IV. I Baptize You

Our three chapters thus far have continually spoken to (and had implications regarding) the Lord’s Supper. Baptism, for its part, has received pretty short shrift. This is not owing to any prejudice of mine against baptism. It is due to the fact that NT baptism simply does not have the rich sort of biblical background that covenant-remembering Passover provides for the Lord's Supper. Yet we now turn to baptism--to learn as much as Scripture has to tell us.

Christendom, of course, has been marked by a long controversy as to whether infants or only believers are proper candidates for baptism. If that discussion were concerned only with determining the prescribed age-level, it would represent nothing except one of the great foolishnesses in which the church has indulged itself from time to time--and would make a very poor starting-point for this chapter. Yet age-level in itself is not at all the issue. The issue is that of the two distinct worship traditions we spotted clear back in Chapter One. If baptism will "work" just as well with witless infants as with witting believers, then there is no other possibility than that it is a sacramental mystery, part and parcel of that tradition. If the baptizee is an infant, then the effective agent of the action must be the priestly operative of sacramental ritual--because it obviously can't be the baby, who is incapable of any sort of witting action.

It follows that any baptism done under a theory that would make it effective for infants is by that token sacramental mystery--quite without regard to the age of the person actually being baptized. If the sacrament is ritually effective for an unwitting infant, it must be ritually effective for anyone (completely without regard to wits). Conversely, if baptism is done under a theory that the witting assent of believers is altogether requisite to their baptism—well, then, although that does not automatically put baptism within the tradition of historical recital, it does say that it will have to be understood as something other than sacramental mystery.

Essentially, we are not now taking up the new issue of whether infant baptism or believer baptism is correct. No, essentially, we are still with our original issue as to whether NT Christianity knows anything of sacramental mystery. Consequently, in what follows I do not see myself as taking up old bludgeons in the old battle for believer baptism. My one interest is in getting to New Testament baptism and discovering whether it was a sacrament or not.

Our approach will be double-pronged. The first prong will be the examination of references to actual historical baptisms that took place during NT times. The second will be to recover the biblical theology of baptism.

A. The New Testament Witness

Regarding the first, if it can be shown that any of those baptizees were infants, then their baptism had to have been understood sacramentally--and we could assume that this was also the understanding of baptism generally (for those of any age whatever). However, if we find no instance of infant baptism, that proves nothing. It only keeps open the possibility that the NT understanding was non-sacramental--and throws us onto the second, theological approach for getting our answer.

The Scriptures, of course, name for us any number of people who were baptized as believers (including Jesus himself, of course). However, the one bit of evidence that infants also were baptized lies in three verses. The first of these is Acts 16:15, in which we are told that Lydia was baptized and "she and her household." The second is Acts 16:33, which says of the Philippian jailer that "he and his entire family were baptized." The third is 1 Corinthians 1:16, where Paul writes that he had baptized "the household of Stephanas."

Of course, it is not said that there were infants or young children in any of those households. But even if we grant that there were, we still don't know how we are to read the scriptural phrases until we know whether or not that church practiced infant baptism. We are in the strange position of having to know the answer to our question before we know how to use the evidence in answering it.

I belong to a believer-baptizing church. And if a fellow member would report to me that "a whole family" had been baptized, it wouldn't occur to either of us to even think that an infant had been among the number. We do not consider babies baptizable; so, in saying that a whole family was baptized, we are entirely clear that that means only that all the baptizable members of the family were baptized.

The three scripture references are of no help on our question either way. And it is my understanding that Christian history's first explicit reference to infant baptism comes more than a century after the NT writings.

As we turn to the theological approach to NT baptism, our best move would be to develop the antecedents. We should trace the route by which baptism came to Christianity--just as we already have done so fully for the Lord's Supper. The trouble is that baptism shows so little in the way of antecedents. It is almost as though the baptism of John the Baptist appeared out of the clear blue air (or water, if you prefer).

Many investigators have wanted to go to OT circumcision as the precedent and justification for NT infant baptism. Yet that route is strewn with enough boulders to make it completely impassible.

  1. I am not aware of any NT scripture that as much as hints, let alone supports, such a connection.
  2. We earlier saw the OT explanation that circumcision was instituted as a blood-sign intended for the sake of the community in keeping it reminded of its covenant status before God. The rather exact NT parallel would be the Lord's Supper line: "This cup is the new covenant in my blood." Yet baptism--as a sacramental action intended solely for the good of the individual being baptized--that won't begin to perform as a parallel of circumcision.
  3. Perhaps the person to whom we should most seriously listen is the one who himself had been the subject of both Jewish circumcision and Christian baptism--and had been trained as a theologian of both. In Romans 2:28-29, Paul writes: "For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal."

    Here, Paul (speaking simply as a Jew, without making any Christian reference) brands infant circumcision (from the baby's standpoint) as an unprofitable and meaningless business which at most accomplishes "something external and physical." Any circumcision worthy the name is going to have to involve a believer's witting and voluntary acts of the heart--and that circumcision, of course, is something completely different from outward ceremony and physical cutting. It is simply beyond credibility that this thinker who, as a Jew, rejects infant circumcision on the grounds that, rather than accomplishing sacramental miracle, it accomplishes only something external and physical--it is simply incredible that this same person, as a Christian, would accept infant baptism as a sacramental work. If real circumcision must be a matter of the heart, it follows that real baptism must be a matter for heartfelt believers.

Much more likely than circumcision as a precedent for Christian baptism is Jewish proselyte baptism, the ritual by which converts of non-Jewish background were inducted into Israel. Although the connection seems obvious, it is of little help here, because we have even less data regarding the Jewish rite than the Christian one. The Jewish one puts in its appearance only after the close of the OT period and thus not long before Christian baptism itself. We do not know where it came from or precisely what it was meant to signify. In any case, as an initiation of converts its parallel would have to be the baptism of believers. Our investigation of historical precedents is gradually moving us away from issues of sheer historicity and into our second line of investigation, that of theological interpretation. At the same time, we are moving beyond the subsidiary question of infant baptism and into the central issue of what baptism signifies. Things are proceeding just as they should.

The logical place to tie in both the Jewish and the Christian practice of baptism is with the endless variety of "ritual washings" found not only in the OT cult but also in the cult of any number of pagan religions. As a feature of world religion, ceremonial cleansing and purification must be about as ancient and widespread as is animal sacrifice itself. Is Christian baptism nothing more than just another appearance of this?

"Washing" certainly will prove to be one of the interpretations carried by baptism--yet by no means the only, or even the central, one. At the same time, the "washing" theme brings with it some problems we need to address.

The NT "washing" references are these:

  1. "Get up, be baptized, and have your sins wash away, calling on his name" [Ananias speaking to Paul after Paul's conversion on the Damascus Road--Acts 22:16].
  2. "But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God" (1 Cor. 6:11).
  3. "He saved us, ... through the water [other translations read ‘washing,’ ‘baptism,’ or ‘bath’] of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit" (Tit. 3:5).
  4. "Christ loved the church ... in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word" (Eph. 5:25-26).
  5. "Let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water" (Heb. 10:22).

In the last two instances the image is stretched far enough that one cannot even be certain it is baptism the writers have in mind; but no matter. Notice, then, in most of the instances, that, along with the idea of "washing" there is rather clear reference to "the forgiveness of sin." Indeed, the former may be nothing more than a metaphorical expression of the latter. And in addition, we ought to know, there are several more texts associating forgiveness with baptism, although without using the figure of "washing."

Of course, "washing" can and does serve as a beautiful symbol of God’s "forgiveness." Yet we need to realize that a ritual washing and God’s forgiveness do not form all that natural a parallel; they assume different settings. A sacramental washing is a largely mechanical, self-operative action. Yet, quite otherwise, being forgiven by God must be a highly personal, "I-Thou," dialogic action.

"Forgiveness" doesn’t involve a priest as agent, or intermediary, but has God and the sinner in close, two-way communication. God does the forgiving, certainly. But the sinner must also be active in doing the repenting and in appropriating the forgiveness that is proffered. The NT baptism texts are themselves strong on "repentance." John the Baptist's is called "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mk. 1:4). And on the day of Pentecost, Peter counsels his hearers, "Repent, and be baptized ... so that your sins may be forgiven" (Acts 2:38).

So a "sacramental washing" simply cannot be made to equate with the biblical concept of "forgiveness." Ritual ablution does not demand of sinners that they repent, come to God, or do anything of the sort. No, all that is asked is that they hold still while the priest performs upon them that ritual which, in being done right, does in itself accomplish the cleansing (the ritual cleansing) that is wanted. The washing/forgiveness metaphor is a proper part of Christian baptism--but it dare not be allowed to slip into sacramentalism, as is inevitably the case with infant baptism and can easily become the case even in believer baptism.

It has been suggested that the particular washing which may be the precedent for Christian baptism is the ablution that was part of the ritual for ordaining priests (see Ex. 29:1; 40:12; Lev. 8:6; Num. 8:5). The idea of baptism being an ordination ceremony is a good one, for which we will find at least some NT support. Yet, once more, the tradition of Sacramental Mystery just does not provide the wherewithal for doing NT theology. For one thing, examination of the texts seems to indicate that the water rituals represented ceremonial cleansings that were only preliminary to the oil ritual of actual ordination. Baptism uses the wrong stuff to rate as an ordination symbol.

Yet, more importantly, priestly ordination was meant especially to distinguish a sacred elite possessing sacramental power and privilege--distinguish them from the lay masses that lacked any such power and privilege. New Testament baptismal ordination, on the other hand, is an ordaining of each and every Christian to the one mission of God--thus effectively wiping out the very ordinational distinctions the priesthood was dedicated to preserve.

I’m sorry (actually I'm not); but Old Sacrament simply cannot be made to serve as New Wineskins for the NT inbreaking of the kingdom of God.

Christian baptism differs, again, from all OT cult practice--and this in a way that points us to a central theme. All of the Jewish sacrifice/cleansing/forgiveness rituals were understood as having only temporary effect. In time, their potency wore off; and this meant that all of these rituals had to be regularly repeated, time and time and time again.

Quite the contrary, the writer to the Hebrews argues that Jesus is the high priest of a unique order, an order utterly different from that of the Jewish (or any other) cult. On Calvary, High Priest Jesus made his sacrifice once, made it right, made it for all time. The last thing he will ever need is for human priestly subordinates to come volunteering to help him do it now one more time--one more time and then one more time after that, etcetera ad infinitum.

Perhaps a more polite way of stating this idea is to point out that "once-for-all" is invariably an eschatological concept in a way the repetitious "over-and-over-again" never can be. Baptism's once-for-all quality is sufficient cause for our taking it entirely out of the tradition of Sacramental Mystery and setting it solidly within the eschatological tradition of Historical Recital. And the scriptural grounds for doing this? Just here: The NT introduction of "baptism," of course, comes early in the synoptic Gospels, with their talk about the baptizing procedure of John the Baptist in general and his baptizing of Jesus in particular. And it is plain to see that this baptism-talk comes right in and with the report that both John and Jesus were eschatological prophets proclaiming the at-handedness of the on-coming kingdom of God. Just here is where once-for-all baptism puts in its appearance within the Christian gospel. And lust here is where baptism ought to be kept in the Christian gospel--and surely not as a surviving remnant of sacramentalism.

The point was made earlier, yet needs to be re-made and emphasized here. When the question concerns the content of "biblical eschatology," we answer that "the covenant history" of our previous chapter is that content. And conversely, when the question concerns "the covenantal history," the answer must be that that history itself is inherently eschatological. "Eschatological covenant" becomes as much as a necessary term for saying what needs to be said.

Well, then, we have discovered Christian baptism being introduced into the gospel in the context of the eschatological preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus. But how does this relate baptism to the covenant history? There is a logical (theo-logical) answer that seems obvious: Within the totality of Scripture's eschatological-covenant history, the new covenant in the blood of Jesus is, of course, central. That covenant was initialized by God through the blood of Jesus shed at Calvary. Then a reminder-sign, the Lord's Supper, was given to aid us in our continued remembering of that covenant. Yet, where in there is to be found the crucial step of our human answering to God's invitation--our volunteering to become his covenant partner and an integral part of his eschatological covenant history?

"Baptism" would seem to fill the bill--and be about the only NT rite that possibly could. It would thus be understood both as the candidates' personal response to the covenant-invitation of God--and as their joining the community which has been recipient-partner to this covenant from the beginning. Secondarily, this would also put these candidates into a covenant relationship with their fellows of the community and give them an eschatological role within the eschatological community itself.

As we have seen, there is no difficulty in hooking baptism into the "eschatological" half of this equation; indeed, we have found scripture for doing so. No, the difficulty is that I find no place in which scripture makes any sort of connection between "baptism" and "covenant." However, Paul comes so close to saying what our argument wants said that I must admit a bit of impatience with his unwillingness to come right out and say it. We will get the scripture before us and then make our observations.

Rom. 6:3-5 reads: "Have you forgotten that when we were baptized into union with Christ Jesus we were baptized into his death? By baptism we were buried with him, and lay dead, in order that, as Christ was raised from the dead in the splendour of the Father, so also we might set our feet upon the new path of life. For if we have become incorporate with him in a death like his, we shall also be one with him in a resurrection like his" (NEB). Where the NEB has "baptized into union with Christ," most translations have simply "baptized into Christ." My guess is that the latter most literally conforms to the Greek but that the NEB wording is a permissible translation that actually clarifies Paul's concept for us. The phrase "incorporate with him" surely supports the idea. There, the other translations have "in union with him," "united with him," "planted together with him," or something of the sort. And Galatians 3:27 clinches the matter: "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ." Other translations have it "have clothed yourself with Christ" or "have put on Christ as a garment--all stressing the intimacy of the union. In Ephesians 4:4, then--where Paul does a string of "one this, one that, one the other"--the two "ones" that concern us are "one body" and "one baptism."

The matter of baptismal dying and rising with Christ we will save until a bit later. Yet here, Paul's first thought is that it is baptism that brings us into union with Christ. In baptism being buried with him and then being raised with him--these, of course, follow from the original baptismal incorporation with him. And the Ephesians text probably means to imply that the "one baptism" incorporates us, not simply with Christ alone, but also with all the other members whose incorporation makes up the "one body," the true community of faith. Yet here is far from being the first place in our study that we have encountered this matter of the two becoming one body (Christ and a believer, in this instance) or the many becoming one body with God (God and the faith community, in instance after instance). In fact, we even have established a term for the process--that big word COVENANT. If, where what Paul did write was "we were baptized into union with Christ"--if there he had only thought to write "we were baptized into covenantal union with Christ"--then baptism would have been an integral feature of covenantal theology as clear and sure as anything. But my contention is that Paul has the idea in place, even if he failed to get the word there.

Of course, there is no difficulty at all in finding traditions within Christian history that focus on the idea of "covenant" and then relate baptism to it (the New England Puritans, for one). That move is all in our favor--except for a new and different difficulty. Most of these "covenantor" traditions practice infant baptism. And I have as much trouble seeing an infant as a proper candidate for a baptism of covenantal union with Christ as I would in seeing the same infant as a candidate for covenantal marriage. This leads me to make a statement that really ought to follow every biblical insight on baptism we discover and present. However, I prefer to state it emphatically only here--and let you recall it as appropriate: Whenever it is proposed that the subject of baptism can be an infant, then the only possible rationale for that baptism is that of sacramental mystery. Yet, for understanding baptism so, we find no scriptural authority at all. And if, on the other hand, we are to accept the non-sacramental interpretations of Scripture, then the subject of baptism will have to be a believer if the rationale is to make any sort of sense. Thus, regarding the above, if Christian baptism is simply another instance of ritual washing in the likeness of the priestly ablutions of the old temple cult, then infants will make as good subjects as any. If, however, we go to our New Testaments and find that washing to be a metaphor of God's forgiving and cleansing us of sin as we come to him in repentance and a personal acceptance of his gracious covenant--well, then, the subject just has to be a believer rather than an infant.

To this point, then, we have found six themes relating to baptism:

  1. washing;
  2. repentance;
  3. forgiveness of sin;
  4. eschatological promise;
  5. union with Christ; and by inference,
  6. covenant.

Yet, clearly, there is nothing distinct or self-contained about any of these; each is related to, or intertwined with, some or all of the others. We could desire no better attestation: no one of these interpretations can be pulled free without bringing out all the others in its train--the very way a biblical tradition should be built.

Not "washing," but the coming of (or endowment by) "the Holy Spirit" seems by all odds to be the theme which the NT most frequently and emphatically links with "baptism." John the Baptist prophesies the coming of One who will baptize not only with water but also with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Mk 1:8 and parallels). [The fire symbol we shall hold in abeyance until we have opportunity to compare it with some other references.] During Jesus' own baptism at the hands of John, the Holy Spirit takes on concrete imagery in the descent of the dove. In John 3:5, Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born from water And the Spirit or he cannot enter the kingdom of God. [Hold onto the birth metaphor to tie in with the resurrection metaphor that comes later; yet notice here the eschatological reference to "the kingdom of God." Eschatological talk is so rare in the Fourth Gospel that this present tying of it to baptism must carry particular weight.]

In Acts 1:5, Jesus, at his ascension, promises his disciples an experience that will go beyond the water baptism of John and be a baptism with the Holy Spirit. The reference quite clearly is to that which shortly took place, upon the day of Pentecost. Spirit baptism is neither confined to nor dependent upon water baptism. And this idea is severely undercutting of any sacramental interpretation of baptism. When the Spirit is involved, the church loses its sacramental license for exclusive control of baptismal benefits.

In Acts 19, while instructing new Christians at Ephesus, Paul spots the involvement of the Spirit as the specific distinction between John's baptism and Christian baptism. And in a verse previously cited, Peter (in his Pentecost sermon) says: "Repent and be baptized ... so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." It seems clear here (and even more clear hereafter) that NT baptismal theology--rather than dropping earlier understandings in moving to new ones--simply continues the old while taking on accretions. In this instance, the early "John the Baptist" theme of washing/repentance, forgiveness is retained, while the new and more central theme of Spirit-endowment is added.

Certainly there is nothing here to threaten the practice of water-baptism; yet it does seem clear that Scripture gives deliberate priority to Spirit-baptism. This comes through in the synoptic line where John the Baptist says, "I have baptized you with water ... but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit" (Mk 1:7-8 and parallels). It comes through again in Jesus, "water and the Spirit" word to Nicodemus (Jn. 3:5). And it comes through at least one other time, in 1 Jn. 5:6-8, with the emphasis that there are three witnesses, "the Spirit, the water, and the blood." (We will get to the blood in due course.)

Perhaps something of the same slanting toward Spirit-baptism is indicated in that Jesus himself did not administer water-baptism but left that rite to the disciples (Jn 4:2). Paul's case is similar in that he did very little of his own baptizing (1 Cor 1:14-17). Perhaps the overall thrust here is that the church ought not get thinking too highly of itself over its possession and control of a saving sacrament called "baptism." The real baptism is that which the Spirit has reserved for himself, with the church having no control whatever (thank goodness).

Thus, sometimes water-baptism seems to be the community's attestation of the Spirit-endowment the believer has already had: "‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized" (Acts 10:47-48).

Often water-baptism seems to be the believer's prayer for and declaration of receptivity to the Holy Spirit--with the Spirit's answer to that prayer coming some time (sooner or later) thereafter. And, of course, Spirit-baptism and water-baptism can coincide in point of time. Yet what seems abundantly clear is that the church has not been given a sacramental water ritual by which it can trigger and guarantee how and when the Spirit is going to come to whom.

Now the biblical understanding is not that this Holy Spirit is a mysterious, ethereal sort of "something or other." Not at all. The Holy Spirit is God--nothing more nor less than the God we have met (and do meet) in so many different ways, places, and situations. However, the Holy Spirit is now God meeting in such peculiarly close and intimate contact that his love, power, grace, and joy become operative in and through the most personal experience of the believer and his faith community. And "baptism" (these scriptures imply) is the celebration of the believer's initial entrance into this experience--just as the Lord's Supper celebrates its continuance.

However, the Spirit experience surely is not to be identified simply as a feeling state--even though it may be accompanied by feelings of the most glorious sort. Scripture quite often associates "the Spirit" with "the word." Granted, "the word" does not get involved in our baptism texts except for the Ephesians notice of Christ's cleansing the church "by water and the word." There may also be a hint of the idea in the fact that, in Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit was manifested not only as a dove but as a voice from heaven as well. In any case, it seems right that the baptismal emphasis on the Spirit include some attention to the hearing of the word. This aspect would help assure that the Spirit experience not stop simply with feeling but also include elements of cognition, understanding, and instruction. It ought not be forgotten, either, that Paul speaks of "the fruits of the Spirit"--namely, consequences of ethical living and outward obedience that are expected to follow a true indwelling of God's Spirit. It would not be amiss for the candidate to be reminded that his baptism is supposed to bear such fruit.

Now the NT makes plain that the sort of intimate, closer than face-to-face relationship which is our experience of the Spirit--this in itself is regularly understood as a gift breaking across from the oncoming age of the kingdom. In this regard, the scripture chosen by Peter to interpret the Pentecost event (which Jesus had forenamed as a baptism with the Holy Spirit)--that scripture is from Joel:

‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
 and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
 and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
 in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.’ (Acts 2:17-18)

Take care to read Peter correctly here. He is not saying that, if we can once get it right as to when "the last days" are to take place, then we can expect to witness a new outpouring of the Spirit during that same interval. No, he is arguing the other way around. The new outpouring of the Spirit is happening--and that is evidence enough that we actually are in "the last days." Peter is simply agreeing with Jesus that the eschatological kingdom is presently "at hand." It was at hand then.' it still is at hand now.

The equation runs thus: Spirit-baptism is itself a sign of the even-now presence of the yet-to-come "kingdom of God." And our human rite of water-baptism is itself a sign of that Spirit-baptism which is itself a sign of "the oncoming kingdom." So even our water-baptism should be understood as carrying strong overtones of eschatological promise.

We have seen that Scripture has not provided us all that much wherewithal for linking "covenant" to baptism. However, when it is the case of linking "eschatological anticipation" to baptism, things are just the opposite. Earlier we discovered that the ultimate, once-for-all forgiveness of the baptismal "washing" tradition is to be understood precisely as eschatological foretaste. Now we have seen that our experience of Spirit-baptism (signed through water-baptism) is to be understood as eschatological foretaste of the same order. And this eschatological end-state ought not be conceived in terms of our customary fantasy and science fiction. No, it is as simple and straightforward as is the prayer Jesus taught us to pray concerning it. "Thy kingdom come" intends nothing other than what the next-line parallel says: "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." "The kingdom come" is nothing other than individuals (you and I) becoming what God always intended we should be; human society becoming what God always intended for it; the cosmos becoming that for which God created it in the first place. Accordingly, if our baptismal practice fails to stress this eschatological orientation, it is not NT baptism we are practicing.

Yet we can’t stop here--even as regards Spirit-baptism. It includes another major theme that comes out of the OT and then is incorporated into NT baptism. But whenever God chooses and calls particular individuals to serve particular purposes of his own, he regularly endows them with his Spirit in a way which enables the accomplishment of that assignment. (From our earlier chapter we can add that the "call" and "endowment" regularly take the form of God's making "covenant" with the human party--and that the subsequent assignment is regularly a work of "eschatological significance.")

In the OT, kings, prophets, priests, and perhaps others, all were inducted into office through an anointing with oil--which anointing clearly was meant to signify the candidate's being endowed with God’s spirit. And NT baptism continues the pattern. All four of the Gospels recount the baptism of Jesus so as to make plain that God there ordained him to his life work. In Acts 1:8 (the same passage where he refers to Pentecost as a baptism with the Spirit), Jesus tells the disciples, "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witness...." Its baptism in the Spirit was, at the same time, the early church's ordination to mission (eschatological mission).

Also in Acts, two of the three accounts of Paul's conversion connect his call to be "apostle to the Gentiles" with his water-baptism at the hands of Ananias; and one of these at the same time mentions his being filled with the Holy Spirit. There is no doubt that NT baptism carries overtones of the candidate's being called to a particular work within God's overall eschatological program. It would seem, also, that just here would be the most natural place for specifying that it is baptismal candidates coming into a covenant relationship to God and his covenant community that results in their enlistment for eschatological service and in being Spirit-enabled and Spirit-directed for the same. All this is surely what water-baptism is meant to convey. So, even while granting that Scripture fails ever to use the word "covenant" in connection with baptism, certainly the idea is so essentially part of the pattern that it can hardly amount to a being "unbiblical" for us to include it at this point.

Thus baptism can be understood as a person's acceptance into church membership. Yet, although putting things that way can't be called absolutely wrong, it is so constricted and abbreviated that it can't be called absolutely right, either. Obviously, "membership" can be (and often is) a totally passive concept indicating nothing more than that the person has been made eligible to receive the blessed dispensations of holy church--if it be true that God has licensed the church as his dispensary. However, if it is rather our biblical exposition of baptism that is true, then an entirely active concept of church membership is demanded, a Pauline-styled understanding of body-members acting together as that covenantal "body of Christ" called to and empowered for an eschatological, end-state oriented ministry in the world.

Under such an understanding, then, baptism marks an "ordination" much more fundamental and significant than any of the clerical installations usually suggested by that word "ordination." In fact, any and all of these should be considered as nothing but specialized instances of what, first and foremost, is expressed in baptism. An authentic NT baptism would be of greatest help in making actual the biblical doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Granted, all are not baptismally ordained to the same Christian ministry; yet all are baptismally ordained to that particular ministry to which God has called and for which he has enabled each.

In this regard, both the OT and the NT describe "the laying on of hands" as a symbolic action signifying both God's ordination and the reception of the Holy Spirit. And there is some evidence that it was also a part of, or at least related to, baptism (Acts 19:5-6; Acts 8:17; Acts 9:17-19; Heb. 6:2). It would seem proper that one aspect of our recovering NT baptism be the inclusion of (and teaching about) the laying on of hands and an ordination prayer.

We have now spotted what seem to be two distinct baptismal traditions overlapped within the NT. The first embodied the symbols of washing/repentance/forgiveness and centered in the person of John the Baptist. The second embodied the symbols of covenantal-ordination/Spirit-endowment/eschatological-assignment. It seems to center in the role-modeling of Jesus himself. And we now have a third baptismal tradition to explore.

There is no denying that the Apostle Paul was well-versed regarding the Holy Spirit. He makes reference to the Spirit in over a hundred different verses (and if that doesn't qualify one as "well-versed," I don't know what would). Nevertheless, in speaking of "baptism," Paul regularly goes to an imagery different from that of the Spirit. Be clear that this in no way constitutes a problem. Paul certainly never rejects the Spirit interpretation; and we can indeed welcome his decision to go a slightly different route. It simply adds to the richness of our biblical understanding. Paul's distinctive interpretation (we have already seen) is that we are baptized "into Christ," or "into union with Christ." Yet we also saw that he regularly specified that "into Christ" meant particularly "into his death" and "into his resurrection."

Note, then, that Paul does not describe baptism as simply a death and resurrection of our own, not even as one that is a counterpart of Christ's. Rather, in some sense ours is an actual participation in his death and resurrection. We are baptized "into union with Christ Jesus," made "incorporate with him," and so "buried with him," then to be "raised with him." And that can't be anything much different from what we earlier saw as "covenantal coupling"--the wife inevitably experiencing what the husband goes through (and vice versa), because the two have in fact become one body.

Recall that, earlier, we spoke of baptism being an endowment, a being filled with the Holy Spirit--where here we speak of it being a union, an incorporation with Christ. Well, my guess is that, in terms of biblical theology, it would be as much as impossible to distinguish between the two. They seem to be descriptions of the same phenomenon, differing only in terminology. Paul's wording of "union with Christ" may have a bit of advantage in keeping the "Christian" aspect emphatic and in pointing more clearly to "covenant." Yet certainly there is here no move toward forgetting the Holy Spirit. The early church's standard phrase about being baptized "in the name of Jesus" probably is close to Paul's idea of coming into union with him. Yet one is baptized in the name of Jesus precisely in order to receive the Holy Spirit. We can go with the NT itself in speaking either way (or both ways) without concern about being right or wrong.

For Paul, from the fact that we are baptized into union with Christ it follows that we simultaneously find a new union (covenantal union) with one another. Our quotation from Galatians continues in Gal. 3:28: "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or freeman, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one person in Christ Jesus." And a text cited earlier reads: "For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body--Jews and Greeks, slaves or free--and we were all made to drink of one Spirit." (1 Cor 12:13). There we have baptism both bringing people into one body and endowing them with the Holy Spirit--all in one verse.

There can be no covenantal union with Christ that does not at the same time recognize one's covenantal union with the brothers and sisters who make up his body--a body, it must be said, which is potentially and proleptically all-inclusive. "You [and not some sacramental institution] are the body of Christ, and individual members of it" (1 Cor 12:27). It seems, then, altogether proper and as much as demanded that the baptismal service give opportunity for candidates not only to make public witness regarding their union with Christ but also to declare their intent to perform as members of his body. And it would seem right, too, for "the body" to welcome and declare itself for these "new members."

Yet, for Paul, far from marking the conclusion of baptism, union with Christ is only the beginning. Once in Christ, the believer has the privilege (yes, privilege) of dying with him and then of rising with him. First, dying. Paul's image of our dying with Christ brings a real advantage. As we saw, "becoming filled with the Spirit" does carry eschatological implications about entering the new life of the age to come (perhaps the parallel of Paul's "being resurrected with Christ") yet that Spirit imagery says nothing about the necessity of dying to the old age before the new can become as much as a possibility. (In talking of "repentance" and "being washed," our first baptismal tradition may have at least hinted at "dying.")

Although Paul seems to be the only NT writer who actually calls baptism "a dying with Christ," with others the point does get made in other ways. In Lk. 12:49-50, Jesus says, "I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!" Similarly, in Mk. 10:38, Jesus challenges his disciples: "Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?"

Here, in a completely unprecedented way, baptism plainly stands as a symbol of suffering and death. (What possible connection is there between this and the sacramental sprinkling of infants?) We earlier heard from the mouth of John the Baptist the announcement of One who would baptize not only with water but also with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Also, in 1 Jn. 5:6-8, we found reference to the three witnesses, "the Spirit, the water, and the blood." Some have argued that John the Baptist's fire-prophecy has reference to the Pentecostal experience of tongues as of fire. However, this would make the phrase redundant--the Holy Spirit and fire now designating the same thing. Others have wanted to make it the fire of judgment upon unbelievers--although it is strange that such should be called a "baptism" and coupled with the forgiveness granted by the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, if our three texts are used to throw light on one another, the answer comes clear.

In the Luke passage, the fire which Jesus starts seems also to be the baptism with which he himself must be baptized. Thus it is plainly not punishment but the suffering, persecution, and trial one encounters by virtue of being Christ (or being identified with him). This "fire" might very well also be that of John the Baptist's statement. And this interpretation becomes as much as proven, once we realize that the water/Spirit/fire trilogy of John the Baptist is a parallel of the 1 Jn. trilogy of Spirit/water/blood. "Blood," obviously, signifies "costliness"--the costliness of the cross in Jesus' covenant-making with us.

Paul, it seems, uses "dying with Christ" to suggest predominantly a "dying to the world"--a turning away from sin; a voluntary sacrifice of those things society counts most precious; a giving up of the values and goals of the age that is passing. With other biblical writers, the "fire and blood" references speak more of the opposition the Christian is likely to encounter--even unto death. This is a "dying at the hands of the world." Both readings are surely true to the gospel; the NT relates both to baptism; both belong to baptism; and both can be characterized as a "dying."

Yet the whole matter is largely disregarded in the baptismal practice of the church--and that, if I may say so, is dead wrong. Assuredly, baptism ought to include opportunity for believers consciously, deliberately, and with full knowledge to affirm that they choose to be baptized into Christ at the cost of whatever sort of death might ensue. It is neither fair nor honest to baptize people with water for the forgiveness of sin, the gift of the Spirit, and all such pleasant blessings--without informing them that a baptism of fire, blood, and death might also be involved. Today's churchly practice--after the pattern of Dietrich Bonhoeffer--should probably be called "cheap baptism."

Of course, "costliness" is not the whole story of baptism; but it is a very real part of it. The cross does not come as an unfortunate accident upon the Christian way; as they join themselves to his eschatological caravan, Christians must commit themselves to follow his route to the kingdom. Being baptized into Christ's death, being buried with him, is, of course, simply preliminary to being raised with him--as Paul makes abundantly clear. As was the case with "dying," we find two different interpretations of "being raised," one preferred by Paul and one found elsewhere.

First, the non-Pauline thought can be described as deliverance out of destruction; "being raised" most directly understands resurrection as an escape from death and hell. Thus, one scripture speaks of Noah and the ark:

A few, that is eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which is this prefigured, now saves you--not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ ... (1 Peter 3:20-21--It is noteworthy that the author explicitly rejects the "washing" image in order to get to this one).

In 1 Cor. 10:1-2 (which is, of course, Pauline--though not exactly typical of his thought), a second OT parallel is adduced: "Our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea." Now precisely what Paul had in mind with his analogy is not made at all clear. His talk of "baptized into Moses" seems plainly an appeal to his own Christian idea of being "baptized into Christ." Yet his Moses/Christ parallel is not particularly effective at this point. Much more appropriate would seem to be an interpretation like that of the Noah example--that is, as miraculous deliverance out of a watery grave.

If this be the significance of these two OT exemplars--and we shall find abundant evidence that such was the case--then we have the water of baptism used in a symbolism that is quite the reverse of the customary washing. "Washing" values water as a beneficial element which removes from the candidate the undesirable element of "dirt" (or sin). Just the contrary, "deliverance" sees the water as being the disaster out of which the candidate is saved. The water of baptism represents the grave in which we are "buried with Christ" and from which we escape by being "resurrected with him." "Water" now catches up OT overtones as symbol of the abyss, the creation-eluding chaos, the milieu of monsters, the graveyard of the deadest of the dead.

Contrary as these two water-figures may be, there is no reason why Christian baptism should not pick up both meanings in turn. However, they ought never be confused; nor should there happen was has happened in Christian history, namely that the "washing" interpretation has been made dominant to the point that the "deliverance" interpretation is as good as lost--this, I would guess, for the fact that "washing" is the one reading easiest to make conform to a sacramental ritual-washing of infants. However, the evidence is that the early church would have preferred the matter to go the other way.

The study of early Christian art and graffiti is very enlightening in this regard. In the first place, it is readily apparent that that church made much more of baptism than our churches do. Representations of Jesus’ baptism appear with some frequency--at a time when representations of his passion and crucifixion appear not at all. The cross does not become an established Christian symbol until the time of Constantine (in which sign he conquered--while the church, in its turn, was conquered by him). Furthermore, this art shows that baptism was valued primarily as a deliverance and resurrection. Along with the baptism of Jesus appear representations of the two OT stories we have found biblically cited as "baptism" (Noah and the Ark; Crossing the Red Sea). Also found are the obvious choice of Jonah and the Whale and the NT portrayal of Jesus Walking on the Water (to rescue the disciples from what could have been their watery grave).

As shall be discovered in a later chapter, the "fish" probably became a symbol of Jesus Christ through the influences of the Lord's Supper. Yet, the water in which that fish appears may very well represent baptism. In fact, the frequent appearance of water in early Christian art would suggest (in all likelihood correctly) that the church had baptismal water on the brain. That likelihood is made all the greater by the fact that, in time, the Jesus/fish becomes a dolphin. Now my extensive research--done in watching TV and making aquarium visits--tells me that the dolphin is the fish that always comes up. You can't keep a good dolphin down. Of course, I know that the dolphin is not really a fish--though I doubt that the early Christians knew that. I know, too, that the reason dolphins come up is to get air--and whether the Christians knew that is beside the point. But what the real point is that anyone who knows dolphins (as the Mediterranean church would have) knows that they are the fish of baptismal resurrection.

And the dolphin’s reputation as a leaping, laughing, cavorting clown is not extraneous. The early church understood baptism as a resurrection deliverance that called forth joy, exultation, exuberance, praise, and celebration. [Opposed as I am to celebrations that fail to specify what there is that is worth celebrating, regarding this one there is no question: we celebrate the victory and deliverance won for us in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.] However, when Paul speaks baptismally of our being raised with Christ, he generally seems to have in mind a meaning just slightly different from the above. For him, resurrection is not so much deliverance out of disaster as it is entrance into a totally new quality of existence. For him, baptism signifies induction into the new life of the age to come. In particular, he sees the moral accomplishment, the love and concern, the new sense of community, the grace, the covenantal closeness to God--all these things that are to be found when one has put on the resurrected Christ. So this "life in Christ," for all intents and purposes, seems as much as synonymous with what we earlier explicated as "becoming filled with the Holy Spirit."

Again (as with "dying") there is no conflict between these two slightly different concepts of "being raised." Each adds depth and richness to the other; and each, note well, is of eschatological orientation. Both look to the oncoming kingdom of God and describe "preview experiences" that have broken over from that future into this present. In baptism, to be delivered from destruction and raised with him--this is indeed a presentiment of our true humanity, for it only in that resurrection we have any chance of becoming what God has always had in mind for us, either as individuals or as the faith community.

B. The Biblical Theology of Baptism

We have now attempted to locate all the themes and symbolism that the NT associates with baptism. The result might seem a hodgepodge--all sorts of ideas and images mixed together, not forming much in the way of intelligible pattern. Yet actually this is far from being the case. It will all reduce to the chart below, consisting of just four neat sentences.

  The Baptism of
John the Baptist
Baptism in the Jesus Tradition An Interpretation Offered by Paul
1 A washing
which presupposes...
A bestowal of the Holy Spirit signifing... being baptized into christ signifying...
2 repentance
and signifies...
the coming into an especially intimate relationship with God
which involves...
the coming into an especially intimate relationship with him
and consequently...
3 a once-for-all
forgiveness of sin,

a situation which is
understood as...
and experiencing...
an intimate relationship with others who, in him, constitute his body
in the knowledge that one will...
4 a gift of the kingdom
and a mark of realized
a totally new quality of life and power
which are...
die with him in turning away from sin and enduring the cross but also...
5 gifts of the kingdom and marks of realized humanity.
Bestowal of the Spirit also signifies...
to be raised with him in deliverance from evil and
enterance into the new life,
which is...
6 being chosen and ordained of God to his mission in the world and... a gift of the kingdom and a mark of realized humanity.
7 a covenanting with him and one’s brethren to perform this mission,
which mission is...
8 the introduction of the kingdom and the realization of humanity.

We are dealing, I would suggest, with three discrete traditions. The data is too scant for us to speak authoritatively as to when, how, and from whom each originated. Yet the probability is that the development was as the chart implies.

  • The washing/repentance forgiveness line was likely the first--quite possibly dating back to John the Baptist (as the textual evidence itself would indicate).
  • The covenantal-ordination/Spirit-endowment/ eschatological-assignment interpretation logically comes next and rather clearly roots in Jesus' public ministry.
  • And most certain of all, the baptismal theme of union-with-Christ, buried-with-him/raised-with-him, is the latest of the three and attributable to no one other than the Apostle Paul.

It is evident, too, that, as the Christians moved from one tradition into the next, they did not drop the old but brought it along and simply added the new to it. This process was expedited by the fact that there are some common elements which form natural ties between one tradition and another (these being indicated on the chart by the use of common colors). Further, the three traditions do form a genuine unity indicated by the four (red entries in the table) in that each amounts to a celebration of the inbreaking of the new age of the kingdom and our achievement of true humanity. The three traditions together are more meaningful than any one of them would be alone. (Although we have contended that, because of its "repentance" and "forgiveness," even the John-the-Baptist tradition cannot accommodate the baptism of infants, it must be noted that, as one moves across the chart, it becomes ever more inconceivable that it is infant baptism the NT has in mind.)

What, then, has our study to say regarding the church's practice of baptism today? To me it says that, more important even than getting the form of baptism right, is our getting the teaching of it right. And this teaching of "baptism" is as essential for the congregation at large as for the baptismal candidates themselves. Why should not a sermon series on baptism be every bit as appropriate as a series on social issues? (If you want to do this, you have my full permission to use the foregoing as an outline.)

As we have discovered, baptism is a tremendously rich symbol, a deep expression and very adequate summary of what the Christian life is all about. Its practice, then, should be a big occasion for the church and decidedly not a perfunctory adjunct to an every-Sunday type worship service nor a private ceremony witnessed only by family and friends.

By rights, baptism should be an opportunity for the body as a whole to celebrate the bringing into play of new "members" (new arms, legs, ears, and mouths). Perhaps we could do better than simply baptizing whoever wants to be baptized when. In the early church, candidates were "saved up" for one big water party at Easter time. But whether we adopt that practice or not, how can we possibly justify the attention given to breaking ground or laying a cornerstone, to welcoming a new pastor, commemorating some anniversary or other--while ho-humming our way past what we see as a mere baptism (mere baptism)? So let the church--through teaching, preaching, discussion, and promotion--give baptism the attention it deserves. This need not be (and ought not be) a fussing around with sectarian details or denominational polities. Not at all. If the focus is kept on what we have seen to be the NT understanding of baptism, it will be a call to that which is absolutely vital.

In particular, those elements of NT baptism which have been as much as lost to the church--these ought to receive our undivided attention.

  1. First, perhaps, would be the one theme underlying all three of the baptismal traditions--namely the eschatological expectancy that has the whole body of Christ pointed toward its kingdom goal and positively eager to bring into the train every person possible.
  2. Secondly, the theme of every individual’s being ordained of God, endowed with his Spirit in order to serve his mission in the world--this is a concept our Christian laity much need to hear and heed. And of course, it is at the heart of our second baptismal tradition.
  3. Thirdly, we are not being fair either to the gospel or to those who accept it until we give considerable more attention to the stringent side of baptism, to the call for courage and endurance, the willingness to die with Christ, the realization that this is the baptism of which he said, "I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until the ordeal is over."
  4. Finally, today's church needs to recover the dolphinesque sense of joy, liberation, and triumph which the early church found in the baptism of "being raised with Christ." For those Christians, baptism was the great eschatological victory celebration; we ought to use baptism so as to recapture some of the same attitude in our turn.

I have freely expressed my conviction that infant baptism is a rite totally incapable of communicating the rich significance the NT intends for baptism. When applied to infants, baptism is inevitably pushed away from its NT norms and into the extra-biblical realm of sacramental mystery. With that opinion I, of course, forfeit my credentials in the greater part of the church.

With this next opinion I forfeit them in the rest of it--my own denomination included. "If infancy is not it, then what is the proper age for baptism?" No answer is to be expected from historical research as to the age at which candidates were baptized in the early church; we don't have enough data. Scripture indicates that Jesus was baptized at about the age 30; but no one takes that as a dominical rule. "The age of accountability" is how my church instructs; yet that isn't much better than no help at all--for the fact that I know some people who could never be baptized, having stopped short of ever reaching that age.

Therefore, I stand ready to offer an entirely different approach to the problem. Several of the points from our analysis of NT baptism are analogous to decisions and experiences out of secular life:

  1. Both receiving the Holy Spirit and being baptized "into union with Christ" we explained as involving the deep commitment of a covenant relationship--with human marriage even there proposed as an analogy. At what age, then, do we consider young people "ready" for the baptism-analog which is "getting married?"
  2. Ordination to service in the mission of God obviously is analogous to young people starting their careers. At what age does that usually happen?
  3. "Dying with Christ" (in the sense of turning one's back on things of the past and that old way of life) is an analog of young people leaving home and becoming independent of their parents. What's the age for that?
  4. And "dying with Christ" (in the sense of volunteering to face danger and persecution) is analogous to a young man's going to war (or perhaps taking a wife).

All these secular parallels to religious development are meant to suggest that baptism belongs to the time of these other "life decisions" which happen approximately in the late teens and early twenties. I wouldn't favor making it a matter of church law; but my own inclination (as has been the case with my own children) is to encourage young candidates to take their time until they feel sure of what they're doing--rather than to rush into baptism just because their peers are doing so. [In the period of its founding, almost three hundred years ago, the Church of the Brethren seems to have baptized young people at about the age of sixteen and older. Gradually the age has crept down to something like half that. The paragraph above is addressed to my own church as much as to any other.]

We have argued that infant baptism can be nothing other than a rite of sacramental mystery. However, the argument is heard that we should baptize children early, while they are young and willing--because they might change their minds if we give them time to grow up. Yet this argument strikes me as being simply a more unconscious form of sacramentalism. The concern becomes not so much the quality of candidates' commitment and experience as just to get them into the water--as though that act automatically did something for them. Personally, I find no biblical reason for it, nothing gained by pushing the age of baptism down and down.

My church and I don't know how many other churches of believer-baptism persuasion do practice what is usually called "baby dedication." The difference is that no pretense at all is made of this service being an equivalent of, or surrogate for, NT baptism. It doesn’t begin to qualify. Accordingly, the whole of the ritual and all of the vows concern the parents and the congregation--their gratitude for the baby and their desire to provide it a truly Christian upbringing. The baby is not remotely treated as either subject, agent, or participant within the service. I am aware, however, that there is another aspect of the matter calling for attention. Obviously, in the church, many children of elementary-school age do begin to sense what the Christian experience is about, do sense the body-life around them and want to identify with it. Such awareness, of course, should be entirely encouraged--not belittled or discouraged in any way. Accordingly, I would approve and indeed highly recommend the church's developing a service of recognition--perhaps with certificates, gift Bibles, or whatever--through which children could publicly declare themselves and be accepted as "followers of Jesus" (or some such title) just as soon (and perhaps even as often) as the desire awoke within them.

It would be clear that this service is not yet "baptism"--because the children are not yet deemed capable of what NT baptism asks of a person. I think children understand that they are children and not adults. And far from squelching their interest in baptism, my guess is that this preliminary recognition would simply whet their appetites for the day when; "I will be ready for baptism, too! And I want to be sure I'm ready to do it right!" Also, something must be said to indicate my awareness that most churches practice some form of confirmation to pick up at least some of the values that infant baptism is incapable of carrying. Of course, if infant baptism it must be, then thank God for confirmation. Yet it cannot be quite right--the church surely ought to be able to do better--that baptism be left so completely removed from its NT intention that an entirely new rite must be invented to take its place. Certainly the first order of business should be to make baptism what God ordained it to be--and then look around to see whether the modern situation of the church calls for some other services to supplement that baptism.

So much regarding the proper age for baptism, yet just how is this baptism to be performed. There is no doubt that earliest mode that can be identified in Christian history is immersion, both the administrator and the candidate being in the water, with the candidate actually being plunged beneath the surface. The NT Greek word for "baptism" as much as specifies such an action. Pouring and/or sprinkling were introduced later (possibly along with infant baptism, if not even some time after that) as a matter of convenience.

Now certainly there is nothing wrong with convenience per se. However, at the same time, there is no denying that the instances in which the church has most seriously betrayed the gospel and been least faithful to her Lord has been when she was concerned to arrange things for her own convenience. The question that must be asked is this: Does the mode of baptism have any reference to its theological content? Did the early church have good reason for baptizing the way it did?

We refer back to our chart. One of the symbols carried by baptism is that of washing. Pouring, I suppose, as well as the full-fledged bath of dipping, could stand as an adequate symbol of washing. But I confess that it is a little difficult for me to read a three-flick sprinkle as representing an eschatological, once-for-all cleansing from sin. Of course, if there is some compelling reason for sprinkling, fine; but the mere fact that we don't want to go to the effort of anything else--that will hardly do.

The second symbolism carried by baptism is that of receiving the Holy Spirit. Yet water does not seem to be any part of the biblical tradition regarding the Spirit. The temple ritual for the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles did include the pouring out of a pitcher of water as a symbol of the future outpouring of the Spirit in the age to come. Yet I am not aware of any evidence that would connect this to Christian baptism.

A more likely tie would be the use of water as a form of anointing--and either sprinkling or pouring (though hardly immersion) would be appropriate in such case. Yet even so, there is nothing in the biblical tradition to suggest that anointing was ever done with water (oil being the customary fluid); and there is nothing in the NT texts to suggest that the water of baptism is meant to represent an anointing.

Indeed, it is precisely because the water ritual itself does not symbolize the coming of the Spirit that it seems so appropriate for the service to include a "laying on of hands" which, in the OT as well as the NT, is a commonly recognized symbol of endowment by the Spirit. In the Brethren practice with which I am familiar, this is done while both the officiant and candidate are still in the water, immediately following the dipping itself. While an invocation of the Spirit, a prayer of consecration and ordination, is spoken, the hands of the officiant are in place on the head of the kneeling candidate.

There is another (and even better) way I have witnessed a few times. The candidate emerges from the water to kneel in a spot accessible to the gathered congregation. Then either particular laypersons of special relationship to that candidate--or else the gathering as a whole--get into position for laying hands on the candidate (or laying a hand on someone who has hands laid upon the candidate) while prayers are spoken. Such an action says all the right things about the "body" growing a new "member"--though I grant that most baptisteries are built so as to make it completely infeasable. We will deal with that problem in a bit.

The third line of baptismal symbolism is that of being buried with Christ and then raised with him. The portrayal of this one as much as demands immersion. Indeed, I would suggest that Paul's use of this baptismal metaphor is as much as proof that immersion was the mode of baptism he knew; neither pouring nor sprinkling could even begin to fill the bill. Of course, this is not to say that the truest baptism would involve a trick coffin and fake grave from which the candidate would spring forth at a signal from the minister. Obviously, symbols do not have to be literal reenactments. Yet, if there is no discernible connection between the symbolic act and that which it supposedly symbolizes, that can't be right, either.

As we have seen, all the art and literary references of the early church indicate that those Christians put very high value upon the experience of dying and rising, of being delivered (along with Noah, Moses, Jonah, and the storm-tossed disciples) right out of the midst of the waters of death; and it seems certain that they used immersion-baptism as the symbol of this experience. So, is it really any wonder that when, as a matter of convenience, the church changed the mode, it lost the meaning of baptism as well?

Consequently, if, at this point in time, any church were to reintroduce immersion (or reaffirm the immersion it presently practices), doing this out of a legalistic concern that baptism must conform to the NT prescription if it is to be sacramentally effective--well, if this were the rationale of the move, I would be the last to approve. However, if the concern were rather to recover the mood and spirit of what baptism was meant to be--that would be a different matter entirely!

Immersion does speak rather clearly of dying and rising with Christ; yet, under certain circumstances, the symbolism takes on heightened meaning. Within the memories of some people still living, the Brethren did their baptizing outdoors in streams or ponds rather than indoors in baptisteries. In winter it often was necessary to break a hole in the ice in order to perform the rite. (It saddens me to have to report that some among these so-baptized Brethren have wanted to form a club of holier-than-thou Christians.) Yet my guess is that those who have been baptized through the ice have had special appreciation of the dying involved and a particular urgency about the rising.

My favorite baptism story bears on this point. I don't remember where I heard it or have any idea whether it is true. I can't even name the main character. However, it concerned one of the Catholic saints who originally evangelized Britain. His convert and candidate for baptism was a tough old barbarian chieftain. In those days the Roman church still baptized by immersion in streams and rivers. Because the stream beds were treacherous and the water swift, the missionary made it a practice to carry a sharp-pointed staff which he could take into the water and drive solidly into the floor of the stream. This would give something by which both the officiant and candidates could steady themselves in the course of the baptism.

Using his staff so, the missionary had just finished baptizing the chieftain when, to his horror, he saw red swirling up around the pole. He had driven it through the foot of the person he was baptizing. "why didn't you cry out or let me know?" "I thought it was part of the service," the born-again, risen-with-Christ new Christian responded. He had received a truly profound understanding of baptism in short order. "I have a baptism to be baptized with," is the way Jesus had put it.

So, even when the mode is immersion, I can't accept doing it in a baptistery as being wholly right. One Brethren congregation of which I was a part happened to reside in a church house that had been built Methodist. That meant, of course, that it had no baptistery--presumably a font that was long gone, but wouldn't have been of help in any case. We were forced to take other measures--which turned out to be taking the service to the back yard of members who had swimming pools.

Obviously the informality of lawn and patio gave the service a mood entirely different from what it would have been in a holy (and uptight) sanctuary. Group participation, joy, spontaneity, celebration, and food made these baptisms extraordinary--extraordinarily memorable for everyone involved and (I would say) extraordinarily NT Christian at the same time.

We have here made a number of quite radical proposals regarding baptism. It is unlikely that any congregation out of any denominational tradition will (or even can) implement them lock, stock, and barrel. Yet that was hardly my purpose in writing anyhow. All we have been after is a serious consideration of the NT teaching regarding baptism. Plainly, any pastor, any congregation, any Christian at all could work at acquiring (and sharing) a truer understanding of normative baptismal theology--and do that without necessarily changing the congregational or denominational polity on baptism at any point. This much any of us can do; and this much is all our book has wanted.