptism among Baptists and evangelicals.
Today’s rebaptism crisis exists because Baptists have largely evacuated their previous convictions on theology and the importance of the local congregation, and have replaced those standards with a complete surrender to personal experience and the wisdom of the church growth movement. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper create major issues for the agenda of today’s evangelical churches, and the inevitable response is going to be 1) a misreading of any doctrinal distinctives regarding baptism and 2) a subordination of the meaning and practice baptism to Christian experience and church growth.
The evacuation of theology and the triumph of the church growth mentality have left Baptists with few resources to understand what is meant by “one baptism” in Ephesians. Baptism has become an extension of denominational identity (“Baptist” baptism) and the servant of whatever religious experience the individual wants to report as re-conversion or appropriate for baptism.
Baptism’s place and purpose in the Christian life are narrow and not subjective. It is not open for reinterpretation as a witness to the distinction between Pentecostals and Baptists. It does not represent denominational distinctives, but the heart of the Gospel. Baptists who insist on rebaptism because a denomination speaks in tongues or believes in the possibility of apostasy are twisting baptism to have a meaning it does not have. It is a local church ordinance, but it witnesses to the oneness of all Christians in being joined to Christ.
Baptism is not available to bear witness to recommitments or other experiences. It witnesses to the inauguration of a person’s entrance into the new creation.
Further problems with rebaptism arise because of a lack of practical theology of the Christian life, in particular the normal experiences of growth and sanctification. Baptists and other evangelicals have become so confused about the Gospel that millions of Christians come for rebaptism when they have simply experienced normal growth, repentance, sanctification or other experiences that are part of the Christian life.
Christian leaders and preachers bear a huge responsibility for failing- or refusing- to discern the proper response to rebaptism situations. It takes a mature leader to lay aside ego and look at what is Biblically appropriate, rather than what will generate more baptisms.
When Christians request rebaptism, a pastor runs a risk in refusing to acquiesce to that request, but the integrity of baptism is not negotiable. The meaning of baptism and the issues that lead to rebaptism need to be addressed by a teaching pastor with clarity and conviction. How many pastors could begin to differentiate between the views of baptism found among Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, Lutherans, Campbellites and Presbyterians?
Will Baptists embrace the high view of baptism of their ancestors, and reject the baptism of children, a practice that is responsible for more requests for rebaptism than any other? Will they reject baptism as the property of a denomination and practice Christian baptism? Will they teach and practice a Biblical theology of growth and sanctification, or will they continue to leave untaught Christians requesting rebaptism in order to “get it right this time?”
Baptism and rebaptism are part of the recovery of meaningful church membership that must happen if evangelicalism is to regain its sanity and its ability to produce disciples of Jesus. Believer’s baptism cannot eliminate the possibility of rebaptism, but such rebaptism is not necessary where believer’s baptism has occured! And believer’s baptism should not be repeated for anything other than the most convincing of reasons.
(*I am sure that many IM readers will want to turn this discussion into a debate on the merits of infant baptism vs believer’s baptism. I am not inclined to go in that direction. Many commenters may not be aware that a scholarly consensus on the historical relationship of believer’s baptism and infant baptism has existed for some time. Read David Wright, What Has Infant Baptism Done To Baptism? Wright is a paedobaptist and the acknowledged historical authority in Christianity on the history of baptism.
That consensus is that the earliest baptisms were the baptisms of adult converts, and the question of baptizing children arose and eventually became standard in various places in the first two centuries of Christian history.
This does not settle the “What does the Bible support?” question, but it does say that both positions have a place in Christian history and there is no real discussion about what was being done in the first decades of the Christian movement.
It may, however, provide a place of understanding where some congregations might consider the merits of John Piper’s suggestion that churches practicing believer’s baptism could receive infant baptized Christians into some form of fellowship that did not require the rejection of what that person considers a valid baptism that they do not believe should be rejected.)