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The Biblical View

A couple of weeks ago, Ligonier Ministries’ Renewing Your Mind radio program broadcast a couple of old lectures—not really sermons, and not really a “debate” (as they were billed), either—on baptism. R. C. Sproul presented the traditional view of infant baptism, and John MacArthur presented the biblical doctrine of the baptism of believers alone.

Now, if I was one of the Truly Reformed, I’d be annoyed by that last sentence, particularly by the adjectives. Of course, this is my blog, and I’m not pretending any kind of impartiality. I am also not introducing two speakers presenting opposing views, so I am under no burden to appear fair and unbiased. However, if that was the situation, describing the opposing views as I did above—even though that is exactly how I see it—would be prejudicial, and inappropriate for the moment.

Consider, then, how the two messages were described on the Ligonier website:

Baptism Debate With R.C. Sproul and John MacArthur

The church’s practice of infant baptism came under attack in the sixteenth century. Since that time, many Christian churches have rallied against the practice, administering baptism only to believing adults. From Ligonier Ministries” 1998 National Conference, Drs. John MacArthur Jr. and R.C. Sproul discuss their views on the Biblical meaning and mode of Christian baptism. Dr. MacArthur presents the credo-baptist position and Dr. Sproul presents the historic paedo(infant)-baptist position.

That’s “the credo-baptist position” vs. the “historic paedo(infant)-baptist position.” That really didn’t bother me at first, but after a comment about it was made on another blog, I began to think more about what the word “historic” means:

Main Entry: his·tor·ic
Pronunciation: \hi-’stȯr-ik, -’stär-\
Function: adjective
Date: 1594
: historical: as a : famous or important in history <historic battlefields> b : having great and lasting importance <a historic occasion> c : known or established in the past <historic interest rates> d : dating from or preserved from a past time or culture <historic buildings> <historic artifacts>

So which view is more “historic”? I’ll grant that paedobaptism is an historic practice, but, by Dr. Sproul’s own admission, we don’t find it documented until the third century. Credobaptism, we all know, is explicitly documented in the New Testament. Paedobaptism is clearly not the historic position.

To Ligonier’s credit, the original Renewing Your Mind introductions did not use quite so prejudicial a term. The original audience heard the following descriptions:

Those descriptions still indicate some bias—there is a “case for” infant baptism, but only a “view of” believer’s baptism—but I don’t find them quite so irksome. After all, the earliest Protestants were paedobaptists. Somewhat humorous to me, though, is the reference to the “classical Protestant view.” [ahem] Excuse me, Mr. Ligonier-Announcer, but wouldn’t that be the Lutheran view?

Well, be that as it may, I’ve rambled on for some five hundred words without getting to the issue that is really on my mind. We could go back and forth indefinitely on which is the historic view, or the (historical, classical, or what-you-will) Protestant view. Those discussions are not entirely irrelevant, but neither are they decisive. What we really want to know is which view is biblical. Luther famously declared that popes and councils can err. He also proved that reformers can err. Reformed churchmen would point to his doctrine of baptismal regeneration as proof of that. Among his other errors, also recognized by the Reformed, were his insistence on the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper (transconsubstantiation), and the perpetual virginity of Mary. Calvin also either believed in or considered it unnecessary to deny the perpetual virginity. The Church Fathers present a wide variety of oddities (consider where Matthew 18:7–9 took Origen!). The Fathers and Reformers, valuable as they are, must be left in their places. So I think it’s unfortunate that those terms (historic, classical, traditional, Protestant) were used at all.

Being Protestant is of great importance to me. That the Reformation was and remains necessary and right is a presupposition in any of my discussions. Yet the bottom line is not being Protestant, or (mostly) Reformed. The bottom line is being biblical.

I’m sure Drs. Sproul and MacArthur would agree.

Posted 2010·06·07 by David Kjos
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Posted in: Baptism · John Calvin · John MacArthur · Martin Luther · Origen · R C Sproul · Sola Scriptura
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#1 || 10·06·07··12:04 || Andrew Sterling Hanenkamp

Colossians 2:6 and following comes to mind.

#2 || 10·07·04··20:11 || Irishblood

What does the Greek word for baptism, as written in scripture, really mean? What type of physical action was called for in the original manuscripts of the Bible?

#3 || 10·09·30··10:54 || bryan

Those individuals who practice submerging baptismal candidates completely under the surface of the water believe they have a trump card in the Greek word baptizo. From this they insist that the proper English translation of the word is immersion and that if the inspired authors had intended to insinuate sprinkle or pour they had better words to use for those expressions. I agree on both accounts, but I do not draw the conclusion however, that the one and only method of baptizing is to place a person entirely under the surface of the water.
There are two problems with the arguments above; the word immerse has a far broader meaning than is being allowed, and there are better words for placing people completely under water. In truth I could make the reverse arguments against baptistic beliefs using the same information. Immerse means to wash or cleanse with water (Strong's Number: 907) and if the inspired authors had intended to say submerge or dip they had better words to use for those expressions. What many people fail to realize is that according to the same Strong's Lexicon there are three definitions for the word baptizo (immerse), and most authors only highlight the one that supports their understanding. If you go to a Baptist or a typical American Evangelical church you will only hear that immerse means to dip or submerge, but this is only the first possible meaning.
The word immerse therefore does not seem to be an indicator of the intended mode for baptism. It would appear that we will get that information from the context of the verses surrounding the word baptizo or from scripture at large. But why would the bible be so vague? Why would it use a word that could mean pouring just as easily as submerging? My answer is that describing the mode of application was not the authors intended purpose. In baptism we are united with Christ. It is unimportant, at this point, to consider all that that might mean. You can believe it means we are saved, become a member of a local congregation, or anything in between. Never the less we are united in some way with Christ and or his church.
It is this idea that the scriptures are trying to capture with the word baptizo. The word immerse can, in addition to the definitions given above, mean to overwhelm, and carries with it the idea of union with and a lasting effect. For example you can immerse yourself in a culture. To do so would mean more than just gathering facts about a people or place, but would also indicate that you have taken something of lasting worth from that study and applied it. You would have been affected in a significant way. Whether baptism includes salvation or just represents it, is it not true that baptism accompanies a lasting and significant change?
From this I deduce two things. First the word baptizo itself does not indicate how the water should be applied. To discern a method of application we would need to look at the context of the verse and or at how God has commonly expressed himself to us. Second the use of the word baptizo is more focused on its meaning of lasting unity with Christ than with how the water is applied. Whatever the work of baptism is, God intends it to be of lasting significance. In short baptizo means to apply water with the understanding that significant and lasting change has taken place.
Now as a Lutheran I believe that the above mentioned significant and lasting change is indeed salvation. This change is brought about by the Word connected with the water that creates and strengthens faith. As to mode I don't know why Lutherans generally pour the water. I know all three typical methods are considered valid. Personally, despite references to Romans 6:4, I believe that pouring better symbolizes how God has operated throughout the entire bible. If we want to argue the Greek word baptizo then I can be just as dogmatic in my belief that it means to pour water over an individual so that the water and the Word bring salvation to the recipient. My understanding is at least as valid as any other.

#4 || 10·09·30··12:03 || David

“My understanding is at least as valid as any other.”

At least as valid as any other? Wow! I guess there’s no more to say, then.

Anyway, did you happen to catch the actual point of this post?

#5 || 10·10·01··13:04 || Bryan

Please forgive me if I have somehow insulted you with my final statement. That was certainly not my intent, and I do not wish for it to be the thrust of the entire post. My point there is only that many submersion only advocates often do not consider that those who sprinkle/pour ad baptize infants may actually have a biblical reason for doing so. Stating that my view is just as valid is only to say that although I believe I am right, and for biblical reasons, I am nonetheless willing to listen to others with equally strong alternative interpretations. Yes one of us is truly biblical and therefore correct, but I am nevertheless willing to listen and learn. So no, there is plenty more to say.

#6 || 10·10·01··18:18 || David

No, I didn't take it personally. I just thought it was funny.

#7 || 10·10·04··09:08 || Daniel

In Augustine's day, it was common to withhold baptism until the last possible moment - ideally administered on the deathbed, for it was believed that water baptism cleansed the stain of original sin - in other words, if you could be baptized just before dying, you would be cleansed from all your sin, and guarenteed heaven since (presumably) you wouldn't have as much of an opportunity to "fall from grace" by sinning subsequent to baptism.

Somewhere between the apostolic age, and Augustine's day, baptism went from being a public and symbolic declaration of the actual "means" by which we became regenerate (i.e. our baptism into Christ c.f. Romans 6) and became so corrupted that it was thought to be the very "means" by which we became regenerate.

Somewhere along the way, the picture (water baptism) displaced the reality (Spiritual baptism into Christ through the spiritual union described in Romans 6), and much theology has sprung up since to justify holding onto this error.

#8 || 10·10·06··17:41 || Bryan

Actually it was not common, although the idea was out there. It was suggested by Tertullian, and rejected by the church. The quote is as follows:
"Let them come, then, while they grow up, while they learn, while they are taught to whom to come; let them become Christians when they will have been able to know Christ! Why does the innocent age hasten to the remission of sins? ...For no less cause should the unmarried also be deferred, in whom there is an aptness to temptation -- in virgins on account of their ripeness as also in the widowed on account of their freedom -- until they are married or are better strengthened for continence. Anyone who understands the seriousness of Baptism will fear its reception more than its deferral. Sound faith is secure of its salvation!" (Tertullian, treatise on BAPTISM 18, 4: c. AD 200-206)
Tertullian lived at a time when there was questions regarding those who had denied Christ during times of persecution. Many were not inclined to allow them back into the church and this, in part, was his solution. Of course it is part of a larger work dealing with Baptism in general.
As to baptism being a public declaration, I would have to ask who is declaring what? Is it my declaration of faith in Christ? Is it his declaration of his gospel promise to me? You see baptism is just a visual expression of the same gospel message we receive in the preaching.

#9 || 10·10·08··09:16 || Daniel

Bryan, if we quibble over the extent to which certain aspects of (water) baptismal regeneration were saturating the church in Augustine's day, we do so to no real purpose. It is plain that this teaching was out there, and it is plain today's perspective that it negatively influenced the early church wherever it was promoted.

When I speak of baptism as a public declaration, I am speaking (of course) of the ceremony of water baptism, and not the actual baptism into Christ that it pictures. To that end, when a believer was baptized into water, that (water) baptism was the believer's declaration that he or she had indeed been baptized (prior to this moment) into Christ Spiritually in the moment that this same believer repented and was reconciled to God by grace through faith.

"But the sacrament of baptism is undoubtedly the sacrament of regenation..." - Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers; Augustine: Anti-Pelagian Writings
chapter 43[27] (Why the Children of the Baptized Should Be Baptized.)

Here in defending against Pelagias, Augustine expresses the majority opinion of his day. Reading the context we learn that Augustine was arguing that the reason they baptized babies was baptized because if a babe should die without water baptism, he or she would go to hell being culpable for Adam's sin.

Again, In Augustine's confessions he writes of how his mother wanted to baptize him when he fell ill as an adult, but the ceremony was deferred lest he should recover and continue to sin, and in the wake of his baptism - that is, after he had become regenerate by being baptized in water, he corrupt himself thereafter by sin and be worse off for it. (see book one of the confessions). There also we find a candid portrayal of what was considered common knowledge of his day, " ...why is it still dinned into our ears on all sides, 'Let him alone, let him do as he pleases, for he is not yet baptized?'" (see: the first book of the confessions.

The fact is, this teaching was out there, and it was common enough that Augustine believed it himself, and expresses it as though it was commonly understood to be so by everyone else also.

Somewhere between Pentecost and Augustine water baptism stopped being a picture of that regeneration that took place when we repented, that is, it stopped being a picture of the moment we were reconciled to God in Christ - or said more precisely: it stopped being a picture of the moment we were baptized into Christ by grace through faith - and it (water baptism) displaced the new birth itself, becoming a means of regeneration in and of itself.

#10 || 10·10·08··21:30 || Bryan

Great post Daniel, I enjoyed the references. There is a lot of great reading there. I do have a couple of issues however. First I do not believe it is quibbling to question if delaying baptism was a common practice. For example I would be in gross error to insist that Baptists commonly believe once saved always saved gives them a license to sin because of a couple of bad apples in my neighborhood and a TV preacher. The fact is that it is not common, nor was it common to delay baptism. To say we are quibbling gives the impression that we cannot decide on a 50/50 or a 60/40 split in the discussion. I just don't see where it was ever that common, especially in light of what else these same men expressed regarding baptism on the same site you referenced.

As to what is being declared thank you for the answer. This is probably where we depart in our beliefs regarding this subject. I see baptism as God's declaration. Because of this, when I hit those spiritual pumps in the road that we all hit, I can turn back to a promise I know he made to me in a very personal way. It is not a matter of whosoever will, or if you then God will. The question is what did God promise? Does he lie? The answer is forgiveness of sins and eternal life, and no he does not. I don't look inward to find the answers. I look outward to God and his promises. This is because in baptism the whosoever becomes Bryan.

Lastly I don't see a separation between (water) baptism and something else. The moment God grants us faith we are reconciled to him. For an adult that may be through preaching. For an infant that is at baptism. Repentance and faith are gifts. It is a picture to all in attendance to the work of the Holy Spirit as he creates faith for no other reason than God's grace.

Let me just finish with one last thought or now. I understand the original post was about the fact that both sides of the discussed debate advertised their position as the "historic" or "classical" view. I also understand that David believes it is more important to be biblically correct than historically correct. I pray we would all desire the same. The problem is we all have presuppositions and pull from classical sources. Just look how much time two non-Catholics spent talking about Augustine. Additionally I have a Messianic Jewish friend who would say we are both wrong because of our pagan/Hellenized understanding of scripture. My point is that many people do not approach doctrines as consistently unbiased and biblically as they think. I believe I hold the historic and biblical view on this issue. I expect you do as well. So I disagree with David when he says that it is unfortunate to use such terms.

Comments on this post are closed. If you have a question or comment concerning this post, feel free to email me.