“I believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins”
What are the ecumenical implications, liturgical problems and pastoral opportunities in the recognition by all the churches of our common baptism?
Section 1: Early Traditions
“Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptised by him. John would have prevented him, saying “I need to be baptised by you and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now for it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptised he went up immediately from the water, and behold the heavens were opened and he saw the spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven saying, “This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased,”
According to this tradition, at the very start of his ministry Jesus makes an overt public display of the importance of baptism, investing in it his stamp of approval. The subsequent practice of Jesus is made clear in John 3.22 “After this Jesus and his disciples went in to the land of Judea; there he remained with them and baptised” The verb ‘to baptise’ is in the imperfect tense which suggests a repeated action - but did Jesus himself baptise people? The Johannine tradition specifically says that he did not. It was his disciples who were baptising, not Jesus himself (John 4.2). In any case this cannot have been Christian baptism, because the NT writers consistently maintain that
“… baptism receives its efficacy from the crucifixion and resurrection. Therefore baptisms conducted by the disciples ‘is baptism like that of John the Baptist.” (Raymond E. Brown, p 151).
This being so, the supposed injunction of Jesus to his disciples both then and today in Matt. 28.19, “Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” reflects the practice of Christian communities much later in the first century CE. These words can only have been placed on Jesus’ lips by this later tradition.
In Acts 2.38-39 this injunction appears to be taken very seriously in Peter’s appeal to the Jews of his day when attempting to explain the events of Pentecost. In this appeal he linked their Messianic expectations to the death of Christ (though there is no reference here to ‘the Father’). Even this early in the apostolic age, repentance and baptism are inextricably linked to each other and to salvation. “Repent and be baptised 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. For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one who the Lord our God calls to him.” (Acts 2.38-39) “So those who received his word were baptised, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” (Acts 2.41) But these, again, reflect early Christian tradition placed within the context of the eidetic, idealised, history of Acts.
Turning to a period at least a generation earlier than these traditions, Paul’s letter to the church in Rome provides a summary of his theology of baptism, and this epistle makes clear what the practice was that St. Paul expected of the early Christian Diaspora. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised 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.” (Rom 6.3-4).
Now, what seems to be in mind here is water baptism, not the ‘baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire’ which John Baptist is recorded as saying of the ‘one who comes after’ him. The Baptist’s water baptism is a baptism ‘for repentance’. The baptism of the one who comes after is the much more fundamental and critical baptism of judgment: it is baptism with a winnowing-shovel (Matt. 3. 11-12 and parallels, see also 1 Cor. 12:13). This is the use of the word ‘baptism’ as a vivid image, quite distinct from any association with water. Clearly there are a number of deeply significant biblical/theological symbols at work here in a complex and, frankly, unclear relationship. There is, evidently, both an external and visible, and also an internal and invisible, baptism. These two parallel emphases relate to the several ways in which baptism is referred in the NT. So, for example, water-baptism becomes a symbol of death, the baptism of martyrdom (Mk. 10.38 and parallels) and baptism into the death of Christ (Rom. 6.3). further, the author of I Peter draws a sharp contrast between baptism by water, the mere external rite, and an appeal to God ‘for a clear conscience’ (I Pet. 3:21). And then there is the question of the relation between the external rite of baptism and the vexed question of circumcision, an issue which threatened the unity of the first Christian communities - should converts be circumcised as Jews before being baptised as Christians? This is a question Paul addresses in Col. 2.11-12). So there is, in the NT, much ambiguity and lack of clarity in the supposed relationship between water-baptism and the reality of salvation or the gift of the Holy Spirit. Note, for example, Acts 19:3-6, where there is discussion about the efficacy of John’s baptism which led to a rebaptism in the name of Christ. This ambiguity and lack of clarity has carried forward into subsequent Christian history, seen, as one example of many, in the far from satisfactory explanations offered as to the relationship between the baptism and confirmation rites.
Another emphasis is found in Hebrews: “For it is impossible to restore again to repentance, those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the Heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit.” (Hebrews 6.4) Here baptism is seen as enlightenment.
What we can recognise is that the process of becoming a Christian in the early church may have been initially interpreted and expressed in a number of different ways with slightly different emphases.
Although St. Augustine stressed the importance of the notion of justification by faith, he held it in tension with the practice of baptism.
So he promoted Cyprian’s doctrine that there is no salvation outside the church. This meant that as many people as possible must be compelled into baptism and the discipline of the church, participating in what became the penitential cycle, for the sake of their own salvation.
(Stephen Spencer: p113, 2007)
Among others Luther attempted to overcome this ambiguity. As does the NT, Luther stressed two blessings that are promised and symbolised in baptism. One is cleansing. Since human beings around the world and throughout history have used water for washing, washing in the name of God is an obvious symbol for a spiritual cleansing as Acts 22.16 reveals: “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptised, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.” A second promise, according to Luther, is linked to St. Paul’s symbolism of dying and rising with Christ. We need to remember that the practice of Jesus and the early church was of full immersion. The act of immersion symbolises death so the person being baptised dies metaphorically with Christ and as St. Paul says, is dead to sin. Coming up out of the baptismal water represents Christ’s resurrection, and the entry into new life of the one being baptised.
At baptism our redemption is sacramentally portrayed in a dramatic way and both the early church and Luther regarded confession as linked to baptism. The symbolism of Romans lends itself to this understanding with its language of death and resurrection.
During the Reformation, Luther was one of those who reconsidered the universal nature of baptism against a prevailing clericalism and hierarchy.
To call popes, bishops, priests, monks and nuns the religious class, but princes, lords, artisans and farm workers the secular class is a specious device invented by certain time-servers. For all Christians…truly belong to the religious class, and there is no difference among them except insofar as they do different work. This applies to us all, because we have one baptism, one gospel, one faith and are all equally Christian. The fact is that our baptism consecrates us all without exception and makes us all priests.
(Gerhard Eberling: p180, 1970)
It is clear then that in baptism we identify with the death and resurrection of Jesus. Baptism is clearly a sacrament in this respect in that it is an outward sign of God’s already accomplished work and an outward sign of an inner belief and conviction in the believer about the efficacy of the atonement and redemptive grace. This allows each of those who are baptised to do as Luther did, and to look back in times of doubt taking comfort from the objectivity of what has taken place. Acceptance and transformation need to be experienced again and again and the physical remembrance of baptism can help us to remember God’s promise and experience God’s grace daily.
There is, then, a clear link to the ministry of reconciliation: baptism is conducted by a minister on behalf of Christ and in confession we receive Christ’s absolution in the same way.
What we need to do when we sin is not to be rebaptised, but to be reminded of the baptism which we have already undergone. We need to be reminded of God’s love for us and of the forgiveness that he grants to us.
(Ian Paul: p332, 2003)
It is questionable from the above, then, to what extent the churches have reached a common understanding of “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins”. The New Testament gives a vast number of images and metaphors about baptism, and an attempt to cram all of them verbally into every baptismal rite is overwhelming, so liturgies have, of necessity, been selective.
Section 2: Ecumenical, Liturgical and Pastoral issues
In relation to exactly what is meant by a “common understanding” of baptism in ecumenical terms we need to recognise that one of the most hotly debated questions today is that of whether it is appropriate to baptise children. Most churches, Anglican, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist and Orthodox baptise infants and adults. Conversely, Baptists, Pentecostals and many Evangelical churches will only baptise those old enough to have made an informed and mature personal declaration of faith. It seems that the issue is that of the individual’s understanding of the nature of Baptism.
What is clear from the New Testament is that a period of instruction was a regular part of the initiation rite, “…. With instructions about ablutions…..” (Hebrews 6.2) although it is unclear whether infants and young children were baptised. According to Kurt Alland (p93) Infant baptism is certainly provable only from the third century.
Firstly, those who practice infant baptism see baptism as primarily an outward sign of God’s grace. This grace impacts on a person as the Gospel is proclaimed and lived out in the church. The emphasis, then, is on the grace of God manifest in the daily life of the worshipping community in which the infant is nurtured. This view is supported by such theologians as Oscar Cullman who comments that:
Baptism is causative in that it places a person within the community where faith becomes possible rather than simply informing that person of something. (Oscar Cullmann: p274, 1950)
By contrast, those who only accept the baptism of adults see the sacrament as an outward declaration of a person’s inward faith and therefore baptism is appropriate only when a person has attained a personal faith and wishes to make a personal declaration of membership. This can, of necessity, only be achieved in adulthood. The emphasis here is on the individual’s act of faith and their decision to join the worshipping community. Such a view would be supported by such theologians as Karl Barth who describe infant baptism as:
“necessarily clouded baptism” and that only adults capable of understanding the event should receive baptism. (James F White: p 224, 2000)
These differences are not total. Those who practice infant baptism have the ceremony of Confirmation for those who have attained a maturity and wish to formally enter the church by confirming the baptismal vows taken on their behalves. Those who practice adult baptism recognise that God’s grace precedes personal faith.
In ecumenical dialogue, the main concern of those who support adult believer’s baptism is to what extent a baptismal ceremony can have any significance or meaning for someone too young to understand or appreciate what is happening.
I know from personal experience that adoption is a helpful analogy for the understanding of baptism. What adoption illustrates is how an action taken quite apart from a child’s agreement is by no account a meaningless rite. First my wife and I regard our decision to adopt Kim as irrevocable. If one day Kim were to reject us, we would continue to regard him as our son and hope for reconciliation with him. Similarly in baptism God’s promise of grace that forgives and transforms always holds good. Even if the person turns away from God, God seeks reconciliation. God’s promises given in baptism can be a reminder of the merciful grace of God. If Kim were to reject us as parents the alienation would not be healed until he accepted us once again. In similar fashion it is possible for someone baptised as a child to later turn away from God. While God’s promises in baptism always hold good and God always seeks out the one who turns away, the broken relationship is not healed until God’s love is accepted by the person. Finally, adoption like baptism, is meant to signal ongoing involvement in a certain community. Just as the adopted child is meant to live in the family the baptised infant is meant to live within the church.
(Bradley Hanson: p91/92, 2000)
In pastoral terms many churches are inconsistent in their application of baptismal policies and infant baptism can be encouraged or otherwise in neighbouring parishes of the same denomination. The attitudes of local clergy or Church Councils can make requesting baptism quite a minefield. Grace Davie points out that baptism …
…. permits some measurement – if not always an entirely accurate one – of the value placed by the population at large on a ceremony associated with Christian initiation.
(Grace Davie: p53, 2006)
That does not mean that the experience of requesting baptism is consistent.
No one is born a Christian. One becomes a Christian through becoming a part of a community with a distinctive way of life involving definite ethical and creedal commitments.
(James F White: p 203, 2000)
Unfortunately, White’s position implies that children of ‘Christian’ families cannot be regarded as Christians until they have made these ‘ethical and creedal commitments’. This comes very close to requiring ethical and creedal commitments as a ‘good work’ which must be performed before the saving grace of God can flow to that individual which would appear to be a perversion of the grace of God to which the NT bears witness. When the jailer ‘and his whole family’ are baptised following the miraculous release from prison of Paul and Silas (Acts 16.31) there is no suggestion that the jailer’s children were barred from baptism because of their lack of ‘ethical and creedal commitment’ (in fact only the ‘trust in the Lord Jesus’ of the jailer himself, evidenced by his prior question ‘what must I do to be saved?’ is required. His faith is the faith of his whole family.
This, of course, tends not to be a part of the conversation between priest and the candidate for baptism and in the vast majority of cases rightly so but it raises an ambiguity.
Approaching a church one is already a member of for baptism for one’s self or one’s children is one thing. To approach that same church as an outsider, possibly with a very limited understanding or experience of Christianity or with a hazy understanding of a different lapsed tradition is quite another. It is White’s recognition of ethical and creedal positions that many people seeking baptism fail to grasp and many pastors seem to fail to acknowledge that assent to a creedal statement is not part of the N.T. pattern.
The crucial point to grasp is that some sort of religiosity persists despite an obvious drop in practice. The sacred does not disappear – indeed it is becoming more, rather than less prevalent in contemporary society. (Grace Davie: p43, 1992)
Davie is commenting here on the role of an off the peg approach to religion in modern society that seems to confound the decline in formal worship: that which is often called folk religion. Many people like to have their children baptised, not because they accept the theology behind it, or are even aware of it, but for a variety of other reasons, often informed more by a lack of knowledge than anything else, but certainly informed by a sense of innate spirituality.
Some of the unchurched believe that they have a right to have their children baptised and that to have a church service is simply the natural order of events. Such people, when questioned, often see the service as merely a public thanksgiving for the safe arrival of a new baby. At the same time baptism is frequently seen as little more than a public naming ceremony. This is more likely to be an issue within established churches where there is more of a public perception of the church as a community resource, (certainly in the Anglican church, both under canon and civil law, a couple residing in the parish do have the entitlement to bring a child to baptism) but all churches face requests from those with historic or family ties and who see those lapsed ties as conferring some degree of membership privilege.
In terms of the entitlement culture, notwithstanding canon law, no responsible parish priest would accept an individual for baptism (other than emergency baptism) without certain conditions or stipulations and this can become a delicate pastoral juggling act.
At the very least a priest or pastor would expect to go through the baptism service to make clear to a baptismal candidate or the parents of an infant, not only the sequence of events, but also the meaning and implication of the words. Some will insist, on dubious legal ground possibly, that a period of instruction takes place and that as baptism implies membership, the candidate or the parents of the child attend worship for a period of time before the baptism service.
There are priests and pastors who understandably see such personal contact as an opportunity for evangelism but a good minister will have the pastoral needs of the candidate or child’s parents at heart. This does beg the question of what the exact nature of the church should be to the unchurched in the post modern period, although that question itself is anathema to some Evangelicals who see anything short of evangelism as a missed opportunity. Baptism clearly presents such an opportunity, both in the candidate or child’s parents and in the whole gathered congregation of family and friends on the day.
There can be few clergy who have not had the experience of conducting a baptism after a period of preparation or instruction, where it has become clear that the parent’s of the child are continuing to go through the motions. They have compromised their own integrity by persisting in a ceremony whose premise and values they know they do not share because they have had their hearts set on the occasion, and that occasion has to be in church. In this respect baptism can mirror the charade which characterises many weddings: all is for show and corresponds to some idealised image of a family occasion. The underlying meaning, and indeed the significance of the meaning, is not confronted.
On the other hand there will be those who do come to a clearer understanding of the profundity of what they have embarked upon. This is the point at which pastoral care and liturgical considerations can collide.
My Mother-in-Law tells a family story relating to baptism: over fifty years ago in a more conservative age, an uncle and aunt of hers took their child for baptism in the parish church. Her uncle never returned to church from that day. Why? Because he heard the priest speak of his child being “conceived in sin”. What he understood in that phrase was something quite different with deeply shameful implications. I faced an equally unsatisfactory situation at the baptism of my God-daughter. Her mother, an old college friend of mine, is a single mother. During this Roman Catholic service the priest prayed for “this woman and her husband” and then, clearly unsure who was who in the baptismal party, assumed I was the father and referred to me as such throughout the remainder of the service. Fortunately this was a source of some amusement rather than of angst, but how pastorally inept.
Most churches see baptism, then, as a public declaration of membership and place it at the heart of parish worship. It can be a pastoral and liturgical issue for the pastor concerned to head off requests for a private family service where it is quite clear that the baptismal party has not understood the nature of baptism. It is hard to think of any circumstances where a Pastor should accede to such a request.
I was once on the edge of a dispute where a couple, both Anglican ordinands, were discussing with their priest the arrangements for the baptism of their firstborn. It soon became clear that they were not intending to have the service in the church where they habitually worshipped but were intent on using Leeds Parish Church with its choir, pomp and ceremony. This became a heated conversation when the couple were challenged by the priest on the theology behind their choice and what such a ceremony would implicitly be saying about them and their sense of status. There was a parting of the ways soon after.
The issue is quite different, of course, for those churches which are not charged with the legal responsibility to baptise. Such churches can expect and demand a higher degree of orthodoxy in belief and understanding on the part of those seeking baptism.
The Catholic and Orthodox worldview remains implacably sacramental ….. it is reserved, if not hostile towards attempts to reduce it into a series of conceptual propositions. It baptises a convert, not on the basis of the convert’s having been intrigued by some Christian doctrines, attracted by the Christian stance on some moral issue or pleased by the aesthetic of some ceremony. It baptises on the conviction that the convert either has begun by the Holy Spirit to live in Christ already, or shows a marked likelihood of coming to do so at some future point. (Aidan Kavaganah, p159)
We need to consider what the nature of the language and the liturgy we use in baptism is. Perhaps more to the point, given the lack of confidence that many people today experience in church and, for some at least, a limited educational achievement, what is the reducible minimum that a pastor or priest can use? “I baptise you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” is that reducible minimum. Given that, for the unchurched and a pastorally concerned priest, the baptismal service can be a wonderfully creative opportunity.
No convert ever believes in exactly the same way as any other. From this source the church is constantly in receipt of the varied richness that is the most vital aspect of a faith claiming to be universal. (Aidan Kavanagh p166)
This is a time when all the theology and symbolism can be explored; when alternative wording can be considered and alternative forms of expression created. What could have been at best a meaningless, at worst a threatening liturgy can become something meaningful, vibrant and challenging for all concerned.
These personalised liturgies often reveal a shift from seeing baptism as merely a salvation from something, to it being also salvation to something which can be very pastoral. My Mother-in-Law’s uncle might have appreciated that.
On the other hand we need to acknowledge that not every attempt to create a personalised baptism liturgy is going to be either successful or meet with universal approval. While conscious attempts are sometimes made to make new rituals,
… they are likely to strike those witnessing them to be forced or even false. Those present may fail to become performers or participants because they may not know what is expected of them, because the expectation of the inventors may not be in accord with the impulses of the potential performers (and here we may be considering the regular worshipping community as much if not more than the baptismal party) unless it is sanctioned by time and custom. (Italics mine) (Roy Rapport, p32)
In developing new liturgical forms, then, the question of balance between the existing orders and new innovations is very important because it is also a pastoral issue.
Kavanagh reminds us that baptism does not exist to generate doctrine but faithful Christians and seems to support the idea of innovation.
….. (The quality of ) liturgy is determined by the extent to which it is constantly renewing, reinforcing and reintegrating the faith community which uses it for survival’s sake. Renewal is the criterion for judging the quality and appropriateness of liturgical reform. (Aidan Kavanagh, p165)
We also need to recognise that the involvement and commitment of parents to the baptism of their children has a real significance. They and godparents/sponsors can be relegated to the status of mere passive observers but their role has developed in to one of great significance. However, this has resulted in two structures:
• On the one hand, many churches have placed both parental and individual promises prior to the act of Baptism, often calling this a baptismal covenant, showing the pattern of contract/grace. (Anglicans and Lutherans, for example)
• Others have insisted that any promises or response should come after the baptism, and thus have the pattern of Grace/response. (Methodists)
The theological subtlety of this is presumably lost on most people and might well be a step too far in any discussion with the unchurched. In addition some Baptists are now taking seriously the need to provide some liturgical rite for infants, even if it is not baptism.
The difficulty with all of this is that too many assumptions can be made: on the part of the baptismal party the assumption is often that they have to accept the service as it is written; on the part of the pastor concerned the assumption may be that the family understand the theology and symbolism and are happy with the service as presented to them. That key pastoral and liturgical discussion does not take place. One cannot help but wonder, too, to what extent many clergy are actually willing or sufficiently able to look creatively at the baptismal service. While we might speculate about the numbers of people who go away from a baptism disappointed that it was too “modern” and not at all what they are used to, In terms of a missed opportunity for witness one can not also help but speculate how many unchurched couples go away from their child’s baptism with a nagging sense of dissatisfaction: a sense, perhaps, of having bought something off the peg that didn’t quite suit rather than something tailor made to their needs. It comes back to the role of the pastor. James Woodward, writing in the Church Times, expresses the pastoral issues thus:
Our theology can be enriched if we open ourselves up to people, their work and values, their hopes and anxieties. We can do this only if we make a choice to listen: to attempt to connect beyond the safety zone of our inward-looking religious worlds. I am constantly amazed at people’s preparedness to open up the spiritual fabric of their life; to talk theology; to ask questions, if they are given time and attention on their own territory. Many of these encounters emerge from conducting occasional offices with care. The mother arranging a baptism is also a stressed accountant worried about her work and how this balances with the responsibilities of motherhood; she is a spiritual person wanting to know more about how prayer works. The grandparents at a baptism party are anxious about what kind of world their little ones will grow up in. After…………. gathering in the pub, a stranger is kind enough to ask: “Where has all that left your head, vicar? Do you fancy a pint?” (James Woodward, Church Times)
Alternatively, also writing in the Church Times, Ian Robbins comments thus:
I know from observation and from comments from the congregation that the continuing practice of what was once called indiscriminate baptism makes a mockery of all our talk of evangelistic outreach. Sunday by Sunday, the faith is being sold cheap, and the opportunity for patient and welcoming pastoral teaching before Baptism is being lost. ……….these popular Sunday jamborees are invitations to fresh perjury. (Ian Robbins, Church Times)
There are clearly many opinions amongst pastors, priests and ministers. Who in the end is to say which of the above have got it right?
I leave the final word to Anita Sauffer who argues that the most significant thinking on baptismal liturgy will probably not come from first world churches but from other cultures and ethnic groups.
The traditional “explanatory symbols” of baptism may need to be replaced by the means of dynamic equivalence or reinforced by the means of creative assimilation, so that the power of the water bath may be more clearly perceived in local context. Each local church will need to ask: what local symbols may express the gift of the spirit, the adoption of a new identity, baptismal dignity and vocation, death and resurrection, and the unity of the community, and do so without obscuring the central importance of the water and the word? (S Anita Stauffer, p18)
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