Baptism: Its Origin, Meaning and History

Baptism: Its Origin, Meaning and History

The following article by Jozef Daniel Astley was originally published in the German magazine INFO VERO. ('Tauf-Ritual: Geschichte, Bedeutung und Wandel einer Tradition.' INFO VERO, DE04, June 2013, pp. 18-29, translated from English to German by Dr. Gerhard Padderatz). The English version slightly differs from the German due to translation and editing.

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Infant baptism

Let’s consider a typical baptism in a Roman Catholic church. The priest stands at the baptismal font accompanied by a  young man, his lovely wife, and their newborn baby. The priest asks the parents: “Is it your will that your child should be baptized in the faith of the Church, which we have all professed with you?” The parents reply: “It is.” The child is then held above the baptismal font and the priest declares, “I baptize you in the name of the Father,” he pauses for a moment and pours water upon the head of the child, “and of the Son,” he pours water the second time, “and of the Holy Spirit,” he pours water the third time. Hereupon the priest declares that the child is now free from original sin, has received the new birth, and has obtained salvation. The child is now an official member of the Roman Catholic church.

There are approximately 1.2 billion baptized Roman Catholics in the world today, who have all gone through this same process, either as infants or as adults. Every year, about 1 million infants and 70,000 adults are baptized in Roman Catholic parishes in the United States. Beside the Roman Catholic Church, there are also other churches that administer baptism, although they differ from one another in their doctrines and practices. The Protestant churches number about 500 million members, and about half of these – including Episcopalians (Anglicans), Methodists, Congregationalists, Lutherans and Presbyterians – were baptized as infants by sprinkling or pouring of water on the head. The Eastern Orthodox Church, with 260 million members, baptizes infants by immersion.

Believer’s baptism

There are also churches who practice what is known as “believer’s baptism,” which is generally administered by immersion. Those who practice this form of baptism –– including Baptists, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Charismatics, and Seventh-day Adventists –– maintain that repentance and faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ is an indispensable requirement for baptism.

The Origin and Meaning of Baptism
The first person to administer baptism was John the Baptist, who baptized many people in the river Jordan, in Palestine, about 2000 years ago. One of the persons baptized by John was Jesus of Nazareth, the founder the Christian faith. Jesus in turn instructed his disciples to preach the gospel (the good news of salvation) to all nations and to baptize those who would believe in Him. In obedience to this commandment, the disciples began their work of preaching in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, when 3000 people responded to the call and were subsequently baptized. This event marks the beginning of the Christian church and millions of people have been baptized since that time.

In New Testament Christianity, a person was symbolically buried with Jesus Christ in the water of baptism, as an outward symbol of an inward change of heart. As the baptismal candidate went down into the water, from top to toe, this signified the end and burial of his old life of sin; and as he would come up out of the water, this signified his resurrection into a new life of holiness. Thus baptism marked the beginning of a new life of obedience to God the Father by faith in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit (see Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12). The beginning of this new life was called the “new birth,” and by being “born again” a person could become a child of God and a member of the family of God on earth – the Christian church. The ceremony of baptism was a symbol of this new birth.

Baptism in the Early Church
It is generally acknowledged that the early Christians administered baptism by immersion. Early in the second century, however, some Christians felt that baptism is of such vital importance, that a person cannot be saved without it. Based upon this premise, other modes of baptism were introduced, such as sprinkling and pouring, which was practised “with sick and dying persons, and in all such cases where total or partial immersion was impracticable.” (Schaff, Hist., Vol. I). Despite these innovations, immersion remained the usual mode of baptism till at least the twelfth century.

Infant baptism is first mentioned around 200 A.D., and was first practiced in Alexandria, Egypt. One of its first proponents was Cyprian of Carthage (ca. 208–258), an influential bishop, who taught that baptism should be “even more observed in respect of infants and newly-born persons,” so that “if possible, no soul be lost.” This statement clearly reveals his belief that infants are saved by baptism, which was also taught by Origen of Alexandria (185–254) and St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430), both of whom claimed that “the Church received from the apostles the tradition of giving baptism even to infants.” Although not supported by the Bible, this claim of apostolicity gave a strong impetus to the practice of infant baptism, which was eventually incorporated into the Roman Catholic Church. Outside of Northern Africa however, infant baptism remained a rare occurrence till at least the fourth century.

Baptismal Regeneration or Salvation by Faith?
Cyprian, Origen and Augustine all taught that we are saved by baptism. This notion is based upon the idea that baptism is a sacrament – a ritual act that gives grace. And since grace is the power whereby God delivers us from sin and death, a sacrament is a ritual that is believed to have the power to remove sin and give life. Based upon the teachings of the church fathers, the Roman Catholic Church gradually developed an elaborate system of sacraments, with all its dogmas and liturgy. A definite list of seven sacraments was first published by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, and these are still used by the Catholic Church today. The Catholic Church regards the sacrament of baptism, the first of the seven sacraments, as ‘The Door of the Church,’ through which men must pass in order to obtain salvation. In due course, more and more clergy came to believe that the sacrament of baptism had life-giving power, so that a person could be “born again” by receiving this sacrament. This idea is commonly known as the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. Based upon the idea that men are saved by a sacramental ritual with holy water – irrespective of their age and understanding – the clergy argued that baptism should be administered as early as possible, preferably to infants.

The idea that we receive eternal life through a sacramental ritual is not Biblical however, for the Bible nowhere ascribes to the water of baptism the power to remove sin and give grace. Instead, the origins of this idea can be traced to the ceremonial magic of the mystery religions of ancient Babylon, Egypt, Greece and Rome. In the Roman cult of Mithras, for example, sacraments for the remission of sin played a prominent role. Influenced by Mithraism, the early Gnostics – a kind of New Age movement in the second and third century – also believed that the sacrament of baptism remits sin. The Pistis Sophia, the great Gnostic text-book, depicts Jesus Christ as explaining to Mary “the manner whereby the mystery of Baptism remitteth sins and all transgressions.” As I said, the Bible does not teach that baptism remits sin. Instead, it tells us that we receive forgiveness (remission of sins) by faith in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross to save us from our sins, and who arose from the grave so that we might receive eternal life by faith in the power of his resurrection. This truth is commonly known as the doctrine of salvation by faith and constitutes the theological foundation behind the practice of believer’s baptism; just as the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, or salvation by baptism, constitutes the theological foundation behind the practice of infant baptism. It is important to understand this link between doctrine and practice. These two doctrines are irreconcilable with one another. It is important to understand these doctrinal differences, since the age-long conflict between the advocates of infant baptism and the advocates of believer’s baptism is not about the age of the person that is baptized. Instead, it is a conflict about the fundamental question whether we are saved by faith or saved by baptism. The Bible teaches salvation by faith and therefore poses faith as a requirement for baptism (for example in Acts 8:36-39). The Catholic Church teaches salvation by baptism and therefore poses baptism as a requirement for salvation. And so the ultimate question is: Are we saved because we are baptized by a priest? Or are we baptized because we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ?

Infant Baptism and Persecution
Having thus explained the theological foundation behind infant baptism and believer’s baptism, let us now return to the annals of history. After the conversion of Constantine in 312 A.D., the Catholic clergy united themselves with the Roman government, and from that time onward the Catholic Church gradually extended her influence. In 534, Justinian I, the Eastern Roman Emperor, greatly strengthened the position of the Pope by making him the “head of all the holy churches.” Around that time, Justinian also issued his famous Codex Justinianus, which enacted, “that such pagans as were yet unbaptized” should present themselves with their families “in the church” and “cause their little ones immediately to be baptized.” Those who failed to comply were severely “punished by a competent judge,” their goods were confiscated and they were excluded from bearing public office. Thus baptism became a political tool for the solidification of the “Christian Empire,” and the true meaning of baptism was almost entirely lost sight of.

In the centuries that followed, popes and princes united themselves in an attempt to establish a unified Christian society, and in due course the “Holy Roman Empire” dominated the continent of Europe. In medieval society, Catholicism was the state-religion and the vast majority of citizens were born in Catholic families, baptized in Catholic churches, governed by Catholic princes, and educated in Catholic schools – if educated at all. They believed Catholic doctrine, raised Catholic children, and worked in Catholic guild shops. Indeed, society was as Catholic as it could possibly be. But although Europe was now “Christian” and “Holy” in name – largely due to the unity of church and state – it was not so in practice. The ignorance of the populace, the corruption of the clergy, and the selfishness of temporal rulers all contributed to the decay of society. The people were relatively united in their religious doctrines and practices, but only because dissenting opinions were exterminated by fire and sword.

During this period, the Waldensians, a class of Christians from Northern Italy, came into conflict with the Roman Catholic Church, because they opposed certain doctrines and practices which they believed to be unbiblical. Many of them rejected the practice of infant baptism, as may be evinced from ‘The Book of Sentences of the Inquisition of Toulouse,’ from the years 1307 to 1323, besides other sources. According to the accusations made against them, the Waldenses maintained “that baptism by water, administered by the church, was of no use to children, because the children, so far from giving their consent to it, cried at it.” When Catholic priests declared that children ought to be baptized before they speak, the Waldenses responded by quoting the Scriptures: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16). Based upon this verse they reasoned: “He that believeth, it says first, and afterwards, is baptized; wherefore it is necessary first to believe before being baptized. Consequently, a child who does not believe, and possesses not the capacity of believing, ought not to be baptized till he does possess that capacity.”

The Albigensians in Southern France, often called Cathari, were also accused of repudiating the practice of infant baptism, as may be evinced from the writings of Abbot Eckbert von Schönau, a Benedictine writer of the twelfth century. Their Bible-based arguments were very similar to those of the Waldensians.

Since these “heretics” were thus rooted in Scripture, the Catholic clergy were unable to gainsay their wisdom, and hence resorted to force. The Albigenses and Waldenses were condemned by the inquisitions of the Church as “Anabaptists,” or re-baptizers, because they refused to acknowledge the baptism of Rome, and they were subsequently handed over to the state in order to be punished. Many of them were locked away in dungeons, slain by the sword, or burned at the stake, and millions thus died as martyrs for their faith.

In 1517 the Protestant reformation began with Martin Luther (1483-1546) in Germany, and soon after spread throughout Europe. As theological disputes intensified, baptism soon became a point of discussion as well. The reformers rightfully concluded that the Bible teaches salvation by faith. But not all of them recognized that this doctrine is irreconcilable with the Roman Catholic doctrine of baptismal regeneration, which teaches salvation by baptism. Luther still maintained that “the renewing of the inward man is done in baptism.” Based upon this premise, he retained the practice of infant baptism and established a sacramental state-church of his own, just as the Catholics had done. Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), a Swiss Reformer, likewise retained the practice of infant baptism and also established a state-church, although he rejected the idea of baptismal regeneration and reluctantly concluded “that all the doctors have been in error from the time of the apostles …for all the doctors have ascribed to the water a power which it does not have and the holy apostles did not teach.” John Frith (1503–1533), an English reformer, also declared that “baptism bringeth not grace,” but maintained that grace was given to the elect before baptism. The reformers were greatly divided upon this issue of baptism.

Luther and Zwingli both established state-churches and copied the Catholic idea of a Christian society enforced by law. As they strove to make nations Protestant through legislation, both ended up persecuting their opponents. In due course, a controversy arose between Zwingli and several of his students who had formed a group called Swiss Brethren. Based upon their study of the Bible, the Swiss Brethren had concluded that the Bible poses faith as a requirement for baptism (for example in Acts 8:36-38). For this reason they openly opposed the practice of infant baptism in October 1523. Zwingli rejected their opinions however, and in January 1525 the city council of Zürich ruled

with Zwingli that all parents who had neglected to have their children baptized were to do so within a week, or face persecution and banishment. The Swiss Brethren ignored the decree and began to baptize one another with the believer’s baptism, for which reason they were called “Anabaptists,” or re-baptizers. Soon after, the prosecutors in Zürich decided that the punishment for a second baptism was a third baptism –– drowning. The first to suffer this punishment was Felix Manz, an Anabaptist-leader, who was tied to a pole with his hands and knees and was thus thrown into the icy waters of the Limmat River. In 1529, the Diet of Spires, issued a decree declaring that “every Anabaptist and rebaptized person of either sex should be put to death by fire, sword, or some other way.” In the decades that followed, thousands of Anabaptists fell victim to the cruel persecution of Protestants and Catholics alike. Lutherans crushed them in Germany, Zwinglians in Switzerland, and Papists wherever had the opportunity. In England, laws were passed to search after Baptists and to bring them to punishment. Great Protestant names such as Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer – martyrs for the Protestant cause – were themselves guilty of persecuting Baptists and scores of them were cruelly put to death at their hands. Jesus once said: “the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service.” (John 16:2). Catholics and Protestants alike have killed Bible-believing Christians in defence of infant baptism, believing they did God service. But it is evident that they were deceived.

Believer’s Baptism and Liberty
The annals of history reveal that the proponents of infant baptism have often persecuted the proponents of believer’s baptism. Yet it has never been the other way around. This is a remarkable fact. The Donatists in the fourth century, the Waldensians and Albigensians in the middle ages, and the Anabaptists in the sixteenth century, all practiced believer’s baptism, were all accused of baptizing twice, were all persecuted by the advocates of infant baptism, and all argued in favour of religious liberty. The founders of the Baptist movement in England – including John Smyth (1570-1612), Thomas Helwys (1575-1616), and John Murton (1585-1626) – were also ardent advocates of liberty of conscience and the separation of church and state. Similar opinions were also held by Roger Williams (1603-1683), the founder of the first Baptist church in America. In view of this history, Charles H. Spurgeon (1834–1892), the famous Baptist preacher, declared “that Baptists” have been “persecuted alike by Romanists and Protestants of almost every sect, yet there has never existed a government holding Baptist principles which persecuted others; nor, I believe, any body of Baptists ever held it to be right to put the consciences of others under the control of man. We have ever been ready to suffer, as our martyrologies will prove, but we are not ready to accept any help from the state, to prostitute the purity of the bride of Christ [the church] to

any alliance with the government, and we will never make the church, although the queen, the despot over the consciences of men.” The Bible tells us that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” (2 Cor. 3:17). This implies that none of the oppression and persecution perpetrated by the advocates of infant baptism was the work of God. It also gives us good reasons to believe that God was actually working with the advocates of religious liberty, namely, with those practicing believer’s baptism.

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