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Our remit as determined by the General Assembly in 1996 was as follows: “to reexamine the whole issue of Baptism and, in particular, the practice of Infant Baptism.” It should be noted that in our response to this remit biblical quotations are in general taken from the NIV except where otherwise stated.



The Panel was aware from its very first meeting that it had been given a challenging remit, which carried with it a weighty responsibility. The more we pursued our remit and examined the subject of baptism the more we came to appreciate how challenging the remit was. Baptism is a live issue and for various reasons. There are ever-improving relationships between churches across denominational barriers resulting in ever-increasing interaction and activity at local level, including discussion of those issues which separate us as well as the overriding commitments which unite us. There is the presence of a new generation of young people seeking a solid foundation for all that it believes and practises. Baptism is, therefore, a live issue not only for theologians and ministers but also for people in the pew. Not surprisingly many are seeking a better understanding of both the practice of baptism and the theology behind the practice. One practical matter in this search for a better understanding is the question of where to begin. Some have begun their search with the origins of the rite of water baptism, some with the practice of baptism as we have it in the Acts of the Apostles, some with the development of baptism within the post New Testament Church. Some have begun with the Great Commission of Jesus as it appears in Matthew’s Gospel, and still others with the idea of Covenant, a major feature of Reformed theology including Scottish theology. James Walker has observed that “the old theology of Scotland might be 1 emphatically described as a covenant theology” . All of these approaches have their advantages and disadvantages. In compiling our report for the General Assembly we too had to decide where to begin. “Where shall I begin?” asked the White Rabbit. The answer of the King of Hearts was appropriately grave, “Begin at the beginning.” The advice is sound. But where is the beginning?



In view of the fact that Baptism has its immediate origin in the command of Christ as found in Matthew’s Gospel it seemed appropriate to begin there: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded” (28.19,20). An important matter reflecting on the authenticity and therefore the authority of these words should be noted. Some scholars regard “the direct institution of Baptism through Jesus, as it is recounted in Matthew 28, (as) historically untenable”. The arguments put forward are mostly of a subjective nature. We are satisfied that the command to baptise is authentic and has its origin in Jesus. Certainly there is no textual evidence against the verses in question. Because the traditional understanding of the Commission has been questioned and various interpretations have been given, it will be helpful to take a more careful look at the Commission in so far as it relates to baptism.


James Walker, The Theology and Theologians of Scotland, Edinburgh 1888, p 73.


1. Disciples Baptism has to do with the making of disciples. Precisely what the relationship is between baptism and the making of disciples has been much debated. Do we make disciples through baptism? Do we baptise those who have become disciples? This raises an even more fundamental question. What is a disciple? Originally, in the Greek world, a disciple was a man who bound himself to someone else to acquire practical and theoretical knowledge. In the Hebrew world a disciple was a man who bound himself to the Torah with the Jewish rabbi as his teacher of the Torah. This gave rise to a variety of Rabbinic schools and to rival groups of disciples, each centred upon a teacher. Within the New Testament the word ‘disciples’ is used of (a) the disciples of John the Baptist (Matt 11.2), (b) the disciples of Moses (John 9.28), (c) the disciples of the Pharisees (Mark 2.18) and (d) the disciples of Jesus. With respect to this latter group the word is used to describe both an inner group of disciples, i.e. the Twelve and, in a much looser sense, of a larger group which followed him during part of his earthly ministry. It is important to establish that there was a radical difference between discipleship as it related to Jesus and discipleship as it operated in either the Greek world or the world of the Rabbis: “there is a marked difference between a life dedicated to study at the feet of a Rabbi, in which the aim was an increasing knowledge of the Law, which would eventually ‘qualify’ a student himself to become a rabbi, and the life of the Christian disciple (often not markedly studious by nature!) called to 2 personal loyalty to Jesus in His way” (WD Davies). IH Marshall says much the same when he observes that discipleship “involved personal allegiance (to Jesus) expressed in following him and giving him an exclusive loyalty… Such an attitude went well beyond the normal pupil/ teacher 3 relationship and gave the word ‘disciple’ a new sense.” The disciple of Jesus not only learns from Jesus he learns about Jesus. Whereas in the world of the Jewish rabbi prospective disciples sought out a teacher, Jesus called his disciples. Becoming a disciple committed a man not only to a learning process but also to a life of unconditional sacrifice (Matt 10.37; Luke 14.26f) for the whole of life (Matt 10.24f; John 11.16). Nowhere is this more clear than in Matt 16.24f where Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” It is well to remember that Jesus warned of the need for a man or woman to sit down and count the cost before becoming a disciple. Too often the word ‘disciple’ has been defined solely in terms of its Greek or rabbinic background. The result has been an over-simplistic equation, i.e. disciple = learner. This has provided a basis for some to advocate a wholly indiscriminate baptism, both of adults and children, the only requirement being a willingness to learn and not a whole-hearted commitment to Jesus. There is a failure here to recognise that Jesus poured a whole new meaning into discipleship in so far as it related to him – as he did with everything he touched. If indiscriminate baptism is to be a possibility, biblically, we must seek grounds other than the equation, disciple equals learner. Of course, there are spurious disciples as there is spurious faith (John 2.23-25) but there can be no question as to the kind of disciples Jesus had in mind when he gave the command to “make disciples…baptising them…”.


make disciples

We must now ask what it means to make disciples. A number of alternative approaches have been suggested. According to some we make disciples either by baptising and teaching them, or by baptising them (with the teaching following). By that is meant that baptism is the effective instrument in the making of disciples. The person baptised is a disciple, the person not baptised is not a disciple. Baptism becomes the crucial thing. Others have argued that while baptism is not the effective instrument in the making of a disciple it does have a role to play. The role it plays will depend partly on whether baptism is primarily an expression of grace or faith. According to BeasleyMurray “it is when a hearer believes and is baptised that he becomes a full disciple; which is the same as saying that a disciple is made such in baptism by faith.” The emphasis here seems to be on baptism as an expression of faith. Moreover baptism seems to be essential for full discipleship, which raises the question as to whether it is legitimate to make a distinction between full and partial discipleship. This would not appear to be the case according to Jesus’ teaching on discipleship which is not at all conditional on baptism. If on the other hand baptism is primarily an expression of grace it is 2 3

WD Davies, The Sermon on the Mount, Cambridge 1966, p 133. IH Marshall, article on Disciple The Illustrated Bible Dictionary vol 1, IVP 1980.


not difficult to see how baptism may have a role to play as a means of grace. We are not made disciples through baptism but we are assisted in our discipleship through baptism. There is another approach possible. Those who have embraced a strong doctrine of the grace of God may struggle a little in coming to terms with a commission which lays upon them the responsibility of making disciples. It would be difficult to quibble with such people when they insist that it is God and not man who makes disciples. We can however respond in two ways. In the first place we can point out that we are “workers together with God” (1 Cor 3.9; 2 Cor 6.1). There is a strong element of mystery in so many aspects of our labouring for God, e.g. in the ministry of preaching. So, at the very least, we can say that God uses his people in the making of disciples. In the second place we can point out that for the Reformers our contribution to the making of disciples was in fact through the preaching of the Gospel. John Calvin states, “The Lord, when he sent out the apostles, gave them the command to preach the Gospel and to baptise those who believe unto 4 forgiveness of sins (Matt 28.19).” On this basis it is simply assumed in the Great Commission that disciples are made through the proclamation of the Gospel which is received through faith. As Beasley-Murray rightly observes: “the kerygma precedes the didache, the offer of grace before the ethics of discipleship , and 5 it is when the gospel of grace is received that the ethics of gratitude may be learned and applied.” So, those who become disciples, through the proclamation of the gospel, are then baptised, and after they 6 are baptised they devote themselves to the teaching of the apostles. That is precisely the pattern we find on the very first occasion that the Great Commission was put into operation, as recorded in the Book of Acts: the preaching of the Gospel, the response of faith, baptism, devotion to the apostles’ teaching (2.14-47). Unless we adopt the position that the apostles misunderstood Jesus and got it wrong we must conclude that the correct exegesis of Matthew 28.19 is to be found in Acts 2. The apostles were certainly in a better position to rightly understand Jesus’ meaning than we are two thousand years later! What was true on the Day of Pentecost was true throughout the New Testament era. How did the apostles make disciples of the Gentiles (i.e. the nations)? They did so by preaching the Gospel. The Lord told Ananias concerning Saul, “This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles…and before the people of Israel” (Acts 9.15). It was this same man, Saul become Paul, who subsequently cried out, “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” and who also informs us that he hardly baptised anyone (1 Cor 1.14). That is not to detract from the importance of baptism but to emphasise that in Paul’s view it was not the essential thing in making disciples.


in the name of (eis to onoma)

While there is nothing explicit in Matthew’s Great Commission which adds 7 decisively to our understanding of the essential meaning of baptism we have discovered that baptism is inseparably bound up with costly discipleship. It is for those who are committed, without reserve, to the lordship of Christ. We have also considered the commission as it was understood and implemented by the Twelve in the Book of Acts, i.e. the pattern in Acts anticipated by this commission: the proclamation of the Gospel, the response of faith, baptism, forgiveness, the gift of the Spirit, and devotion to the apostles’ teaching. Baptism is inseparable from these ingredients. Moreover it is clear 4

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion IV 6, Westminster Press 1977, Vol 2, p1058. See also JM Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith, IVP 1986, p 653: “Jesus not only commands us to evangelise, he also tells us how to do it. First, we are to make disciples of all nations. We are to preach the Gospel to them so that through the power of the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit they are converted from sin to Christ and thereafter follow him as their Lord…” 5 GR Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament, Paternoster 1962, pp 89f. 6 WC Allen commenting on ‘baptism’ in Matt 28.19 observes, “The rite thus termed presupposes a good deal that is not always expressed. (a) The person baptised has repented of his sins, and baptism implies the consequent forgiveness of them; Acts 2.38. (b) Baptism also implies belief in Christ. The person baptised expressed this belief, and was regarded after baptism as a disciple of Christ.” (ICC on the Gospel According to St Matthew, T & T Clark 1972, pp 305f.) 7 Cf. DA Hagner: “Matthew tells us nothing concerning his view of Christian baptism”; Word Biblical Commentary 33B [Matthew 14-28] (NT Ed RP Martin), Word 1995, p 887. Calvin, however, commenting on the Great Commission is not so interested in Matthew’s understanding at the time the Commission was given but rather with Christ’s intention understood in the light of the whole of the NT: “Christ orders that those who have subscribed to the Gospel, and professed themselves disciples are to be baptised, partly that Baptism may be for them a token of their eternal life in God’s sight, partly an outward sign of faith before men. We know that God testifies to the grace of His adoption by this sign, for he ingrafts us in the body of His Son, to reckon us among His flock. Thus our spiritual washing, in which he reconciles us to Himself, and our new righteousness are there represented. But as God affirms His grace to us with this sealing, so those who offer themselves for baptism in turn ratify their faith, as if by appending their signature. (A Harmony of the Gospels, Matthew-Luke Vol 3, The Saint Andrew Press 1972, p 251).


that the making and baptising of disciples is unaffected by distinctions of race or nationality, and that the inclusion of ‘all nations’ is the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham and the outworking of his covenant purposes. We can now go one step further and consider the significance of baptism “in the name of”. The first thing for consideration is the use of the phrase in Rabbinic literature. Beasley8 Murray gives three illustrations taken from Strack-Billerbeck. (1) Heathen slaves on entry into a Jewish house were compelled to receive a baptism “in the name of slavery”, i.e. to become slaves. Slaves being set free were to be immersed “in the name of freedom”, i.e. to become free. On this analogy baptism in the name of God “sets the baptised in a definite relation to God; Father Son and Holy Spirit become to the baptised what their name signifies”. (2) An offering is slaughtered in the name of six things, i.e. with respect to its intention, e.g. for the benefit of the offerer, for the sake of God, with regard to the altar fires, in view of the sweet savour. Hence a person is baptised “for the sake of God, to make the baptised over to God”. Hence ‘in the name of’ equals ‘with respect to, for the benefit of, for the sake of’. (3) A Samaritan must not circumcise an Israelite because the Samaritans circumcise “in the name of Mount Gerizim”, with the obligation of venerating the God of the Samaritans who is worshipped there. It is worth extrapolating from this Rabbinic understanding that circumcision in the name of ‘Mount Gerizim’ points to ‘obligation’ and that an offering slaughtered in the name of signifies ‘for the sake of’. According to these parallels baptism in the name of the Trinity signifies ‘obligation to’ and ‘for the sake of’ the Trinity in whose name the disciple is baptised. Perhaps, however, the most significant lesson is to be learned from the freeing of a slave through circumcision in the name of freedom. By this parallel the Trinity becomes to the person baptised all that is signified by the name of the Trinity. Baptism then represents the deepest, most intimate and most profound relationship between the disciple and God. We shall return to this shortly under the heading ‘the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’. The second thing for consideration has to do with the use of the preposition ‘in’. This translates the Greek word eis which basically means “into”. Luke in his Book of Acts uses this same phrase (“in the name”) four times in connection with baptism, but uses three different prepositions (eis, into; en, in; epi, upon) all of which are translated “in”. There is another important difference. Whereas Luke seems to use his three prepositions synonymously, Matthew seems never 9 to confuse them. Carson comments: “Those who become disciples are to be baptised eis (‘into’, NIV margin) the name of the Trinity. Matthew, unlike some NT writers, apparently avoids the confusion of eis (strictly ‘into’) and en (strictly ‘in’…) common in Hellenistic Greek; and if so, the preposition ‘into’ strongly suggests a coming-into-relationship-with or a coming-under-the Lordship-of (cf. Allen; Albright and Mann)… It is a sign both of entrance into Messiah’s covenant community and of pledged 10 submission to his lordship.” This understanding of eis confirms, therefore, a parallel with ideas present in Rabbinical literature, especially the idea of a deep and profound relationship into which a person enters when he or she becomes a disciple.


Baptism into “the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”

One of the reasons why some scholars question the authenticity of Jesus’ commission in Matthew is because it represents a developed understanding of the Trinity, an understanding that must have been lacking so soon after the resurrection. It is argued that “Matthew is reflecting the life of the later church in which he lived”. When, however, we speak of an understanding that must have been lacking we must also ask, “Lacking to whom?” Lacking to the disciples, certainly; but lacking to Jesus? Presumably our glorified Lord fully understood what he was saying. He said many hard (to understand) things during his earthly ministry on the basis that after the resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit, and given time for reflection and further revelation to the apostles and prophets, his redeemed and enlightened followers would enter into the truths which earlier they had been taught. Whether or not these words of Jesus are authentic is determined not by the understanding of the disciples (who, for example, persistently failed to grasp his teaching about the cross) but by the understanding of Jesus. 8

Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament, Paternoster 1972, pp 90f; Strack-Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch, vol. 1, 1922, pp 1054f. 9 See Appendix 3; taken from MJ Harris, Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament, Paternoster’s Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 1978 (Ed. C Brown), p 1186. 10 DA Carson, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Vol 8 Matthew-Luke, (Ed. FE Gaebelein), Zondervan 1984, p 597. See also: WC Allen, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St Matthew, T & T Clark 1912; WF Albright and CS Mann, Matthew, Doubleday 1971.


We may also take into account that we have very little record of Jesus’ conversation with his disciples during the period between the resurrection and the ascension. It is difficult to believe that they learned nothing new from the Master. He may have had things to say to them which prepared the way for some understanding of this great commission. Of course, that is an argument from silence. It is equally an argument from silence to insist that they had no understanding. We cannot know. But it is of little consequence. What we can be sure of is that further reflection and further revelation enabled the early Christians to enter into something of the truth of Jesus words. In the light of this it would be appropriate at this point to bring to bear on our studies those elements of the apostolic teaching which are relevant. We do so on the basis that the apostolic teaching as we have it in the New Testament represents the mind of Christ. To discover at least some hints as to what is meant by baptism in the name of the Trinity we may safely consult the New Testament letters. Indeed, that is what Christ intended we should do, the Christ who promised his apostles that when the Holy Spirit was given he would lead them into all truth. Before we look at the significance of baptism into the name of the three persons of the Trinity it may be helpful to start with a statement which is normally accepted by Christians generally as well as by Christian scholars. The statement is this. Whatever else baptism does or does not signify it does signify the grace of God. It points to God’s action in Christ and through the Holy Spirit. Wayne Grudem, himself a Baptist, has stated, “Even the most conscientious Baptist would not 11 object to calling baptism ‘a testament to inner grace’.” Not only is that important for the definition of a 12 sacrament as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace” it is also an interpretation of baptism as a divine ordinance, even within the Gospels. It signifies the grace of God which enables the repentance and forgiveness of sinners. One further observation. Several exegetes have drawn attention to the fact that the 13 word ‘name’ here is singular. Baptism as Jesus presents it is baptism into the one name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, i.e. into the name of the Triune God. This will have some significance when we look at the terminology as we have it in the Book of Acts. i.e. baptism in the name of Jesus. The Son of God does not act independently of the Father and the Spirit but on behalf of and in the closest and most intimate co-operation and in complete harmony with the Father and the Spirit. The Father is in Christ and Christ is in the Father (John 17.21) and both are made real to us through the Spirit. Baptism in the name of Jesus is baptism in the name of the Trinity. According to Calvin, “There is good reason here for the explicit mention of Father, Son, and Spirit, for the force of baptism cannot otherwise be appreciated unless it begin from the free mercy of the Father who reconciles us to Himself through the only-begotten Son. Then Christ himself advances into the midst, with the sacrifice of His death, and at last there comes the Holy Spirit also, through whom He cleanses and regenerates us all, and finally makes us partakers of all His benefits. So we see that God is not truly known, unless our faith distinctly conceives three Persons in one Essence; and the efficacy and fruit of Baptism flow from thence: God the Father adopts us in His Son, and through the Spirit reforms 14 us into righteousness, once we are cleansed from the stains of our flesh.” [1]


Baptism as it relates to the Father is: (a) an affirmation of the love which the Father had for the world whereby he sent his one and only Son for our redemption (John 3,16); (b) an affirmation of that salvation which the Father had determined from all eternity (Eph 1.3f); (c) an affirmation that the Father has chosen us in Christ, that he should be our God and we should be his people. Moreover, it is not only an affirmation of the covenant which the Father has entered into with us, it is a sign and seal of that covenant and of its fulfilment. It is an affirmation, sign and seal not only of the covenant which the Father has established (the objective aspect) it is also an affirmation, sign and seal that we have been brought personally into the covenant (the subjective aspect). It is an affirmation that the covenant is a reality and that it is a reality for me.


W Grudem, Systematic Theology, IVP 1994, p 966. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer. 13 L Morris: “We should notice that the word ‘name’ is singular; Jesus does not say that his followers should baptise in the ‘names’ of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but in the ‘name’ of these three. It points to the fact that they are in some sense one” (The Gospel According to Matthew, IVP 1992, p 748). See also DA Hagner, “the singular onoma, ‘name’, points to the unity of the three”, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol 33B Matthew 14-28, Word Books 1995, p 888. 14 J Calvin: A Harmony of the Gospels, Matthew-Luke Vol 3, The Saint Andrew Press 1972, p 253. 12


SOME DEFINITIONS  As an affirmation baptism is asserting the fact of the covenant. It is stating that the covenant is a reality. It is a declaration that the covenant is true, and that it is true for the person baptised.  As a sign baptism is a permanent, spiritual indicator or mark which cannot be erased and which publicly indicates that the person so baptised is within the covenant of God.  As a seal baptism is God’s mark of authority and authenticity whereby he declares, “This is my possession.” Baptism as it relates to the Father represents the initiative of the Father in our salvation, as Paul puts it in Rom 9.16: “It does not depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.” It represents the grace of God the Father as well as that of the Son and the Spirit. It represents the salvation that is by grace through faith, where even faith is a gift. It represents the truth that from beginning to end salvation is of God and not of man. There is not a single element in our salvation whereby we can say, “That was my contribution.” We are co-workers with God once we have been brought into a saving relationship with him, but not before. Before his great salvation has been wrought in our lives we are without God and without hope; we are enemies of God, children of his wrath, dead in trespasses and sins and there is nothing we can do to please him (Eph 2.1-3; Rom 5.611; 8.8). We have no part to play in effecting our own salvation: “Thou must save and Thou alone” (Toplady). It is generally accepted that baptism is an affirmation, a sign and a seal of the grace of God the Father. In case it is thought that we have extended the meaning of baptism to cover the Father’s initiative and the Father’s covenant in addition to the Father’s grace it is important to make the point that both the initiative and the covenant are essential elements of grace. The covenant whereby God brings men and women into a relationship with himself, making them his people, is an activity of grace. And such an activity of grace is dependant upon the divine initiative. God in his grace necessarily takes the initiative. In both the divine initiative and the divine covenant we see God the Father in his grace working out his saving purposes. Such an initiative and such a covenant are not extra to grace they are integral to grace, of which baptism is the sign and seal. It may be helpful to point out here that in the New Testament the Father is most frequently referred to as ‘God’, e.g. the blessing of 2 Cor 13.14 speaks of “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit”. [2]


Baptism as it relates to the Son is: (a) an affirmation that all the Father’s gracious promises for the purposes of redemption have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ his Son; (b) an affirmation of the centrality of Christ in redemption, i.e. that “there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4.12); (c) an affirmation that the sinlessness, obedience, sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ are the means by which men and women are rescued from sin and reconciled to God; (d) an affirmation that through the death and resurrection of Christ the power of sin is destroyed and the believer raised to new life in Christ. Baptism as it relates to the Son represents the grace of Christ in his coming for our sakes, his dying for our sakes and his rising for our sakes, together with all other aspects of his redeeming activity. He was not an unwilling partner in the work of redemption. It is not as though an uncaring Father sent him irrespective of his own will in the matter. The Father loved his Son and suffered the pain of his Son, the Son loved his Father and suffered the pain of his Father. They were in total harmony as to what had to be done in order to achieve the divine purpose for fallen man. It was the Son of God who loved us and gave himself up for us (Gal 2.20), the Son of God who loved the church and gave himself up for her (Eph 5.25), the Son of God who laid down his life for us thereby showing the true nature of love (1 John 3.16). Just as the Father’s action was sheer grace, grace upon grace; so the Son’s action was sheer grace, grace upon grace. Baptism in the name of Christ signifies this grace. It will be seen from the above that baptism is intimately bound up with the death and resurrection of Christ. Nowhere is that made more clear than in Rom 6.3f where we are told by Paul that baptism is baptism into his death in order that, as he was raised from the dead, we also might live a new life. The real baptism is Christ’s death and resurrection. Water baptism is but the outward sign of which Christ’s death and resurrection are the reality. The metaphorical use in Mark 10.37ff 37ff where he speaks of his own baptism, i.e. “the baptism I am baptised with”, and in Luke 12.49f when he tells the disciples, “I have a baptism to undergo” is the primary use.


Water baptism signifies Christ’s death and resurrection and it signifies our death and resurrection. It signifies our identification with his death and resurrection. Through baptism we are baptised into his death, and through his resurrection we are raised to new life. It is well to remember that here also there is a primary and a secondary signification. Of primary importance is that water baptism signifies the death and resurrection of Christ. Of secondary importance is that water baptism signifies our death and resurrection; the second is entirely dependant upon the first. Bromiley puts this particularly well. “It is an unfortunate reversal of the gospel message, or at least of the gospel emphasis, if in baptism we allow our own dying and rising again to occupy centre stage and push the dying and rising of Christ out into the wings. We are not to think that ours is the real baptism, and then apply the term in a transferred or figurative sense to the reconciling work of the Son. The truth is that the reconciling work of the Son is the original baptism and our own dying and rising again with Christ is the copy and reflection. The proper baptism declared in every baptism is the vicarious dying and rising again of Christ in which expiation is made for sin, reconciliation is effected, new life is inaugurated, the covenant of God with man is restored, the election of the Father is fulfilled, and the divine purpose of grace is thus realised in spite of 15 man’s sin and fall.” [3]


Baptism as it relates to the Holy Spirit is: (a) an affirmation that what the Son has achieved, supremely through his death and resurrection, the Spirit applies through his power and presence; (b) an affirmation of the cleansing and regeneration of those who believe in the Son by the Spirit; (c) an affirmation of the Spirit’s baptism of the believer into Christ and his body (1 Cor 12. 13). The work of redemption and reconciliation which is at the heart of the covenant of grace is as much the work of the Spirit as it is of the Son and the Father. Wherever we cut the cake we find the same harmony, the same unity of purpose, and the same inter-personal involvement. Father, Son and Spirit each had their equally important role to play in creation, and each had their equally important role to play in redemption. Jesus was conceived by the Spirit (Matt 1.18,20); during his ministry he was empowered by the Spirit (Luke 4.1,18; Matt 12.28); through the Spirit he offered himself as a sacrifice without spot to God (Heb 9.14); by the Spirit he was raised from the dead (Rom 8.11). And it is only in so far as the preaching of the good news of Christ is empowered by the Spirit that it is effective in the minds and hearts of the hearers (1 Cor 2.4; 1 Thess 1.5). We have already distinguished between the primary, objective work of Christ for the believer and the secondary, subjective work of Christ in the believer. This secondary, subjective work is the particular responsibility of the Spirit. It is the Spirit who applies the work of Christ so that it becomes real and relevant to the individual. As Bromiley says, “Baptism is not just any baptism; it is my baptism. It is my own entry by the word and Spirit into Christ’s victorious work. It is my own identification with him, so that I can now say with the apostle: ‘He loved me and gave himself for me.’ 16 (Gal 2.20)” Yet even here the subjective depends on the objective. It is only through the regenerative work of God the Holy Spirit that we are able to enjoy the benefits of Christ’s death, and it is this regenerative work of the Spirit that is signified in water baptism. One last thing. If it is the Father who is the initiator of the covenant and the Son who is the mediator of the covenant, it is the Spirit who seals God’s people as his own within the covenant (2 Cor 2.22; Eph 1.13f). All this is contained within the Bible’s understanding of baptism.


In the name of the Trinity (Matthew 28.19) or in the name of Jesus (Acts 2.38)

At first sight it does seem strange that shortly before his ascension Jesus commissioned his apostles to baptise “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” whereas days later Peter is found exhorting his audience to be baptised “in the name of Jesus Christ”. Throughout Acts it is Peter’s example that is followed. Cornelius was also baptised in the name of Jesus Christ, and the Samaritans (8.16) and the Ephesians (19.5) in the name of the Lord Jesus. Saul was to be baptised “calling on his name” (22.16). Some have ‘solved’ this seeming discrepancy by arguing that Matthew’s account of the Commission represents a later development, i.e. it represents the practice of the church at a subsequent period in time. According to this approach there was no reference to a Trinitarian baptism by Jesus before his ascension. The Trinitarian ‘formula’ came to be used increasingly as the church

15 16

GW Bromiley, Children of Promise, T & T Clark 1979, p 59. GW Bromiley, Children of Promise, T & T Clark 1979, p 67.



developed its theology. If, as some have argued (e.g. GP Lewis ), Jesus commissioned his disciples to baptise in his name and not in the name of the Trinity, the change represents a later departure by the church from Jesus’ express instruction, a departure so radical that it not only requires but demands a satisfactory explanation. In fact there is no evidence either that the initial commission required baptism in the name of Jesus, or that the initial commission was not in the name of the Trinity. It is simply supposition. It is significant that those who see a discrepancy frequently speak of ‘the Trinitarian formula’ and contrast it with the ‘formula’ as we have it on the lips of Peter at Pentecost and in connection with other references to baptism in the Book of Acts. But the word ‘formula’ seems to be particularly inappropriate to describe either words used by Jesus or words used by the Apostles in those very early days of the church. It is a loaded word the very use of which has the effect of preempting discussion. It predetermines the outcome. Carson comments, “The term ‘formula’ is tripping us up. There is no evidence…that the church regarded Jesus’ command as a baptismal formula, a liturgical form the ignoring of which was a breach of canon law. The problem has too often been cast in anachronistic terms. E Riggenbach (Der Trinitarische Taufbefehl Matt 28.19 [Gütersloh: C Bertelsmann, 1901]) points out that as late as the Didache, baptism in the name of Jesus and baptism in the name of the Trinity coexisted side by side: the church was not bound by precise ‘formulas’ and 18 felt no embarrassment at a multiplicity of them…” Whereas Carson is commenting on the Trinitarian ‘formula’ Calvin makes a similar point commenting on the ‘formula’ in Acts. He asks the question, “was Peter entitled to change the form prescribed by Christ?” In answer he says, “In the first place we must hold that Christ did not give the apostles magic words to be used for incantation… Then again I maintain that Peter is not speaking in this passage of the form of baptism but simply declaring that the whole efficacy of baptism is contained in Christ; although Christ cannot be grasped by faith without the Father by whom He was given to us and the Spirit by whom he renews and sanctifies us… The answer consists simply in this, that it is not a fixed formula that is being dealt with here, but the recalling of the faithful to Christ, in 19 whom alone we obtain all that baptism prefigures to us.” It is an assumption that either Jesus or Peter or Paul were giving precise words to be used at baptism. We cannot be sure. But it is just as likely that they were indicating the significance of baptism. Christian baptism signifies, on the one hand, the redemption which is the work of all three Persons of the Trinity and, on the other hand, that Jesus Christ is the door through which the believer passes to enter into that redemption. Father, Son and Spirit have decreed that it is through the name of Jesus that salvation is bestowed upon men and women. Presumably the same can be said of the Lord’s Supper. We are told, for example that Jesus “took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (Matt 26.27f). Are Jesus’ words here a ‘formula’ which must be used prior to the distribution of wine at the Lord’s Supper? If when distributing the wine we do not use the phrase “blood of the covenant” – a crucial explanatory element of the meal – is there a conflict? The word ‘formula’ is inappropriate.

(4) THE ORIGINS OF WATER BAPTISM Jewish antecedents Some scholars begin their study of Baptism with a discussion of pre-Christian rites involving water, on the basis that water baptism as practised by the early church was the climax of an evolving process. Some have begun with primitive and pagan rituals. It was popular for a time to seek the origins of Christian baptism in the ‘baptisms’ of the mystery religions which flourished in the Graeco-Roman world during the last three centuries BC. In view of the growing recognition, in recent years, that the essential context for the formulation of Christian belief and practice is to be sought within the spiritual environs of Judaism, it has become much more common to look to the Old Testament and to Jewish practice for the origins of water baptism. [1]



GP Lewis, An Approach to the New Testament, Epworth 1954, p 113. DA Carson, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Vol 8 Matthew-Luke, (Ed. FE Gaebelein), Zondervan 1984, p 597. 19 J Calvin, The Acts of the Apostles 1-13, St Andrew’s Press 1965, p 81. See also Longenecker referring to Peter’s exhortation, “The expression was not at this time a liturgical formula.” (RN Longenecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Vol 9 John-Acts, (Ed. FE Gaebelein), Zondervan 1981, pp 235f.) 18


Water ritual was a requirement for the High Priest on the Day of Atonement. Both before and after the ceremony he had to bathe himself in water (Lev 16.4; Ezek 44.19). In both verses the word for bathe is the Hebrew word rachats which has the general idea of wash. It is used in Genesis for the washing of feet (18.4; 19.2; 24.32; 43.24) and the washing of the face (43.31). It is a common word in Leviticus for ceremonial washing (1.9,13; 8.6,21; 9.14; etc.) though it is not the only word so used. It should be noted that the ritual here is a self-bathing rather than a baptism. Just as the high priest had to undertake ceremonial cleansing in order to survive the localised presence of a holy God in the Most Holy Place so all the people of God had to undergo ritual cleansing as they conducted their daily affairs in the knowledge that this same holy God was with his people in a more general but no less real sense. Sexual uncleanness (Lev 15) and the uncleanness from contact with an infectious skin disease (Lev 13.4) required ritual cleansing through washing and bathing. Uncleanness through contact with dead persons required ritual cleansing through sprinkling (Num 19.13): “Because the water of cleansing has not been sprinkled on him, he is unclean.” According to 19.9 the “water of cleansing” together with ashes from a sacrifice are for “purification from sin”. It would be very easy (but inept) to caricature the emphasis in the Jewish Law on outer ritual cleansing as though that were the only concern or even the main concern. As with Christians the outward sign is symbolic of an inward reality and an appropriate life-style. At least, such was the intention. The ritual may be divorced from the reality but it ought not to be. That was a major emphasis of the prophets beginning with Samuel, “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice…” (1 Sam 15.22). Samuel is not here rejecting the concept of sacrifice as prescribed by the Law and therefore by God. That would have been anathema to him. Indeed, the very next chapter records that the prophet offered sacrifice in obedience to the Lord’s instruction (16.5). In 15.22 Samuel is confronting Saul’s disobedience and rejecting sacrifice as a substitute for obedience. As Joyce Baldwin puts it, “No 20 ceremonial can make up for a rebellious attitude to God and his commands…” Samuel’s approach is reflected in the following Scripture passages: Ps 40.6-8; 51.16; Pro 21.3; Is 1.11-15; Jer 7.22; Hos 6.6; Amos 5.25; Mic 6.6-8. The concern of the psalmist and the prophets, as with Jesus, was for consistency in how one conducted one’s life, e.g. Psalm 24. Flesh and spirit and, therefore, outward 21 ritual and inward reality, were thought of in the Jewish psyche as “partners, not enemies” Beasley Murray comments, “The remarkable feature…is not that the Jew or later Judaism could not distinguish 22 between outer and inner but that he would not separate them… ”). Outward rites and inward dispositions must be in harmony. [2]


Chapter 36 is a crucial chapter in Ezekiel’s prophecy for the future restoration of God’s people. It is especially interesting for our purpose because it deals with both external and internal realities. J Muilenburg observes, “Israel had made the holy land unholy; yet her holy God must maintain his holiness in the earth. Therefore (v 21) he spared them for the sake of his holy name. Yet, if the holiness of his great name was to be vindicated among the nations, then his people must be 23 radically transformed and become a new and holy people.” According to HL Ellison the centre of this prophecy re the restoration of God’s people (vv 24-28) “is based on and is an expansion of the great promise of the New Covenant in 24 Jeremiah 31.31-34 ”. The people are to receive a new heart, a new disposition and a new will. This transformation, however, will begin with God sprinkling clean water upon them “to purify them from the 25 stain and guilt of the past” (Ezek 36.25,27): I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart… and I will put my Spirit in you.” It is of particular interest to us that the inner cleansing of God’s people is symbolised by the sprinkling of clean water. There are two elements here worthy of note (and it is worth bearing in mind as we note them that Ezekiel was both a prophet and a priest). The first is that the imagery of ritual cleansing is related to the inner cleansing which God will bring about. Secondly and more specifically it is the imagery of ‘sprinkling’ that is used, the significance of which is well 20

Joyce Baldwin, 1 & 2 Samuel, IVP, p 115. F Gavin, The Jewish Antecedents of the Christian Sacraments, London 1928, p 13. 22 GR Beasley Murray, Baptism in the New Testament, Paternoster, 1972, p 7. 23 J Muilenburg, Article on Ezekiel in Peake’s Commentary on the Bible, Nelson 1962, p 586. 24 HL Ellison, Ezekiel: The Man and his Message, Paternoster 1967, p 127. 25 J Muilenburg, Article on Ezekiel in Peake’s Commentary on the Bible, Nelson 1962, p 586. 21


expressed by Peter Craigie: “As, in Ezekiel’s prophecy, the transformation of heart and spirit was preceded by the symbolic sprinkling of fresh water, so in Christianity the water of baptism symbolises 26 the transformation of heart and spirit.” [3]


In the middle of the second century BC, as a result of the intrusive and paganizing influence of Greek culture, there came into existence a very loyal and conservative group of Jews known as ‘the pious (or loyal) ones’, i.e. the Hasidim. The Hasidim were an important group which had a lasting impact on the development of Judaism. GW Anderson has written that “the Hasidim were the spiritual ancestors of 27 the Pharisees, the Essenes, and the Qumran sect, displaying unswerving loyalty to the law”. Qumran was situated in the wilderness of Judea some seven miles from the River Jordan. The men of Qumran had withdrawn from Jewish society under their ‘Teacher of Righteousness’. They regarded the period in which they lived as the ‘epoch of wickedness’. They had a particular abhorrence of the high priests of the day whom they regarded as illegitimate. Their purpose was to prepare for the new age which would bring the epoch of wickedness to an end. With that ever before them they practised a rigorous self-discipline and devoted themselves to the purity of body and soul. In their passion for purity they provided for various ritual washings or bathings. In the Introduction to his translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls Geza Vermes summarises the various rituals as follows: “The Damascus Rule (XI) devotes a section to purification by water, and the War Rule (XIV) foresees that the victorious Sons of Light will so cleanse themselves after battle before attending the final ceremony of Thanksgiving. The Community Rule (III, V) refers also to a purificatory 28 rite in connection with entry into the Covenant.” It is worth noting here that the people of Qumran saw no conflict between the outward ritual and the inner condition; the two were intended to coincide. Beasley Murray observes, “Here we must remind ourselves of the fact, frequently pointed out, that the members of this sect had a clear understanding of the limitations of lustrations. They aspired to something more than ceremonial purity and they knew that lustrations of themselves could not bestow the moral purity they sought.” The Qumran Manual of Discipline states, “No one is to go into the water in order to attain the purity of holy men. For men cannot be purified except they repent their evil.” It further states that a man “cannot be cleared by mere ceremonies of atonement, nor cleansed by any waters of ablution, nor sanctified by immersion in lakes or rivers, nor purified by any bath. For it is only through the spiritual apprehension of God’s truth that man’s ways can be properly directed. Only thus can all his iniquities by shriven so that he can gaze upon the true light of life…” 29 30 31 Assuming, as most scholars do (cf. FF Bruce, Beasley-Murray, John Bright, W 32 Albright ), that the Qumran community was essentially Essene there are a number of contemporary writers we can turn to for information. The most helpful of these is Josephus who spent a short time with the Essenes during his teenage years. He is also useful because of his description of Essene initiation procedure involving a three year probationary period. At the end of the first year there was a ritual purification in water. At the end of the second year the probationer was allowed to use the purer water reserved for full members of the sect. At the end of the third year he was allowed to share in the common meal, a token of full membership. It is also clear that ritual purifications were a regular daily occurrence for all members. As Beasley-Murray observes, “Josephus conveys the impression that the baths of the Essenes were taken not simply once daily, as is commonly assumed, but at least three times per day…” Two questions arise out of this. (1) Is there is any connection between the ritual purifications of these pre-Christian sects and the baptism of John the Baptist and ultimately Christian baptism? (2) Is there any sense in which these ritual purifications may be regarded as baptisms? It will be recognised that these questions warrant much lengthier answers than space allows in this report. The following observations are relevant.


Peter C Craigie, Ezekiel (Daily Study Bible), The Saint Andrew Press 1983, p 258. GW Anderson, The History and Religion of Israel, OUP 1966, p172. 28 Geza Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, Pelican 1975, p45. 29 FF Bruce, Article on ‘Essenes’, The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, IVP 1980, Part 1. 30 GR Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament, Paternoster 1972, p 12 footnote. 31 John Bright, A History of Israel, SCM 1972, p 465 32 WF Albright & CS Mann, Article on ‘Qumran and the Essenes’, The Scrolls and Christianity (ed. Matthew Black), SPCK 1969, pp 22f. 27


It has been suggested that the Baptist himself may for a time have belonged to Qumran. This is purely speculative and depends on a subjective assessment of the evidence. But even if there is truth in it, it is also true that the differences between John and Qumran are enormous. In 1959 HH Rowley concluded, “There is not a single feature of John’s baptism for which there is the 33 slightest reason to go to Qumran to look for the source.” As recently as 1990 Alan Millard reached 34 the same conclusion. Similar differences exist between Qumran’s ‘baptism’ and that of Christians. We may note the following distinguishing features: (a) The water rite practised at Qumran is more properly described as a bath than a baptism; (b) it was practised often, not once-for-all; (c) the initial purification rite was the same in form as subsequent purifications; (d) it was a self-administered rite; (e) the Qumran people were initiated into a community and not into their Teacher of Righteousness whereas Christians were initiated into the Messiah and his community. The important if loose connection between the people of Qumran and the disciples of Jesus is that the water rite for both marked entry into the new covenant, the true Israel. This is explained not by a dependency of one on the other but by the fact that both groups refer back to the prophecies of Jeremiah 31.31ff and Ezekiel 36.24ff. Equally significant is that for Qumran as for Christians while circumcision was the sign of initiation into the old covenant, water is the sign of initiation into the new covenant. [4]


For some considerable time it was taken for granted by many scholars that Christian baptism had its origin in Jewish proselyte baptism. Jeremias, one of the most ardent contenders for this position, saw similarities between proselyte and Christian baptism in the terminology used, resemblances in baptismal instruction and administration, and theological similarities. Others have rejected Jeremias’ arguments and offered alternative explanations for the similarities. There is simply insufficient evidence to show that Christian baptism in its terminology, practice and theology is derived from Jewish proselyte baptism. It is equally possible that early Christian baptism influenced the development of proselyte baptism. So, for example, Beasley Murray writes, “Whether the New Testament writers took over the concept of dying and rising and of regeneration from Jewish thought about the proselyte it is difficult to say. Presumption would indicate that those who shaped the thought of the primitive Church could hardly have been ignorant of this teaching. On the other hand the New Testament theology of baptism revolves about two poles of thought not associated with proselyte baptism: unity with the Messiah who is Son of Man and Second Adam and who rose for the race; and, closely connected therewith, the belief that the age of resurrection and the life of the Kingdom of God has dawned in the rising of the Messiah. It would seem plausible that the familiar concepts of Jewish conversion theology were given a fresh orientation and greater depth and power by 35 the Christian understanding of the redemptive action of the Messiah.”

Clearly the arguments of scholars such as Jeremias depend on a presumption that proselyte baptism preceded Christian baptism, a presumption that cannot be taken for granted. The first clear references to proselyte baptism do not appear until the second half of the first century, e.g. 36 in (a) the Sibylline Oracles, usually dated now about AD 80, (b) the Dissertations of Epictetus dated 37 cAD 90. The more important references, however, are those which appear in Rabbinic literature. These are dated by most scholars between AD 70-90. While there are scholars who have posited a much earlier date for the references, e.g. Jeremias, the conclusion of Beasley Murray is well justified: “a saying whose significance and origin are so dubious as this has no claim to confidence as a means of determining so complex an 38 issue”. Widely regarded as significant is Josephus’ detailed account of a Gentile king, Izates, becoming a Jewish proselyte. Izates ruled from AD 30 to 54. In his account Josephus has much to say about circumcision and nothing at all to say about baptism. [5]


It has been seen already that attempts to locate the origin of Christian baptism in Jewish ritual washings, including those of Qumran, are fraught with difficulty. Clearly the use of water 33

HH Rowley, New Testament Essays, Studies in Memory of TW Manson (ed. AJB Higgins), Manchester 1959, pp 219-23. Alan Millard, Discoveries from the Time of Jesus, Lion 1990, p 111. 35 GR Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament, Paternoster 1972, pp 30f. 36 Joachim Jeremias, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries (tran. David Cairns), SCM 1960, p 24. 37 Joachim Jeremias, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries (tran. David Cairns), SCM 1960, p 24. 38 GR Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament, Paternoster 1972, p 23f. 34


is common to all but, that apart, the parallels are not clear. By contrast parallels between Christian baptism and John’s baptism are easily discerned. John’s water ritual is more properly described as a baptism than a bath or a washing, it was administered to a candidate (not self-administered), and it was administered to a candidate once and not often. Attempts to locate the origin of Christian baptism in Jewish proselyte baptism are also fraught with difficulty, though for a different reason. It is possible to argue that Christian baptism influenced proselyte baptism rather than the other way round. In the case of John the Baptist that is simply not possible. History and the chronological sequence are clear. John’s baptism preceded Christian baptism. In view of the clear links between John’s baptism and Christian baptism it is important to undertake a more careful exploration of the meaning and significance of baptism as we find it in John, to consider how his approach relates to the baptism instituted by Jesus, and to consider any light that the one throws on the other. 1) Baptism and repentance According to the synoptic gospels the baptism administered by John was integrally bound up with repentance. Mark relates how John came baptising in the desert region preaching “a baptism of repentance” (1.4; see also Luke 3.3). Matthew has a slightly different phrase when he records John’s actual words, “I baptise you with water for repentance” (3.11). There is general agreement that the concept to the fore in the New Testament understanding of repentance is that of a radical turn around, involving a turning from and a turning to. It involves a moral change, from evil to righteousness. Primarily it has to do with a change in a person’s relationship with God. The change of life stems from the change of relationship. To repent is to turn to God. “The call to repentance on the part of man is a call for him to return to his creaturely…dependence on God… (it is) a complete alteration of the basic motivation and direction of 39 one’s life.” The Westminster Confession of Faith says of repentance: "By it a sinner, out of the sight and sense, not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature and righteous law of God, and upon the apprehension of his mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, so grieves for and hates his sins as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavouring to walk with him in all the ways of his commandments.” (XV, II)

2) A baptism ‘of’ and ‘for’ repentance Whereas Mark gives us his own description of John’s baptism, i.e. “a baptism of 40 repentance” (1.4) Matthew gives us John’s own words, i.e. “I baptise you…for repentance,” (Matt 3.11). While some writers have made great play of the difference between Mark and Matthew, arguing for example that Matthew has paraphrased Mark, this hardly seems necessary. It is sufficient to note that there is a difference, that Mark is making a personal comment whereas Matthew is recording the words spoken, and that both a baptism ‘of’ and a baptism ‘for’ are appropriate. It is also possible that there is no significant difference in meaning at all. CFD Moule gives a cautionary warning, “it is now becoming more and more clearly recognised that it is a mistake to build exegetical conclusions on the notion that Classical accuracy in the use of prepositions was maintained in the koine period” and 41 argues for a “fluidity of usage”. If there are nuances of meaning we may consider the following. A BAPTISM OF REPENTANCE

The simplest way of understanding Mark’s genitive (‘of repentance’; metanoias) is that it describes the nature of the baptism. It is a baptism that belongs to repentance. In which case the idea of baptism as a sign of repentance would fit very well. The full description which Mark (1.4) and Luke (3.3) give of John’s baptism is “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” – not an easy phrase to decipher precisely. Barclay’s paraphrase is helpful: “a baptism which was the sign of a 42 repentance through which a man might find the forgiveness of sins.” Leon Morris comments, “This 43 means a baptism which follows repentance and is a sign of it.” 39

JDG Dunn, Article on ‘Repentance’, The Illustrated Bible Dictionary: Part 3, IVP 1980. See also Luke 3.3. 41 CFD Moule, An Idiom-Book of New Testament Greek, Cambridge UP 1959, p 49. 42 W Barclay, The Gospel of Mark, The Saint Andrew Press 1955, p 1. 43 L Morris, Luke, IVP 1974, p 95. 40



The preposition ‘for’ in Matthew’s Gospel translates a word (eis) which generally means ‘into’ – either literally or metaphorically. In which case it is a baptism into repentance. The suggestion here may be that it is a baptism which takes or leads us into repentance. Hence Barclay 44 translates, “I baptise you with water to make you repent.” Hendriksen has a better turn of phrase 45 when he renders it, “I baptise you…with a view to conversion (repentance).” Other possibilities, depending on one’s exegesis of the difficult phrase ‘for repentance’ (eis metanoian) are: (a) ‘I baptise you in order that you will repent’ (eis plus accusative suggesting purpose, here in context unlikely); (b) ‘I baptise you with a view to continued repentance’ (the telic sense suggested by Broadus), (c) ‘I 46 baptise you because of your repentance’ (causal eis, or something close to it, Turner). It is well to remember that John’s purpose in speaking these words is to contrast his baptism with that of the one who was to come after him. All this raises a fundamental question, not without significance for our understanding of Christian baptism. Does repentance lead to baptism, or does baptism lead to repentance? Is repentance a pre-requirement of baptism or is it a consequence of baptism? Is baptism a sign of repentance or does it effect repentance? E Lohmeyer is in no doubt as to the answer: “For John repentance is a divine act on a man; the means through which this miracle is given and is 47 experienced is through baptism,” (italics added). It is clear from Lohmeyer’s writings that in his view people came to John to be baptised in order to receive repentance and not the other way round. Beasley-Murray helpfully comments, “It is unfortunate that an exegete should so strongly contend for what is manifestly a one-sided emphasis; it demands decision on an ‘either-or’ which the New 48 Testament writers would not have recognised.” Perhaps, as is often the case and as Beasley Murray has hinted, the truth lies somewhere in-between. There can be no question that John required repentance from those who came for baptism and that his baptism was a sign of repentance. The heart of John’s preaching was repentance not baptism, as Matthew himself records (3.1): “John the Baptist came…saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.’” The message is for men to turn from sin to God. As Beasley-Murray comments, “It is not feasible that either Jesus or John meant by that word, ‘Come to baptism that God 49 may turn you!’” We should also note the exceedingly strong emphasis which John laid on the need for genuine repentance (Matt 3.7-11). At the same time it is worth pointing out that repentance and conversion are a continuing necessity for a person’s relationship with God. It may be that John was urging repentance both before and after baptism, urging repentance as a way of life as well as the way into a new life. Repentance must be prior to baptism and it must be subsequent to baptism. Baptism both signifies the repentance already there and the repentance which must follow. Hendriksen’s summary of the position is worth quoting in full. “But is this phrase ‘with a view to conversion’ a contradiction of the idea that a man must already have been converted before he can be baptised, a truth clearly implied in verses 6-10? Answer: Not at all, for, by means of baptism, true conversion is powerfully stimulated and increased. The person who in the proper manner – that is, with a pledge to God proceeding from a clear conscience – receives baptism, understanding the outward sign and seal, will all the more heartily out of gratitude yield himself to God. Moreover, how could reflection on the adopting, pardoning and cleansing grace of God, as symbolised by the sign and seal of baptism, have any different effect? For such a person the outward sign and seal 50 applied to the body, and the inward grace applied to the heart, go together.”

Genuine repentance is clearly a work of God before it is a work of man and yet the obligation to repent is laid on men everywhere. That was as true for the ministry of John the Baptist as it was the ministry of the Apostles. Baptism is a sign of grace and a means of grace. There is nothing, however, to suggest that John’s act of baptism itself effected repentance. His words to the Pharisees and Sadducees clearly contradicted such a possibility. Baptism alone would not save them from “the coming wrath” (Matt 3.7), only baptism in so far as it represented a genuine turning from evil to God.


W Barclay, The New Testament: Volume 1 (a new translation), Collins 1968, p 58. W Hendriksen, Matthew, Banner of Truth 1974, p 207. 46 N Turner, Syntax, Vol 3 of JH Moulton, Grammar of New Testament Greek, T & T Clark 1963, pp 266-267; referred to in DA Carson’s, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Vol 8 Matthew-Luke, (Ed. FE Gaebelein), Zondervan 1984, p 104. 47 E Lohmeyer, Johannes der Taufer, Gottingen, pp 68f. 48 GR Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament, Paternoster 1972, pp 34f. 49 GR Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament, Paternoster 1972, pp 35. 50 W Hendriksen, Matthew, Banner of Truth 1974, p 207. 45


3) The context of John’s baptism AN ‘ESCHATOLOGICAL ORIENTATION’51

The context is ‘the coming of the Lord’. Quoting Isaiah each of the synoptic Gospels tells us that John has come to “prepare the way for the Lord”, to “make straight paths for him”. Luke gives us more of the quotation concluding with (v 6), “And all mankind will see God’s salvation.” It is worth noting that in Isaiah the ‘concluding’ verse reads (40.5), “And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all mankind 52 will see it.” NEGATIVE AND POSITIVE ELEMENTS

Here again we note not only the negative but also the positive element in John’s ministry. The coming of the Messiah is near and with his coming the establishing of his kingdom. The glorious day anticipated for centuries was about to dawn, the day when God would intervene and save his people. Of course, it was also understood that this day would be a day of judgement and salvation (the negative and positive again). It includes “the coming wrath”; the tree that does not produce good fruit “will be thrown into the fire”; “the winnowing fork is in his hand”; and the chaff will be burned with “unquenchable fire” (Matt 3.7, 10, 12). But the warning of judgement is intended to lead to repentance. In any case the essential purpose of the winnowing fork is not the destruction of chaff but 53 the “gathering of his wheat” (v 12). The turning from evil and the turning to God signified and stimulated by baptism is, according to John, essential preparation for those who want to be included in the Messiah’s kingdom. John makes clear that the Jewish ancestry of those who came to him would be insufficient to gain them entry into the kingdom (v 8). There is no substitute for genuine repentance. THE POINTER TO ANOTHER BAPTISM

There is another important aspect of John’s baptism. His “preparatory and symbolic 54 baptism” was to give way to a truly “effective baptism” , i.e. the baptism of the Coming One. He would baptise “with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matt 3.11; Luke 3.16; Mark omits ‘and with fire’, 1.8). It should be noted that John’s baptism with water anticipates Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit and not Christian baptism with water. 55 In spite of arguments to the contrary there is no good reason for not taking the text as we have it in Matthew and Luke as correct and allowing that Mark omitted the words “and fire” either because he wasn’t aware of them or because he was concerned to emphasise a particular 56 aspect of the promised baptism which had been fulfilled by the time he wrote. IH Marshall writes, “the way for John to speak of a baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire had already been laid in Judaism, 57 and he could have well taken the final decisive step…” The term ‘Holy Spirit’ appears in the Old Testament (e.g. Psalm 51.11; Isa. 63.10ff) and the coming of the Spirit is anticipated in the Old Testament (Isa 32.15; 44.3; Ezek 18.31; 36.25-27; 37.14; 39.29). Judgement is associated with fire (Isa 29.6; 31.9; Ezek 38.22; Amos 7.4; Mal 3.2; 4.1). Particularly important is the association of the Holy Spirit with fire in Joel 2.28-30. Granted the above there are still differences of opinion as to what is meant by Jesus’ baptism as “baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire”. (a) Some distinguish between the Holy Spirit and fire and also between the recipients of the Holy Spirit and fire, arguing that the baptism with the Holy Spirit is for those who genuinely repent, whereas the baptism with fire is for those who cling 51

Beasley-Murray’s phrase, Baptism in the New Testament, Paternoster 1972, pp 32. Old Testament prophecies of an eschatological nature may embrace the first coming of the Messiah in humiliation and his second coming in glory. It is useful to remember that the Old Testament prophet “speaking about the last days or the Messianic age would at times look upon the future as a traveller does on a distant mountain range. He fancies that one mountain top rises up right behind the other, when in reality the two are miles apart. The two comings of Christ are viewed as if they were one. Thus we read, ‘A shoot shall come forth out of Jesse…and he shall smite the earth” (Isa 11.1-4) (see also Isa 61.1,2; Joel 3.28-31)… This has been called ‘prophetic foreshortening’.” 53 See GB Caird, Saint Luke, Pelican 1963, p 74. 54 RT France, Matthew, IVP 1985, p 93. 55 The issues involved are too complex for this report and not really relevant to its purpose. 56 There is a useful consideration of this matter (taking three pages) by Donald English in his Commentary, The Message of Mark, IVP 1992, p 34-36 57 IH Marshall, The Gospel of Luke, Paternoster 1978, p 147. 52



to their sin (c.f. Luke 3.13). (b) Some distinguish between the Holy Spirit and fire but argue that those who receive the Holy Spirit and fire are those who truly repent. The Spirit and fire represent positive and negative aspects of God’s salvation in the life of the same truly repentant person. (c) Some make little or no distinction, though the practical application here is much the same as with (b). Hence, Calvin comments that it is Christ who bestows the Spirit of regeneration and that, like fire, this Spirit purifies us by removing our pollution. Carson says, “the one whose way (John) is preparing will 59 administer a Spirit-fire baptism that will purify and refine.” It may be noted that the connection between the Holy Spirit and fire is close; there is no separate preposition in the Greek text; it is “with the Holy Spirit and fire”. It may also be noted that on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit and fire came upon believers, fire symbolising the presence of the Holy Spirit. We can be fairly sure that Pentecost was the fulfilment of John’s prophecy in Luke’s understanding, both in his Gospel and in his Acts of the 60 Apostles. It is possible that the baptism with ‘the Holy Spirit and with fire’ represents the whole work that God would achieve through his well beloved Son in terms of rescue, renewal and restoration plus the destruction of all that is worthless. JDG Dunn sums up this preferred approach, reflected in (c) above, as follows. “First, the future baptism is a single baptism in Spirit-and-fire. Second…Spirit-and-fire baptism is not offered as an alternative to John’s water-baptism, nor does one accept John’s water-baptism to escape the messianic baptism. Rather one undergoes John’s water-baptism with a view to and in preparation for the messianic Spirit-and-fire baptism. In which case, the Coming One’s baptism cannot be solely retributive and destructive. Those who repent and are baptised by John must receive a baptism which is ultimately gracious. In short, if John spoke of a future baptism at all there was both gospel and 61 judgement in it. A NEW AND NOVEL BAPTISM

At the turn of the century, reflecting on Jewish initiation rites Plummer was able to 62 state, “the history of baptism, so far as direct evidence is concerned, begins with (John)”. Can the same be said following the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls? When considering the Qumran community (under ‘Jewish Baptisms?’) the question was raised of a connection between John and Qumran. Our conclusion was that there is no evidence and no necessity for a connection. The contrasts between the two are far greater than the similarities. WL Lane (quoted previously when dealing with Qumran) puts forward one particular difference which demands further consideration at this point. “Those who heard John would not have failed to recognise the familiar prophetic call to repentance. But in response to his preaching John called for an action which was wholly novel – baptism in the Jordan River. It has been conjectured that John’s baptism was derived from the Jewish practice of baptising proselytes, or from the rites of initiation practised at Qumran. No clear line of dependence can be shown in support of these theories. Baptism appears rather as a unique activity of this prophet, a prophetic sign 63 so striking that John became known simply as ‘the Baptizer.’

RT France makes a similar point: “John is introduced abruptly, distinguished by his regular title, the Baptist, (so also Mark, Luke and Josephus), since he was apparently the first to 64 baptise others (proselyte baptism and the ‘baptisms’ at Qumran were self-administered)” (italics added). France also notes two other important distinctions. Referring to proselyte baptism and the ‘baptisms’ of Qumran he observes, “Neither accounts adequately for John’s baptism, which was apparently a once-only rite, administered by John in the river; and neither carried the note of urgent preparation for the coming crisis which was the main point of John’s baptism. John’s ‘converts’ were not seeking ceremonial purification, but ‘fleeing from the wrath to come’ (v 7). Their baptism was 65 a token of repentance…” (italics added).


Norval Geldenhuys, The Gospel of Luke, Marshall, Morgan and Scott 1977, p 140. DA Carson, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Vol 8 Matthew-Luke, (Ed. FE Gaebelein), Zondervan 1984, p 105. 60 IH Marshall, The Gospel of Luke, Paternoster 1978, p 146. 61 JDG Dunn, Baptism in the Holy Spirit, SCM 1970, p 11. 62 Alfred Plummer, Article on ‘Baptism’, Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible, T & T Clark 1903, Vol 1 p 240. 63 WL Lane, The Gospel of Mark, Marshall Morgan and Scott 1974, p 49. 64 RT France, Matthew, IVP 1985, commenting on v 1 (p 90). See also his comment on vv 5,6: “John’s baptism was an innovation. The nearest contemporary parallels are the self-baptism of a Gentile on becoming a proselyte, and the repeated ritual washings (also self-administered) at Qumran.” 65 RT France, Matthew, IVP 1985, p 91. 59


Beasley-Murray points out that the word baptisma (baptism) used in connection with the baptism of John “appears for the first time in the NT. No instance of its occurrence in pagan and Jewish literature has yet been found. In view of the fact that its earliest employment is for the baptism of John, it could conceivably have been coined by John’s disciples. More plausibly, it is a Christian innovation, and was applied by Christian writers to John’s baptism in the conviction that the latter should be bracketed with Christianity rather than with Judaism. It is often affirmed that baptismos denotes the act of immersion and baptisma includes the result… Of this there is no evidence. It is e more likely that baptisma was formed on the analogy of its Heb. equivalent t bilah. Apart from the general preference of Jewish Christians for Gk. terms phonetically similar to Heb. equivalents, it may well have been adopted by them to express their consciousness that Christian baptism was a new thing in the world, differing from all Jewish and pagan purificatory rites (so Ysebaert, op. cit., 52)” – 66 italics added. 4) John’s baptism and Christian baptism RA Cole states: “John’s baptism was not Christian baptism, nor was it associated with the gift of the Spirit (see Acts 19.2, where disciples of John are re-baptised by Paul, as being ignorant of the very existence of the Spirit, and as not having been baptised in the name of Jesus). But note also that there is no evidence for the re-baptism of those disciples of the Lord who had previously 67 been John’s disciples, and who may thus be presumed to have received his baptism already.” This raises a number of questions. (1) What is the relationship between John’s baptism and Christian baptism? It is clear that the two cannot be equated for the simple reason that John’s baptism was not sufficient for those who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. The fact that the two are not equated, however, does not mean that they are not connected. (2) What is the relationship between John’s baptism of Jesus and Christian baptism? According to Bultmann it was the practice of the early church which provided the basis for the account of Jesus’ baptism in the Gospels. Jesus’ baptism was modelled on the practice of the 68 early church. The more common view has been that the baptism of Jesus had a crucial role to play in the development of Christian baptism. WF Flemington suggests that Jesus’ baptism “has exercised a more considerable influence than has hitherto been recognised upon the origin of the Christian rite” and further suggests that in the early church Christian baptism was “the counterpart in the life of the 69 believer of the baptism of Jesus himself”. DM Baillie writes, “It seems obvious that when the early Christians baptised into the name of the Lord Jesus, their thoughts went back to that incident which in the gospel tradition stood immovably at the beginning of His public ministry – the baptism of Himself 70 by John in the Jordan.” According to Karl Barth it was through his own baptism that Jesus instituted 71 the sacrament of baptism. The difficulty faced here is “the all but complete silence of the New Testament 72 writers concerning this supposed relationship between the two baptisms”. There is not a single New Testament writer who makes any attempt to relate the two. Whether the omission is deliberate or unconscious it stems, no doubt, from the uniqueness of Jesus’ baptism. His baptism was the baptism of a man who did not need baptism, at least, not for himself. In his baptism the sinless One was identifying with sinners. It seems inappropriate to compare his baptism with ours, and may well have seemed inappropriate to the apostles. While it may be going beyond the biblical data to suggest that one baptism is dependant upon the other it is certainly in keeping within the biblical data to say that there are parallels between the two baptisms. As Beasley-Murray has put it, there is “a vast difference between the two 73 experiences, yet there is also a connection between them”. 66

GR Beasley-Murray, article on ‘Baptism: (b) baptisma’, Dictionary of New Testament Theology Vol 1 (ed. C Brown), pp 149f. Commenting on ho baptistes (p 150) he says “ho baptistes is the surname given in the NT, above all in the Synoptic Gospels to John the Baptiser (e.g. Matt 3.1). It draws attention to the characteristic element in his ministry, namely the demand for repentance-baptism, and still more the novelty of administering baptism to others, instead of leaving them to baptise themselves, as happened with all OT ablutions and in Jewish proselyte baptism.” 67 RA Cole, The Gospel According to St Mark, Tyndale 1963, p 57. 68 R Bultmann, Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition, 3rd ed. 1997, pp 263ff, referred to in Beasley-Murray’s Baptism in the New Testament, p 62. 69 WF Flemington, The New Testament Doctrine of Baptism, 1948, 121. 70 DM Baillie, The Theology of the Sacraments, Faber 1957, p 77. 71 Karl Barth, The Teaching of the Church regarding Baptism, (trans. EA Payne), SCM 1948, pp ; see DM Baillie, p 77. 72 GR Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament, Paternoster 1972, p 63. 73 GR Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament, Paternoster 1972, p 65.


There are parallels between Christian baptism and John’s baptism, i.e. all his baptisms including the baptism of Jesus.  Unlike other Jewish rituals involving water neither of these baptisms are self-administered. They are administered to the persons seeking baptism. As made clear earlier this is quite different from rituals involving water prior to John the Baptist which are normally called ritual cleansings, washings or baths rather than baptisms.  Unlike other Jewish rituals John’s baptism and Christian baptism are both once-for-all events. The baptism of proselytes was also a once-for-all event but there is considerable uncertainty as to when such baptisms began and whether they had any influence on either John’s baptism or Christian baptism. The first significant reference to such a baptism is dated cAD 80.  Key emphases in both are repentance and the forgiveness of sins (cf. Mark 1.4 with Acts 2.38). There are further parallels between Christian baptism and the specific baptism of Jesus by John which do not apply to John’s baptisms in general.  Jesus was identified with us in his baptism; we are identified with him in our baptism.  Jesus was acknowledged to be the Son of God at his baptism (Mark 1.11); we are acknowledged to be the sons of God at our baptism (albeit through faith in him) (Gal 3.26). Our sonship is rooted in his Sonship. 74  Jesus’ baptism had an anticipatory and eschatological element to it, anticipating the great 75 redemptive act of death-resurrection-ascension-parousia; our baptism has an anticipatory and eschatological element to it. It is the sign of our death, resurrection, ascension and glorification.  The Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism; the Spirit is given to those who are baptised in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2.38). It should be remembered that these are parallels and that the parallels are not be taken too far. So for example in connection with the last named parallel Beasley-Murray cautions that “in Apostolic teaching the descent of the Spirit at the Messiah’s baptism is eloquent of who He is rather 76 than what Christian baptism is (Acts 10.38; 1 John 5.6ff).” Nonetheless the parallels have some significance. Although Christian baptism, and John’s baptism for that matter, may be attributed to an act of revelation (the command of Christ in the case of Christian baptism; illumination by God in the case of John’s baptism) they do have a context. There are parallels with Jewish rituals: the use of water, the symbolism of cleansing, the outward sign of an inward disposition; in the case of Qumran and proselyte baptism, the concepts of new birth, dying and rising; in the case of proselyte baptism, the baptism of children along with parents (men and women). These parallels, however, do not constitute a relationship and they are weaker than the parallels between John’s baptism of Jesus and Christian Baptism. There is a sense in which Christian baptism reflects in a very general sense the baptism of Jesus by John but to talk about one baptism anticipating the other may be going too far. There is no explicit connection made in the New Testament between John’s baptism and Christian baptism, though there is an explicit reference to connect John’s baptism of Jesus with water and Jesus’ baptism of his followers with the Holy Spirit. As stated earlier John’s symbolic baptism with 77 water anticipated Jesus’ effective baptism with the Holy Spirit. If the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan anticipates anything it is the baptism of his people with the Spirit. We can say that John’s baptism with water anticipated Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit which is symbolised by baptism with water. (3) Can we presume that the twelve disciples of Jesus were given Christian baptism at some point, both those previously baptised by John and those not baptised by John? Or is it the case that the baptism of those previously baptised by John was accepted as Christian baptism when they became disciples of Christ? Those who have suggested this have had to explain the fact that the baptism of the Ephesian ‘disciples’ (Acts 19.1-7) was not accepted as ‘Christian’. Hence, RN Longenecker distinguishes between (i) those whose “baptism by John was seen as pointing beyond itself to Jesus (as with Apollos)”, and (ii) those whose baptism by John “was understood as rivalling commitment to Jesus”. In his view the baptism of the first group was regarded as Christian baptism, whereas the baptism of the second group, e.g. the Ephesians, was not regarded as Christian and, 74

See p 12. Earlier we have spoken particularly of Jesus’ baptism anticipating his death, but it is impossible to speak of his death in isolation from his other great saving activities without which his death would be devoid of meaning. They are parts of the whole. 76 GR Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament, Paternoster 1972, p 66. 77 See p 12. 75



therefore, baptism “into the name of the Lord Jesus” was administered. The difficulty here is that we are dealing entirely with supposition. We simply do not know whether any or all of the disciples received Christian baptism. Neither do we know whether those who had been baptised by John were regarded as having received Christian baptism. We are operating in the realm of speculation, a realm which cannot contribute to our discussion of the relationship between John’s baptism and Christian baptism. An element of agnosticism in this area is appropriate.



Those who argue against the baptism of children have one major advantage, i.e. the brevity with which their case can be stated. Some have stated the case in a single sentence, e.g. “There is no concrete evidence for infant baptism in the New Testament.” Others may wish to add something along the lines of, “Baptism is for those who have repented and placed their trust in Jesus Christ and cannot, therefore, be for infants.” The position is simple and therefore attractive. Colin Buchanan has summarised the case against infant baptism in a slightly longer and certainly more 79 scholarly and careful form. His purpose also is to illustrate the attractiveness of a brief statement and the difficulty of countering a brief statement with a more complex argument. Having presented his summary he observes, “There is no 30-second short statement of the paedobaptist case. But that of itself does not pre-judge the result of the hearing – in many a court a deceptively simply plea of innocence by the defence has to be met, and is successfully met, by a far more detailed and complex 80 case for the prosecution.” The matter of infant baptism must be resolved not on arguments from silence, nor on difficulties we confront in the practice of child baptism (there are many Christian beliefs which present greater difficulties), but by looking at the evidence of the whole Bible. The evidence should include circumstantial evidence, i.e. we seek to ascertain the truth by looking at all the known facts 81 and by drawing inferences from those facts which would be difficult to explain otherwise. Moreover we must take on board that the case for the baptism of children is of a cumulative nature and that it is none the worse for it. We should certainly not reject it for the sake of brevity or simplicity. If we are to “rightly divide the word of truth” we must gather all the evidence and present it as the evidence itself demands that it be presented, as a consistent whole.


Old Testament evidence

The New Testament is the fulfilment of the Old. Twice in the same verse Jesus tells 82 us that he had not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfil them. Chrysostom stated: 83 “(Jesus’) sayings were no repeal of the former, but a drawing-out and filling up of them”. To introduce a dichotomy between the two Testaments was the heresy of Marcion. Jesus’ relationship with the Old 84 Testament is one of “organic continuity”. New Testament theology has its roots in the Old Testament. This is true for every aspect of theology. Any attempt to develop, for example, a doctrine of Christ or of the Trinity without reference to the Old Testament would be inadequate. Every doctrine has to be seen in context, and every doctrine has its roots. That is as true with Baptism as it is with the Trinity. To consider it without reference to the Old Testament would be irresponsible. As GW Bromiley has expressed it, “Christ did not come, nor did Christian faith arise, in a vacuum. A particular background and context had been prepared. Our Lord and the disciples already had the Word of God. They were 85 steeped in it, and they appealed to it. They were not setting it aside but consciously fulfilling it.” There are at least two elements of the Old Testament revelation which have a bearing upon our consideration of infant baptism: the Old Testament understanding and experience of “family” and the Old Testament understanding and experience of “covenant”. The two are closely related, as CJH Wright has observed: “religiously, the household had a crucial role in maintaining the


RN Longenecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Vol. 9 (on Acts), Zondervan 1981, p 494. C Buchanan, A Case for infant Baptism, Grove Books 1973, p 4. 80 C Buchanan, A Case for infant Baptism, Grove Books 1973, p 4. 81 The Concise OED defines circumstantial as “tending to establish a conclusion by inference from known facts hard to explain otherwise”. 82 Matthew 5.17f. 83 John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew Part I (trans. George Prevost), Oxford 1843, p 229. 84 JRW Stott, Christian Counter-culture IVP p 72. 85 GW Bromiley, Children of Promise, Wipf and Stock Publishers 1998 (Eerdmans), p 12. 79


covenant relationship between the nation and God and in preserving its traditions throughout 86 succeeding generations.” [1]



Family life in the days of the patriarchs was semi-nomadic and families were especially large. John Bimson tells us, “Although the narrative often says that Abraham, Isaac or Jacob ‘pitched his tent’ in such-and-such a place (e.g. Gen 12.8; 26.25; 33.19), we must not imagine that one tent housed the whole group. The Old Testament itself speaks in places of several separate tents (e.g. 31.33). As well as the patriarchs’ large families, there were also herdsmen and male and female servants attached to the household… When Lot’s family needed rescuing from an alliance of invading kings, Abraham was able to gather 318 fighting men from among his household (Gen 14.14). This suggests a total of several hundred people for the whole group…. The tents of the patriarch’s families and servants must have comprised a very extensive encampment. The wives of the patriarchs evidently had their own tents (Gen 24.67; 31.33), probably next to, and perhaps connected with, those 88 of their husbands.” Inevitably, with the passing of several hundred years and their prolonged enslavement in Egypt, significant changes had taken place for the descendants of the patriarchs by the time of their return to Palestine. One significant change was their numerical growth. From being a large and powerful family they had become a nation of people subdivided into smaller units, i.e., tribes, then clans and finally families (Jos 7.14). The clan was a territorial unit as well as a group united by ties of blood. It often corresponded to a whole town or village community. So, for example, in a list of 89 clans in the tribe of Manasseh we find names which were also the names of towns (Num 26.28-34). 90 The family or household unit remained, however, the basic unit of Israelite society. The Hebrew word bayith in Jos 7.14 is translated ‘family’ in most modern translations (e.g. NIV, NEB, Good News) and ‘household’ in most older translations (e.g. AV, RV, RSV). It is used both of a family (2 Kings 8.1f ) and 91 of the building in which the family lived (2 Kings 4.2). Another significant change for Israelites living in Palestine was that the seminomadic life of the patriarchs had largely given way to village or town life. Archaeological excavations have revealed that village houses were small and basic. Bimson describes two typical villages: “Most houses at Khirbet et-Tell and Raddana were rectangular with only two or three rooms at ground level and a sleeping loft… A family of four or five probably slept together in the one sleeping loft… houses were cramped by modern standards… A typical family unit occupying a village house probably consisted of a father and mother and two or three children… the houses were arranged in compounds. Each compound consisted of usually three (sometimes two) houses and a shared courtyard. These compounds represent multiple or extended families, each with about a dozen members. A typical multiple family might consist of a father and mother, their married sons with their wives and children, as well as any unmarried brothers, sisters, sons and daughters of the original couple. There might also 92 be a surviving great-grandparent in the family…” In a family of, say, three generations “the head of the household would have been the grandfather. In the event of his death, his married son and their families may have remained together as a single household, in which case the head of the family would have been the eldest 93 son…” Although headship of the family was normally male it was not unknown for a widow to become head of a household. So, for example, the woman of Shunem who gave hospitality to Elisha acted as the head of her household, took her family to Philistia for seven years and reclaimed the 94 family estate on their return (2 Kings 8.1-6). 86

CJH Wright, God’s People in God’s Land: Family, Land and Property in the Old Testament, Paternoster 1997, pp 1f. For this section the Report has drawn extensively on John Bimson’s book, The World of the Old Testament, Scripture Union 1988. See also EW Heaton, Everyday Life in Old Testament Times, Carousel Books 1974 (originally Batsford 1956), chapter 4. 88 Ibid, pp 48f. 89 Ibid, p 119. 90 Commenting on the fifth commandment HL Ellison writes, “For Scripture the family is the keystone of the fabric of society.” The Daily Study Bible: Exodus, St Andrew Press, p 112. 91 There is a parallel here with the term ‘church’, the New Testament word for God’s people. Subsequently it came to describe the building in which God’s people met. 92 J Bimson, The World of the Old Testament, Scripture Union 1988, pp 52-57. 93 Ibid, p 57. 94 It is generally assumed that she was a widow by the time 2 Kings 8. Her husband is described as elderly in 2 Kings 4.14 and is not mentioned in the events of chapter 8. As Bimson observes,” If she is not a widow in 2 Kings 8, then the story illustrates the considerable authority and responsibility which some married women exercised within their households (see 87


Important for us is the role of the head of the household. Whether he was the grandfather or father (more common with the passing of time) he had “complete authority over the 95 family, not just in practical matters but in religious ones too” (J Drane). Bimson describes the influence and responsibility of the head of the family in Israelite society. “Within his family he exercised a kind of judicial authority. It was expected that a man would use his authority to ensure the responsible and godly conduct of his sons (1 Sam 2.22-36; 8.1-5)… The family head was also the protector of the whole household. No one suspected of an offence could be seized by his accusers without the authority of the head of the household (Jud 6.30f; 2 Sam 14.7). Only a fool failed to protect his family from injustice (Job 5.4). The responsibility of a family head in this respect is only fully appreciated when we remember the scope of a household. The household was naturally responsible for the care of those of its members who were sick, elderly or disabled, and for its servants… Those who did not belong to households of their own, such as foreigners, widows and orphans, faced destitution (which could ultimately mean death from starvation) unless society made some provision for them. The Mosaic code therefore contained laws to ensure that people in those categories were cared for (e.g. Deut 24.1921; 26.12-13). Heads of households would have been responsible for putting such concerns into practice (cf. Job 29.13-16). In short, the family was the institution which cared for the sick and the poor, and the family head was the protector of all those under his roof. It is not surprising that Israel saw God as its 96 ‘father’ (Is 64.8; Mal 1.6; etc.).

A crucial aspect of the family in the Old Testament was its spiritual solidarity, an aspect which we find also in the New Testament. As Pierre Marcel states, “The family forms a collective entity… In God’s eyes parents and their children are one. By divine right parents are the authorised representatives of their children; they act for them; they engage in spiritual obligations because of them and for them, and also in their name. Such is the order of God. It is for that reason that in every case when parents enter into the covenant in the capacity of proselytes they do so 97 together with their minor children” The excessive individualism of our modern era is, of course, completely alien not only to the Old Testament concept of family life and of parenthood, but also to the New Testament concept of the same. It is this biblical emphasis of family solidarity that lay at the very heart of the covenant which God established with Abraham and his descendants. [2]


The teaching of the Old Testament on the overarching topic of covenant was of fundamental importance at the time of the Reformation for Reformers such as John Calvin and John Knox. It was particularly important for their understanding of baptism. Here it is necessary to explore the biblical concept as we have it in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament the relationship between God and his people is expressed in a variety of ways, two of the most important being (a) covenant and (b) fatherhood and sonship (God 98 is the father of Israel, Israel is the son and heir of God ). In both concepts the relationship was initiated and sustained by God . They are his people because he set his love upon them and chose them for himself (Deut 7.6-7). In both concepts there is an obligation laid upon the people by God. 99 According to CJH Wright “it is Israel’s sonship which united the indicative and the imperative”, i.e. God’s gracious choice of Israel and the obligations laid upon Israel. The comment of J McCarthy on Jer 31.9 emphasises the close connection between the covenant relationship and the father-son relationship and, therefore, the personal nature of the covenant: “The restoration of Israel is the restoration of the father-son relationship. This is the context governed by 31.1, that is, by the proclamation of a new and better union between Yahweh and Israel based on a new covenant. Thus, in the mind of Jeremiah the covenant relationship and the father-son relationship were not 100 incompatible, they were essentially the same thing.” The covenant between God and his people had its origin in God and in God’s dealings with Abraham. It came about through God’s initiative. He established it. It was his grace that also Prov 31.16-29). Indeed, even while her husband is definitely alive this woman acts with independence and initiative (2 Kings 4.8-37).” Ibid. p 121. See also 2 Sam 14.4ff. 95 J Drane, The New Lion Rncyclopedia of the Bible, J Drane (Ed.), Lion 1998, p 94. 96 J Bimson, The World of the Old Testament, Scripture Union 1988, pp 120f. 97 P Marcel, The Biblical Doctrine of Infant Baptism, James Clarke 1953 (trans. PE Hughes), p 117. 98 Ex 4.22; Deut 8.5; 14.1; 32.5,6,18,19; Is 1.2; 30.1-9; 43.6; 63.16; 64.8; Jer 3.14,19,22; 31.9,20; Hos 11.1; Mal 1.6; 2.10. 99 CJH Wright, God’s People in God’s Land, Paternoster 1997, p 21. 100 J McCarthy, Notes on the Love of God in Deuteronomy and the Father-Son Relationship between Yahweh and Israel, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 27 (1965), pp 144-147. Quoted by JH Wright, God’s People in God’s Land, Paternoster 1997, p 21.


brought it into being. The covenant however had its obligations: “you must keep my covenant” (Gen 17.9). While the descendants of Abraham did not become God’s people by keeping the obligations they could renounce God and his covenant and take themselves beyond the pale of his covenant. There is no such thing as a covenant without obligations. As Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commands!” (John 14.15). It can hardly be overstated that fundamental to the covenant is the unique relationship which God established between himself and the people he brought into existence. It was essentially a spiritual covenant. There were material benefits, primarily the promise of land, i.e. the land of Canaan, for their inheritance. But the material benefits were secondary to the extraordinary benefit of God’s personal commitment to Abraham and his descendants: “to be your God and the God 101 of your descendants” (Gen 17.7,8). Asking the question, “What was the Abrahamic covenant in the highest reaches of its meaning?” John Murray responds, “Undeniably and simply, ‘I will be your God, 102 and you shall be my people.’” Hence in Deut 7.6 we read, “you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his 103 people, his treasured possession.” The covenant made with Abraham was inseparably bound up with Abraham’s faith. In Genesis 12 we read of Abraham’s faith and obedience as God instructed him to leave his country and his people to go to a land that God would show him. At that time the promise was given that all people on earth would be blessed through Abraham. In Genesis 15 God promises what was humanly speaking impossible, a son who would be Abraham’s heir. It was further promised that Abraham’s descendants would be as numerous as the stars. Abraham believed God, we are told, and “it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (v 6). The account in chapter 15 concludes: “On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abraham…” (v 18). Significantly Abraham was to become known as the father of all the faithful. In Genesis 17 God confirms (v 17) his covenant with Abraham and expands on it: Abraham was to be the father of many nations; the covenant was to be an everlasting covenant (v 7); God was to be Abraham’s God and the God of his descendants (v 7); the sign of the covenant was to be circumcision (vv 10f); circumcision was not to be optional (to be uncircumcised was to be cut off from God’s people, v 14). Not only was Abraham himself to undergo circumcision so too was every member of his household, whether son or slave, (“whether born in your household or bought with money”, v 13). Hamilton puts this in a striking way, “The firstborn son is no more in the covenant 104 tradition than the slave. Hierarchialism gives way to egalitarianism.” Every male child born into the household was to be circumcised at the age of eight days (Gen 17.12; Lev 12.3). Not only slaves but all foreigners who wished to join the covenant people were also required to undergo circumcision (Gen 34.13-17). In fact only those who had been circumcised were allowed to take part in the celebration of the Passover (Ex 12.48f) which was a feast for the covenant community. All this illustrates how close was the relationship between the covenant and its sign, so close in fact that circumcision can be spoken of as the covenant, “My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant” (Gen 17.13b). 105 Hamilton observes, “The designation of circumcision itself as a covenant is a synedoche for 106 covenantal obligation: ‘this is [the aspect of] my covenant you must keep’.” In the context of the covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17) reference is made to Abraham’s descendants six times (vv 7-10,19) and to the “generations to come” three times (vv 7, 910). It is a covenant established by God with Abraham and Abraham’s descendants (v 7). We discover, when we reach the New Testament, that there is more to this than originally met the eye. We may at least anticipate that Abraham’s descendants would include God’s people under the New 107 Covenant every bit as much as they included God’s people under the Old. It is of particular interest that Abraham, under God’s direction, should have circumcised Ishmael. According to the angel announcing his birth Ishmael would be “a wild donkey of 101

D Kidner: “Spiritually, the essence of the covenant is personal, like the ‘I will’ of a marriage: so the pledge I will be their God (v 8) far outweighs the particular benefits”, Genesis, Tyndale 1967, p 129. 102 J Murray, Christian Baptism, Presbyterian and Reformed 1880, p 47. A more literal rendering of Gen 17.7 would be, “I will be God for you…” 103 See also Deut 14.2 and Ex 19.5,6. 104 VP Hamilton, The Book of Genesis Chapters 1-17, Eerdmans 1990, p 473. 105 A figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa, e.g. new faces at the meeting; England lost by six wickets (OED). 106 VP Hamilton, The Book of Genesis Chapters 1-17, Eerdmans 1990, p 470. 107 Abraham is “the father of all who believe” whether circumcised or uncircumcised (Rom 4.11f). See also Rom 9.6ff where Paul argues that just as not all who are descended from Israel are Israel, so not all who are descended from Abraham are Abraham’s children, his true offspring. God’s children “who can also be designated Abraham’s offspring (are) not the natural children…but the children of the promise…” (J Stott, The Message of Romans, IVP 1994, pp 266f).



a man” (Gen 16.12), i.e., “a forlorn and friendless figure”. More crucially Ishmael and his descendants would not feature in God’s covenant purposes. The Jewish people were descendants of Isaac, not Ishmael. God established his covenant with the descendants of Isaac, not those of Ishmael. So far as the covenant is concerned it is the descendants of Isaac not of Ishmael who were the heirs 109 of promise. According to God it was through Isaac that Abraham’s covenantal offspring would be named (Gen 21.12). Ishmael and Isaac were both circumcised as children of Abraham yet there is a great gulf between the two in the biblical perception of them (in both Old and New Testaments). A major argument of Paul in Galatians 4 (under law or under grace, vv 21-31) depends on the difference between Isaac and Ishmael in God’s purposes. The significance of this for our discussion together with the significance of the difference between Jacob and Esau (sons of Isaac) in God’s purposes is well summed up by C Buchanan. “The difference between the two sons in each generation is perfectly clear. The sheer fact of birth to a family which had been specially called of God did not of itself confer any automatic membership of the elect people of God. The fathers in each case circumcised both sons… but the circumcision, although it carried a divine significance, did not attest any automatic inheritance… (Circumcision) is not a fleshly, earthly sign, of a fleshly, earthly people of God. It is from the beginning the sign of God's election, which is given to the offspring of God's people without distinguishing at the point of birth how they are to grow up in the purposes of God. And here, perhaps, is a very cogent model for an understanding of the role of infant baptism.” 110

Commenting on Esau and twin brother Jacob JGSS Thomson writes, “Esau 111 symbolises those whom God has not elected; Jacob typifies those whom God has chosen.” Yet 112 Esau, ancestor of the Edomites, was circumcised along with his brother. Macleod has a perceptive comment on the significance of the circumcision of Ishmael and Esau for the baptism of infants. “Why do I baptise children? Is it because I believe that the infants of all believing parents are elect? No! Is it because I believe that the infants of all believing parents will one day be born again? No! Is it because I believe that one day they will all accept God for themselves? No! It is because God gave me an ordinance: Put the sign of the spiritual covenant on the physical seed. At the very beginning of this arrangement God put Ishmael and Esau there to remind us that we were not to do this on the ground that we knew theologically how the thing worked. We were to do it because God said it. In the case of Ishmael and Esau it seemed not to work. It wasn’t related to any rationale of its effectiveness. It was done (and it is still done) on the ground that God said, ‘Put the sign of my promise not only on 113 yourselves but also on your children.’”

There is an interesting question with respect to circumcision as a sign which is not 114 without relevance to baptism. For whom was it a covenant sign? There are three possibilities. (a) The outsider. In Gen 4.15 the sign on Cain identifies him to the outsider as one under divine protection. (b) God. In Gen 9.16 the sign of the rainbow is a reminder to God, “when I see it, I will remember”. In Ex 12.13 the blood on the door-posts at Passover is also a sign to God, “when I see the blood, I will pass over you”. (c) The person circumcised (including his family). Signs generally in the 115 Bible are for the people to whom they were given, e.g. the sign of the Sabbath in Ex 31.12-17. (a) The outsider, is slightly problematic in view of the fact that circumcision did not identify Israelites as such. Many who were not Israelites practised the same rite (sometimes as a puberty rite sometimes as a marriage rite) though not usually with reference to babies. As Hamilton observes, however, “The Hebrews alone focussed on the intimate relationship between a covenant from God and circumcision 116 as a mark of that covenant.” (b) God, is a strong contender. (c) The person circumcised, is likewise a strong contender. The fact that circumcision is a sign of the covenant, i.e. of the special relationship between God and his people, leaves open any or all of the three possibilities. 108

FI Anderson, Hosea, Anchor 1980, p 505. The wild donkey is the onager whose habitat is in waste places (Job 39.5-8; Is 32.14; Hos 8.9). Anderson comments, “We should not take it for granted that in Israel the ass was proverbial for stupidity…” 109 With the passing of time “the Ishmaelites would readily rank as representatives of Gentiles in general, excluded from the special covenant which God made with Abraham and with his descendants through Isaac (and Jacob).” FF Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians, Paternoster 1982, p 216. 110 C Buchanan, A Case for Infant Baptism, Grove Books 1973, p 11. 111 JGSS Thomson, The Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Ed. JD Douglas), article on Esau, IVP 1980. 112 Note Paul’s argument in Rom 9.6-18 re God’s sovereign choice, a choice arising out of the difference between these two circumcised brothers. 113 D Macleod, A Faith to Live By, Christian Focus 1998, pp 219f. 114 VP Hamilton, The Book of Genesis Chapters 1-17, Eerdmans 1990, p 470. 115 See also Ex 30.9,16; Num 15.37-40; Deut 6.8; 11.18; Jos 4.6-7. 116 VP Hamilton, The Book of Geneses Chapters 1-17, Eerdmans 1990, p 472.


Psalm 74 refers to a national disaster of catastrophic proportions. It refers 117 specifically to the destruction of the temple and is generally held to reflect the Babylonian devastation of Jerusalem followed by the Babylonian exile (cf. Ps 79). It is a lament, full of pathos. It seemed that God had forgotten, even rejected, his people. The Psalmist writes out of the utmost perplexity and desperation. And in the latter part of his desperate prayer he begs God, “Have regard for your covenant” (v 20). In his desperation he remembers that he is a child of the covenant, that he bears the sign of the covenant on his own body, that God’s covenant is for ever, that God cannot ignore or break his own covenant and desert or reject his own people. And so he pleads the covenant. He reminds himself of the covenant and he dares to remind God of the covenant. Spurgeon described 118 this verse as “the master key” to the Psalmist’s pleading. God’s covenant with its sign was not intended for theological reflection but for personal and corporate appropriation. The Psalmist’s experience is not unlike the experience of Martin Luther when he, also in the depths of despair, was able to plead his baptism and all that it represented: “I have been baptised!” It may be helpful to summarise the salient points already made and to add others which do not require detailed discussion. (1) The covenant had its origin in God’s dealings with Abraham. It was a covenant of grace established and maintained by God. (2) The covenant was inseparably bound up with Abraham’s faith through which God accepted him as righteous. (3) Although there were material benefits the covenant was essentially spiritual and personal, God would be God for his people. (4) The covenant was an everlasting covenant with permanent significance. (5) To be included within the covenant necessarily carried with it obligations to the God and people of the covenant. (6) The sign of the covenant, circumcision, was not a private, individualistic experience, it was to be administered to every male member of the household: sons, servants and other members of the extended family. (7) Children were to receive the sign of the covenant on the eighth day after birth solely because God had commanded it. 119 (8) Females had no sign corresponding to circumcision. They were included in the covenant as members of the family. (9) The mark of the covenant was ineradicable. It could not be undone. Not only was the covenant to have permanent significance, so too was the sign of the covenant. For those who remained within the covenant it would be a reminder of God’s blessing. For those who took themselves outside the covenant it would be a reminder of their alienation. (10) The sign of the covenant was a sign possibly to God, possibly to his people, possibly to the world at large. (11) Abraham’s descendants were to include God’s people under the New as well as the Old Covenant. (12) The Covenant with its sign provides the basis for faith and hope in hard days. It would be difficult to explore the topic of covenant as we have it in the Old Testament without reference to the Mosaic covenant established with Moses at Mount Sinai (Ex 19.5) and renewed in Moses’ final charge to the nation prior to his death (Deut 29.1). The Mosaic covenant has sometimes been presented as though it supplanted the covenant made with Abraham. Perhaps the most popular expression of this approach is to be found in dispensationalist theology, particularly 120 that of the Scofield Reference Bible which describes the Mosaic covenant as a “covenant of works” whereby salvation depends on obedience to the law. It is more in keeping with the biblical narrative to regard the giving of the law at Sinai as a provision of grace. The law was given to regulate the life of those who were already the people of God, not to establish a new way by which the Israelites could be 117

Not merely its profaning, as was the case in the days of Antiochus Epiphanes. CH Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol 2a, ‘Psalms 58-87, Zondervan 1966, pp 275f. See also P Marcel, The Biblical Doctrine of Infant Baptism, James Clarke 1953 (trans. PE Hughes), pp 110f. 119 “This lack may be attributed either to the heavily patriarchal structure of OT society, or to the OT teaching about the ‘one flesh’ principle in marriage. If two have become one there is need for a mark on only one” (VP Hamilton, The Book of Geneses Chapters 1-17, Eerdmans 1990, pp 469f). Alice L Laffey, An Introduction to the Old Testament: A Feminist Perspective, Fortress 1988, pp 62-64) notes that the further directive in Scripture (e.g. Deut 10.16; 30.6) about the circumcision of the heart transfers a physical act possible only for males, to a symbolic act, possible for all human beings. See the footnote in Hamilton, p 470. 120 Scofield Reference Bible, p 95. 118


accepted as God’s people. When the people of Israel resorted to the idolatrous worship of the golden calf, after the giving of the law, it was on the basis of the Abrahamic covenant that Moses successfully 121 based his plea for God to avert his anger. Of course, every covenant has its obligations as well as it 122 privileges, including the New Covenant. The conditional “if” is as important to the New Testament as 123 it is to the Old. We demonstrate the reality of what we are by keeping his commands. The mark of the covenant in the Old Testament was always a sign of God’s gracious dealings with his own people – both before and after Sinai. As Paul makes abundantly clear in Gal 3.17f: “The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.” [3]



The family had a vital role to play in Israel’s ongoing relationship with God, 125 especially “as a vehicle of continuity for the faith, history, and traditions of Israel”. Fundamental to this role was the responsibility of the father (or whoever was the head of the household) to instruct children within the family in the ways of God, as God himself had revealed them. Such instruction was regarded as a “solemn obligation”. There are instances in the Old Testament where this obligation is placed fairly and squarely on those responsible for such instruction.  Deut 6.6-7: “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”  Deut 11.18f: “Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”  Deut 32.46: “Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day, so that you may command your children to obey carefully all the words of this law.” Their future would depend upon it. In addition to this didactic form of instruction there was a place for catechetical instruction. The “question and answer” format adopted by Presbyterians was an essential ingredient of Jewish life. It provided the means whereby Jewish ceremonies, especially those associated with the Exodus, could be explained to children by the head of the household. There are several instances in the Old Testament where this form of teaching is required.  Passover. “When your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice of the Lord…’” Ex 12.26f  Consecration of the first born. “In the days when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘With a mighty hand the Lord brought us up out of Egypt… When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed every firstborn in Egypt… This is why I sacrifice to the Lord the first male offspring of every womb and redeem each of my firstborn sons…’” Ex 13.14)  Laws commanded by God. “When your son asks you, ‘What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the Lord our God has commanded you?’ tell him, ‘We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand… The Lord commanded us to obey all these decrees and to fear the Lord our God, so that we might always prosper and be kept alive…’” Deut 6.20-24  Crossing of the Jordan. “When your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord…’” Jos 4.6-7  Crossing of the Jordan. “When your descendants ask their fathers, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground…’” Jos 4.21f As Wright observes the catechetical pattern was introduced to “‘prime’ the child 126 with questions as a ‘springboard’ for the teaching of specific religious history and belief”. Whether the teaching of children was didactic or catechetical it was a solemn, God-ordained obligation for the well-being of both family and nation. 121

Exodus 32.11-14. cf. Rom 8.17: “Now if we are children of God, then we are heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” Cf. also John 15.6,7. 123 John 15.10. 124 CJH Wright, God’s People in God’s Land: Family, Land and Property in the Old Testament, Paternoster 1997, p 81. 125 Ibid, p 81. 126 Ibid, p 83, quoting JA Soggin, Legends and Catechesis, p 76. 122




While it is possible to be over-simplistic in describing the relationship between the nation of Israel and the Christian Church, i.e. the people of God under the old covenant and the people of God under the new covenant, most Christians recognise that there is a close relationship between the two and that the latter is the fulfilment of the former. In a book that deals not with a New Testament theology of the church but with the “socio-economic life of ancient Israel” CJH Wright draws attention to the profound relevance of Israel for Christians: “In New Testament theology the Christian Church, as the community of the Messiah, is the organic continuation of Israel. It is heir to the names and privileges of Israel, and therefore also falls under the same ethical responsibilities – though now transformed in Christ. Therefore the thrust of Old Testament social ethics, which in their own historical context were addressed to the redeemed community of God’s people, needs to be directed first of all at the equivalent community – the Church. The New Testament concept and practice of fellowship, the local church community as a household or family, the principles of financial sharing and mutual 127 support all have deep roots in the social and economic life of Old Testament Israel….” In his Theology of the Old Testament, Edmond Jacob quotes Calvin with approval, “The Church which was 128 among the Jews was the same as ours, but it was still in the weakness of childhood…” There is continuity, hence Stephen is able to speak of Israel in the wilderness as ‘the church’ (ekklēsia), and there is discontinuity, hence the atoning sacrifices offered daily under the old covenant have been replaced by the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ under the new covenant. JI Packer has highlighted both the continuity and discontinuity as follows: “The church exists in, through, and because of Jesus Christ. Thus it is a distinctive New Testament reality. Yet it is at the same time a continuation, through a new phase of redemptive history, of Israel, the seed of Abraham, God’s covenant people of Old Testament times. The differences between the church and Israel are rooted in the newness of the covenant by which God and his people are bound to each other. The new covenant under which the church lives (1 Cor 11.25; Heb 8.7-13) is a new form of the relationship whereby God says to a chosen community, ‘I will be your God; you shall be my people’ (Ex 6.7; Jer 31.33). Both the continuity and the discontinuity between Israel and the church reflect this change in the form of the covenant, which took place at Christ’s coming. The new features of the new covenant are as follows: First, the Old Testament priests, sacrifices, and sanctuary are superseded by the mediation of Jesus, the crucified, risen, and reigning God-man (Heb 1-10), in whom believers now find their identity as the seed of Abraham and the people of God (Gal 3.29; 1 Pet 2.4-10). Second, the ethnic exclusivism of the old covenant (Deut 7.6; Ps 147.19-20) is replaced by the inclusion in Christ on equal terms of believers from all nations (Eph 2-3; Rev 5.9-10). Third, the Spirit is poured out both on each Christian and on the church, so that fellowship with Christ (1 John 1.3), ministry from Christ (John 12.32; 14-18; Eph 2.17), and foretastes of heaven (2 Cor 1.22; Eph 1.14) become realities of churchly experience. The unbelief of most Jews (Rom 9-11) led to a situation depicted by Paul as God breaking off the natural branches of his olive tree (the historical covenant community) and replacing them with wild olive shoots (Rom 11.17-24). The predominantly Gentile character of the church is due not to the terms of the new covenant but to Jewish rejection of them, and Paul taught that this will one day be reversed 129 (Rom 11.15, 23-31).”

Another new feature of the new covenant is that the sign of the covenant is given to 130 males and females whereas under the old covenant it was restricted to males. It may be noted that it is after Paul has described Christians as “children of Abraham” (Gal 3.7) and in the context of baptism (3.27) that Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3.28). Of course, Paul does not mean that the distinction between male and female has been obliterated, rather that it does not matter. We are brothers and sisters together in the one family. As JRW Stott has put it, “we belong to each other in such a way as to render of no 131 account the things which normally distinguish us,” and, we may add, the things which did distinguish people in the old era. Our common baptism represents a common ‘belonging’. FF Bruce has put this well: “Paul may have had in mind that circumcision involved a form of discrimination between men and women which was removed when circumcision was demoted from its position as religious law,


Ibid, pp xviif. E Jacob, Theology of the Old Testament (trans. AW Heathcote & PJ Allcock), Hodder 1958, p 18. 129 JI Packer, Concise Theology, IVP1993, Article on ‘Church’, pp 199ff 130 See: M Green, Baptism, Hodder 1987, p 86.; Mary Evans, Woman in the Bible, Paternoster 1998, p27; C Buchanan, A Case for Infant Baptism, Grove Books 1973, p 12 (footnote 3). 131 JRW Stott, The Message of Galatians, IVP 1968, pp 99f. 128


whereas baptism was open to both sexes indiscriminately. But the denial of discrimination which is 132 sacramentally affirmed in baptism holds good for the new existence ‘in Christ’ in its entirety.”


New Testament evidence

Our starting point should be to recognise that there is no direct evidence in the New Testament for or against the baptism of children. The New Testament is silent on the matter. Some have concluded from the silence that only adults were baptised and not children. It goes without saying that the United Free Church of Scotland together with all the churches of the Reformation has always subscribed to and practised the baptism of adult converts, i.e. converts not previously 133 baptised. Given the circumstances of the early church and the large numbers of men and women turning from paganism to Christ it is hardly surprising that adults were baptised in large numbers. GW Bromiley has pointed out that “whenever the church has seriously discharged its ministry of 134 evangelism, it has baptised the adults who constitute the first generation of Christian converts”. Bearing in mind the increasing secularisation of our society, the decline of the church in the west, and the ever-increasing number of families who see no necessity for baptism at all, we ourselves face the situation whereby any significant turning back to God will inevitably see again a significant increase in the baptism of adults. That is something for which we should pray and work. We are wholly for the baptism of adult converts. The question we have to face is whether it is correct to conclude from the silence of the New Testament that only adults were baptised and not children. It would be equally valid to conclude from the silence that the baptism of children is simply taken for granted. Indeed, given the pattern of belief and practice both in the Old Testament and in contemporary Judaism it is difficult to conceive of children being excluded. The lack of any explicit statement in support of the baptism of children is far from conclusive. There are other elements of Christian faith and practice which lack explicit statements in support. Our belief in the Trinity is one. Another, directly related to the sacraments, is the inclusion of women at the Lord’s table. The only occasion when Jesus administered the Lord’s Supper and instructed those present to “Do this in remembrance of me” was in the presence of twelve men. There is no explicit text for the inclusion of women and no explicit statement that women were present at any celebration of the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament era. The inclusion of women however is on the ground of, what Bromiley calls, “legitimate inference”. Taking into account other statements in the New Testament it is inconceivable that women should not be included. If the argument at this point seems trivial it all the more emphasises the futility of arguments from silence and the problem of requiring an explicit statement (a proof text) in support of the baptism of children. The inclusion of children may be determined on other grounds, as may the inclusion of women at the Lord’s table. Is there any evidence at all in the New Testament for the conclusion that the early Christians would have taken for granted the baptism of their children?


FF Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians, Paternoster1982, pp 189f. The qualification here is important. No branch of the church has ever subscribed to ‘second’ baptisms, not even Baptists. This is a point that requires further attention later in this report. Sufficient here to point out that those willing to baptise adults previously baptised as children do so only by denying the validity of the baptism as a child. Second baptisms biblically and theologically are a contradiction in terms. 134 GW Bromiley, Children of Promise, Wipf and Stock Publishers 1998, p 2. 133



LITTLE CHILDREN (Mark 10.13-16 and parallel verses: Matthew 19.13-15; Luke 18.15-17)

The words of Jesus most frequently quoted in connection with the baptism of children are those from Mark 10.14: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” They are to be found in most paedobaptist service manuals and on most baptismal fonts. They seem, for some, to offer the final authoritative word for the 135 practice of infant baptism. The truth is, of course, that they do no such thing. The argument that because Jesus invited children to come to him we should baptise them is false. It would be more convincing if Jesus himself had baptised the children. He didn’t. Neither did he dedicate them. He blessed them, but even with the blessing of the children there is no indication whatsoever that he was 136 instituting an ordinance for his church. The fact that Jesus’ words here may not be used as a command to baptise children does not mean that they are irrelevant to the baptism of children. We are in danger of being so concerned to point out what Jesus does not say that we fail to notice what he does say, i.e. that “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these”. The following should be noted. (a) The children brought to Jesus included “babies”. Matthew and Mark have “little 137 children”, Luke has “even babies” (kai brephē). Luke is the only evangelist to use brephos. In addition to the passage under consideration he uses it twice of a baby still in the womb (1.41,44; Jesus and John) and twice of a newly born baby (2.12,16; Jesus). He also uses it when referring to the exposure of newborn babies by Pharaoh in Acts 7.19. (b) The blessing of the children took place on Jewish territory in the region of “Judea beyond Jordan”, i.e. in Peraea. Peraea was occupied by Jews, ruled by Herod Antipas, and formed part of the Jewish route from Galilee to Judea, by-passing the territory of the Samaritans. Those who brought their children were members of the Jewish community within the Jewish covenant. (c) There was nothing unusual in Jewish parents taking their children to a rabbi for 138 them to receive the rabbi’s blessing. We know that such a practice was associated with the Day of Atonement. RT France observes: “It was a Jewish custom to bring a child to the elders on the evening 139 of the Day of Atonement ‘to bless him and pray for him’ (Mishnah Sopherim 18.5).” Jeremias has 140 argued that the incident “must have happened on the evening of a Day of Atonement”. (d) While it is often popularly assumed that those who brought their children to Jesus on this occasion were women the text does not tell us that. Matthew simply tells us that children were brought to Jesus; Mark and Luke tell us that they brought the children to Jesus. In each of the Gospels, however, we are told that the disciples rebuked “them” (autois, v 13). In view of the Greek masculine pronoun here it is not unreasonable to conclude that the children were brought by parents, i.e. fathers and mothers. It adds weight to the idea that the bringing of the children to Jesus was a planned rather than a spontaneous happening and supports, therefore, the Jewish custom referred to under (c). (e) Jesus insisted that the children be brought to him for the simple reason that “of such is the kingdom of God” or, as most translations have it, “to such belongs the kingdom of God”. The term such (toioutōn) refers to a class of people. As DE Nineham puts it, it may mean these and 141 other (literal) children, or these and others who share the characteristics of children. John Murray 142 143 prefers the first option, IH Marshall the second. Either way the kingdom belongs to the children brought to Jesus. They are included in the kingdom. Sinclair Ferguson helpfully comments, “Sometimes this statement has been read as though Jesus had said, ‘The characteristics of these children have a spiritual parallel. If that spiritual parallel is present in your life, then the kingdom of God 135

Cf. R Osborn, Forbid Them Not, SPCK 1972. See also O Cullmann, Baptism in the New Testament, SCM pp 77ff. Cullmann concludes, “this story - without being related to Baptism - was fixed in such a way that a baptismal formula of the first century gleams through it” (p 78). 136 Several scholars, however, have seen the blessing of the children by Jesus as an anticipation of the baptism of children by the early church, e.g. CH Turner: “It is by a true instinct that this action of our Lord’s is claimed as implying his sanction for infant baptism”; A New Commentary on Holy Scripture, p 87. See also O Cullmann, Baptism in the New Testament, pp 71ff, and A Richardson, An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament, pp 360f. 137 “kai is ‘even’” (IH Marshall, The Gospel of Luke, Paternoster 1978, p 682). See AV, RSV, NEB, Good News, etc. 138 D Carson, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Vol 8 Matthew to Luke (Ed FE Gaebelein), Zondervan 1984, p 420; SB Ferguson, Mark, Banner of Truth 1999, p 160. 139 RT France, Matthew, IVP 1985, p 283. See also IH Marshall, The Gospel of Luke, Paternoster 1978, p 682. 140 J Jeremias, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, SCM 1958, p 49. 141 DE Nineham, St Mark, Penguin 1963, p 267. See also C Brown, article on ‘Child’, Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Paternoster 1975. 142 J Murray, Christian Baptism, Presbyterian and Reformed 1980, p 61. 143 IH Marshall, The Gospel of Luke, Paternoster 1978, p 681 (commenting on the Lucan parallel).


belongs to you.’ But that is not what Jesus is saying in verse 14. It is what he says in the next verse (v 15). In verse 14, Jesus is saying, ‘I am the King in the kingdom of God. I belong to these children and all those who are like them.’ These children should not be held back from him precisely because Jesus 144 and his kingdom belong to them!” As Ferguson observes we have often misinterpreted and devalued Jesus’ words here because we fear one possible implication of taking them at face value, i.e. that children are guaranteed salvation just because they are children, irrespective of personal faith in Christ, irrespective of the operation of God’s grace in their lives, and irrespective of their relationship with and their attitude towards God in subsequent years. The truth is that we are all by nature dead in trespasses and sins and children of God’s wrath and we all by nature follow the course of this world and the prince of the power of the air (Eph 2.1-3). How then do we square, on the one hand, Jesus’ inclusion of little children, even babies, in the kingdom of God with, on the other hand, the fallen condition of every living person with its accompanying necessity of grace on the part of God and of personal faith and commitment on the part of the person? One thing is sure, not by denying either. The message of the Bible is full of such tensions and we do no justice to its message by taking it upon ourselves to remove the tensions. We must live with them and seek understanding for them, but we must not remove them. To do that is to distort the message. There is one way of coming to terms with this particular tension in Mark 10.14 which flies in the face of the excessive individualism characteristic of our modern western culture but which is thoroughly biblical. It involves taking on board something we have already touched on under Old Testament Background, i.e. the role of the family in Jewish life and the importance of the family in God’s covenantal dealings with his people. In God’s economy the children of God’s people were included in the household of faith until they excluded themselves. The reverse, i.e. that they were excluded until they included themselves, was not the case. Hence the approach of Jesus on this 145 occasion, which Hendriksen describes as “this distinctly positive approach”. Hendriksen also observes that “in principle all blessings of salvation belong even now to these little ones, a fact which 146 has to be realised progressively here on earth and perfectly in the hereafter”. The modern preference of waiting until children are “old enough to decide for themselves” would simply not have made sense to Jews in Jesus’ day. Indeed, it would have been an abrogation of their responsibility both to God and to their children. One of the major concerns that the Church should face today is the failure on the part of professing Christians to take seriously their responsibility under God for the upbringing of their children, children of the covenant, in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord”. Nowadays such responsibilities are left largely to others, e.g. the church or school. (f) We may legitimately ask, “Why is it that the kingdom belongs to such as those brought to Jesus by their parents?” It cannot be because of subjective or spiritual qualities in the children. That would result in salvation being dependent on inherent qualities in us, i.e. salvation by 147 works. It must be because God in his love and mercy has determined to give his kingdom to those who have no claim upon it and make no claim upon it. As Cranfield puts it, it has to do with “their 148 objective littleness and helplessness”. Inclusion in the kingdom is a gift of grace, not a reward for character. That is the consistent testimony of Scripture both in the Old and New Testaments. The 149 words of Jesus to Nicodemus are relevant here. Nicodemus’ personal qualities would not gain him admission into the kingdom of God. He had to be “born again”, he had to become as a little child. (g) When the disciples attempted to keep the children from Jesus he was indignant and insisted that the children be allowed to come to him. He told his disciples, “Do not hinder (kōluete) them.” The use of the verb kōluein is interesting because it has associations with baptism both in the New Testament and in the post-apostolic Church. The following are examples in the New 150 Testament.  Acts 8.36: “Look, here is water. What prevents (kōluei) me from being baptised.”  Acts 10.47: “Can anyone forbid (kōlusai) these people from being baptised with water.” 144

SB Ferguson, Let’s Study Mark, Banner of Truth 1999, p 161. W Hendriksen, Matthew, Banner of Truth 1974, p 722. 146 W Hendriksen, Matthew, Banner of Truth 1974, p 720. 147 The Biblical Doctrine of Baptism, Saint Andrew Press 1958, pp 48f (a study document produced by the Church of Scotland’s Special Commission on Baptism. 148 CEB Cranfield, St Mark, Cambridge 1959, p 324. 149 Several writers make the connection. CEB Cranfield, ibid.; C Brown writes, “The saying is paralleled in John 3 by the discourse with Nicodemus comparing entry into the kingdom with rebirth”, article on “Child”, Dictionary of NT Theology, Paternoster 1975. 150 CEB Cranfield, St Mark, Cambridge 1959, pp 323f. 145


Acts 11.17: Peter explaining his baptism of the Gentile, Cornelius, “If God gave them the same gift as he gave us…who was I to think that I could hinder (kōlusai) God.”  Matt 3.14: “John tried to deter (diekōluen) him, saying, ‘I need to be baptised by you. and do you come to me?” Jeremias draws attention to the use of what he calls “the kōluein formula” in 151 reference to baptism in a number of non-canonical writings. While the argument here, by itself, is tenuous it remains a possibility that the early Christians in their approach to baptism were influenced by the words of Jesus on the occasion recorded in Mark 10 and that they made a connection between 152 Jesus’ action with respect to little children and the practice of baptism generally. The question is often asked, “How can we baptise children who are not able to express their own personal faith in Jesus Christ?” That is to put the emphasis in the wrong place. The more relevant question is this, “How can we refuse baptism for those children whom Christ has indicated are in his kingdom.?” Or, “How can we refuse baptism for those children who are within 153 God’s covenant?” [2]


After Peter had preached his sermon on the Day of Pentecost those listening cried out in great anguish, “What shall we do?” Peter’s response is relevant to our discussion and is given here in full (vv 38f): “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.” 1) Questions That the promise is “for you and for your children” raises a number of questions. (a) Are the children referred to the actual children of those adults whom Peter is addressing, i.e. to you and to the children already yours? (b) Or does the word ‘children’ refer to future generations? (c) If it refers to future generations, does it refer exclusively to adults of future generations or does it include children of future generations? (d) If it refers to or at least includes children (whether current or future) are the children only those capable of making responsible choices or may the children be infants?


In the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies the candidate asks, “What hinders my being baptised today?” The response given is, “Now, nothing hinders her being baptised.” In the Irene legend when Irene asks her parents to let them be baptised, their response is, “And what is there to hinder it?” (J Jeremias, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, SCM 1960, pp 53ff. See also the apocryphal Gospel of the Ebonites, referred to by Jeremias and quoted by Cullmann (Baptism in the NT, SCM 1950, p 72). 152 The document produced by “The Special Commission on Baptism of the Church of Scotland” concludes, “This, of course, does not mean that the children brought to Jesus were baptised, but the language used suggests that this incident was linked with Baptism in the mind of the early Church…” The Biblical Doctrine of Baptism The Saint Andrew Press 1958, p49. 153 Compare The Biblical Doctrine of Baptism, The Saint Andrew Press 1958, p 49 (Church of Scotland’s Special Commission, study document).


2) Preliminary observations The following observations are worthy of consideration. (1) There is evidence that the early Christians lived in expectation of an early return of Christ, a return which would bring the present age to an end. They expected it in their life-time. It was an expectation 154 that was particularly strong in the earliest days. That being the case there is at least a question as to whether a promise for “future generations” would have had much meaning for them. The Study Document of the Church of Scotland puts this rather more firmly, “If the Early Church held widely the expectation of an early Parousia ending the present age…, the only descendants to whom this promise would appear to be relevant would be those who were actually children on the Day of 155 Pentecost.” (2) It is difficult to imagine that parents listening to Peter would not assume the inclusion of their 156 children. Why should they not assume their inclusion? No restriction is indicated. Most commentators, in whatever way they interpret ‘children’, are agreed that the reference to those “far off” 157 is to those living away from Palestine, i.e. it has to do with geography rather than time. In other words for the people listening to Peter on the Day of Pentecost it had to do with the present and the immediate future. It is at least reasonable to assume that the same was true with respect to “your children”. (3) No distinction is made between children who are and who are not capable of an intelligent and genuine repentance. If it is argued that the context of Peter’s response requires such a distinction, e.g. the command to repent, surely that is to beg the question, namely, “Are children included with their parents in the covenant which God has established?” (4) In Jerusalem, for the celebration of Pentecost, and listening to Peter’s sermon were God-fearing Jews from all over “the Graeco-Roman world situated round the Mediterranean basin, indeed (from) 158 every nation in which there were Jews” (Acts 2.5-11). These God-fearing Jews included proselytes 159 (v 11). While we cannot be sure when proselyte baptism began we do know that the children


Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians are regarded as among the earliest of his letters. His statement in 1 Thess 4.15 suggests that he expected an early parousia: “we who are living, who remain until the coming of the Lord” (see CA Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians, Paternoster 1990, pp 171f). Guthrie comments, “because he (Paul) could not claim any special knowledge of the timing of the parousia, it is highly unlikely that he thought of it as the distant future. If the time was unknown, Paul had no alternative but to expect it as immanent, although it is noticeable that in none of his later epistles is there a passage which stresses immanence so clearly” (D Guthrie, New Testament Theology, IVP 1981, pp 804f). FF Bruce suggests that in the course of time Paul may have come to recognise that he might not survive the parousia (1 & 2 Thessalonians, Nelson, p 99). Guthrie concurs, “as Paul grew older he would realise that the possibility of his being alive at the parousia was diminishing” (p 810). 155 The Biblical Doctrine of Baptism (convener, TF Torrance), St Andrew’s Press1958, p 48. 156 Francis Schaeffer, Baptism, Cross Publishing 1973, pp 12-18: “…let us place ourselves in the position of a Jew who has been saved in the early Christian era. He is a Jew, and now he has put his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. His mind has not changed overnight, and certain great truths which his people have known and believed for two thousand years are much in his thinking… First of all, a Jew saved in the early Christian era would realise that even as he had been justified by faith alone, so also Abraham had been justified by faith alone two thousand years before. Romans 4.1-3 makes this abundantly clear… Secondly, the Jew saved in the early Christian days would realise that the Covenant made with Abraham is immutable, that is, unchangeable. Hebrews 6.13-18 is very definite that, first, the Covenant made with Abraham is unchangeable, and that, second, it includes us who are saved in this dispensation.” Romans 4.13 tells us definitely that God is here speaking of the promise to Abraham, and yet verse 16 is equally clear that we, the Gentiles saved in this present era, are the fulfilment of that promise (cf. Galatians 3,7,8,13,14,25)… The Jew living in the early New Testament days would know something further. He would know that in the Old Testament there were two great ordinances – the Passover and Circumcision. 1 Corinthians 5.7,8, as well as the fact that Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper at the time of the Passover meal, makes it plain that the Lord’s Supper took the place of the Passover. Colossians 2.11,12 and the other facts which we have considered make it evident that baptism took the place of circumcision. These things all being so, it would be impossible for the saved Jew not to expect that, as in the Old Testament the Covenant sign was applied to the believer’s child, so also the sign of his faith, baptism, should likewise be applied to his child. Why should he expect less in this dispensation of fullness than he would have possessed in the Old Testament era?” 157 R Longenecker, “makran (‘far off’) is not used temporally in the LXX or anywhere else in the NT, and therefore it is probably better interpreted more spatially than temporally”, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Vol 9 John-Acts, (Ed. FE Gaebelein), Zondervan 1981, p 285). 158 JWR Stott, The Message of Acts, IVP1990, p 63. 159 See above, Jewish Proselyte Baptisms, under “The Origins of Water Baptism.


(including infants) of those converting to Judaism were baptised along with their parents. If baptism 160 into Judaism included children would proselytes have expected less when baptised into Christ? 3) Context To answer the questions raised above we must turn not only to the immediate context of Peter’s response but to the context of the covenant established by God with Abraham in Gen 17.7 and confirmed by Moses in Deut 10.10-13: “I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and your descendants after you…to be your God and the God of your descendants.” As Calvin observes, commenting on Acts 2.39, “The addition of their children derives 161 from the word of promise (found in Gen 17.7).” It would be difficult to improve on John Murray’s succinct statement with respect to the significance and relevance of the Abrahamic covenant for our understanding of Acts 2.39: “We are not in a position to appreciate the significance of this (that the promise is to the children as well as to the parents) unless we bear in mind the covenant relationship established by God and clearly revealed in the Old Testament. It is in the light of Gen 17.7…that this word of Peter is to be understood. It is this principle, institution, or arrangement alone that gives meaning to Peter’s appeal… What does this imply? It demonstrates that Peter, in the illumination and the power of the Spirit of Pentecost, recognised that there was no suspension or abrogation of that divine administration whereby children are embraced with their parents in God’s covenant promise. It is simply this and nothing less that Acts 2.39 evinces… Nothing could advertise more conspicuously and conclusively that this principle of God’s gracious government, by which children along with their parents are the possessors of God’s covenant promise, is fully operative in the New Testament as well as in the Old than this simple fact that on the occasion of Pentecost Peter took up the refrain of the old covenant and said, ‘The promise is to you and to your children.’ It is the certification of the Holy Spirit to us that this method of the administration of the covenant of grace is not suspended. It is because there is such evidence of the perpetual operation of this gracious principle in the administration of God’s covenant that we baptise infants. It is for that reason alone that we continue to baptise them. It is the divine institution, not, indeed, commended by human wisdom and not palatable to those who are influenced by the dictates of human wisdom, yet commended by the wisdom of God. It is the seal to us of His marvellous goodness that He is not only a 162 God to His people but also to their (children)…” [3]

HOUSEHOLD BAPTISMS (oikos is translated by both ‘household’ and ‘family’)

1) General considerations When we read through the Acts of the Apostles we discover that whole households received baptism. It is true that the number of reported instances of household baptisms is not large. There are two for certain, those of Lydia and the Philippian jailer (16.14f; 34), and the possibility of Cornelius (10.44ff). In addition there is the certain instance of Stephanas recorded in 1 Cor 1.16. The following observations are worthy of note. (1) The number of actual instances of Christian baptism recorded throughout the New Testament is 163 itself small. There are eleven in total. It is significant that in three out of the eleven there is an explicit reference to the baptism of households and, as G Bromiley points out, there is no reason to 164 believe that these three were exceptional. Three out of eleven is more significant when we take into account that in two of the eleven baptisms personal circumstances ruled out the possibility of household baptisms, i.e. those of the Ethiopian eunuch travelling alone on official business and of Saul at the home of Ananias after he had been led there blind by his fellow persecutors. In the remaining instances there is nothing to rule out the baptism of families. (2) There are references in the New Testament where the household or family clearly includes 165 children, e.g. 1 Tim 3.4-5,12; 5.4).


C Buchanan, A Case for Infant Baptism, Grove Books 1973, p 21. J Calvin, Calvin’s NT Commentaries Vol 6; Acts 1-13 (eds., DW & TF Torrance), Paternoster 1995, p 82. 162 J Murray, Christian Baptism, Presbyterian and Reformed 1980, p 68. 163 Acts 2.41; 8.12,13,38; 9.18; 10.48; 16.15,33; 18.8 (see also 1 Cor 1.16 for a reference to the same baptism); 19.5; 1 Cor 1.14. 164 GW Bromiley, Children of Promise, Wipf and Stock Publishers 1998 (Eerdmans), p 6. 165 JRW Stott, The Message of Acts, IVP 1990, p 263. 161


(3) It is useful to bear in mind that oikos is used much more frequently in the New Testament in its literal and original sense of ‘a house’. The fact that it is also used in a metaphorical and derivative sense of the people who live in the house has some relevance to our theme. When we are told that Lydia “and the members of her household” were baptised and that the jailer “and all his family” (literally, all his) were baptised, it is unnatural to exclude children on the basis that they were not of an age to exercise personal faith. That is especially so in the cases of both Lydia and the Philippian 166 jailer where there is no indication that members of the household, apart from the head of the household, exercised personal faith. It is much more likely that children would be included as they were in Jewish families under the Old Covenant. (4) To claim, a priori, that there would necessarily be no children present in the families baptised, either of the head of the house or of servants is a claim too far. It does not reflect the reality of family life among the people in that part of the world at that time and, more particularly, the reality of family life among the people of a covenanting God. It can neither be proven nor justified. On the contrary, as the Church of Scotland’s Special Commission states, “It is in accordance with Biblical usage to speak 167 of households as including children (Gen 17.12ff; Exodus 12.16-27; 1 Samuel 1.21ff; John 4.53)…” 168 The same Report further observes, “they would be most unusual households for the Levant if none 169 of their members had young children.” While we cannot prove conclusively that there were infants in the households referred to above, we concur with the conclusion of J Murray: “Every consideration would point to the conclusion that household baptism was a frequent occurrence in the practice of the church in the apostolic days. If so, it would be practically impossible to believe that in none of these households were there any infants. It would be unreasonable to believe so. The infants in the households belonged to the households and would be baptised. Presumption is, therefore, of the strongest kind, 170 even though we do not have an overt and proven instance of infant baptism”. The response of those who hold to a contrary position is, very often, to take each instance of a household baptism and seek to prove that children were not baptised. Such is to attempt the impossible. Moreover, the approach is wrong. We begin not with the examples of household baptism in the Book of Acts but with the inclusion of children within the covenant. As C Buchanan points out, “The occurrence of household baptisms is exactly what we would have expected from our survey of both the antecedents of Christian baptism and the New Testament theological matters. And, sure enough, here they are – we ought to feel like the astronomers who discovered Neptune first of all by plotting it from the statistics of its ‘pull’ on Uranus, and secondly by turning their telescope to the part of the sky the calculations indicated. The two fitted – the object they found could not but be the new planet. So with us – the case is strong even before we look for the actual phenomenon, it is vastly increased when we find it where we would calculate it should be.” 171


See below under ‘Acts 16.34: The Philippian jailer’ for a comment on the NIV translation of that verse. The Biblical Doctrine of Baptism, a study document issued by the Special Commission on Baptism of the Church of Scotland (Convener, Prof TF Torrance), The Saint Andrew Press 1958, p 46. 168 The eastern part of the Mediterranean with its islands and neighbouring countries. 169 Op. cit. p46. 170 J Murray, Christian Baptism, Presbyterian and Reformed 1980, p 65f). 171 C Buchanan, A Case for Infant Baptism, Grove Books 1973, p 20. 167


2) Particular instances A closer though brief look at each of the household baptisms will be useful in that each of the accounts has something to tell us that is relevant to our study. (1) The case of Lydia and her household (ho oikos autēs); Acts 16.14-15. A significant emphasis in this account is that of God’s initiative with respect to Lydia’s conversion. As IH Marshall has it, “Her conversion is attributed to the fact that the Lord opened her heart… Luke underlines that conversion is due to the action of God who opens hearts… This view of things is exactly the same as we find in Paul who says that people do not believe because their minds have been darkened by the god of this world (2 Cor 4.4), but that they are converted when the gospel comes to them…in power and in the Holy 172 Spirit… (1 Thes 1.6).” Interestingly there is no pre-requisite for a confession of faith. The fact that Lydia was subsequently regarded as a believer does not negate this point. We are simply told that after the Lord opened her heart “she and the members of her household were baptised” following which she invited Paul and his companions to stay with her at her own house. The fact that she was the head of the house does not mean that she had not married and that she did not have children. She 173 may well have been a widow and a mother, or even a grandmother with children and grandchildren. (2) The case of the Philippian jailer and ‘all his’ (hoi autou); Acts 16.31-34. In this account the jailer is directed to believe in the Lord Jesus, the consequence of which would be that he and his household (all his) will be saved. Immediately after the wounds of Paul and Silas had been bathed the jailer and his family were baptised. There seems to be little time here for every member of the jailer’s household to be personally evangelised or counselled or instructed. According to the NIV Luke’s account concludes with the statement that the jailer “was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God – he and his whole family.” In fact the NIV is misleading because, as Jeremias and others have 174 pointed out, the text does not lend itself to that translation. That every single member of the jailer’s household personally believed is an assumption. Longenecker has to say, “To judge by their actions, 175 the jailer and his family believed in Christ…” (italics added). A better translation is that of the RSV, 176 “the jailer rejoiced with all his household that he had believed in God.” The verbs translated “rejoiced” and “believed” are both in the singular. We may concur with Francis Schaeffer when he writes, “No matter what interpretation we, individually, may hold concerning this passage, certainly God here does show that He deals with families not only in the Old Testament but in the New 177 Testament as well.” (3) The case of Cornelius; Acts 10.44-48. Again the emphasis here is on God’s initiative (v 44): “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message.” Moreover, as with Lydia there is no pre-requisite of faith. It is not faith that enables grace but rather grace that enables faith. Even faith is a gift of God’s grace otherwise salvation would be “of works” and those exercising it would be able to boast (Eph 2.8). Baptism is primarily the sign of God’s intervening and saving grace, not of our personal faith. As Bromiley observes, “What calls for attention is the endowment with the Holy Spirit. This, of course, would bring faith into it but plainly did not lie within the range of human possibilities, whether infant or adult. It was miraculous in character – a mighty act of 178 God.” Although there is no mention of Cornelius’ household in the Acts 10 narrative John Stott 179 clearly regards this as the first “ household baptism” and not without reason. When Peter subsequently explained his actions to the church in Jerusalem he related how an angel had appeared to Cornelius declaring that he and all his house would be saved through Peter’s message (Acts 11.14). The Baptist theologian Kurt Aland in his response to Jeremias’ Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries and opposing the baptism of children wrote: “If Acts 11.14 speaks of the salvation of the oikos, this salvation, so far as the slaves belonging to the house or children are included, is 172

IH Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles, IVP 1980, p 267. See, for example, IH Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles IVP 1980, p 268; GW Bromiley, Children of Promise, Wipf and Stock Publishers 1998 (Eerdmans), p 7; FF Bruce, The Book of Acts, Marshall, Morgan and Scott 1968, p 331; C Buchanan, A Case for Infant Baptism, Grove Books 1973, p 20. 174 Joachim Jeremias, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries (tran. David Cairns), SCM 1960, pp 22f. 175 RN Longenecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Vol 9 John-Acts, (Ed. FE Gaebelein), Zondervan 1981, p 465. 176 See also NEB and W Barclay. 177 FA Schaeffer, Baptism, Cross Publishing 1973, p 19. 178 GW Bromiley, Children of Promise, Wipf and Stock Publishers 1998 (Eerdmans), p 6. 179 See JRW Stott, The Message of Acts, IVP 1990, p 263. He describes the baptism of Lydia as the ‘second household baptism”. In a footnote he lists Acts 10.33 as the first. 173


understood indirectly; the conversion of Cornelius will have the effect of making theirs to follow, or 180 even embraces theirs: the ‘house’ is saved when the head of the house is saved”. If the salvation of Cornelius in some sense “embraces” the salvation of his household, and if in some sense “the ‘house’ is saved’ when the head of the house is saved” why should the household not be baptised? Is this not exactly the position which pertained under the Old Testament covenant and which is “filled out” in the New Testament covenant? 3) Household baptisms – in conclusion Throughout our consideration of infant baptism our approach has been that it is impossible to prove conclusively from the New Testament either that children were baptised or that they were not baptised in the New Testament era. It certainly cannot be decided solely from a consideration of household baptisms. In any case that is not the correct starting place. We have stated previously the necessity of taking into account the evidence of the whole Bible, Old and New Testaments; the importance of circumstantial evidence; the meaning and significance of baptism; that the case for the baptism of children is of a cumulative nature; and that the evidence has to be presented as a consistent whole. Before commencing our study of household baptisms we considered the Old Testament background, the idea of covenant and of family solidarity, the teaching of Jesus, and the significant connection made by Peter on the Day of Pentecost between the promise of the old covenant and the fulfilment of the new. We have taken issue with the excessive individualism that has developed in this part of the world and with the failure to give sufficient weight to the all-pervading, allprevailing reality of solidarity in the ancient world. In this respect we agree with Michael Green when he says, “We have become so infatuated with individualism that we find this hard to appreciate… The 181 solidarity of the family in baptism, as in all else, is the decisive factor.” It is in the light of all this that we should have expected the baptism of entire households and that the baptism of these households would have included the baptism of children. Adults brought from darkness to light, whose hearts the Lord opened, on whom the Spirit of Christ descended, would have taken it for granted that their children would be included and would have been nonplussed by their exclusion. So should we! In fact what we ought to have anticipated is what we find in the household baptisms in the Book of Acts and in 1 Corinthians 1. Moreover there is nothing in the New Testament to suggest that our anticipation was false or that the children of disciples should not be baptised.


Extra-biblical evidence

It is necessary before considering this evidence to say something about the nature of extra-biblical evidence. Extra-biblical evidence, whether it be for or against the baptism of children, does not and should not carry the weight of biblical evidence. It is a timely reminder that the United Free Church “acknowledges as her supreme standard the Word of God contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments”. All else is subordinate to that supreme standard. We concur with a statement which appears in the Introductory Note of the Church of Scotland’s The Biblical Doctrine of 182 Baptism: “The Doctrine of Baptism must be founded on the Teaching of Holy Scripture”. The supremacy of Scripture does not mean, however, that extra-biblical evidence is of no value. In our interpretation of Scripture it may have a supportive, corroborative or guiding role to play. There are lessons to be learned from the geography, religion and culture of the New Testament era, just as there are lessons to be learned from the history and developing theology of the church. So, for example, our understanding of the Trinity is assisted by the insights of those who had to combat the heresy of Arianism, and our understanding of justification by faith is assisted by the insights of the Reformers. It is on this basis that consideration is given to proselyte baptisms and to some writings of the Early Church Fathers. Their relevance is not assumed in advance. The evidence has to be assessed. But they may serve a purpose. In any case, in view of the fact that both are frequently quoted either in support of or in opposition to infant baptism, some attention to them will be helpful. [1]



Kurt Aland, Did the Early Church Baptize Infants?, SCM 1961, p 91. In a footnote Aland acknowledges the same pattern as applying to the conversion of the Philippian Jailer. 181 Michael Green, Baptism, Hodder and Stoughton 1987, p 70. 182 The Biblical Doctrine of Baptism, a study document issued by the Special Commission on Baptism of the Church of Scotland (Convener, Prof TF Torrance), The Saint Andrew Press 1958, p 5


Reference has already been made to proselyte baptisms under the heading Jewish antecedents. It is not without significance that when converts to the Jewish faith were baptised their children were included in the act of baptism. Whether proselyte baptism came before Christian baptism or Christian baptism came before proselyte baptism makes little difference. The practice of including children shows how deeply embedded into the Jewish psyche was the importance of children in God’s covenant purposes. The inclusion of children in proselyte baptisms adds weight to the argument that Jewish converts to Christ would take it for granted that their children were to be 183 included in the act of baptism. [2]


The evidence with respect to infant baptist in the post-apostolic period, from the New Testament era up to the time of Tertullian (c150/160-215 AD), is meagre and inconclusive. It can 184 be and has been used by both sides in the debate. The period dealt with here takes us up to Origen. 1) The Didache


The Didache claims to present the teaching of the Twelve Apostles on a number of issues, including Baptism. It informs us that instruction preceded baptism and that baptism was in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. It is flexible with respect to the mode of baptism, leading the Brethren scholar, FF Bruce, to observe, ““There is a spirit of eminent reasonableness here. The meaning of baptism is much more important than the form. Running water is best. (Why? Because Jesus was baptised in Jordan?) But ‘static water' will do instead; and if there 186 is not enough of either, affusion is as valid as dipping.” On the question of child baptism, however, the Didache is silent, neither affirming nor denying it. How we interpret the silence will be determined by our interpretation of the biblical data and our theological presuppositions. Over and above the Didache’s silence we are faced with some uncertainty over dating. Discovered in 1875 initial enthusiasm for an early dating has given way to considerable scepticism. Dates from the first to the fourth century have been suggested. H Bettenson says that it was “admittedly ‘pseudepigraphical’ in 187 claiming to be the ‘teaching of the Apostles’” and dates it late second century. In any case evidence for or against child baptism is non-existent. 2) Pliny (c112) Sent by the Emperor Trajan to reorganise the affairs of the province of Bithynia, Pliny wrote to the Emperor with information on the activities of Christians and asked for guidance as to how he should treat them. His letter, dated c112, comments on the number of people affected by the 188 Christian error, “many of all ages” including the young (teneri). It is difficult to see any significance for infant baptism, either for or against, in Pliny’s letter. 3) Justin Martyr (early Christian Apologist who taught in Rome; c100-165) 189 In his First Apology (c150) Justin mentions “many men and women of the age of sixty and seventy years who have been disciples (or ‘who were made disciples’) of Christ from 190 191 childhood”. Jeremias and Buchanan point out that the word translated “have been disciples” is in 192 the passive and is used elsewhere by Justin to refer to baptism. WF Flemington observes that: (a) the verb mathēteuō used by Justin in the passive is the same verb that is used in the active in Matthew 28.19, “make disciples of all nations, baptising them…”; (b) Justin’s use of the aorist tense


The Biblical Doctrine of Baptism, a study document issued by the Special Commission on Baptism of the Church of Scotland (Convener, Prof TF Torrance), The Saint Andrew Press 1958, pp 45f. 184 See especially Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, J Jeremias, SCM 1960, and the response by Kurt Aland, Did the Early Church Baptise Infants? These two developed the debate and stimulated much further argument and counter-argument. 185 A New Eusebius (Ed J Stevenson), SPCK 1975, p 126 186 FF Bruce, The Spreading Flame, Paternoster 1961, p193. 187 Bettenson has a useful summary of the background to the Didache: H Bettenson (Ed), The Early Christian Fathers, OUP 1969, p 6. 188 A New Eusebius (Ed J Stevenson), SPCK 1975, p 14. 189 Addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius, his son Verissimus and the philosopher Lucius. 190 First Apology 15.6; see J Jeremias, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, SCM 1960, p 72. 191 J Jeremias, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, SCM 1960, p 72; C Buchanan, A Case for Infant Baptism Grove Books 1973, p23. 192 Dialogue with Trypho, 39.2.



suggests a particular moment when these men and women entered into discipleship as infants. Aland argues that Justin’s description of baptism excludes the possibility that he knew about infant baptism, but this again is an argument from silence.

4) Polycarp (Bishop of Smyrna (Asia Minor] c70-155/168) According to Irenaeus, Polycarp had been “instructed by the Apostles and acquainted with many who had seen the Lord (and) was also appointed for Asia by the Apostles as 194 bishop in the church in Smyrna”. Certainly Polycarp’s link with the apostolic era gives added weight to his words. He is best known for his testimony to Christ immediately prior to his martyrdom, “Eightysix years have I served him, and he has done me no wrong: how then can I blaspheme my King who 195 saved me.” The relevant question for our discussion is this. What did Polycarp mean by, “Eighty-six years I have served him…”? There are several possibilities. (1) Polycarp had served Christ as a believer and as a baptised person for eighty-six years, i.e. his baptism followed immediately after his conversion. In which case, allowing for his conversion and baptism at (say) fourteen years of age, he would have been approximately one hundred years old at the time of his martyrdom. Such a reading of the evidence is very difficult. Not only were centenarians rare in those days we know that Polycarp travelled from Smyrna to Rome shortly before his 196 martyrdom, when Anicetus was Bishop of Rome (c155-c166). Allowing for the different datings of 197 his martyrdom between 155 and 168 Polycarp must, according to this understanding of Polycarp’s ‘eighty-six years’, have been somewhere between ninety and one hundred years when he made that journey – not wholly impossible, but very unlikely. (2) He had served Christ as a believer for eighty-six years, becoming a believer as a child and being baptised at a later age, say fourteen. In which case he was eighty-six years plus at the time of his death. This may encounter a similar difficulty as under (1). The older he was when he became a believer the greater the difficulty. (3) He had served Christ from the moment of his baptism as a child for eighty-six years, i.e. he dates his service to Christ from the moment of his baptism as a child in a Christian household. In which case he was eighty-six years old at the time of his martyrdom. Should this reading of the evidence be correct Polycarp would have been baptised as a child between 69 and 82. The discussion that centres on Polycarp is fascinating but also inconclusive, though the last interpretation is the one with least problems.


WF Flemington, The New Testament Doctrine of Baptism, SPCK 1948, p132. Irenaeus, Against Heresies III, ii-iii, see H Bettenson (Ed), The Early Christian Fathers, OUP 1969, p 91. 195 Letter from the Church at Smyrna to the Church at Philomelium. See A New Eusebius (Ed J Stevenson), SPCK 1975, p 21. 196 Irenaeus, Against Heresies III, ii-iii, see H Bettenson (Ed), The Early Christian Fathers, OUP 1969, p 91. 197 See J Jeremias for a discussion of the various datings: Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, SCM 1960, pp60-64; also J Stevenson, A New Eusebius, SPCK 1975, p 60. The date most commonly accepted for Polycarp’s martyrdom is AD167-8. A later date of 177 has received little support. 194


5) Testimony of the martyrs (martyred probably under Marcus Aurelius, 161-80) Various records relate the testimony of Christians on trial who testified to being Christians from an early age. In the Acts of the Martyrs Papylus stated, “I have served God from my 198 youth up, and I have never sacrificed to idols, but am a Christian.” In the Acts of Justin and his 199 Companions we have similar testimony. In this latter record the Prefect is trying to establish whether those on trial became Christians through Justin (Martyr). In response to the prefect’s, “Did Justin make you a Christian,” Hierax stated, “I was, and ever shall be a Christian.” in response to the prefect’s, “Who taught you?” Paeon answered, “I received from my parents this good confession.” Before being asked, Euelpistus volunteered the information “I listened gladly to the words of Justin, but I too received Christianity from parents.” It is possible that what they received from their parents included their baptism, but that is not clear. The men being questioned are essentially making the point that Justin was not responsible for their becoming Christians. 6) Irenaeus (c130/140 – c200; Bishop of Lyons, writing c190) Irenaeus is important as a third generation Christian. As a boy he had listened to 200 Polycarp, who in turn had listened to John. Bettenson describes him as “the first biblical theologian”. In his Against Heresies Irenaeus wrote, “For he (Jesus) has come to save all of them by himself: all those, I say, who through him are reborn into God, infants, young children, boys, the mature and older people.” The suggestion is that “Jesus sanctifies and saves every age, babies and little children as 201 well as boys, youths and older men, in short, ‘all who through him are reborn into God.’” Whether Irenaeus’ words may or may not be used in support of child baptism they may certainly be used in support of child salvation and as such they are a reminder that human beings are not at liberty to place limits on God’s saving grace. 7) Polycrates (Bishop of Ephesus, writing c190) In a letter to the Bishop of Rome in connection with the date of Easter, Polycrates supplies the information that he was “sixty-five years in the Lord.” Jeremias assumes that this means 202 he was baptised as a child sixty-five years previously, cAD 125. Aland points out that there is no reference to baptism and argues that Polycrates “intends to indicate nothing more than his age (what a 203 Christian possesses, he has en kuriō).” While it is true that there is no explicit statement here either for or against child baptism it hardly does justice to Polycrates’ “in the Lord” to reduce it to a statement about his age. That is even more the case when Aland argues that Polycarp’s eighty-six years are also to be understood as a statement of his age. “Served Christ” is not so easily emptied of its content. 8) Hippolytus (c160-235; presbyter in the Church at Rome) Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition provides us with a picture of Roman church order and worship at the end of the second century. Our knowledge of this particular work comes from a variety of books which use it as a source. Its rule for infant baptism is preserved in the Coptic Egyptian Church Order, the Arabic Egyptian Church Order, the Ethiopic Egyptian Church Order, and the Syriac 204 (Testamentum Domini nostri Jesu Christi). Although the Apostolic Tradition is dated c215 Hippolytus’ purpose was to record the tradition of the Church as he knew it. The passage dealing with baptism tells us: “First you should baptise the little ones. All who can speak for themselves should speak. But for those who cannot speak, their parents should speak or another who belongs to their 205 family.” According to Hippolytus adults were to be baptised after the little ones. He also prescribes a probationary period of three years before baptism, a period omitted in the case of children. Aland seeks to counter this with an affirmation that “it is at least possible that the section relating to the 206 baptism of children is an interpolation from a later age” (his italics). Of course, many things are possible, but this does seem to be a case of special pleading on the part of Aland. What we have here is a clear statement re the baptism of children, i.e. “little ones… those who cannot speak”.


See J Jeremias, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, SCM 1960, p 64. J Stevenson, A New Eusebius, SPCK 1975, pp 28ff. 200 H Bettenson (Ed), The Early Christian Fathers, OUP 1969, p 13. 201 J Jeremias, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, SCM 1960, pp 72f. 202 J Jeremias, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, SCM 1960, p 63. 203 K Aland, Did the Early Church Baptise Infants, SCM 1961, pp 72f. 204 J Jeremias, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, SCM 1960, pp 13f. 205 Apostolic Tradition (Coptic text), 206 K Aland, Did the Early Church Baptise Infants, SCM 1961, p 49f. 199


9) Tertullian (c160/70-c215/20) It is indisputable that in his De Baptismo (c200 AD) Tertullian argued for a “postponement” of baptism, “particularly…in the case of children”. The word “particularly” should be noted. What is often not mentioned is that Tertullian advocated a general postponement of baptism: “Consequently in view of the circumstances and will, even the age of each person, a postponement of baptism is most advantageous….” After giving his reasons as to why baptism should be postponed for children he states, “For no less reason the baptism of the unmarried should also be postponed”, and 207 for Tertullian the “unmarried” included “the widowed”. There are a number of factors that should be born in mind regarding Tertullian: He was the son of a pagan centurion, converted to Christianity in 193 by witnessing 208 the courage of Christians facing torture and death for the Faith”. He lived and wrote against a background of vicious persecution. Soon after his conversion he wrote his Apology of the Christian faith arguing that the persecution of Christians was illegal and immoral. 209 By nature Tertullian was uncompromising. That is clear from his wholly unyielding opposition to anything which might contaminate the faith. We see it, for example, in his opposition to philosophy: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What harmony can there be 210 between the Academy and the Church?” Tony Lane comments, “Tertullian wrote always as an advocate – defending his own position and attacking all rivals. This he did with the full range of rhetorical skills at his disposal. He has been described as ‘an apologist who never apologised’! His aim was the total annihilation of his opponents. They had to be shown to be totally wrong – and morally suspect to boot. Tertullian was not being vindictive or dishonest. He was completely convinced about 211 the rightness of his cause and sincerely sought to argue it as best he could.” He was not only uncompromising to opponents and perverters of the Christian faith, however, he was uncompromising to professing Christians who failed to maintain the high ethical demands of the Christian faith and to Christians who apostatised. It tells us something about Tertullian that around 203 he left the catholic church to join the Montanists. HD McDonald says of the Montanists that “the movement bears resemblance to the many illuminist and millenarian sects that flourished at the time of the Reformation and 212 subsequently”. The sect was known for its enthusiasm but also for its asceticism. FJA Hort listed as one of the characteristics of the Montanist movement, “an inculcation of a specially stern and exacting 213 standard of Christian morality and discipline”. According to W Walker it was Tertullian’s “native 214 Puritanism” that “brought him into sympathy with Montanism”. The Montanist movement expected and lived for the end of the age and inevitably invited persecution. It was intolerant of those who apostatised in the face of persecution. There is a reference in Augustine to Tertullianists who rejoined the catholic Church in Carthage during his lifetime. Some have concluded from this reference that Tertullian left the Montanists to form his own movement, but it may be that “Tertullianist” was simply 215 another name for Montanist. Tertullian’s rigorous and uncompromising approach with respect to baptism is seen 216 in a scathing reference he makes to Hermas’ The Shepherd, a work dated somewhere between c90-140/150. With Hebrews 6.4-8 in mind, Hermas had written, “I have heard, sir, from some teachers that there is no second repentance beyond the one given when we went down into the water and received remission of our former sins.” In his response the Shepherd tells Hermas, “You have heard correctly… For he who has received remission of sin ought never to sin again, but to live in purity.” The Shepherd seems then in his subsequent guidance to allow for one further repentance after his baptism: “after that great and holy calling, if a man be tempted by the devil and sin, he has one repentance, but if he sin and repent repeatedly it is unprofitable for such a man, for scarcely shall he


J Stevenson (Ed), A New Eusebius, SPCK 19675, p185. H Bettenson (Ed), The Early Christian Fathers, OUP 1969, p 14. 209 H Bettenson (Ed), The Early Christian Fathers, OUP 1969, p 14. 210 J Stevenson (Ed), A New Eusebius, SPCK 19675, p178. 211 Tony Lane, The Lion Concise Book of Christian Thought, Lion 1984, p 18. 212 HD McDonald, article on Montanism in The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church (Ed JD Douglas), Paternoster 1974 p 674. 213 Quoted by FF Bruce in, The Spreading Flame, Paternoster 1958, p 219. 214 W Walker, A History of the Christian Church, T & T Clark 1959, p 64. JWC Wand describes him as “this first great Puritan of the West” (A History of the early Church, Methuen 1963, p 80). 215 DF Wright, article on ‘Tertullian’, The New international Dictionary of the Christian Church, Paternoster 1974. 216 Hermas’ The Shepherd is generally held to have been composed in three stages between c90-140/150 (see DF Wright, article on ‘Hermas’, The New international Dictionary of the Christian Church, Paternoster 1974) 208



live.” It is helpful to know that Hermas had lost his property and seen his sons apostatise during persecution. Because Hermas permitted one post-baptismal sin Tertullian describes him as “the 218 apocryphal shepherd of the adulterers”! Tertullian was driven in part to maintain the purity of the Church. It was this concern that had led to long preparatory and probationary periods between conversion and baptism in 219 the case of adults. According to Tertullian the Ethiopian in Acts 7 was a special case, as was Saul of Tarsus. It was the same concern that urged a postponement or delay in baptism for adults as well as children: “Those who understand the importance of baptism will rather fear its attainment than its 220 delay; unimpaired faith is certain of salvation.” One thing is clear. The baptism of children was the norm in Tertullian’s day and, presumably, at the time of his conversion (AD 193). It is the move against the baptism of children that seems to be the innovation rather than the practice of it. Given the circumstances and Tertullian’s opposition to all hasty baptisms and his advocacy of a delay for several categories of people it is inevitable that this would affect the baptism of children. It could hardly have been otherwise. There is one other interesting factor in Tertullian’s approach which is worth noting. A powerful argument among the early Christian writers of that period in the presentation of their case was an appeal to the apostolic tradition. It was the authority in Tertullian’s day. If Tertullian had known that infant baptism was a recent innovation and if he was arguing against it as such, the most powerful weapon in this lawyer’s weaponry would have been the apostolic tradition. The fact that he didn’t use it may be significant. It is at least possible that he didn’t use it because the apostolic tradition supported the baptism of children. In the light of all this it is not unreasonable to conclude with Colin Buchanan, “that Tertullian is on balance more of a witness for the probability of infant baptism being a received tradition in his times, than the opposite.” 10) Clement of Alexandria (c155-220; Head of the Alexandrian Catechetical School from 190) In his Paedagogus, and in typical allegorical style, Clement speaks of “children who are drawn from the water” by the fisher. But, as Jeremias himself comments, “We shall do well to disregard Clement… it is indeed possible that he is thinking of child baptism, but he might be thinking 221 of children in the faith (cf. 1 Pet 2.1f) whom the missionary brings to baptism.” 11) Origen (c185-c254; Head of the Alexandrian Catechetical School from c203) Three times Origen refers explicitly to the baptism of children as a custom of the church: (1) “therefore children also are baptised”; (2) “(baptism is given) according to the custom of the Church, to infants also”; (3) “the Church received from the apostles the tradition of baptising infants too”. Moreover in each of the three instances, and quoting from Job 14.4, he affirms, “No one is pure 222 from stain, yea though he be but one day old,” (italics added). Not only was Origen’s father a Christian, martyred in 202, Eusebius tells us that Origen’s family had been Christian for several generations. Presumably it is, in part, Origen’s personal knowledge of his own family’s experience that leads him to assert that infant baptism was the custom of the Church. As Jeremias observes, “He could hardly have expressed himself thus if he had not himself been baptised as a paidion/parvulus… he could hardly have spoken of a ‘tradition handed down from the apostles’ had he not known that at least his father and probably his grandfather has 223 been baptised as paidia.” In which case Origen’s personal knowledge can be traced back to the first half of the second century. In the light of Origen’s statements it can hardly be claimed that baptism was a comparatively new development in the early part of the third century. It seems more in keeping with the evidence that he was defending a practice well established rather than defending a practice that was new.


J Stevenson (Ed), A New Eusebius, SPCK 19675, pp 52f. We may also note Tertullian’s robust response to an edict issued by the Bishop of Rome (Callistus I) whereby he remitted the sins of adultery and fornication (J Stevenson (Ed), A New Eusebius, SPCK 19675, p188. 219 By the third century we learn of a period of three months preceding baptism spent in self-examination and frequent fasts” [Recognitions of Clement, Book III, chap 67. See Anti-Nicene Fathers, Vol VIII, p 74; Latourette p 118]” 220 H Bettenson (Ed), The Early Christian Fathers, OUP 1969, p 146. 221 J Jeremias, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, SCM 1960, pp 64f. 222 (1) Homilies on Luke XIV; Homilies on Leviticus VIII 3; Commentary on Romans V 9. 223 J Jeremias, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, SCM 1960, p 66. 218


12) Tombstone inscriptions of little children (third century) 224 Jeremias lists a number of inscriptions from which baptism is inferred. (a) One year old Eutychianus is “a slave of God”. (b) Kyriakos, a ‘holy infant’, is “a slave of Christ’. (c) An ‘innocent infant’ Dionysios ‘lies here with the holy ones’. (d) Two-year old Pomponia Fortunata ‘died in peace’ and her inscription bears the symbol of the fish. (e) Three year old Innocens is designated spirito sancto. (f) The inscription of eleven months Theodora has the symbol of a bird with a twig in its beak and bears the word in take. (g) Nine year old Arisus died “in peace”. A number of inscriptions are included where baptism is implied (h) or actually stated (i) and (j). (h) From the Priscilla Catacomb in Rome we have an inscription to Apronianus who died aged “one year and nine months and five days”. We are informed that his grandmother “asked the church that he might depart from the world as a believer” – an early case of an emergency baptism. (i) Another inscription from the same Catacomb is to Tyche, one year ten months and fifteen days. Tyche was baptised (accepit) the same day as her death. (j) Irene was baptised (acc[epit]) six days before her death. 13) Conclusion Overall, the evidence from the post-apostolic period is inconclusive. There is little reference to the baptism of children and where there is reference it is ambiguous. Some have concluded from this that children were not baptised. Others have concluded that the baptism of children was simply taken for granted. It is certainly the case that the baptism of children was the norm at the time of Tertullian, i.e. by the end of the second century. According to Origen, whose family had been Christian for several generations – going back to the middle of the second century, the practice of baptising children was received from the apostles. Interestingly Origen appeals to the apostolic tradition whereas Tertullian does not. While the meaning of Polycarp’s “eighty-six years have I served him” has not been finally determined, that which dates his service to Christ from the moment of his baptism is the one which carries with it least problems. Polycarp was born around 70 AD. What we can say with confidence is that there is nothing in the evidence from the post-apostolic which contradicts our conclusions with respect to the baptism of children from the biblical data.

(5) THE PROPER SUBJECTS FOR BAPTISM In Presbyterian Churches since the Reformation, and in other churches, it has been the view that the proper subjects for baptism are believers and their children. So far as children are concerned this has meant, in practice, two things. (1) Children have been baptised along with parents (either one or both) following their parents’ conversion to Christ and either prior to or at the time of their parents’ reception into church membership. (2) Children of parents who are already church members have been baptised as soon as is appropriate following their birth. It will be seen here that for practical purposes ‘the children of believers’ is equated with ‘the children of church members’. That is how it should be and there are good reasons for it. When someone becomes a Christian he or she is united to Christ, the Head of the body (i.e. his Church). It is quite impossible, biblically, theologically and experientially, for a Christian united to Christ not to be a member of his body, the Church. It is essential that those who are members of Christ and his Church should identify with the local expression of his Church wherever possible, as they did in the New Testament era. It is difficult to conceive of Christians in the New Testament era living and acting independently of other Christians outside the discipline of the local church and its leadership appointed under Christ. There will be exceptional circumstances that may make this practically impossible, e.g. in locations where Christians are isolated, but the percentage of Christians in such circumstances is small and hardly applies to this part of the world. It is not sufficient for Christians to worship in a local church and accept the benefits of ‘belonging’ to a local church without taking on board the reciprocal responsibilities of church membership. Non-Christians may do that, but not Christians. Christians who are unwilling to accept the responsibilities and the discipline of the local church and its leadership are not living in conformity to the New Testament understanding of what it means to be Christ’s people. It is biblically correct to speak of ‘the children of believers’ as ‘the children of church members’. The local church must have some way of identifying those who are Christians and who are to enjoy its privileges and share in its responsibilities. It must have some way of ensuring that 224

Examples under this heading are taken from J Jeremias, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, SCM 1960, pp 41, 7678, 85.


there is a mutual commitment of the local church to its individual members and of the commitment of individual members to the local church. A church without order and discipline, just as a family without order and discipline, will not be able to organise its affairs in a way that commends Christ. All Christians are under an obligation to accept the discipline of those who are over them in the Lord (Heb 13.17). At the present moment the way in which we and all Presbyterian Churches meet these requirements is through the membership roll. Of course, no system is perfect. Attempts to produce an alternative system would soon be confronted with other and possibly more difficult problems. In any case it is the system in operation at present and which remains in operation until and unless the General Assembly determines otherwise. Just as it is not acceptable biblically to foster the idea, intentionally or unintentionally, that there are two kinds of Christians (first and second class) so it is unacceptable biblically to foster the idea that there are two kinds of members. If the kirk session has received people into membership on their profession of faith in Christ those people should and must enjoy both the privileges and responsibilities of membership. If the conduct and the expressed beliefs of individual members make it abundantly clear that they have departed from their commitment to Jesus Christ or that they no longer accept the authority of the leadership of the Church to which they belong that is a matter for the kirk session to deal with. So long as they remain on the membership roll, however, they should and must be regarded as members of Christ and his Church, which necessarily includes membership of a local church. The position of Presbyterian Churches has always been, therefore, that the children of all church members are the proper subjects for baptism. There was a time, of course, when a large percentage of Scotland’s population was in membership of a local church, the result being that most children were baptised. That position has changed significantly. We are increasingly moving into a missionary situation akin to that of the New Testament era, a situation in which more and more people will not be baptised. This has raised the question as to whether we should be less restrictive in our practice of baptising children and open up the sacrament to the children of parents who are not members of the church. Some would recommend that we baptise the children of all parents who seek it, others that we baptise the children of parents who have a close contact with the church through a third party, e.g. a grandparent. The only biblical warrant within the Bible for the baptism of children is located within the covenant relation between God and his people. Remove the covenant relationship and there is no biblical warrant for the practice. Maintain the covenant relationship, a foundational Jewish and Christian doctrine, and there is not only a biblical warrant but a biblical requirement for the baptism of children. The covenant relation does not, however, allow for indiscriminate baptism. It allows for the baptism of believers and for those within their households (including children). It is increasingly being recognised that the indiscriminate baptism of children has contributed to a devaluation of both the practice and meaning of infant baptism. The indiscriminate baptism of children has not only widened the gap between paedobaptists and believer baptists it has created a growing disillusionment among many in paedobaptist churches who are seeking a more biblical justification for what they believe and practice. It is not surprising that the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of 225 Churches in its report, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (often referred to as the Lima Report), states the following, “In order to overcome their differences, believer baptists and those who practise infant baptism should reconsider certain aspects of their practices. The first may seek to express more visibly the fact that children are placed under the protection of God’s grace. The latter must guard themselves against the practice of apparent indiscriminate baptism and take more seriously their responsibility for the nurture of baptised children to mature commitment to Christ.” It is of interest that in 1991 when the Church of Scotland’s Board of World Mission and Unity made its response to the Lima Report it listed as one of Lima’s valuable contributions: “Encouragement to avoid indiscriminate infant baptism”. It is not irrelevant at this point, though neither should it be determinative, to consider the present position of our sister Church, the Church of Scotland. From 1953 to 1963 that Church engaged in what has been described as “the most extensive investigation of baptism that topic 226 has ever received from a church”. The conclusions of the Special Commission were embodied in an Overture sent down under the Barrier Act to Presbyteries, and finally became the 1963 Act anent the Administration of Baptism to Infants. Our conclusions with respect to the indiscriminate baptism of children, as outlined above, are similar to those presented to and approved by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. They were summarised in a recent report by the Church of Scotland’s 225

Paragraph 16. The report was produced in 1982. DF Wright, Recovering Baptism for a New Age of Mission, article in ‘Doing Theology for the People of God” (Eds. D Lewis & A McGrath), Apollos 1996, pp 51f. 226


Board of Mission as follows: “The emphasis is to ensure the Christian upbringing for the child. One or both parents must be members of the Church and undertake the Christian upbringing of their child; or else the Kirk Session agrees to the baptism on the grounds that one or other parent is in a relationship 227 to the Church akin to membership, or else is desiring to become a communicant member.” Several attempts have been made in recent years to amend that position, one of which sought to assert the right of a child to baptism. None of the attempts have been successful. More significant is the Report of the Board of Mission referred to above and presented to the 1999 General Assembly after two years work. The Report was compiled by a sub-committee, the Committee on Mission and Evangelism Resources, and is especially significant because of where it is coming from and because of its remit “to research the effect of the working of the church’s policy on Baptism on mission and evangelism in 228 the last 34 years” While the bulk of the report is taken up with the findings of its research during which it records a variety of conflicting views it does incorporate into the report its own views on a number of issues. Particularly relevant to the indiscriminate baptism of infants is the decision not to 229 recommend legislative changes to the 1963 Act. It is noteworthy that this decision was reached by a body of people committed to the mission of the church. The Board did, however, comment on the widespread dissatisfaction at the inconsistent way in which policy is implemented at a local level, and on the particular difficulties experienced at the frontiers of mission. It also made the following highly relevant statement, “Policy and doctrine place great weight on the Christian upbringing of children subsequent to Baptism. Our research left us dubious as to whether adequate attention is given to this by congregations and Kirk Sessions.” It also suggested that “the case for the Baptism of infants be made in this generation by sustained teaching, consistent practice and the involvement of the whole 230 people of God.” One final illuminating comment may be noted, “On the whole, the Church’s experience of the policy behind the 1963 Act is positive. The larger part of Ministers, Kirk Sessions and congregational groups agree on this. The doctrinal basis underlying current policy is affirmed by 231 contemporary ecumenical theology.” While the Presbyterian Churches in Scotland have never been able to justify indiscriminate baptism biblically or theologically some flexibility has always been necessary to cater for exceptional circumstances. We may consider, for example, in the missionary situation we face increasingly in Scotland, the parent who converts to Christ and whose conversion is not welcome by his or her partner. The newly converted parent may be actively involved in the life and worship of the local congregation but unable to enter formerly into the membership of that congregation because of strong opposition from within the home. It is possible that such opposition does not extend to the involvement of or even the baptism of children. Domestic circumstances can be exceedingly difficult and complex for some Christians and our inflexibility should not make them more difficult than they need be. Here is a circumstance in which one parent is in a relationship to the local congregation akin to membership. There will be other circumstances. In all exceptional circumstances it is of the utmost importance that kirk sessions play their role in deciding whether a baptism should take place. The Church has obviously allowed for circumstances where children are brought up by those other than natural parents who are effectively acting as parents and, alternatively, where parents have a desire to enter into membership. The question then arises whether “exceptional circumstances” might be extended to include a grandparent or other close relative who is in membership of the Church. It is the case that many grandparents are increasingly shouldering a responsibility for children while parents are at work. We warmly commend those grandparents who are bringing to bear upon children a Christian influence which would otherwise be absent. It has to be said, however, that this kind of circumstance as a basis for the baptism of children has no parallel in either Old or New Testaments. In the large households of both Testaments it may be that the head of the household was a grandfather or, possibly, a grandmother (Lydia?). But the head of the household was responsible under God for the regulation of family life. Grandparents have often had a considerable influence on their grandchildren and it may well be that that influence has increased because of the nature of our changing society, but very few grandparents bear the final responsibility for their grandchildren. Not only must those who present their children for baptism be in a position to bring up the children concerned in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, the Church also must have access to those same children in order to fulfil its responsibilities. There is a real difficulty here, not merely a perceived difficulty. The Lima document not only urges paedobaptists to guard against 227

Report of the Board of Mission to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, 1999, 11.2.2. Report of the Board of Mission to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, 1999, 11.1.1. 229 Report of the Board of Mission to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, 1999, 230 Report of the Board of Mission to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, 1999, 231 Report of the Board of Mission to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, 1999, See also 11.4.3. 228


indiscriminate baptism (see above), it also urges that they “take more seriously their responsibility for 232 the nurture of baptised children to mature commitment to Christ”. The two matters dealt with here are closely related.

(6) 1.

THE MODE OF BAPTISM The words (baptō and baptizō)

It has often been contended that the word baptism necessarily means “immersion”. Alexander Carson in his Baptism: Its Modes and Subjects has stated that while baptō has two meanings (i.e. to dip and to dye) “baptizō in the whole history of the Greek language has but one. It 233 not only signifies to dip or immerse, but it never has any other meaning.” It is significant here that Carson seems to regard dipping as equivalent to immersing. In fact we frequently dip without immersing and, as we shall see, we find dipping without immersing in the New Testament. AH Strong 234 is more emphatic, “This is immersion and immersion only.” Baptist scholars writing during the second half of the twentieth century have been more careful in their arguments for ‘immersion only’. So, for example, in his major work, Baptism in the New Testament, Beasley-Murray makes only two 235 brief references to immersion as the proper mode for baptism (one of which is a footnote). In both cases the argument is based on Paul’s theology, not on an exegesis of Greek words, nor on the practice of the early church as we have it in the Book of Acts. Much more recently Grudem in his Systematic Theology commenting on baptizō has stated, “The sense ‘immerse’ is appropriate and 236 probably required for the word in several New Testament passages” (italics added). We would not disagree. Our contention is that the senses ‘dip’, ‘wash’ or ‘sprinkle’ are also appropriate and are required for the word in several New Testament passages. Whether the sense ‘immerse’ is required in 237 the particular examples given by Grudem is a matter for debate. Grudem’s main argument, as with Beasley-Murray, is based on Pauline theology. The crucial point here is that we have two significant Baptist scholars who no longer insist that baptizō must be understood in the sense of ‘immersion’. Bearing in mind, however, that arguments for immersion based on the use of baptizō still persist at a more popular level it will be helpful to explore the matter further. [1]



baptō (occurring some seventeen times) There are three examples of baptō where it probably carries the idea of immersion. (1) Leviticus 11.32. Articles made unclean are to be “put in water” (Heb. bō). No doubt this would involved the immersion of the articles in water. (2) Job 9.31. The “plunge” of a man into a lime pit so that even his clothes detest him again suggests immersion (Heb. tābal). (3) Psalm 68.23 translates a Hebrew word (māchats) meaning “to smite through” but is used in the sense of “to plunge” (NIV). There are two occurrences of baptō in Daniel (4.33; 5.21) where it translates an Aramaic verb. In both these verses we have exactly the same phrase concerning Nebuchadnezzar: “his body was drenched with the dew of heaven”. baptō (Heb. tseba) could mean here drenched, moist or wet; it can hardly mean immersed – not in the literal sense. All the remaining examples of baptō translate the Hebrew tābal as does baptizō (in 2 Kings 5.14, above) and all carry the sense of “to dip” or “to be moist with”, e.g. Lev 14.6 and 51 where a live bird is dipped in the blood of the one bird which has been killed over fresh water. It is difficult to see how one bird could be immersed in the blood of another bird.


Baptism, Eucharist & Ministry (the ‘Lima Report’), section on ‘Baptism’, paragraph 16, Faith and Order Commission of the WCC 1982. 233 A Carson, Baptism: Its Modes and Subjects, first published Philadelphia 1845, re-published Kregel 1981, p 19 234 AH Strong, Systematic Theology, Philadelphia 1909, Vol III, p 993. 235 GR Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament, Paternoster 1962, pp 133, 263n. See also his Baptism Today and Tomorrow, Macmillan 1966, pp 24, 170n. 236 W Grudem, Systematic Theology, IVP 1994, pp 967-969. 237 Mark 1.5, people baptised by John; Acts 8.36ff, the Ethiopian baptised by Philip; John 3.23, John baptising at Aenon; pp 967f. 238 Septuagint – the earliest Greek translation of the Old Testament. The whole of the OT had been translated into Greek by 132 BC.


baptizō (only two examples in the Septuagint) (1) Isaiah 21.4 where baptizō (Heb. bā’ath, ‘to tremble’) is used in a figurative sense. NIV translates “fear makes me tremble”. (2) 2 Kings 5.14, the washing of Naaman in the Jordan (Heb. tābal). It is worth noting here that Elisha’s instructions to Naaman were, “Go wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed” (v 10). This reads very much like a ritual washing in the Jordan. Naaman’s servant repeated the prophet’s words, “Wash and be cleansed” (v 13). The NIV translates v 14: “So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times…” [2]


baptō (occurring only in Luke 16.24; John 13.26 x 2; Revelation 19.13) In all four instances the word carries the sense of “to dip”. For example, Lk 16.24: “send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.” baptizō (occurs some seventy five to eighty times) Our purpose here is simply to point out that the word baptizō is used in the New Testament without the sense of being “immersed”. Two examples will suffice. (1) Luke 11.38: “the Pharisees, noticing that Jesus did not first wash before the meal, was surprised”. This was a ritual washing of hands prior to a meal. It is quite unreasonable to suggest that the Pharisees were looking for a ritual immersion prior to a meal. (2) Much the same can be said for Mark 7.4: “When (the Pharisees) come from the market-place they do not eat unless they wash.” A ritual immersion prior to every meal?!


Some practical difficulties

Acts 2.41: The baptism of about three thousand on the day of Pentecost. While there is nothing here to prove or disprove baptism by immersion the practicalities of baptising three thousand people by immersion in Jerusalem do raise interesting questions. Acts 8.38: “Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptised him.” The “going down into the water” does not constitute the baptism. They both went down, and Philip was not a candidate for baptism. The baptism may or may not have been a baptism by immersion. We simply do not know. We do know that they were on a desert road and that most desert streams would not be deep. Acts 16.33: The Philippian jailer. The text reads as if the jailer and all his household 239 were baptised “without delay in the prison itself” and during the night. It is difficult to know what facilities would be available in those circumstances for a household baptism and whether there would be facilities for baptism by immersion in the prison. John Stott suggests: “perhaps it took place in a well or fountain in the prison courtyard, or perhaps using the same bowl from which he had cleaned their wounds. Thus, as Chrysostom pointed out, the washing was reciprocal: ‘he washed them and 240 was washed; those he washed from their stripes, himself was washed from his sins.’”


Pauline theology (Romans 6.3-5)

The main passage which has a possible bearing on the mode of baptism is Romans 6.3-5. It is worth quoting this in full. “…all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death. We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin – because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.”

It is always important to understand the main thrust of a Bible passage before using some of its component parts to support a thesis. Paul is dealing in this passage with a rather insidious argument which, if allowed to go by default, would have seriously damaged and ultimately destroyed the Gospel of God’s grace. The argument was as follows: the grace of God is sufficient to cover all our sin; the more sin, the more grace; sin is a good thing because it promotes grace; let us, therefore, continue in sin. Paul’s response is robust: we have been united to Christ in his death, burial 239 240

IH Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles, IVP 1980, p 274. JRW Stott, The Message of Acts, IVP 1990, p 267.


and resurrection; everyone united to Christ is, ‘by virtue of the efficacy of Christ’s death and the power 241 of his resurrection’, freed from the dominion of sin and lives a new life which is wholly incompatible with a life of sin. It is important to grasp that Paul’s answer to the antinomianism being propounded is not water baptism but union with Christ. Paul is building on the foundation he has already established in the previous chapter (5.12-23). As we were ‘in Adam’, so we are ‘in Christ’ summarises the teaching there. It is because the believer is in Christ and Christ is in the believer that antinomianism is an impossibility. What then is the significance of the word ‘baptism’ in this context, and does it tell us anything about the mode of baptism? There are several possibilities. [1]



It is possible to understand the reference to baptism in Romans 6 in the light of 1 Cor 12.13: “we were all baptised by one Spirit into one body”. In which case Paul is saying in the Romans passage that we were baptised (by the Spirit) into Christ, into his death, burial and resurrection. The advantage of this approach is that we are able to take the passage at face value. It really is baptism that effects our union with Christ, i.e. the baptism by the Spirit. We really are buried with him through baptism, i.e. baptism by the Spirit. According to this approach it will be obvious (a) that baptism is not symbolic, and (b) that the Romans’ passage has no bearing on the mode of water baptism. [2]


The concept that it is the sacrament itself, i.e. baptism with water, which effects either regeneration or union with Christ is a concept that was rejected at the time of the Reformation. It has also been rejected earlier in this Report. It is not an appropriate interpretation of Romans 6. CK Barrett writes, “There is no sacramental opus operatum by means of which Christians can assure themselves, independently of faith and of their own moral seriousness, that they have risen from death 243 to enjoy the life of the Age to Come.” [3]


According to this view baptism, in Romans 6, is presented as “the symbolic representation, or the pictorial enactment of, a deeper spiritual reality, namely, our union with Christ; 244 our union with Him in…His burial and in His resurrection”. First we go down into the water (a picture of burial), then we come up out of the water (a picture of resurrection). It is in the light of this symbolic representation that many Baptists insist on baptism by immersion only. The symbolic representation, it is claimed, reflects the practice, and the only practice, of the early church. There are, however, difficulties in the ‘symbolic representation’ approach when accompanied by the conclusion that only baptism by immersion accords with the New Testament practice and, therefore, that baptism by immersion is required by the symbolic representation in Romans 6. It is difficult, for example, to apply the symbolism, as Romans 6 requires, to every aspect of our union with Christ. Paul is quite clear here. It is through baptism (which represents our union with Christ) that we have died with him, have been buried with him, have been raised with him. Macleod comments that while “going down into the water is an adequate symbol of the Lord’s death…it is not an adequate symbol of burial (or more precisely, of entombment, because Jesus was not buried, he 245 was entombed)…” More importantly it is possible to hold, as many do, the ‘symbolic representation’ view without concluding that baptism by immersion is to be insisted upon as the only or the most appropriate mode of baptism. While baptism by immersion may provide an appropriate backcloth to Paul’s teaching in Romans 6 it must also be pointed out that there are other more common backcloths which require baptism by pouring and sprinkling. (a) Baptism is presented as a washing. See for example the words of Ananias to Saul (Acts 22.16): “Get up, be baptised and wash your sins way.” As the Church of Scotland Report states, “The connexion between this washing and the death of Christ is seen in passages such as 1 Cor 6.11, ‘but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, 241

J Murray, Christian Baptism, Presbyterian and Reformed 1980, p 27. A typical expression of this approach may be found in DM Lloyd-Jones’ Romans: Exposition of Chapter 6: The new Man, Banner of Truth 1972, pp 35f. See also J Murray, Christian Baptism, Presbyterian and Reformed 1980, pp 26-30; J Brown, Analytical Exposition of the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, Grand Rapids 1981. 243 CK Barrett, The Epistle to the Romans, A&C Black 1957, p 123. 244 DM Lloyd-Jones, Romans: Exposition of Chapter 6: The new Man, Banner of Truth 1972, p 33. 245 D Macleod, A Faith to Live By, Christian Focus 1998, p 214. 242


and by the Spirit of God;” and Eph.5.25f, ‘Christ also loved the Church and gave himself up for it, that He might sanctify and cleanse it by the washing of water by the Word, that He might present it to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle…but that it should be holy and without blemish.’ In these passages Christ’s work is described as a cleansing of the Church and of believers, in language reminiscent of the Old Testament ideas of covenant and sacrifice… In Heb 10.22 the language is undoubtedly taken from the priest’s cleansing: ‘Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering.’ (The washing and the confession of faith again recall Baptism.) According to this Epistle, Christ cleanses us through His blood and enables us to draw near to God; and this once-for-all cleansing which Christ accomplished on the Cross is applied to us in the once-for-all-cleansing in Baptism… It is possible there is a direct reference to Baptism in Revelation 1.5, if the reading ‘washed us from our sins’ be preferred to the alternative ‘loosed us’; but in any case baptismal allusions can be seen throughout the book in the references to the faithful who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb, and wear white 246 garments (as baptismal candidates did in the early Church).” (b) Baptism is represented as a pouring and a sprinkling. John the Baptist contrasted his own water baptism with Jesus’ Spirit baptism: “I baptise you with water…He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit” (Matt 3.11). Jesus confirmed this (Acts 1.5). He then speaks of this baptism in terms of a power coming upon them (Acts 1.8). Peter speaks of the same baptism twice in terms of a pouring out (2.18,33), and Luke writes about the Holy Spirit having been “poured out” and as having “come upon” (10.44; 11.15). Moreover, as J Murray points out, the Old Testament anticipation of the gift (baptism) of the Spirit “is expressed in terms of pouring out, shedding forth and sprinkling – never 247 immersion”.  Isaiah 32.15: “till the Spirit is poured upon us from on high”  Joel 2.28: “I will pour out my Spirit on all people”  Ezekiel 36.25-27: “I will sprinkle clean water on you… I will put my Spirit in you.” It does seem a little strange to insist that the outward sign must be immersion when the inward grace is spoken of in terms of pouring and sprinkling! Moreover, baptism not only signifies our union with Christ, the washing away of sin, the gift of the Holy Spirit, it also signifies the blood of Christ applied to our lives. It is not without significance that the New Testament uses the idea of sprinkling in connection with the blood of Christ in its application (Heb 9.13,14,22; 10.22; 12.24; 1 Pet 1.2). As Murray observes, “It would be strange if the baptism with water which represents the 248 sprinkling of the blood of Christ could not properly and most significantly be performed by sprinkling. [4]


CEB Cranfield observes, “all that Paul wishes to convey (in Romans 6.3-5) is the simple fact that the persons concerned have received Christian baptism. But at the same time the expression which he uses implies…that baptism has to do with a decisive personal relationship between the individual believer and Christ (and) that the relationship to Christ with which baptism has 249 to do includes, in particular, a relationship to his death”. Commenting on the meaning of Paul’s claim Cranfield further comments: “Not that it actually relates the person concerned to Christ’s death, since this relationship is already an objective reality before baptism takes place…but that it points to 250 and is a pledge of, that death which the person has already died – in God’s sight…” If Cranfield and others are correct it will again be obvious that the Romans passage has no bearing on the mode of baptism.


The Biblical Doctrine of Baptism, The Saint Andrew Press 1958, pp 22-23. We may add to the list of references Titus 3.5f. 247 J Murray, Christian Baptism, Presbyterian and Reformed 1980, p 21. 248 J Murray, Christian Baptism, Presbyterian and Reformed 1980, p 21. 249 CEB Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans Vol I, T & T Clark 1975, p 301. 250 CEB Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans Vol I, T & T Clark 1975, p 303.



In conclusion

We need to be consistent. It seems very strange that people should on the one hand adopt a dogmatic approach to the mode of one sacrament yet adopt a very loose approach to 251 the mode of our other sacrament, the Lord’s Supper. That is particularly so when we are more certain about the latter than we are about the former. We know that the early Christians celebrated the Lord’s Supper in the course of a meal and that unleavened bread and wine were used. The New Testament makes that clear. Yet we do not insist that the Lord’s Supper must be celebrated in the course of a meal and that unleavened bread and wine be used. Indeed there is widespread agreement that the mode is of no significance. Precisely whether baptism was practised by immersion or by sprinkling or pouring is a matter for personal or corporate judgement. It depends on one’s conclusions after the evidence has been assessed. That that is the case should be obvious from the wide disagreement that prevails among equally godly and scholarly Christians. It is the view of this Panel that sprinkling, pouring or immersion are all appropriate modes of baptism, that each of these modes reflects some aspect of the Christian faith signified by baptism, and that each of these modes represents the full Christian experience, including union with Christ, the application of the blood of Christ, the washing away of sin, and the gift of the Spirit. We identify with Macleod’s plea: “I respect immersion, but I am asking that there should be a place for our mode too. There is no stress in the New Testament on the mode of baptism, any more than there is 252 any stress in the case of the Lord’s Supper on the fact that the bread used was unleavened bread.” An important element in all this is that baptism take place in the company of the local congregation to which the candidate for baptism will be committed. It is more important that a person be baptised in the presence of that congregation by sprinkling or pouring than that he be baptised by immersion in the presence of a representative group of church members or even a group of personal friends. Baptism after all represents not only my incorporation into Christ, it represents my belonging to both the universal Church and to the local congregation in which I live, and move and have my being. To magnify the mode of baptism and minimise the significance of baptism at this point, or at any point, is to misrepresent the New Testament approach and, therefore, to mislead.

(7) 1.

A WAY FORWARD Discussion

This report has been necessitated at least in part by a dissatisfaction with the present outworking in some quarters of the practice of baptism, both of adults and children. Concerns have been expressed from differing and sometimes very different and conflicting standpoints. Many of the concerns represent genuine difficulties and tensions. The reasons for this are various but they are highlighted by a growing number of parents requesting baptism for their children who have no connection with the church, who have a loose connection with the church, or who attend church, but who are not willing to commit themselves to the membership of the church through the profession of their faith in Christ. It may be helpful to summarise some of the practical concerns, particularly as they focus on the baptism of children. 1. The trauma of refusing baptism when requested by parents who are non-members. 2. The desire that baptism should be more easily accessible to the children of parents who are not members of the church. 3. The lack of an alternative to offer parents who want the birth of their child to be marked in some way by the Church. 4. A troubled conscience when asking parents to affirm convictions and make promises when there is no evidence that the affirmations or promises are meaningful. 5. The misuse of baptism so that it is presented as little more than a ‘christening’ or a naming ceremony with water. 6. A reluctance to attribute to the baptism of children the significance and meaning given to baptism in the New Testament and a consequent tendency to understand baptism in the light of that diminished understanding. 251

The parallel drawn here is legitimate. Compare the Anglican scholar, GW Bromiley: “The death and resurrection of Christ are the true baptism of which our own baptism and baptismal experience are but a likeness, reflection, or, in a strictly qualified sense, repetition. In this respect baptism resembles the Lord’s Supper, for there, too, the outpoured blood of Christ on the cross is the true and proper cup to which our sacramental cup bears witness.” Children of Promise, Wipf and Stock 1998, p 56. 252 D Macleod, A Faith to Live By, Christian Focus 1998, p 214.


7. A less than honest approach in dealing with parents so that the word baptism is not used even when water is, or when the word baptism is used but not water! 8. Parents who have come into membership so that children might be baptised and who have lapsed soon afterwards from any meaningful involvement in the life of the church. 9. The lack of access by the church to a significant number of children who have been baptised 10. The lack of follow-up either through lack of access or because of a failure on the church’s part to take its responsibilities seriously. 11. The lack of a consistent policy among Presbyterian churches which enables parents to look for a minister who will do what other colleagues have refused to do, and the danger therefore of being governed by a ‘consumer’ mentality. 12. Difficulties arising through so-called ‘second baptisms’ only possible by denying the value of the first baptism, a practice which effectively devalues baptism. 13. The confusing suggestion of replacing child baptism with child dedication for which there is no biblical basis. The question which arises now is how we approach these concerns, some of which represent conflicting points of view, in the light of the conclusions reached in this Report as to the biblical and theological approach to baptism, including the baptism of children. We may begin by drawing attention to the crucial role of baptism in the life of the early church, a missionary church in a pagan society, in which the baptism of families was a norm, bearing in mind that these baptisms took place when the head of the house was brought to faith in Christ. We have no mandate to minimise the role of baptism. In his essay ‘Recovering Baptism for a 253 New Age of Mission’ DF Wright has a section headed ‘The Church as Baptismal Community’. He states: “baptism is above all the sacrament or the ordinance of the church’s missionary advance” and 254 proceeds to illustrate that point. When Paul provides us with the basis for Christian unity it is worth noting that it is not the ‘one eucharist’ that he invokes but rather our ‘one baptism’. Wright draws attention to the fact that when divisions arose within the Corinthian Church they were tackled with reference to baptism (1 Cor 1.10-17). He poses the question, “How many pastors today would instinctively tackle the gross misunderstanding of ‘going on sinning so that grace might increase’ as Paul did?” (i.e. by confronting his readers with their baptism; Rom 6.2-4; see also Col 2.12-13 for a similar usage). He also reminds his readers how Luther defied devilish assaults on the soul with the 255 words, ‘I have been baptised!’” It is of the utmost importance that we recognise the importance of baptism for the church’s mission and the church’s unity and that we recover for it the role that it had in the life of the early church. We must give it its full Christian value as a sacrament of the New Covenant. In the light of all this it is worth giving consideration to the conclusions of DF Wright in his essay referred to above, against the background of the tensions, concerns and conflicting views also outlined above. He presents his conclusions out of his concern that Infant Baptism should find its proper place in the ongoing life of the Church for the new age of mission facing the Church. There should be: 1. A principled discipline of administration, so that only those parents who are regularly worshipping church members would expect to have their infants baptised. 2. The adoption of a service or services to mark the birth of a child, to enable ministers to escape from the straitjacket of an all-or-nothing choice. 3. The unambiguous owning of baby baptism as New Testament baptism. 4. The nurture of baptised children as members of the church and the people of God. 5. The making of baptism an explicit and frequent reference-point in Christian education from the earliest stages. 6. A cluster of lesser practical requirements that would make baptism unambiguously a congregational occasion rather than a family one, and also heighten the dramatic vividness of the rite. If there has to be a party, make it a church one; the baptism shall always take place in the home church at the time of the main Sunday service; the local minister shall baptise; imaginative efforts will be made to enhance the solemnity and awesomeness of the observance… 7. The notes of the gospel to be sounded loud and clear, so that all present will be left in no doubt that baptism is a sacrament of the gospel. If infant baptism deserves to be saved from the ruins of 253

In Doing Theology for the People of God (Eds. D Lewis & A McGrath), Apollos 1996, p 53. DF Wright, ‘Recovering Baptism for a New Age of Mission’, article in Doing Theology for the People of God (Eds. D Lewis & A McGrath), Apollos 1996, pp 51-54. 255 DF Wright, ‘Recovering Baptism for a New Age of Mission’, article in Doing Theology for the People of God (Eds. D Lewis & A McGrath), Apollos 1996, pp 53-55. 254


Christendom, it will only be by returning it to baptism’s New testament configurations – ecclesial, kerygmatic, mystagogic, Christological. Then infant baptism will truly be an apostolic focus for the 256 church’s apostolic mission. These deserve serious consideration at least in part because they coincide with developments in other paedobaptist churches and with views expressed in the Board of Missions’ Report to the 1999 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. The Board of Mission’s Report begins with its conclusions and then gives the reasons for its conclusions. The conclusions were as follows:  No change in the Act as it is (i.e. the view of baptism agreed in the 1960’s should not be changed); but that…  Services of Thanksgiving be given more formal recognition as a proper pastoral response to some parents;  and that the case for the Baptism of infants be made in this generation by sustained teaching, consistent practice and the involvement of the whole people of God. The more controversial of both the Board of Mission’s Report and of DF Wright’s essay is the adoption of a service to mark the birth of child as an appropriate response to some parents. In fact the Report of the Board of Mission devotes a whole section to this matter (two pages). It is clear from the report that there is provision within the rules of that church for a kirk session to authorise such a service and that in a growing number of churches within the Church of Scotland such 257 a service is being adopted. The Rev Dr Andrew Heron has leant his support to the practice, recommending that “pastoral concerns should allow for requests for a service of thanksgiving for a 258 new baby to be met – and that there is nothing in church law to prevent this.” Whether it should be called ‘a service’ as such is a matter for debate. In our worship at present, however, we frequently give thanks for significant events in the lives of individuals, and no doubt that already includes thanksgiving for the birth of babies. There seems to be no good reason why parents who desire that should not be invited to join an act of worship which would include thanksgiving for the birth of their child. This would not satisfy all, but it already does satisfy a growing number of people who have attended such a service within the Church of Scotland and the Church of England. To include within an act of worship a prayer of thanksgiving for a child accompanied by prayers of intercession for both the child and parents would have a far more solid foundation biblically than an act of dedication. The great benefit of such an approach is that it would involve no compromise, no devaluation of baptism and no troubled conscience on the part of ministers. It would offer a way forward that would enable ministers “to escape the straightjacket of an all-or-nothing choice” (DF Wright). It could make some contribution, possibly even a big contribution, to relieving the tension between those who want a more open approach to children outside the church and those who are horrified at the prospect of an indiscriminate baptism.



Leaving aside the possibility of including thanksgiving for a child within an act of worship we are agreed on the following: 1. The baptism of children is firmly grounded in the biblical doctrine of the covenant relationship between God and his people. 2. The proper subjects for baptism are (a) those who have come to faith in Christ, who have not previously been baptised, and who, through their baptism, are entering into the membership of the church; (b) children who are baptised along with parents; children whose parents have previously been baptised and are already in membership with the church; children whose parents are in a relationship to the church akin to membership; children separated from parents but under Christian care and supervision. 3. We recognise that it is not possible and, indeed, would be improper, to anticipate or legislate for every individual circumstance. Where special circumstances pertain the guidance of the kirk


DF Wright, ‘Recovering Baptism for a New Age of Mission’, article in Doing Theology for the People of God (Eds. D Lewis & A McGrath), Apollos 1996, pp 64f. 257 “In addition to the stated church services the Kirk Session may appoint such occasional services as it judges desirable,” (Cox); Report of the Board of Mission to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, 1999, 258 Report of the Board of Mission to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, 1999,; see The Law & Practrice of the Kirk, Andrew Heron, Chapter House Ltd., 1995, pp 156f.



5. 6. 7.


9. 10.



session must be sought and the decisions of the kirk session must be in keeping with the policy of the whole Church. The sacrament of baptism should normally be within a public act of worship involving parents and the congregation and should never be a private act of worship unless there are very exceptional circumstances and where the kirk session has given approval. The sacrament of baptism should be spoken of as such and not in any way that presents it as less than that, e.g. as a christening. Much more careful attention should be given to the Christian upbringing and pastoral care of children subsequent to baptism by parents and by the kirk session. Baptism must be administered with water by sprinkling, pouring or immersion. The overriding factor however must be the principle that baptism normally takes place within a public act of worship involving the whole congregation. The Service of Baptism may be a little more meaningful if we were more liberal in our use of water. The tendency to use the bare minimum is not helpful. When children are baptised it should be recognised that the minister is not conveying spiritual blessings upon them. Baptism does not effect regeneration. They are baptised as children within the covenant who share with their parents in the promises of the covenant and are therefore regarded as belonging to the Christian family – together with their parents. Baptism is an unrepeatable act. Second baptisms biblically and theologically are a contradiction in terms and a denial of what baptism represents, i.e. our once-for-all-acceptance by God. We should make the act of reception into membership by profession of faith in Christ a much more meaningful and far more significant event, and that act of reception together with the profession of faith should be related to a person’s baptism. There should be adequate teaching on Baptism, teaching which would deal with the place of children within the covenant, and such teaching should feature as a part of the church’s regular teaching programme.

Service of Thanksgiving

The re-examination, by the Panel on Doctrine, of “the whole issue of Baptism and, in particular the practice of Infant Baptism”, has its origin in a motion presented to the 1996 General Assembly by the Rev J Neil. In moving the motion Mr Neil referred to changing circumstances and made the following statement, “I would urge the Assembly not to underestimate the deep and genuine feelings that parents have at their children’s birth having just witnessed the miracle of new-born life. It is often a time when, for men especially, their eyes are opened to the sacredness of life and their responsibility toward the well-being and development of their child. Any wonder that when they come to the minister requesting baptism they are shocked to discover it is not quite as simple as a request. Clearly our members need to be taught more effectively what Water Baptism is and to whom it properly applies. The Church may simply (even if painfully) decline such requests for Baptism, or it may, with some imagination and sensitivity towards enquiring parents seek to formulate a service of thanksgiving or blessing which can be approved by our Church so that there is uniformity of practice and advice on how it should be properly conducted. I suspect some already have introduced something along these lines but would welcome stricter guidelines.”

Moreover, when the last Report on Baptism was presented to the General Assembly in 1980 it concluded with this Footnote: “It may be that the Church should give consideration to offering a service of blessing for children, whose parents are not believers.” There are, of course, arguments for and against such a service. Members of the Panel were reluctant to deal with the matter in this Report for two reasons. (1) Our present remit requires us to re-examine the question of Baptism, including Infant Baptism. It does not authorise us to consider a Service of Thanksgiving. Another matter related to the baptism of children is that of the presence of children at the Lord’s Table. The Assembly deemed it necessary to agree to a separate deliverance authorising us to look at that related issue. (2) We are concerned that our theological and biblical approach to Baptism should not be influenced by a consideration of a Service of Thanksgiving. There was, in our view, a danger that to deal with both in the same Report may confuse the issues when this Report is debated at the General assembly.


For the reasons given, members of the Panel felt it wise to seek guidance from the General Assembly as to whether we should consider a service of thanksgiving for children whose parents are not in membership with the church or who are not covered by the particular circumstances outlined above. A paragraph of deliverance has been included to determine the mind of the Assembly. The approval of the paragraph would not prejudge the outcome of the deliberations which would follow, though the Panel would obviously take into account any discussion on the matter by the Assembly.



It ought to be no surprise that a Report from the Panel on Doctrine should be essentially doctrinal! Moreover it will be clear from the Report that we have had to deal in a detailed way with numerous conflicting ideas. Throughout we have sought to ensure that our exegesis of all relevant Bible passages and themes would be meticulous. The result has been a lengthy and fairly technical Report. From an early stage in our discussions it was anticipated that this would be the case and that, should the Report be accepted by the General Assembly, it would be essential for the Panel to produce supporting material for the local congregation that would be much more ‘user-friendly’. Our intention would be to produce, in the course of the next year and firmly based on the Report, material as listed below. 1. An explanatory leaflet for parents to help them in their understanding of baptism. 2. An Order of Service for Baptism. 3. A teaching programme for use by ministers and leaders in worship services, mid-week meetings, youth groups and preparation classes (for membership and/or baptism). 4. Guidance on the pastoral care of those baptised. 5. Guidelines whereby the act of reception into membership by profession of faith in Christ could become a much more meaningful and far more significant event, relating the act of reception together with the profession of faith to a person’s baptism.


Some work on the above has already commenced though it was deemed wise to await the General Assembly’s decision with respect to the Report before expending overmuch time and energy on supporting material. Whatever the outcome of the General Assembly’s deliberations, members of the Panel on Doctrine have found their investigation into the topic of baptism, over five years, to be a challenging and enriching experience. We are grateful to the General Assembly for the opportunity to engage in this exercise.

In the name of the Panel DAVID CARTLEDGE JOHN O FULTON


Convener Secretary

DELIVERANCE 1. The General Assembly approve the Report as a statement of the Church’s position on Baptism from a Biblical and Theological standpoint. 2. The General Assembly encourage the Panel to produce Supporting Material as outlined in the Report. 3. The General Assembly instruct the Panel to examine whether a service of thanksgiving would be an appropriate response for the children of parents who are not in membership with the Church, and to report to the General Assembly in 2002.


UFCOS Baptism  

UFCOS Baptism

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