Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Four Points of Anabaptist Theology: Part 2 Baptism


Virtually all Christian churches perform the rite of baptism. As such, baptism is an important part in the life of the local church. There are three basic views maintained by various groups of Christians concerning baptism. The first holds that salvation comes through baptism and that baptism is a sacrament that can be applied to infants. This is the traditional view held by Roman Catholics. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that baptism should be administered to infants because of their belief in the salvific nature of baptism and that the act causes regeneration.[1] In Roman Catholic theology, baptism is a means by which the church imparts saving grace on people. For the Catholic, the sacraments work apart from the faith of people participating.[2] In other words, faith plus works are required for salvation.

The second group views baptism as a sign of the covenant God made with Abraham. Lutheran, Episcopalian, Methodist, Reformed and Presbyterians regard the sacraments, of which baptism is one, as a sign and seal of God’s grace. This is sometimes referred to as the “covenant” argument choosing to see infants born to believers as part of the “covenant community” of God’s people.[3] Those who hold to this view see baptism as being parallel to Hebrew circumcision and consider the Apostle Paul’s remarks in Colossians 2:11-12 as clearly supporting the practice. Further support for the practice of paedobaptism as a sign of the covenant is found in the household baptisms found in Genesis 17:7 where God made a covenant with Abraham and his seed, and New Testament converts participating in or heirs to the covenant (Acts 2:39; Rom. 4:13-18; Gal. 3:13-18; Heb. 6:13-18). If the Old Testament covenant remains in force today and included children in those days of old then they must be included today.

The third group holds baptism as a token of salvation or an outward symbol of an inward change that has already taken place within the believer. This is the view held by the Anabaptist and is commonly referred to as Believer’s Baptism.[4] Since Christ commanded the act of baptism (Matt. 28:19-20) then it is properly understood as an ordinance rather than a sacrament.[5] Seen as a symbolic act, baptism does not produce any sort of spiritual change in the person being baptized. This view of baptism holds that it is only appropriate to baptize those who have received the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:47-48). This is an important distinction and cannot be overemphasized. While it is not the place of the church or the person administering baptism to judge the evidence of the regeneration being professed, there is an obligation to, at a minimum, ensure that the candidate for baptism understands the meaning of baptism.[6] There is a precedent for such caution to be found in John the Baptist’s remarks to the Pharisees and Sadducees in Matthew 3:7-8.

The most obvious demarcation between the Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church was that of biblical authority.[7] Within the Reformation, no other group took more seriously the principle of sola scriptura than the Anabaptists. So steadfast in their adherence to this principle were the Anabaptists’ early confessions such as the Schleitheim Confession of 1527 which contains no article concerning the Bible.[8] This is rather telling in that it implies that the question of biblical authority was not an issue among those early Anabaptists. Holding so staunchly to biblical authority, the people who would become the Anabaptists became disenchanted with Zwingli and his view that baptism was the successor to Hebrew circumcision and could therefore be performed on infants signifying inclusion in the covenant and its promises.[9]

Almost as soon as the Anabaptists could be distinguished within the larger Reformation movement, Believer’s Baptism became the major issue.[10] So great was this issue to the early leaders of the Anabaptists that Hubmaier wrote six books on the topic, Pilgram Marpeck, Menno Simons, and Dirk Phillips all wrote monographs on the topic.[11] For Anabaptists, there is an order in which events occur culminating in baptism. Those events are first preaching or teaching, followed by a profession of faith in Jesus Christ, and then baptism as found in Matthew 28:19-20 and Mark 16: 15-16. The point the Anabaptists sought to make was that baptism was followed by a conscience decision to accept and follow Jesus Christ. Infants and small children do not have the capacity to understand their need for salvation and therefore cannot make such a decision (Hebrews 11:6; Romans 10:9-13; 17). As such, paedobaptism is not only invalid but is also an abomination giving the false impression of having salvific properties.

The disagreement over Believer’s Baptism and paedobaptism does not end there. The mode of baptism is also a deeply divisive issue for the Anabaptists. For many the mode of baptism is a matter of indifference but for the early Anabaptists only baptism by immersion is acceptable. Effusion and/or aspersion simply will not do! The Anabaptists point to three arguments to support their interpretation. First, the Greek βάπτισμα, transliterated baptisma, means dipping or to dip. This use is consistent with Old Testament usage of the Hebrew טבל thus there is no reason to believe the meaning of baptize had changed from the time the Old Testament was written to that of the New Testament writings.

Second, baptism symbolizes a union with Jesus Christ and His death, burial, and resurrection. This is best represented immersion in water and the coming out of the water.[12] Further, there is a clear emphasis placed upon dying and rising again with Christ found in Romans 6:1-11 and Colossians 2:11-12 supporting this position. In fact, when Phillip shared the gospel with the Ethiopian eunuch, they waited until they came to a body of water they felt was sufficient to perform baptism (Acts 8:26-38). Third, there is the testimony of the early church which practiced baptism by immersion as the primary mode.[13] Though certainly not a settled matter within Christendom; for many including the early Anabaptists, the only acceptable mode for the practice of baptism is through immersion.

[1] Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 971.

[2] Ibid, 973.

[3] Ibid, 975.

[4] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology 2nd Edition. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 1099-1106.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Estep, William R. The Anabaptist Story: An Introduction to Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975, 1996), 190.

[8] Geisler, Norman L., and William E. Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible, Rev. and expanded. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996), 114.

[9] Finger, Thomas N. A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology: Biblical, Historical, Constructive. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 161.

[10] Estep, William R. The Anabaptist Story: An Introduction to Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975, 1996), 201.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Elwell, Walter A., ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology 2nd Edition. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 134.

[13] Ibid.

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