Baptism Is Important, But It’s Not Magic [Questions That Haunt]

This week’s Questions That Haunt Christianity comes from a young pastor. Sam asks:

I am a young pastor in Chicago with the Evangelical Covenant. I just read your book A Better Atonement and I enjoyed it a lot. I’ve struggled with the doctrine of Original Sin for a long while, but I’ve been thinking about how this, if at all, changes my view of baptism. I don’t believe that original sin is necessary for baptism but as I try to formulate my sacramentology I thought I’d ask if you had any thoughts.

Sam, it’s no surprise that this question comes from a working pastor. Unlike so many of the questions we’ve tackled in this series, this is not a theoretical question of systematic theology, but a practical question of pastoral theology. Like you, I watched many families who were negligibly connected to the congregation show up with their six-week old infant, sit through a baptism class, and proceed to the front of the sanctuary on Sunday. There they sat, awkward as can be in the front row. Meanwhile, the congregation dutifully smiled and laughed when the baby cried because the deacons forgot to warm up the water. I watched all this as a pastor, knowing full well that we’d never see that family again. They were getting their kid baptized because that’s what grandpa and grandma wanted.

On the other side of the theological divide, we’ve got Baptists. They consider the inanity of infant baptism described in the previous paragraph to be downright apostate. In some Baptist churches, they will even re-baptize someone who was baptized as an infant — a practice that has been considered heretical since the early church.* Baptists attempt to remedy apostacy with heresy, which is probably not a great solution.

You and I both come from that rare breed of church that practices both infant and believers baptism, so our theology of baptism tends to be particularly murky.

To add to that murkiness, you note that I reject the doctrine of Original Sin in the opening of A Better AtonementIf the purpose of baptism is not to cleanse us of the sin of Adam and Eve, what’s the point?

Happily for us, baptism was performed in the early church, before original sin was invented, and its performed in traditions such as Orthodoxy that do not have a doctrine of original sin. So there must be another reason to perform it.

In the early church, baptism provided a nice segue between Judaism and Christianity, as Paul makes clear to the Colossians:

In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.

Jews were familiar with an initiation rite — a bloody, violent, male-only initiation rite — called circumcision. (Marking a people group by disfiguring the males’ penises is one of the most objectively horrifying aspects of ancient and modern Judaism, IMHO. I say this as a circumcised man who has witnessed two circumcisions.) Jews were also familiar with ritual ablution — baptism — practiced most religiously by the Essenes. These washings cleansed men and women for their worship of Yahweh.

So the early church built a bridge to Christianity for Jewish converts. Circumcision was no longer the rite by which you were initiated into God’s inner sanctum (the Temple); now baptism was the rite by which you were ushered into a spiritual communion.

The theology of baptism evolved, of course, as it was linked with original sin, with entrance into the Church Invisible, and ultimately with salvation in the sacramentalist tradition of Catholicism. All of those developments are accoutrements that we can discard, according to my materialist Christian theology. In other words, baptism isn’t magic.

But I continue to think it’s important, in the same way that I think marriage vows are important. By standing in front of a congregation or a group of friends and vowing marital faithfulness to your beloved, you are entering into a practice that is common to billions of people now and in the past. Similarly, to bring your infant or yourself forward to be baptized brings you into solidarity with billions of believers who’ve gone before you — and into solidarity with Jesus, who himself submitted to this practice. (Let’s think about the humility of that act for a moment: the Logos incarnate humbled himself by allowing his cousin to baptize him.) Plus, baptism has the added benefit of being neither violent nor misogynistic.

(By this reasoning, I should also advocate for foot washing to be a Protestant sacrament, alongside baptism and communion. And indeed, I do think that foot washing should be a sacrament.)

As human beings, we define ourselves by the cultural symbols that we take on. Sure, you can dress up like Lady Gaga when you go to her concert. But to enter into an ancient practice like baptism — a peaceful rite that replaced a bloody rite — puts you in a long line of people who have invested meaning into that practice. While I don’t agree with all of the theological investments my forbears have laid on baptism, I am happy to submit myself to that practice and acknowledge that it is of supreme symbolic importance in the Christian tradition.

* The Council of Trent declared (Sessio Sept., March 3, 1547, canon 4): “If any one says that the baptism, which is even given by heretics in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, with the intention of doing what the church doth, is not true baptism: let him be anathema.” In other words, any trinitarian baptism — even if it’s performed by a heretic — is a valid baptism.

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  • Tony,
    If baptism is just a way of joining in solidarity with believers how are you dealing with Paul saying that we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection? I would also be interested in how you see the role of the Holy Spirit in Baptism. In most traditions that practice baptism there is some sort of seal, anointing, etc of the Holy Spirit involved in baptism.



    • The Holy Spirit is active in baptism, just as she is active is all human enterprises. We invest this act (and the other sacrament(s)) with spiritual meaning, so we are more likely to sense her presence and movement in this act than in, say, making toast.

      • Frank

        Why do you call the HS she? Just curious how you came to that pronoun.

        • Ruach is feminine
          Pneuma is neuter

          Those the words for HS in the Bible.

          • Frank

            Thanks for responding!

            While its true that Ruach is feminine, the gender of a word does not connote gender identity in Greek or Hebrew.

          • Frank, do you not refer to to the H.S. as a she?

          • Frank

            No why would I? There is nothing to suggest gender for the HS.

          • So, when using a pronoun you default to “he” rather than “she,” or do you use “it” for the H.S.?

          • Frank

            I try and just say Holy Spirit when referring to the Holy Spirit.

          • This is one of the reasons I try to completely avoiding using personal pronouns when referring to the divine at all…

  • Travis Greene

    But the usual Baptist view would not be the same as the issue Trent addressed. It isn’t about who performed the baptism, but what it actually was. If you think only consenting adults can be baptized, then it isn’t “rebaptism”. It’s just baptism.

    My own view as a small-b baptist/anabaptist is more complicated than that, but that’s the perspective most paedobaptist traditions don’t understand.

    • Here’s the difference, and it’s significant. Paedobaptists (as you call Catholics, Reformed, Lutheran, etc.) practice a generous orthodoxy wherein the saintliness of the baptizer matters not. All that matters is God.

      Baptists, on the other hand, claim that all trinitarian baptisms other than their are invalid. You’re right, they don’t consider it rebaptism because they proclaim all infant baptisms null and void. But we all know that’s just semantics. Plus, it’s a never-ending cycle in which a smaller and smaller ecclesial set says that only their baptism is valid.

      That’s why the orthodox position is one of generosity. The heterodox position is one of schism. (I’m speaking historically here.)

      • pokey

        But to Baptists (at least as far as infant baptism is concerned), it’s not about the saintliness of baptizer, it’s about the will of the baptized.

      • Phil Miller

        Baptists, on the other hand, claim that all trinitarian baptisms other than their are invalid.

        Perhaps I’m misunderstanding you, but I have to say that it’s not been my experience that most Baptists or other Evangelicals who believe in Believer’s baptism insist that baptism be performed by someone in their group. What they believe is that baptism is only valid after someone has an authentic conversion experience, or is born again. I’d say that most Paedobaptists view salvation as more a participatory experience (being “in Christi”) rather than a conversion experience.

        For example, I was baptized when I was seven or eight, and I’ve joined several Evangelical churches of different denominations since then, and I was never really pressured to be re-baptized. I know some churches do that, but I think it’s becoming less common.

  • Tony,

    Interesting thoughts. I’m curious what your definition of sacrament is. I go to a church that is sacramental and practices foot washing yearly, but would not consider foot washing a sacrament. It appears that your definition of a sacrament is an act that is done in obedience of the commands of the Bible and in solidarity of the Church. Sounds like a good act, but historically, a sacrament is something in which God acts and gives grace through. Correct me if I am getting your definition wrong, but if I am not, it seems both historically inaccurate, and frankly, watered-down. Our churches tend to be focused on the acts that we do. The sacraments and the reading of the scripture are God supernaturally (not magically) working in his church. If these are just solidarity exercises, they don’t seem much better than the solidarity exercises my high school students perform before a speech meet or something.

    Thanks for your thoughts,

    Al Cedeno

    • Al, I don’t think that God works in the sacraments any more or less than God works in any other act. That is, the sacraments don’t have unique abilities to channel God’s grace.

      However, they are more significant than the pre-speech exercises of your debate team because they have a long history, and the institution of the church has imbued those practices with meaning over centuries and across cultures. That history makes the sacrament transcendent, but in a materialist way.

      • So baptism was as meaningful as the speech exercises when, say, Paul was doing it?

        • Not really. As I said in the post, it didn’t come out of nowhere. It replaced a long-standing practice that was dripping with transcendent meaning.

          • Then Abraham. Point being length of time and breadth of cultural acceptance seem to be pretty ambiguous guidelines for something being “meaningful”

          • Ha! Dripping! Nice!

          • Curtis

            I don’t think so. Can you think of something more meaningful than time and breadth of cultural acceptance?

      • Thanks for the clarification. I still would disagree that it is “the church” that has imbued meaning over generations. Surely, this is true, but it implies that God did not set these acts apart in scripture as well as special acts of faith and obedience in which he would impart grace. I do agree that he may impart grace through other acts and that foot-washing or other Christian traditions can be important. But the meaning and importance does not come from our historical and cultural awareness, but from God.

      • “That is, the sacraments don’t have unique abilities to channel God’s grace.” Tony, this hurts my Lutheran ears.=)

        • Sorry, Jeremy, but someone had to tell you. 🙂

  • Tom Schwolert

    I had some thoughts along the lines of what Lane says. No, it’s not magic (in the bad sense of that word) but magic in the sense that something mystical is happening that we can’t totally understand. As in the Holy Spirit working through that moment. As a Lutheran, I believe that Baptism is more about what God is doing than what we are doing. What’s the role of the Holy Spirit in your opinion? And about “knowing full well that we’d never see that family again” is somewhat irrelevant since we can say that about all kinds of churchy things (believer baptism included). I agree with you that it’s important. I guess my question for you Tony is: what do you think is happening in Baptism? Or is it symbolic? Or something in between. Thanks for this important conversation.

  • Tony,

    As a Mennonite I really appreciate you including a shout out for foot washing. What makes these sacred practices powerful for me is that they directly engage our physical bodies. After a (pre-Menno) lifetime of “saying” stuff and “believing” stuff, I found Mennonite practices nearly overwhelming in their physicality. I’d love to read in the comments today, in addition to further theo-noodling (which I enjoy) some personal descriptions of what these sacraments have felt like to your readers.

    When I felt the hands of a friend pouring clean water over my flesh, I wept.

  • Pax

    Two questions:

    1) What do you mean by “sacrament”? I assume that the “it’s not magic” is a dig at those would say that baptism has some kind of supernatual aspect. So if sacraments are not supernatural, then what are they?

    2) What do you mean when you say that you practice infant and believer’s baptism? If it means that you baptize everyone twice, how is that different than the heretical practice of Baptists? If it means that you only baptize adult believers that weren’t already baptized as infants, then why do you say that it is rare (isn’t that what is usually done)?

    • 2) I mean that in both the church in which I was reared and the church I now attend, someone can be baptized as either an infant or an adult.

      At Solomon’s Porch, many people are baptized repeatedly. It is a practice with which I vehemently disagree, but it’s not something over which I would ever break fellowship with Doug or the church.

      • Pax

        Are there actually churches where adults (who were not already baptized as infants) are refused baptism? I’m pretty sure that it’s the norm to baptize new converts who weren’t baptized as infants. I don’t understand why you say that this is rare.

        • I’m saying that at SP, one person can be baptized over and over. That is heterodox. Plus, I don’t like it.

          • “That is heterodox. Plus, I don’t like it.” Tony, this makes my Lutheran ears happy.=)

    • JennyE

      I went to a church in which they purposely did not take a position on the “correct” time for baptism, in order that believers with different opinions on the subject could worship together. Many of my friends had their newborns baptized. I had my daughter “dedicated”, with the understanding that she would be baptized later when she knowingly committed herself to follow Christ. Another friend’s daughters were baptized at 8 and 10 after a profession of faith. The one thing they wouldn’t do is RE-baptize someone. They were unaffiliated with a denomination at the time, but were vaguely Reformed-ish.

  • Lane,

    Yes, it must have seemed bizarre and disgusting when Yahweh commanded Abraham to mutilate his and his progenies’ penises.

    • Karl

      I am pretty sure circumcision was actually an import from Egyptian society and there are a number of ancient cultures that practice some form of circumcision. So not really a shocking thing that God dropped on Abram.

  • Joe

    Tony, thanks for doing this series–I’ve rather enjoyed it. I have lots to take issue with in your view of baptism, so be it. My question is more tame. You said that you and Sam both hail from “a rare breed” of the Church that practices both infant- and believer’s baptism. I’ve heard this said of both congregationalists and methodists, but I don’t get it. What church that practices infant baptism does not also practice believer’s baptism? It’s not as though any denomination, when someone converts to the faith as an adult, would say “Sorry, you’re too late. Should have taken care of that when you were a baby.” So my question is: What do people mean when they say that they practice both? Just that they do the same thing everyone else who practices infant baptism does? Or is there something more going on theologically?

    • Joe

      Sorry, should have read the comments before I posted. Didn’t see that Pax had already asked the same question. Still, more clarification would be nice.

      • Yes, of course churches that practice infant baptism will also baptize adult converts. But most of those traditions (Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran) have infant baptism as normative. The adult convert is the exception.

        In the Evangelical Covenant, families are given a choice about whether to baptize or dedicate their infants.

        • Joe

          I would argue the fact that adult converts are an exception is a failure of evangelism, rather than anything implicit in the theology of baptism.

          So, is that just a way for the EC to not make a decision about what it believes about baptism, or is it based on some theological principal that I’m failing to see?

          • I’m jumping in here Joe, as a Pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church. You’ve asked a totally legitimate question, “Is it a way for the EC to not make a decision on baptism?”

            As far as I understand, we have decided that the arguments for and against infant baptism vs adult baptism aren’t worth splitting churches over. In essence, we’ve made our decisions for the sake of unity in the church. Practically speaking, as an ordained Covenant pastor, I have signed a statement that says I will perform both infant and adult baptisms when asked. That is to say, when a couple comes and says they would like their infant baptized, I will oblige. At the same time, I wouldn’t try to talk the couple who desires their child be dedicated to go for baptism instead.

            This does NOT mean pastors have no say or right to offer pastoral direction to the couple in the form of questions such as, “Why do you want to do this?” As a strong proponent of infant baptism, I believe this is a fair and necessary question to parents who are making promises on behalf of their child.

            Final note about the ECC. We are strange in that we have Lutheran roots, thus we are comfortable with infant baptism, and we are congregational and non-confessional. Individual churches, pastors, and congregants make many decisions about their “theological” stances. Again, baptism is an issue where we have decided both sides can make a claim and we’re not going to dissuade anyone from entering the water.

            I could go on and on. Does this help?

  • Tim

    Yes, Baptists don’t practice infant baptism but they do baptize children as young as 8-10 years old, so I don’t see a whole lot of difference between the two. If it’s all about being mature, then a child of that age is simply not mature enough to understand fully what they’re doing (in most cases).

    For many years, I belonged to a denomination that practiced both adult baptism by immersion (no one younger than 21) and foot washing. They also had another yearly ritual that is pretty interesting. Baptism in this church was for adults, and was serious business. It showed that you were one of the elect, those called and chosen. After a while some people who had been in the church for many years and were having children said, “What about our children? Aren’t they called pretty much from birth if they are being raised in a Christian home?” So, the church instituted a yearly Blessing-of-the-Children, where couples would come to church with their infant children and the pastor would lay hands on them and anoint them with oil. Kind of an acknowledgement that children of believers were in a special category. As one who grew up in the Presbyterian church (which practices infant baptism), I found this very interesting that a church that believed so strongly in adult baptism by immersion would nevertheless come to see the need for some ritual surrounding infants (even though much of the theology behind their reasoning about baptism could be called into question).

    • Brian

      The difference is that in the Baptist churches the person being baptized must make a profession of faith…an 8 year old can do that, an infant can’t. Baptist put their emphasis on the person’s faith while padeo-baptists emphasize the grace and work of God in a person’s life.

  • Random

    Is the Council of Trent considered the Early Church?

    • No. But Trent was simply codifying what Augustine write in his treatise against the Donatists.

  • I find this whole discussion fascinating for very personal reasons. I was baptized (sprinkled) as a baby. *Twice*–my parents went to different churches and so I was baptized in both. My husband was baptized (immersion) after he became a Christian in college. We have 2 children who have not been baptized because we both tend to think believer’s baptism makes more sense (to us; we have no problem with anyone choosing infant baptism). We had also been going to a church that believes in believer’s baptism (had we become members, I’d have had to be baptized for a THIRD time). Now we are attending a church that primarily does infant baptism. However, should we decide to join the church and have our kids baptized (although they won’t *make* us do it), it could end up being a big dramatic scene because we know that the older child (age 5) will fight against going up in front of everyone to have it done (he can be pretty shy). I also wonder if we focus so much on water baptism that we sort of push aside the idea of baptism of the Holy Spirit (because I think it’s something we don’t really understand well; or at least I don’t think I do).

    • Brian

      Kelly, I think your story highlights some of the reasons why re-baptism ought never be practiced.
      As for your kids, I’m pretty sure you could join the church without them being baptized, but I would stick with your conviction about baptism at this point. In other words, if you feel that believer’s baptism makes the most sense, then wait until your kids are ready and want to be baptized. My $.02

  • Scott

    I was baptized as a teenager and then I left Christianity.
    As I got older I was very into art…
    A friend was making a video/performance art piece about secular/anti-baptism and I was in the piece. My anti-baptism was a refusal towards ignorant acceptance of things I did or didn’t believe. I have since returned or become a christian…
    Can a baptism, even from a material perspective, cancel something out? Similarly (albeit oppositely) to how baptism deals with sin spiritually/sacramentally?

    I even understand my second, and most recent, baptism to be as significant of a factor in my christian faith

  • T.S.Gay

    I keep recommending Edwyn Bevan’s 300+ page lecture series “Symbolism and Belief”, 1938. It is apropos to this topic and “materialist Christian theology”.

  • I love the comparison of Baptism with marriage vows. I think they role they play and the imbued meaning they have are very similar. Great picture!

  • Like Sam I am a “working pastor [minister].” I appreciate the blog and what has been said. I agree that baptism is probably way more important than most American Evangelicals have been willing to admit in the 20th century and I also agree that it is not “magic.” Unlike Sam I am not trouble with the doctrine of “original sin” if by that one means inherited guilt. I do not think such a notion is biblical at all. I just finished reading Everett Ferguson’s amazing study (Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries … what a great book for anyone seriously interested in this subject) and he argues powerfully that the doctrine of inherited guilt arose out of the already existing practice of baptizing infants and not vice versa. He also demonstrates I think fairly conclusively that early Christians, both in the NT and first centuries, believed baptism was far more than what a Zwinglian understanding of it. Delighted to see you address this important and neglected subject.

  • It is important that the postmodern mind does not successfully pervert Christendom. That by using the reality that baptism is secondary to faith, so that they may have their nihilistic, abstract, and remote way…to death and hell.

  • biggest question for me when it comes to those who do NOT practice infant baptism:
    what do you do with children, or anyone for that matter, who cannot make a profession of faith and will likely never be able to? are they just left out of the equation?

    i ask because i’ve seen this played out. we have a family with a son who has Down Syndrome. he has not been baptized. he cannot stand in front of the congregation and give a testimony, therefore he likely will not be baptized. i’m not in charge of this, it’s just the way it’s playing out. what if we just baptized him because we believe God’s grace is big enough to include him? what if? what does that say? do we believe that? do we believe God’s grace includes kids who made no choice to not be able to make the choice to believe?

  • Mark K.

    Just to make things more confused, and interesting…Several years ago, I was surprised to learn, that there are two small sects of Christians, that do not practice water baptism, in any form…They would usually identify as “mid-Acts dispensationalists, and late/post-Acts dispensationalists(Bullingerism). I suppose some would call them “heretics”, but they’re just as interested in correct Biblical interpretation, and practice, as any other more traditional denomination. In fact, the late/post-Acts dispensationalists, practice no Communion/Lord’s Supper, either.

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