Throughout the 2,000 year history of the Church, the subject of baptism has produced a wide variety of approaches. It is essentially impossible to suggest that the Church has a monolithic approach to the topic because history proves otherwise. And while baptismal approaches vary, if one were to attempt to simplify the topic, there are basically two approaches to who should be baptized: those who believe that anyone, regardless of age, or those who believe only professing Christians. Those who support the baptism of infants/babies are known as Paedobaptists, coming from the Greek word pais, meaning “child.” Those who believe that only professing Christians should be baptized care called Credobaptists, coming from the Latin word credo, meaning “I believe.”
Now there are a variety of arguments for each of these views, and there are also some differences in how the views are applied. For example, with Paedobaptists, there are differences between Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and the Reformed. My good friend, Able Baker, recently wrote a great post summarizing the Reformed perspective on Paedobaptism, “Four Simple Reasons Why We Baptize Infants.” I think Able’s post is a really helpful explanation toward understanding why his church tradition proceeds to baptize the infants of Christian parents, over and against baptizing all infants because of the Roman Catholic doctrine of Original Sin. In other words, Able’s perspective doesn’t see baptism as salvific. You can’t charge him with teaching that people are saved because they get baptized.
While I really enjoyed Able’s post and think it’s a great summary and explanation of his view, I thought it might be helpful for our readers to consider another perspective… mine! Well, it’s not really “mine” because it’s a view that many others have and I’m indebted to a wide range of scholars and pastors who have articulated it in far more helpful ways than I’m sure I will. So here goes…
Toward a “Complex” Theology of Baptism
One of the reasons why I really enjoyed Able’s post is because it was simple, though not simplistic. Able cut right to the heart of why his congregation baptizes infants in four easily understandable ways. To summarize his simple explanation, he gave these four reasons:
- Baptism starts the discipleship process.
- Life-long discipleship is a better understanding of Covenant and being “saved” than a one-time decision.
- Baptism is an outward sign pointing to God’s gracious work through Christ.
- The heart is the “target” of the sign of baptism.
Guess what? Even though I disagree that infants should be baptized (mostly), I totally agree with each of these points (mostly).
Now the perspective I’m going to “argue” for is going to be a bit more complex than Able’s post, so I want to give a brief explanation about that. Knowing Able, he could easily have written a scholarly post defending his view. But because he’s a great pastor and understands that theology needs to be “practical” and “practiced,” he avoided writing a theological tome. Thank you, Able!
“Well what about you, Luke? Don’t you think theology should be practical? Why are you going to make this so dang complex?” Great question. What I mean by complex is not “difficult to understand” or “full of technical jargon.” I mean “complex” in the sense that my perspective might be something either new or maybe even a bit confusing. I’m moving toward a more complex approach to baptism because, quite frankly, none of the current options really satisfy my own understanding of Scripture, church history, and my own experience, not to mention the challenges of being a pastor in a global post-everything world.
So let me just lay out a couple of opinions that I have… ideas with probably little actual “supporting evidence.” Maybe these are just hunches? I don’t know. But here they are:
(1) Baptism doesn’t “justify” people in that it is not the means by which people enter into a relationship with God the Father through God the Spirit by the work of God the Son.
(2) Something happens, ontologically, when people are baptized. I just have no idea what it is… and fully assume that opinion is shaped by my sacramental theology.
(3) Unity is not the same thing as uniformity, and the fact that Christians have refused to celebrate the Eucharist with other Christians because they disagreed on whether infants should or shouldn’t be baptized is absolutely ridiculous.
(4) Discipleship is far more costly and far more important than many western Christians understand. What this has to do with my view on baptism may be missed, but it’s deeply connected to my position.
(5) Baptism is a sacramental experience and a Sacrament (see #2).
The view I’m going to argue for is complex. It’s not quite Credobaptism and yet it’s definitely not Paedobaptism. “So what is it,” you might ask? Boy you ask good questions! Here’s my current view:
I hold to a modified Credobaptism perspective that prioritizes Credobaptism as the normative and most “biblical” view while making room for Paedobaptism for missional, contextual, and ecumenical grounds, which basically fleshes out to being a modified Dual-Baptism.
Yes, that was a mouthful.
What in the World is “Dual-Baptism”?
I’m glad you asked. The “Dual-Baptism” perspective is the position that Dr. Tony Lane, of the London School of Theology, argues for in Baptism: Three Views as well as a position articulated in Michael Bird’s Evangelical Theology. Now most of you aren’t going to immediately click on those links to purchase those books, though you should. So I’ll provide you with a snapshot of the Dual-Baptism view.
First, Michael Bird:
A third position is for churches to permit both views of baptism, credo- and paedo-, to be practiced side by side. This policy of dual baptism is held by the Nazarene Church, American Evangelical Covenant Church, Evangelical Free Church, French Reformed Church, and Presbyterian Church (USA). John Bunyan, the Baptist Puritan and author of Pilgrim’s Progress, accepted paedobaptists into fellowship… Although I started out as a credobaptist and moved to becoming a paedobaptist, it is this dual-baptism view that I admittedly gravitate to because I think it allows us to hold together two competing theologies on a nonessential matter of the faith. A dual-baptism position enables us to make sure that baptism, a symbol of the gospel, becomes a means of gospel unity, rather than an occasion for division in the already-all-too-much divided churches. (Michael Bird, Evangelical Theology, 768-771)
Secondly, Tony Lane:
The New Testament practice of baptism was converts’ baptism, the immediate baptism of those who come to faith as part of their initial response to the gospel. This needs to be modified for children born into a Christian home, either into infant baptism or into baptism at a later date. The New Testament evidence for how such children were treated is not unambiguous. Both approaches can be defended on biblical grounds. No grounds exist for insisting on one to the exclusion of the other. This policy of accepting diversity is the only policy for which the first four centuries of the church provide any clear evidence.” (Tony Lane, Baptism: Three views, 171)
So the “Dual-Baptism” view humbly allows for both the Paedobaptist and Credobaptist views to exist side by side and does not allow the Sacrament to divide churches. It recognizes that there are good biblical and theological arguments, not to mention the practical reasons, for both perspectives.
Wait, You said a “Modified” Approach
Yes, I did. As I noted, I’m not convinced that the exegesis provided by Paedobaptists works. I see absolutely no reason to view the “household” baptisms in Acts 16:15, 33, and 1 Cor. 1:16 as requiring one to assume that infants were baptized. On the contrary, I think the exegesis demands one to recognize that the biblical authors, Luke and Paul, carefully articulate this in ways highly unlikely.
For example, lets look at the case of the Philippian jailer:
They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, along with everyone in your household.” And they shared the word of the Lord with him and with all who lived in his household. Even at that hour of the night, the jailer cared for them and washed their wounds. Then he and everyone in his household were immediately baptized. He brought them into his house and set a meal before them, and he and his entire household rejoiced because they all believed in God.” (Acts 16:31–34 NLT)
Note that (1) Paul and Silas told the jailer and everyone(!) in his household to “believe in the Lord Jesus”; (2) the Philippian jailer “and his entire household rejoiced because they all believed in God.” How are infants able to “believe in the Lord Jesus,” not to mention join in the household joy in the Christian faith?
In regards to the case of 1 Cor. 1:16 and the baptism of the “household of Stephanas,” the issue of infant baptism is a none issue. Consider these two texts, one that is used to support baptizing infants due to household baptism and the other to clarify why they were baptized:
Oh yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas, but I don’t remember baptizing anyone else.” (1 Cor. 1:16 NLT)
You know that Stephanas and his household were the first of the harvest of believers in Greece, and they are spending their lives in service to God’s people.” (1 Cor. 16:15 NLT)
Yes, Stephanas’ household was baptized. After all, they were all converted to the Christian faith and the normative pattern throughout the New Testament was for people to repent, believe in Jesus, and then get baptized.
Moreover, I see good reason not to see a connection between the Old Testament’s circumcision and the New Testament’s baptism. A better corresponding connection to baptism, in the New Testament, is regeneration. In other words, I see discontinuity in the way that the Old Covenant relates to the New Covenant. In the Old Testament, all of Israel was given the sign of circumcision… the faithful and the unfaithful alike. In the New Testament, baptism is administered to people who have professed faith in Christ. By the way, technically, the Old Covenant sign of circumcision is not administered to everyone in Israel; rather, it is applied to males, but I digress.
But while I am fairly convinced that the New Testament theology of and corresponding pattern for baptism is that people were baptized after they came to faith in the risen and ascended Lord, I have to acknowledge that some absolutely top-notch biblical scholars and theologians view the New Testament data, and relationship with the Old Testament’s approach to circumcision, differently. I may be convinced that they are incorrectly reading, interpreting, and applying Scripture, but I can’t say they are ignorant, uninformed, or stupid.
This is where my modification begins to creep in.
My level of certainty on this issue is higher than other issues, but the more that I’ve actually studied Scripture and theology (e.g., an undergrad degree in theology, two graduate degrees, and working toward a PhD), I can’t say that I’m 100% certain on the issue. In fact, though I have the ability to provide a reasonable explanation on many of my views, I’m really only able to say that I am “100% certain” on the fact that (1) Jesus is God, (2) Jesus died on the cross for my sins, (3) Jesus was raised from the dead, (4) Jesus is going to return, and (5) the Holy Spirit is active and empowering the Church for the sake of God’s mission. And maybe “certainty” isn’t the right word. Epistemologists might want me to say “I’m convinced.”
My point is that I can’t say with 100% certainty that baptism should only be reserved for people who have made decisions to follow Jesus. And here’s why…
Challenges to My 100% Certainty for Credobaptism
Earlier I indicated that my view is shaped by Scripture as well as mission, contextualization, and ecumenical concerns. For those of you who jump to the conclusion that I am not reading “the Bible alone,” I gladly admit that I think it’s far more complex than that. In fact, I’d argue that no one just reads the Bible and makes purely objective decisions. They might think they do, but they are wrong and need to take a basic entry level class on hermeneutics. So for the sake of full disclosure, I have found Prima Scriptura a helpful way of explaining my understanding and application of viewing the relationship between Scripture, which I believe is completely infallible, and how I interpret and apply the Bible. In other words, I think the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is a pretty helpful grid (for helpful works addressing the complexity of hermeneutics, see Ken Archer’s A Pentecostal Hermeneutic: Spirit, Scripture, and Community and/or Spawn and Wright’s Spirit and Scripture: Exploring a Pneumatic Hermeneutic).
Informed readers will simply understand this as an acknowledgement of my “hermeneutical spiral” or “circle of biblical and theological understand and application.” Yes, I believe the Bible is Holy Scripture and completely and entirely authoritative for the Church and that all other sources of influences that shape our beliefs and actions must be submitted under that authority. But I’m also honest in that I admit that the Church has other influences (experience, church history, reason, etc.).
So how does mission, contextualization, and ecumenical concerns cause me to modify my previous commitment to traditional Credobaptism to embrace more of a Dual-Baptism approach? Allow me to explain…
(1) Missiological and (2) contextualization issues cause me to pause at being a hardliner in regards to baptism.
I believe it is entirely possible that one could make a good case to baptize infants for the sake of God’s mission. I’m more inclined, in the American context, to see a better approach by way of infant dedications, but I can’t deny that infant baptisms could be helpful for the sake of mission.
American readers need to think beyond North America. In the American context, we have almost no understanding of “Christendom.” We certainly have baggage from being a “Christian nation” or a “country founded upon Christian principles,” but that’s quite different than being a country that is explicitly Christian. When I think of “Christendom,” I think of countries that explicitly state they are “Christian” countries. For example, think of England, which has a “state” church, the Church of England.
So imagine, for the sake of conversation, that you live in the United Kingdom and the state church, Anglicanism, has so influenced the culture/society around you that the simple fact is that Christening is simply a regular part of living. To be a “Christian” means that you participate in the practices of the Church and the Church teaches that Christening children is part of what Able previously articulated as part of the discipleship process. For the sake of God’s mission, I think it is reasonable that some might say, “Hey, I don’t particularly agree that baptizing babies is the best thing to do here, but because I want to create an opportunity with these two parents who have come to me and asked me to be a part of their spiritual journey and they believe that baptizing their baby is the normal and right thing to do, I’m going to do it and take an opportunity to make it clear that salvation isn’t gained by being baptized; it’s experienced by faith in Christ.” And because that person does’t want the person to just turn around and walk out of their office because they say, “No, we don’t baptize babies here,” they invoke a Dual-Baptism perspective.
Furthermore, a serious challenge that strict Credobaptists can’t deny exists is related to the children of Christian parents who are being raised in Christian households. Note Bird’s way of articulating this issue. He writes,
Perhaps the most compelling objection is that it leaves the children of believing parents in a kind of spiritual limbo. On the credobaptist scheme, children have no positive status before God other than being providentially blessed by growing up in a Christian household, where they receive instruction in the Christian faith. Children are pagans at worst and potential Christians at best. However, if we keep thinking in terms of covenant and family, which is how God has always done business with his people, there must be some positive position for children in the church family. It is impossible to regard children as covenantally holy in their family if their entire family is not in fact integrated into the covenant of grace (see 1 Cor 7:14).” (765)
Bird goes on to also state:
A Christian child lives in a converted home, not a pagan one. Even if children in converted “households” are not baptized, their conversion and baptism may be regarded as being done by proxy through their parents. That may sound strange to those accustomed to a free, libertarian, and individualist society, but the households of the ancient world were an extended family unit with a shared identity and a sense of corporate personhood.” (769)
One may not be convinced that infants should be baptized on the basis of this challenge, but at least the challenge needs to be acknowledged. I’m still convinced that the best response to this challenge is the “baby dedication” that many Evangelical churches practice, but I just can’t deny that infant baptisms may be a way to deal with the issue at hand, especially in contexts where baby baptisms are so ingrained in the social and cultural context.
In the same way that the New Testament does not really deal with the challenges that come from a “second generation” Christian faith in regards to baptism, the New Testament does not really articulate the exact and specific methods to be both faithful to Scripture end effective at God’s Mission on the issue of baptism in a post-Christendom world. We have to do our best to read, interpret, and apply Scripture. The relationship and challenges of missiological and contextualization concerns give me reason to hit pause on whether or not one could make a good case for baptizing babies.
In other words, the fact that the Trent Vineyard, the largest church in the United Kingdom, allows for both believer’s and infant baptism is, I think, a good example of being honest about the fact that good arguments can be made on both sides as well as the fact that in certain contexts, especially the U.K., one can hold to a Dual-Baptism approach and be faithful and effective.
(3) Church unity, a hope and concern of ecumenical engagement, causes me to pause at invoking the traditional pejorative hardline approach.
While it might be a tad unfair to suggest that those who hold to a certain baptism perspective are being jerk-faces when they won’t celebrate the Eucharist with those they differ with, I think that is a strong possibility.
Let’s back up and look at someone who lived in 17th century — John Bunyan. Bunyan, the author of the classic Pilgrim’s Progress, was an English Baptist preacher who spent a fair amount of time for his refusal to stop preaching and because 17th century England had little room for religious tolerance. Despite the fact that Bunyan was convinced that baptism should only be administered to people who had made a public profession of faith (he was a Baptist, after all!), he also was convinced that Christian unity, including the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, shouldn’t be prevented over differences on baptism. Many of Bunyan’s contemporaries strongly disagreed with him. In fact, one contemporary actually called Bunyan “a devil.” I sure hope no one considers me a devil for agreeing with Bunyan here! Interestingly, a number of contemporary Baptists agree with Bunyan’s approach to Christian unity (cf. John Piper’s evaluation of Grudem’s updated version of Systematic Theology as well as Grudem’s response to Piper).
In my own thinking, I have several questions that cause me to really be unable to be pejorative hardline advocate of believer’s baptism exclusively:
What if I were to be on staff with someone who, after studying the issue in depth and reading all of the relevant literature, came to a different conclusion than me? Would I be able to continue working alongside them for the cause of the kingdom?
What if someone started attending the congregation that I was serving as a pastor and they held to a different position on baptism than me? Would they be able to become members of the church, or would I prevent them from having fellowship with that community even though they virtually agreed with everything else except on the issue of baptism?
If I really desire church unity, while believing that unity does not mean uniformity, isn’t baptism, which is a secondary issue according to every Evangelical I know, a topic that we can “agree to disagree” on while still remaining in community together?
The Practical Outworking of a Modified Approach to Baptism that Allows for Dual-Baptism
By now you’ll probably agree that, if anything, my perspective is complex and full of nuance. Nuance isn’t very helpful in a world dominated by a commitment to 140 characters (thanks, Twitter!). Well, all I can say is “Welcome to ThinkTheology.org. We believe that thinking matters.”
For me, my level of certainty on the issue, my awareness of good scholarship on both sides, my understanding of missiological and contextualization challenges, and my concern for Christian unity currently lead me to conclude that Dual-Baptism is a legitimate option.
Again, I’m still convinced that baptism is best administered to people who have made a decision to become disciples of Jesus and that a helpful way to include in the process of raising children in a way that is helpful to them becoming followers of Jesus is a baby dedication. In fact, I think Protestant Evangelicals who do infant baptisms are, in my opinion, actually just doing a baby dedication and sprinkling some water too. After all, baptisms in the New Testament appear to be by immersion.
But I have room in my reading of Scripture, my theology, and my praxis to allow for difference.
So I could either be on staff with others who disagreed with my view, both as the lead pastor or as an associate. I would have absolutely no problem with welcoming people into church membership that differed on baptism. And I could envision being in a context or situation where the best course of action would be to baptize a baby.
And maybe that makes me inconsistent…
Hopefully this is more an evidence that I’m wrestling with the issue and admit it’s pretty complex.
Clarification: The views expressed in this post are not meant to represent the views of any church I am or will be affiliated with, the Vineyard movement, or anyone quoted. These are entirely my own.
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.