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Baptism

Baptism has multiple meanings reflected in various biblical texts. It incorporates members into the church through baptism into the one body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). Through baptism into Christ’s priesthood (1 Pet. 2:5, 9; Rev. 1:6; 5:10) the baptized are able to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God and thus are deputed to the public worship of the church. Baptism described as a “spiritual circumcision” indicates participation in the new covenant (Col. 2:11–12 NRSV). It is also a pardoning and cleansing from sin (Acts 22:16; 1 Cor. 6:11; Eph. 5:26; Heb. 10:22), a new birth (John 3:5), and a gift of the Spirit (Acts 2:38). Baptism requires conversion, a new life in Christ, and a renunciation of sin that entails a new ethical orientation (1 Cor. 6:9–11).
In Christian churches the theology of baptism has been influenced by two foundational texts, Rom. 6:3–4 and Mark 1:9–11. The Western churches have primarily stressed baptism as participation in Christ’s death and resurrection according to the theology in the Epistle to the Romans. The act of baptismal immersion is the sign of Christ’s dying and rising and signifies the new life and Christian identity of the baptized.
The Eastern churches tend to privilege Mark 1:9–11 and parallel texts. They view baptism as the reenactment of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. The Gospel texts stress the pneumatological and trinitarian aspects of baptism—the gift of the Spirit and the presence of the Father, Son, and Spirit in the water bath in the Jordan. The baptized become adopted heirs of the Father and receive the anointing of the Holy Spirit.
Faith is both required for baptism and an effect of baptism. For example, in Acts 2 those who welcomed Peter’s message were baptized. In the early church the rite of initiation included a trinitarian profession of faith in question-and-answer form. For the traditions that have restored the ancient practice of the catechumenate, this period is a time in which the candidates grow in faith. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults has made adult baptism normative for an understanding of the theology of baptism. The primary difference between those communions who baptize infants and those who practice believer baptism is not whether faith is present or not, but where faith is located. Baptists and other groups issuing from the Anabaptist arm of the Reformation require a personal profession of faith on the part of the person who is baptized. In the Roman Catholic tradition, as in many other Christian traditions, the godparents and the parents express faith by proxy. In the baptism of infants, the faith of the church precedes the initiation of the child, signifying that all are welcomed into a faith community through baptism. It shows that proclamation and evangelization on the part of a faith community must precede any individual confession of faith, and that faith is God’s work in us and not our own.
Evidence for the baptism of infants exists from the end of the second century. Reasons supporting the development of infant baptism include references to the baptism of households (Acts 16:15, 33; 1 Cor. 1:16), a literal interpretation of John 3:3 accompanied by a high mortality rate, and the explanation of Cyprian that the sin of Adam was forgiven in baptism. In addition, Augustine developed the doctrine of original sin, based on his reading of Rom. 5:12–21 and his efforts to counter the Pelagian teaching that free will supported by ascetic practices was sufficient for living a Christian life and attaining salvation.
Swiss Brethren, also known as Anabaptists, hold that baptism represents a public confession of “repentance and amendment of life” by those “who believe truly that their sins are taken away by Christ” (Schleitheim Confession, 1527). Other confessional groups who do not practice infant baptism, although not directly related to the Swiss Brethren, profess similar doctrines. For example, Baptists consider baptism to be a voluntary public profession of Christian faith, which requires candidates old enough to understand its significance and symbols.
More attention needs to be given to the unity of the rites of initiation: baptism, postbaptismal anointing or confirmation, and Eucharist. As the Faith and Order document Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry observes, “Participation in Christ’s death and resurrection is inseparably linked with the receiving of the Spirit. Baptism in its full meaning signifies and effects both” (WCC §B14). Baptism and the Eucharist are linked as early as 1 Cor. 10:2–4 and perhaps John 19:34 and 1 John 5:6. Both baptism and Eucharist celebrate the same mystery, the death and resurrection of Christ in the power of the Spirit. We are baptized only once, but our regular celebration of the Eucharist recalls the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Christ represented on the altar and enables us to join ourselves to Christ and one another as the body of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16–17). In the Eucharist our communion in the body of the Lord, both in the Christ dead and risen and in his ecclesial body, achieves a repeatable visibility. Our participation in the Eucharist is as profoundly baptismal as our baptism is profoundly oriented to the Eucharist. In baptism we become the priestly people of God, and in the Eucharist we exercise that priesthood. The unity of the rites is most apparent when they are celebrated together as in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. The Orthodox churches also maintain the unity of the rites in the initiation of infants.
Even though there is but one baptism because there is only one Christ, dead and risen, into whom we are baptized (Eph. 4:4–6), the mutual recognition of baptism remains one of the ecumenical tasks of our time. Baptism administered with water and invocation of the trinitarian name together with faith in Christ form the basis of an imperfect communion among Christians. Traditional disputed issues are whether or not baptism is a sacrament and whether a personal confession of faith is required for the sacrament. While Roman Catholics do not require a full understanding of their sacramental teaching by other ministers to recognize their baptisms, those communities who practice believer’s baptism do not recognize infant baptisms. More recently, theological debates about the proper language used for God in the trinitarian formula affect mutual recognition. Eucharistic practices relative to sacramental initiation are inconsistent. The Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and various Baptist groups link full ecclesial community with full sacramental initiation and the Eucharist. Other groups admit all the baptized to the Eucharist. Finally, even though baptism is identified as a significant ground of unity among Christian churches, the ecclesial character of baptism has not been given significant attention, particularly in view of the fact that a person is baptized into a particular ecclesial community within a divided Christianity. All are baptized into the one church of Christ, yet the particular communities into which we are baptized are not always in communion with one another. Since baptism is an unrepeatable act, any practice that might be interpreted as rebaptism must be avoided where there is mutual recognition of baptism.

See also Sacrament


Bibliography

Beasley-Murray, G. R. Baptism in the New Testament. Eerdmans, 1973; Buchanan, C. A Case for Infant Baptism. 3d ed. Grove, 1984; Hartman, L. ‘Into the Name of the Lord Jesus.’ T&T Clark, 1997; Johnson, M. The Rites of Christian Initiation. Liturgical Press, 1999; Kavanagh, A. The Shape of Baptism. Pueblo, 1978; Pawson, D., and C. Buchanan. Infant Baptism under Cross-examination. Grove, 1974, 1976; Wainwright, G. Christian Initiation. John Knox, 1969; WCC. Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry. Faith and Order Paper 111. WCC, 1982.

Susan K. Wood


Vanhoozer, K. J., Bartholomew, C. G., Treier, D. J., & Wright, N. T. (Eds.). (2005). In Dictionary for theological interpretation of the Bible (pp. 81–82). London; Grand Rapids, MI: SPCK; Baker Academic.

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