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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