Why Was Jesus Baptized? (Or Why Baptizing Infants Isn’t Heresy)

baptism3

Classes started up again for me this week, yesterday to be specific.

One of the classes I attended yesterday is called Reformation Europe. It’s a look at the various reformations (because there was more than one) that went on during this period in the life of the church, as well as the state.

During his lecture, the professor made an offhand comment that I found to be rather interesting. Apparently during this time it was required by law (because the church and state were effectively one and the same) for all newborn babies to be baptized.

As Epiphany Sunday was just a couple of weeks ago, this random fact got me to thinking.

My first thought was about how so many evangelicals would be appalled that infants were being baptized, after all, isn’t baptism a sort of confession of faith and how can newborn babies confess their decision to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior?

Well, that got me to thinking some more.

As you might recall from Epiphany Sunday, or if your church still suffers from a Reformation hangover and the church calendar isn’t observed, then you might remember this from the Gospels – Jesus was baptized.

I’m not sure many of us give this event much thought.

Jesus was baptized. We’re Christians, so we get baptized too. What’s the big deal?

I would argue, it’s a huge deal, particularly for the broadly held Protestant/Evangelical understanding of baptism.

You see, in the Protestant/Evangelical tradition there are generally two understandings of baptism – either it is performed as an act of confession whereby the new believer professes their newfound acceptance of Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior or it is performed as an act of repentance, necessary for one’s salvation.

However, both of these approaches become hugely problematic when we look at Jesus’ own baptism.

On the one hand, it makes no sense to say that Jesus went down to the Jordan to be baptized by John as an act of confession whereby he was testifying to the world that he had finally (remember he was about 30 at this point) come to accept himself as his personal Lord as Jesus.

The other option would force us to argue that Jesus visited John by the riverside as part of an act of repentance for his own sins. It goes without saying that “Jesus the sinner” is, well, less than ideal for some of the most fundamental tenets of the Christian faith.

Worse yet, both of these options have the tendency to transform baptism from a sacrament focused on God into a celebration of us and our decision making ability.

Fortunately, there is a third option, one which is affirmed by those who continue to practice infant baptism (including many Protestants), but is inexplicably ignored by the vast majority of Evangelicals (no doubt due to that aforementioned Reformation hangover).

Jesus wasn’t baptized because he had accepted himself as his own personal Lord and Savior. And he certainly wasn’t baptized as repentance for his sins.

Jesus was baptized because he was being set apart by God to preach the Good News and bring the Kingdom of God to earth, just as it is in heaven.

When, towards the end of the gospel story, Jesus tells his disciples to go to the ends of the earth, making disciples and baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that act of baptism, like his own, isn’t simply for “the remission of sins,” nor is it being performed merely as a profession of faith.

Jesus command to the disciples to baptize the nations was a call to set more people apart, to make those people into disciples themselves so that they too could go preach the Good News and bring the Kingdom of God to earth, just as it is in heaven.

In other words, like Jesus in our baptism we too are being set apart by God to be His hands and feet in the world.

Now, this doesn’t mean there is necessarily something intrinsically wrong with attaching confession, profession, and repentance to our own baptism. There’s not.

But if Jesus is going to be our model in this as he is (or is supposed to be) in every other area of life, then the lesson of Jesus’ baptism is rather simple – there’s no need to get so upset about infant baptism.

If baptism is first and foremost about being set apart, which according the first account of baptism in the Gospels it is, then setting apart our children for service to God (or, more correctly, having our children set apart by God) isn’t something to be avoided, and it’s certainly not something to be condemned.

It’s something to be celebrated.

What’s more, when the focus of baptism is the act of setting apart by God, then God is, as God always should be, the focus of the sacrament.

So, while I know this plea is probably in vain, as Evangelicals can we please grab a cup of coffee, get over our Reformation hangover, abandon our anti-Catholic bigotry, and if we can’t find the humility to start baptizing our infants, let’s at least stop thinking those that do are somehow the heretical or ignorant ones.

Because they’re not.

 

Grace and Peace,

Zack Hunt

 

  • http://www.facebook.com/herev Tommy Conder

    As a United Methodist pastor–very well thought out. Love it, will share! thanks!

  • Jon

    Love this post Zach, as I do most of yours! As a former evangelical (now Catholic) this was a topic that always bothered me. I remember being in a Bible study with fellow evangelicals, having myself never questioned the evangelical view of baptism, and found that many of my friends were either confused, had no idea the origins of evangelical belief regarding baptism. At best we would turn to the scripture and say that it showed adults being baptized, but that of course is a generalization. First, just because children aren’t explicitly mentioned does not mean they weren’t and in other places , the reference escapes me now, but Cornelius and his whole household were baptized which I am sure means kids were involved, if nothing else, Cornelius made a decision for his whole household which means those under him were baptized. It’s interesting to note too, that amongst all of the church writings of the first several centuries, there is no debate over adult verses child baptism, the only real debate was whether a child should be baptized at birth or up to 8 days later (replacing circumcision). For example: St Cyprian of Carthage wrote in his Letters 58:2 c AD 253,

    “but in respect of the case of the infants, which you (Fidus) say ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, and that the law of ancient circumcision should be followed, so that one who is just born should not be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day, we all thought very differently in our council. For no one agreed with the course you thought should be taken; rather we all judge that the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to anyone born of man.”

    That is just one example of many. One thing I find very peculiar about my Sola Scriptura (Bible as Sole Authority) Evangelical brothers, is that they all practice this strange idea of “Child Dedication”. Where is that found in the Bible? What is it exactly? It is just as you said, part of that reformation hangover. That idea that our children should be set apart and dedicated to God and to be raised Christian. Hmmmm sounds a whole lot like infant baptism……minus the water!!!

    • Karen

      Good points, Jon.

      I was taught in my former Baptist church that the practice of infant or child dedication in churches that practice “believer baptism” is modeled on Hannah’s dedication of Samuel in the OT. (To be fair, I never heard anyone suggest that this is what the Scriptures commanded of Christian parents–though, obviously, endeavoring to raise your children in the faith is a given regardless of whether a formal rite is practiced or not.) It has since been pointed out to me that to use an OT model that itself was clearly not a rite of initiation practiced by the whole community under the Old Covenant as the norm for a sort of pre-initiation for all children of those under the New Covenant is not a proper ritual or theological parallel. Hannah’s dedication of Samuel, rather, was obviously particular to an extraordinary circumstance and represented a consecration for a unique purpose (similar to the Nazarite Vow that Samson took). It is all the more out of place, given that the OT parallel to Christian baptism is clearly circumcision (which was practiced on infants–though also on uncircumcised adults and older boys as well, i.e., whole households, when the Covenant with Abraham was first established). It has also been pointed out that “believer” baptism (actually rebaptism) was initially practiced, not because it was believed that this was the apostolic teaching, but because the line between Church and state had become obscured, and (as Zack pointed out) infant baptism was required of all citizens by the state. Thus it had ceased (in the mind of the “anabaptists”) to accurately reflect (and effect?) its true biblical and spiritual purpose. Only after the Enlightenment and the birth of the philosophy of Humanist Rationalism, did Christians (Protestant or Roman Catholic) form a rationale for delaying baptism (or communion and confirmation) of the children of believers until the “age of reason”. It should be pointed out, perhaps, that Rationalistic Humanism is not a biblical understanding of the human person.

      Today only the Eastern Orthodox (and other ancient Oriental churches?) continue the ancient apostolic practice of immediately anointing with “chrism” (oil consecrated by the ruling bishop, serving in the place of his laying of hands and symbolizing the same thing = confirming) and communing in the Eucharist newly-baptised infants and young children, showing them to be full members of Christ’s Body and being saved in exactly the same way as are adults through participation in Christ through His Church–apart from their level of capacity for rational thought. Rather, here the symbolic emphasis in these rituals is obviously on the grace of God at work in and through His Church.

  • http://www.shaneyirene.com/ Shaney Irene

    Growing up, I thought that the only reason that people baptized infants was that they thought that infants who died without being baptized wouldn’t go to heaven (I didn’t have a very rigorous understanding of other denomination, if you couldn’t tell). That all changed in college when I dated a Lutheran. I still don’t think I’ll be baptizing my children as infants when I have children, mostly because I still think there’s something to be said for the person being baptized to be able to be aware of what’s going on and fully participate in it, but I no longer think baptizing infants is heresy. It’s not something that would cause me to not attend a particular church.

    Thanks for showing the flaws with some of the more common understandings of baptism.

  • Brannon Hancock

    Zack – well done. We were discussing baptism yesterday in our pastoral staff meeting, because we had baptisms this past Sunday, and of the 10 candidates, 2 had been baptized before (1 as an infant, 1 as a 12 year old). As you know, this raises significant concerns for me for several reasons – but your post isn’t about rebaptism, so I won’t go down that rabbit trail (in sum: I think we’ve come to consensus as a staff that, while we will probably continue to rebaptize those who emphatically request rebaptism, we will aspire to downplay or “leave out” any reference to that in the actual baptism, for the sake of the church as a whole). However, it did lead us into a discussion about infant / child baptism as well, which was really good. Our church continues to practice believer’s baptism and child dedication the overwhelming majority of the time, but 2 of our 3 children have been baptized at my current (NAZARENE!) church – one by my father and one by my pastor. So I care a great deal about the resistance or reservations about this practice that often crop up.

    I think you’ve nailed it on the discipleship angle. It’s so funny that you wrote this the day after we had this conversation at staff meeting. Long story short, I was looking up the references (on the web) to household baptisms in scripture and I stumbled across an article by a Presbyterian that had just a brief couple of sentences that basically made the same point, and a lightbulb came on for me that I have to admit I’d never thought about before: baptism as marking the beginning of the discipleship process. In this article, as in yours, the idea was grounded in the great commission (which seems like a pretty authoritative place to ground an argument about baptism: Jesus’ own command/institution!).

    So when does the discipleship process begin with a new convert to the faith? When they repent and believe. (So we should baptize them right away – right?) When does the discipleship process begin for a child born into a Christian family, who is literally a part of the church from birth? The answer, I believe is: at birth. So why would we conclude any differently than our previous answer: baptize them right away?

    It was amazing to me in our discussion at staff meeting how many of the intelligent, well educated people around the table believed mistakenly that only Catholics baptize infants, or that all Protestants believe that baptism is only an outward demonstration that you’ve chosen Jesus and therefore practice believer’s baptism only. (Don’t worry – I quickly disabused them of that notion, and my pastor, who grew up in a UM parsonage, attended Asbury seminary and started his ministry pastoring two little UM churches, quickly jumped in in support of my claims.)

    One last thing I wanted to throw in. I heard Nazarene evangelist Stephen Manley preach a sermon about Jesus’ baptism once that was quite provocative. He argued, somewhat convincingly, that because John’s baptism was universally recognized as a baptism of repentance, we can’t get away from that aspect of the event even when considering Jesus’s baptism. So, while Jesus didn’t need to repent of his *sins,* Manley set this up as an exploration of what repentance (metanoia) means: a change of direction or change of mind – and then showed how Jesus’ baptism marks the change of direction/mind in his own life that sets him on a course toward Jerusalem and toward the cross. I remember clearly him saying, “Did you know Jesus repented?” and thinking, “Holy cow, did he just say that?” It’s a fascinating idea.

    The other important idea that could springboard off your post is that of baptism as “universal ordination” for all Christians – as you said, our being “set apart” for ministry and disciple-making. One thing is for sure – we have to stop making baptism about us and (as you so aptly put it) our decision-making ability, and make it about what God is doing to grace our lives and to save us.

    Great post – thanks! ~bh

  • theamishjihadist

    Will Willimon and I once had a lovely debate on this subject (I was his TA in his course and represented believer’s baptism–not adult baptism, believer’s baptism). It was good fun and I can send you my argument. The one thing we agreed upon was that the issue is not if one is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ (or heretical) but what is the most faithful way to create a body of people who are set apart from the world. Both forms of baptism are certainly capable of being faithful (though, I’m not sure that it is always capable of doing this). In many ways, despite being an advocate of infant baptism, Willimon agreed that once infant baptism becomes a birthright (rite) of the empire, where one is born a Christian (with no other option BUT to be a Christian), a radical subversion of just what was at stake when one decides to, first repent (beyond the capabilities of most infants–and though Jesus need not repent, he did demand that we ‘first’ repent and ‘then’ be baptized), and, second, then decide to actually obey Jesus to the point, and beyond, of a cross, occurs. (Horrible sentence, sorry.) Baptism is an act that makes martyrdom intelligible (read The Purple Crown–it’s an act of genius, and of a genius) that can be lost via infant baptism. Now, if you’re willing to prepare your babies for an early death (Hauerwas), then infant baptism may be a good practice (as the early church was often willing to take their children to the stake with them, despite the fact that, for the most part, training in the church always preceded baptism–martyrdom of the unbaptized was their baptism–for the baptized, it was their second ‘more glorious’ baptism). Will said he didn’t like doing infant baptisms unless the parents were willing, quite literally, to turn their children over to the church if they failed to properly instruct them in the Christian faith.

    I guess that could be interesting.

    At the same time, historically speaking, infant baptism, as it became normative/prescriptive, was disastrous for a community that was supposed to be set apart. It became the rite of a people who had become, in every conceivable and practical sense of the word, the world.

    I often thought that many of the Nazarenes who jumped on the infant baptism bandwagon did so more because they were trying to rebel against their tradition’s anti-Catholic tradition rather than on well-articulated theological account of this Christian practice and it’s immediate connection to discipleship (and believe me, I rebelled against 90% of Nazarene theology–and I certainly would never hold their, or evangelicals in general, account of baptism as an argument against Catholic accounts of baptism–or other high liturgical protestant tradition’s accounts). Just don’t get caught thinking that your only way to think about baptism is via evangelicals or imperial religion. Read the Anabaptists, man. Read the Anabaptists. I recommend reading James McClendon’s account of baptism in his systematic theology as well any number of Anabaptist writers (Yoder’s ‘Body Politics’ is quite nice). It is not an accident that the traditions practicing infant baptism in the 16th century were the traditions killing the ones not practicing it. That’s not incidental to the kind of thinking that made infant baptism a normative reality. And I think that’s significant. Very significant.

    By the way, I love Hancock’s avatar. I wish that guy would come down my chimney sometime.

  • Anita

    thanks for sharing. My husband and I have been talking a lot about this subject and truly when you come down to what infant baptism is about it really isn’t sinful or wrong. I grew up in a southern baptist church which was pretty anti-catholic and so a lot of what I was taught on the subject was not only a stretch from what is actually practiced but was straight up wrong. Thanks for sharing.

    -Anita
    http://www.promisesandprayers.blogspot.com

  • http://twitter.com/islaygiants Matthew Davis

    It was a pretty stunning revelation for me when I noticed that the baptism hymn in Ephesians 5.14, with its relevant context, was him reminding those who would listen that there was a pronouncement of “hope for the mission” on the one baptized into the community — a community meant to support one another in the life of “being imitators of God,” the one who “gave himself up for us.” That’s one of the really amazing things about the notion of baptism being a symbol (in the older sense of the term, ????????). A symbol was a token between two parties broken into two pieces as proof of identity. It set you apart as belonging to a certain group. Cool stuff here, everyone.

  • Karen

    Definitely understanding Christian baptism as setting us apart for God is getting closer than understanding it as simply a public declaration of faith, but I think it goes deeper than that. Of course, here my perspective is informed by the teaching of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Probably the most succinct description of the nature of Christian baptism is found in Romans 6:3-5:

    “Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

    “For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, . . . “

    The Eastern Orthodox hymnody for the Feast of Theophany (celebrated Jan. 6) commemorating Christ’s baptism declares its theological significance. Christ’s baptism is first a revelation of the Holy Trinity (hence the name Theophany). Secondly, what Christ does in being baptized by John is a prefiguring of his death on the cross and resurrection–He voluntarily enters his own death and resurrection (here demonstrated in his baptism) in order to “save Adam” and “renew” the entire creation by “crushing” the heads of the “dragons” (powers of sin and darkness) located in the waters (representing death). He also sanctifies the waters by His Presence and restores them to holy use; therefore, Orthodox perform the “Great Blessing of the Waters” on this Feast Day and, through prayer calling down the blessing of the Holy Spirit upon it, water is set apart for holy use by the faithful throughout the year.

    You can read some of the Theophany hymns here:
    http://orthodoxwiki.org/Theophany

  • http://twitter.com/islaygiants Matthew Davis

    Karen, I totally agree. Thank you for sharing! I wanted to post much more about it, including that gem in Romans 6, but didn’t. Another one that’s really interesting in my opinion is when Jesus washes the feet of the disciples (e.g., Jn 13.1-17ff), as though it’s a call for them to follow their rabbi’s level of sacrifice and humility — a humility and sacrifice that would lead to death. How often do I cry out, “You will never wash my feet!”

  • Brian Midmore UK

    Sola fide separates out conversion from baptism. Baptism is for the converted by faith alone. Originally baptism was part of conversion. At my AngloCatholic church ( an angilcan church with catholic practices), every Easter Day we renew our baptism vows and the priest sprinkles the congregation with holy water. I feel much more thoroughly baptised there than I ever did at an evangelical church. If we were all rebaptised like this on a regular basis many of the issues of baptim would fade away. If its done all the time when it was done in the past seems irrelevant.

  • Gary

    There is more evidence in the NT supporting orthodox Christian infant baptism than there is evidence condemning or prohibiting the practice, as evangelicals claim:

    1. “Baptize all nations” does not include an age restriction in the Great Commission (GC).

    2. There is no mention in the GC of requiring an older child/adult “decision for Christ” prior to baptizing! Isn’t that really, really odd? If the only means of salvation is an adult “decision for Christ”, why would Christ not mention this in his final comments to his disciples before ascending to heaven? Why didn’t he say, “Go into all the world, and lead people to Christ by telling them to pray and ask me into their hearts. Then, teach them everything I have commanded you, including being baptized as a public profession of faith.”

    Nope. That isn’t what he said, is it?

    Baptize, baptize, baptize, baptize, baptize. It is repeated over 100 times in the NT. “Be born again” is mentioned twice, and “accept Christ/make a decision for Christ is NEVER mentioned in the NT!

    The simple, plain rendering of multiple passages of Scripture state the following:

    1. It is the power of God’s Word that saves.

    2. The Word saves only those who have been predestined by God to be saved. You will never understand how infant baptism/salvation is possible if you believe that sinners have a free will regarding spiritual matters and are required to make a “decision” before God is allowed to save them. You must believe in (Single, not Double) Predestination to understand Infant Baptism.

    3. When God quickens the spiritually dead souls of those he has predestined, at some point in their lives, they become spiritually alive and therefore believe and repent. There is NO decision on the part of the sinner.

    4. God is not limited to the “when” of salvation. God can save an adult by the preaching of his Word BEFORE baptism, and God can and does save sinners by the power of his Word spoken/pronounced during Baptism.

    The Church has always believed this. Baptism IS necessary for salvation, in that if one rejects or neglects to be baptized, he demonstrates he does not have true faith, and very likely will go to hell when he dies. But, baptism is NOT mandatory, in that God can and does save outside of baptism as was the case with all the OT saints, the thief on the cross, and many martyrs over the last 2,000 years.

    It is the lack of faith/belief that damns, not the lack of baptism.

    In conclusion, Christ did not give any age restrictions for baptism. Christ did not require a “decision for Christ” prior to being baptized. Christ did not require believing PRIOR to baptism. More than five entire households, filled with servants and slaves, were baptized. It is mathematically virtually impossible that none of these households had infants or toddlers, and Scripture says that the ENTIRE household was baptized. There is no mention of an exception for the infants and toddlers.

    The explicit mention of the baptism of infants is not mentioned in these household conversions for the same reason that the baptism of teenagers in the households is not explicitly mentioned; or the baptism of the household’s servants, their wives, and their teenagers; or the baptism of the household’s slaves, their wives, and their teenagers. These subcategories of the “household” are not mentioned because everyone in the middle east, in the first century AD, knew and expected that these subgroups are ALWAYS included in a household conversion when the head of the household converts.

    The Baptist worldview of only allowing persons who can make a conscious decision to believe prior to being baptized is a sixteenth century, industrialized western European mind set. First century Jews and other Mediterranean peoples would have NEVER left their children in a spiritual state of “limbo”, outside of the parents’ new religion, to make a “decision” for themselves when they grew up. Such a practice would have been unheard of and outrageous!

    In the post-Resurrection period of the NT, there are only TWO explicit examples of INDIVIDUAL conversions: Saul/Paul and the Ethiopian eunuch. Neither one had families: Saul/Paul probably by choice; the eunuch for obvious reasons. Household conversion was the norm in the NT, NOT individual conversion.