A look at the arguments of the varying interpretations of baptism.
A comprehensive list of Early Church Father references of baptism.
There are many interpretations of baptism: baptisms done by immersion, pouring, or sprinkling, baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in Jesus’ name only, in the name of the creator, redeemer, and sanctifier. There is paedo baptism which is the baptism of infants but is not regenerative. There is oiko Baptism which is the baptism of households. There is credo baptism which is the baptism of believers and can be either regenerative or non regenerative. Then there is the Catholic belief of baptismal regeneration and is preformed on infants or adult converts.
I recently listened to a debate between Rev Bill Shishko and Dr James White on baptism. It was interesting, both are Calvinists who go by sola scriptura (bible alone) yet Shishko was for paedo and oiko baptism and White was for credo baptism. The debate could have ended 5 minutes in if they would have looked at what the disciples of apostles taught about baptism and whether that was inline with scripture or not. Since that isn’t going to suffice here in this article we are going to look at these things.
I’ll start where I was 7 years ago in the Anabaptist position. The Anabaptist position is credo baptism. When we chose that Jesus is our Lord and savior we had a little preparation class before we were baptized to make sure we knew a little about our faith and then we were baptized in front of the congregation. The whole point of this baptism was to show the congregation that we professed faith in Jesus. Apart from this what was the point I wondered. Salvation Army doesn’t even baptize at all. We see many cases in scripture that show when people came to faith they were baptized. One place I want to look at is Acts 8:27-38. Here we have an Ethiopian eunuch who came to Jerusalem to worship and was on his way home in a chariot reading the prophet Isaiah. He said he didn’t understand it so Phillip explained it to him and about Jesus. As they came to a body of water the eunuch asked to be baptized and Phillip said if you believe you may. So they went into the water and he was baptized. Now in this case I don’t see baptism as a public profession of faith because the only believer to profess it to was Phillip. Another case in Acts 16:33 Paul and Silas’ jailer and his household were baptized in secret at midnight with no one else to publicly profess faith to. This next verse scholars aren’t exactly sure what these people were doing but two things are for certain; 1 is baptism was not a public profession and 2 baptism had something to the resurrection of our bodies. 1 Cor 15:29 Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?
When we see baptisms of believers in scripture the Catholic Church has no objection. As I said the Catholic Church baptizes adult converts who profess faith in Jesus but there is more teaching about baptism in scripture that points to something much deeper behind baptism along with something that baptism does. For instance 1 Pet 3:20-21 which mentions that Noah and his family were saved through water and that BAPTISM which corresponds to this NOW SAVES YOU. Now the huge question here is how in the world can baptism save you when that was the point of Jesus dying on the cross. We have to ask the question how Jesus applies to us the sanctifying grace that He purchased for us on the cross. The answer to this comes at the end of vs 21 which says: “not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ”. Jesus chooses baptism as the channel in which his saving grace is applied to us through the resurrection of Christ. What I encounter with people who do not accept baptismal regeneration is they cannot understand that we can be saved by Jesus’ atoning work on the cross and that he chooses to apply that grace to us through the channel of baptism.
In Jn 15 Jesus explains that he is the vine and we are the branches. In Rom 11:11-24 Paul explains that we as branches have been grafted IN. There are only 2 places that mention how to get into Christ and both of them explain it is through baptism. Gal 3:27 “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” Rom 6:3-4 “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” These two verses also further explain 1 Pt 3:21 and how baptism saves us through the resurrection and how through baptism we can tap into its saving power. In fact we see numerous other passages that show that baptism is for the remission of sins and in the normative course necessary for salvation.
Mk 16:15-16 “And he said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” This passage does not say just believe but combines believe and baptize with the copulative kai. The argument against this passage is that it doesn’t mention baptism when it says the one who doesn’t believe being condemned. Mentioning being condemned for not being baptized would be redundant because if you don’t believe you wouldn’t be baptized. We see the same language that was used in Mk 16:16 as we do in Acts 2:38 “And Peter said to them, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” In this passage it says things are for the forgiveness of sins. This passage presents problems if we take a believers baptism view because the person is saved before they are baptized which is backwards to this passage. Whatever baptism is for in this passage is the same repentance is for because we have the copulative kai again. Do you repent because your sins have been forgiven or do you repent so that your sins can be forgiven?
Acts 22:16 “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.” In this verse we again see baptism is for the forgiveness of sins. In this instance we see baptism is for washing away sins. As we continue to look through scripture we see baptismal language of washing away sins being used in relation to our justification and sanctification. The greek word for baptize is baptizo and one of the meanings is to wash so keep that in mind in the next 3 verses. 1 Cor 6:11 “And such were some of you. 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.” Eph 5:26 “that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word.” Tit 3:5 “he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit.” We can also see that there is more to baptism than a symbol in Eph 4:4-6 “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.” One aspect of this verse is that it says there is only one baptism. At the church I was at anyone who wanted to rededicate their life to Christ could be baptized again. This practice is in line with the belief of baptism as a profession of faith but here we see there is only one baptism. Also protestants have at least 2 baptisms: a water baptism and a spirit baptism which goes against this verse. Catholics have one baptism of water and spirit. Why is it in this verse that we have one Lord, one faith, one God and in the middle of this list of very important aspects of our faith do we find baptism in there? If baptism is just symbolic I don’t see why it is in this list but if baptism is the means in which Jesus applies his saving grace to us then I can see that that is pretty important and fitting in this verse.
We also see baptism being of both water and spirit and shows that this is how we become one body in 1 Cor 12:13 “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body--Jews or Greeks, slaves or free--and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” We see in Mt 28:19 Jesus says to make disciples and says how to do it which is by baptism: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,”
The culmination of all these verses showing baptism is for the forgiveness of sins we have the very words of our Lord. Jn 3:5 “Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” The only place in the bible that talks about being born again and it is referring to baptism. There is no mention of accepting Jesus as Lord and savior to be born again. Now people may say it doesn’t say baptism here. I have heard the argument that the water is referring to amniotic fluid and thus physical birth and spiritual birth. If this is the case why even bring up physical birth. It is obvious one must be in existence if they are to enter the kingdom. This passage’s focus is on a second birth not the first. Also viewing water here as the word of God by using Eph 5:26 doesn’t make sense either. This verse says “so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word”. It doesn’t say the water is the word it says water with the word. We could even see this passage as support for baptism because the word could represent the words of invocation while pouring the water during baptism. Jn 3:5 is by far the most quoted verse by the early church fathers as you will see at the end of this article and every single one of them saw this verse as speaking of the necessity of baptism for the entry into the kingdom.
Let’s look at water and spirit else where in the bible to help us understand this better.
God starts new things in the same way with “water and the Spirit“. We first see water and spirit with the first creation. The earth which was covered with water and the spirit hovered over the waters and from the water emerged, land, man, and God’s first creation (Gen 1:1-2). A new humanity was started with Noah through water and spirit. The ark went through the water and a dove (representing the Spirit) hovered overhead with an olive branch. The nation of Israel was created through the water of the Red Sea (baptism) with the cloud and fire of the Holy Spirit overhead. 1 Cor 10:1-2 “For I would not have you ignorant, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea. 2 And all in Moses were baptized, in the cloud, and in the sea.” In this verse we actually see baptism tied into water and spirit. Ezekiel describes what the New Covenant will look like and he said we will be sprinkled with clean water and His Spirit will be placed in us. This is what Ezekiel says. Ezek 36:25 “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” Mk 1:8, Mt 3:11, Lk 3:16, Jn 1:33, Acts 1:5, Acts 11:16 recall that John the Baptist baptized with water only but HE will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. This is what we saw in Acts 2:38-39 (which was Peter first sermon after Pentecost) that people who are baptized would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus, right before saying you must be born of “water and the Spirit” had just gone down into the water of the Jordan and the Spirit came down and landed on his head in the form of a dove (Mt 3:16, Jn 1:29). When Jesus finished speaking about being born again the next thing we read him doing was baptizing people in the Jordan with his disciples (Jn 4:1-2).
One argument against baptismal regeneration is that Cornelius in Acts 10:45-48 had the Holy Spirit fall upon him before he was baptized. This is not contradictory to the baptismal regeneration view. 1 Cor 12:3 says that no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. If the Holy Spirit did not work before baptism there would never be any conversions. The difference is this was not regeneration.
Another argument against baptismal regeneration is if baptism is so important why does Paul say in 1 Cor 1:17 that Christ did not send him to baptize, but to preach the gospel. This is how Tertullian (160-240ad) answers this objection in his treatise on Baptism chapter 14.
“But they roll back an objection from that apostle himself, in that he said, "For Christ sent me not to baptize;", as if by this argument baptism were done away! For if so, why did he baptize Gaius, and Crispus, and the house of Stephanas? However, even if Christ had not sent him to baptize, yet He had given other apostles the precept to baptize. But these words were written to the Corinthians in regard of the circumstances of that particular time; seeing that schisms and dissensions were agitated among them, while one attributes everything to Paul, another to Apollos. For which reason the "peace-making" apostle, for fear he should seem to claim all gifts for himself, says that he had been sent "not to baptize, but to preach." For preaching is the prior thing, baptizing the posterior. Therefore the preaching came first: but I think baptizing withal was lawful to him to whom preaching was.”
John Chrysostom answers this objection also in Homily 3 on 1 Corinthians (347-407 ad)
Still a man of no singular excellence is able to baptize, but to preach the Gospel there is need of great labor. Ver. 15. He states also the reason, why he giveth thanks that he had baptized no one. What then is this reason? "Lest anyone should say that ye were baptized into my own name"
Another argument against baptismal regeneration is that baptism is a work and Paul says in Eph 2:8-9 that we are saved by faith and not of works lest any man should boast. No one boasts about being baptized because it is something done to you. It is also not a work of man but a work of God as the Lutheran work Apology XXIV 18 says.
Another argument against baptismal regeneration is concerning the thief on the cross who recognized Jesus as the King of heaven. They say he could not be baptized and Jesus said he would be with him in paradise. God does not require the impossible. In instances of invincible ignorance, or impossibilities God can save those in a special mean. For example someone who is martyred for the faith and has not yet been baptized this is called a baptism of blood. We can see a type of this in Mk 10:38 and Lk 12:50 where Jesus refers to his death as a type of baptism. There is also what is called baptism of desire in which if the person would have known baptism was necessary they would have been baptized.
Another aspect of baptism is its typological significance with circumcision. Col 2:11-12 mentions that baptism is the circumcision of Christ. When we look at typology the Old Testament type is always inferior to the New Testament archetype so in this case baptism is greater than circumcision. What was circumcision? Gen 17:11 “You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you.” In this verse we see that circumcision is a sign of the covenant not of faith. Gen 17:14 “any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” In the Old Testament we see that if you are to be in covenant with God you must be circumcised. So if baptism is greater than circumcision then baptism must at least be necessary as we saw in Jn 3:5 and other places. Circumcision was done on the eighth day after birth (Lev 12:3). So we see that in the Old Covenant infants were included into the covenant because of the faith of their parents.
One of the biggest objections to infant baptism is that infants cannot realize their sins and need of a savior. Well right here we see that infant Jews were included into the covenant when they couldn’t realize their sins and need of a savior. In order to stay consistent with typology the New Covenant cannot be worse than the Old. This is why we can’t say that New Covenant children have to wait until they are grown up to be in covenant with God because that would be worse than the Old Testament. We can also see a foreshadowing of this reality in 1 Cor 10:2 which says that the Israelites were ALL baptized in the sea. This is referring to the Red Sea and there were hundreds of thousands of people who passed through it including children.
We can see New Testament evidence of this in Lk 18:15-16 “and they brought unto him also infants, that he might touch them. Which when the disciples saw, they rebuked them.16 But Jesus, calling them together, said: Suffer children to come to me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.” This verse doesn’t mention baptism but it mentions that infants are to be included into the kingdom of God which is what we have seen the purpose of baptism is. What is the fate of those infants who die in those denominations who say justification by faith alone? Are the mentally retarded excluded from the kingdom of God in these denominations? Nothing shows better that we believe salvation is a gift than our belief in infant baptism. Infants utter helpless being brought into the body of Christ by baptism based on the faith of their parents. We can see that the faith of the parents can speak for the child in Mt 9:2 “Some men brought to him a paralyzed man, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” In this verse it was the faith of the men who brought the paralyzed man who moved Jesus to forgive the sins of the man who was helpless.
A big argument against infant baptism is that there isn’t any instance in the bible of infants being baptized. There also isn’t any instance of children growing up and being baptized later. We do see in Acts 2:39 right after Peter said repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins and you will receive the gift of the holy spirit he says this promise if for you and your children. It is possible that this is referring to later generations but the first meaning in the greek word for children (teknon) used here means child, son or daughter which seems to suggest their current children. If this is the case with their current children then I don’t see that they could be of the age of reason because I don’t see why he would have added children if they could act as an adult and chose for themselves. There are also a couple instances where we see entire households being baptized like in Acts 16:15, Acts 16:33, 1 Cor 1:16. It is not absolutely certain that there were infants in these households but we can’t rule it out either.
I had mentioned oiko baptism in the beginning and this is something some Presbyterians argue for as an argument for infant baptism. The argument follows Old Testament circumcision in that everyone in the household followed the faith of the head of the house. Although this is an argument for infant baptism it doesn’t hold true in every case. In the case of Lydia in Acts 16:14-15 Lydia’s household is baptized but Lydia is not the head of the household. Also baptism in the new covenant is for men and women unlike the Old Covenant which was for males only. In the Old Covenant circumcision of the head of the household was extended to the women under the head of the household. In the New Covenant this is not the case for the wife because she needs to be baptized also. I am not aware of people saying that it is impossible to be married to someone of a different faith. If the oiko baptism principle was the case then the wife would have to be baptized for them to be married. We also don’t see any mention of this in the fathers. They baptized their infants because of what baptism did.
One argument against infant baptism says that Jesus wasn’t baptized as a baby. That’s right but that doesn’t affect our argument just like adult converts being baptism doesn’t negate infant baptism. John’s baptism was also not Christian baptism. John did not baptize using the Trinitarian formula and his baptism did not result in regeneration. The people John baptized were people who were repenting so Jesus did not even need to be baptized. It is interesting that the fathers of the Church said that Jesus not needing baptism when he went into the water he sanctified the water for our baptisms. (Jerome dialogue against the Luciferians par 6, Ephriam of Syria on Epiphany). If this is the case it makes the words of Jesus in Mt 3:15 make a lot of sense. In this verse John doesn’t want to baptize Jesus but Jesus replied “allow it now for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” What righteousness would be fulfilled if Jesus’ baptism did not accomplish what the fathers said?
There are some groups that say the only valid baptism is being immersed. This comes from passages of people going into water and being baptized. This is why it is nice to have an authoritative Church that can speak for Christ in answering these questions. We do know that at Pentecost in Acts 2 there were 3000 people baptized that day and yet there aren’t any bodies of water around this area. The Didache which was written in 70 ad isn’t an inspired book but is a witness of what the early church was doing. In chapter 7 it says “baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water (moving water like a river). But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.”
There are some groups that say you should only be baptized in the name of Jesus only. The reason for this is the instances in the bible when people are baptized it says be baptized in the name of Jesus. We can tell by the witness of what early church was doing that they were not baptizing using the formula of Jesus’ name only but the Trinitarian formula that we see in Mt 28:19 where Jesus explicitly commands the baptism in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Why then are they saying in scripture to be baptized into Jesus’ name? There are a couple reasons. I think the main reason is they were baptizing in the name as in (in the authority of) Jesus. For example a police officer may say stop in the name of the law. He is acting by another authority. Another reason would be to distinguish the baptism of Jesus with the baptism of John. In Acts 19:2-3 it is asked if some disciples received the Holy Spirit and they replied that they didn’t know a Holy Spirit existed. Paul then asked “in what then were you baptized?” (implying if they were baptized correctly the Holy Spirit would have been mentioned). They then answer into John’s baptism.
In Acts 8:16 there are two possible interpetations for what is going on. This is the verse: “for it (Holy Spirit) had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Either there were people going around baptizing with the Jesus only formula and this verse shows that it is an incorrect baptism because the Holy Spirit was not given or the Holy Spirit mentioned here is referring to the sealing of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in confirmation. The second seems plausible because Phillip (only a deacon) can not confirm because only bishops can do that. This would explain why they have Peter and John come down to do it. Either way it supports the Catholic position.
Lastly I want to look at Heb 6:4-6 “For it is impossible for those who were once illuminated, have tasted also the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost 5 Have moreover tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come,6 And are fallen away: to be renewed again to penance, crucifying again to themselves the Son of God, and making him a mockery.”
What is going on in this passage? Thomas Aquinas points out that this passage is referring to being illuminated through baptism. Take a look at the early church father references below and you will see that they very often referred to baptism as illumination. If this passage is not talking about baptism then this verse makes no sense. What would the illumination be, the tasting the heavenly gift be, and partaking of the Holy Spirit be and how would those things relate to falling away and not being able to be restored? If we are talking about some type of spiritual or intellectual accent then why can’t they return to their prior state? The logical answer is that we are illuminated through baptism in which we receive the Holy Spirit where we taste the heavenly gift. Aquinas notes that Augustine says this passage does not say it is impossible to repent but it is impossible to be renewed. Those who fall away cannot be restored through baptism again because there is only one baptism.
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