The Protestant Limbo


I don't enjoy Christian baby dedications. To me they're a little sad and a little irritating all mixed together.

It's sad to me because to me it's like making your kids live in a tent in the back yard until they know how to unlock the back door. You let them stay on the property but they don't really belong. So you make sure they don't come in the house. It's irritating to me because I don't really agree with some of the reasons usually given against infant baptism.

I should say right off the bat that I don't think baptism saves you. I don't think that baptism keeps a child from hell or protects them from the consequences of original sin. In that sense, I believe it is possible for a person to go to heaven even if they are never baptized. So in terms of the symbolic aspect of baptism, deciding when a person is baptized is partially a question of what you are trying to symbolize. Do you want them symbolically in from the beginning of their lives or only when they have made the personal commitment?

But are they really out when they are 2? I believe they're really in when they're 1, 2, 3, maybe even 4, 5, 6. Indeed, I believe it's possible that a person might be "in" at every moment of their life--if they accept Christ from the moment they understand their need for him. I bet Russ Gunsalus and Keith Drury have been on their way to heaven every single moment of their lives! Accordingly, it makes me really sad when we make it a point of saying that our children are "out." Frankly, Iíd like our children to take communion too. I guarantee you the children at Corinth ate the communion meal of 1 Corinthians 11.

But of course I believe baptism is also a sacrament, a means of grace. In that sense, I believe it "helps" our fellowship with God in some mystical way. I actually believe that a child who has been baptized has a better chance of accepting Christ personally later, not too dissimilar from the passage in 1 Corinthians 7 that says our children are sanctified by our faith apart from any act of will on their part.

If baptism is truly a means of grace in this way, then to forbid our children from baptism is actually to refuse them an avenue of God's grace. In other words, it sets down a "harder" path into the kingdom for them than it could be. If we knew this to be true for certain, refusing our children baptism would be rather infuriating to us, something we would actually fight against.

I suppose the main objection to infant baptism is the idea that you cannot be saved without a personal confession of faith. But of course nothing I've said thus far contradicts this idea. That's part of what's irritating to me. Salvation is not the same thing as baptism. And there's often a subtle individualistic assumption that goes along with this position--as if for an experience to be meaningful I have to be conscious of it (note to self: examine possibly self-oriented assumptions I may not have examined).

And of course the fact that the baptisms recorded in the New Testament are all or at least nearly all adult baptisms doesn't settle the issue. The Bible never tells us an incident where someone is baptized as an adult who was in the church as a child. All the adult NT baptisms are people entering the church for the first time as an adult. And of course the NT does mention more than once that whole households were baptized--we just don't know who all was in them. On the whole, my sense of how group dynamics worked in the Bible makes me suspect it more likely than not that the early church did often baptize children.

A personal relationship with God and Christ is of course essential, meaning that every individual must confess Christ and appropriate his death if they are at all intellectually able (Frankly I would still baptize a severely mentally challenged person, even if they will never really understand). But I suspect that such relationships were always embedded in the community of faith in New Testament times. In a sense they were personal, but not individual, relationships with God and his Christ.

And of course infant baptism isn't just some Catholic thing. Luther, Calvin, and Wesley would all give an intense scolding to anyone using their name and not baptizing their children. In recent times, adult baptism is really an Anabaptist thing that resurfaced these last few hundred years, a backwater trickle that has really only flourished in America.

Many will disagree with me, but I find baby dedications missed opportunities. To me they impoverish the church by placing our children in a limbo that they are not really in. While we could use baptism to emphasize that we are communities and families of faith, instead we accentuate ourselves as isolated individuals of faith. Rather than making our children have to work to leave, we make them work to get in when they are really in already. Rather than avail them of God's means of grace and give them any sacramental benefit to baptism, we make them come in cold turkey.

The Wesleyan Church actually allows for infant baptism. I suspect most donít go for it because of the baptistification of America and the individualistic orientation of our culture and contemporary evangelicalism.



The Gospels

Letís wander through the NT on this issue. The gospels seem a fair enough place to start.

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the baptism mentioned is primarily that of John the Baptist. We would not, as Christians, consider this baptism to be Christian baptism. Matthew 3:11 does predict that Christ will baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire. Mark 1:8 similarly mentions a coming baptism with the Holy Spirit.

But of most interest to us of these is Luke 3:16, which also predicts that Christ will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. This prediction in itself is not unique, but in the case of Luke we have Acts to give us what Luke understands to be the "rest of the story." Of greatest interest to us here is Acts 19:1-7, where Paul clearly does not consider baptism by John to be Christian baptism because it did not include baptism with the Holy Spirit. Paul insists that this group of twelve men be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.

Baptism in Matthew, Mark, and Luke thus is more indirectly related to our subject than directly. John the Baptist of course baptized Jewish individuals who repented of their sins with a view to forgiveness and in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. For JB this was a one time act of preparation, but baptisms were not uncommon, repeatable things in Jewish life at this time. Miqvaoth were cleansing pools that you can find in any number of places in the Holy Land (e.g., at Qumran, Masada, etc...).

John is a little more complicated, for John is the only gospel that says Jesus' disciples baptized before JB was arrested (John 3:22, 26; 4:1-2). Are we to understand these acts as Christian baptisms? Certainly not in the world of Luke-Acts, for the Holy Spirit does not come until the Day of Pentecost. In that sense Jesus "baptizes" no one until that day and we cannot properly even speak of any Christians until that day. Paul agrees in his own way: "If someone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they are not his" (Rom. 8:9).

But I think John also agrees in his own way with these ideas, for he makes it a point to say that Jesus himself did not baptize (4:2). John also teaches that Christ will baptize with the Holy Spirit (1:33) and symbolically presents the beginning of such baptism after the resurrection (20:22).

So what do we learn from any of these gospels about contemporary issues relating to baptism?

1. Mode: It seems more likely than not to me that JB immersed or dipped people in the river water. I suppose it is possible that he poured water over their heads. The text doesn't really say and I don't buy the argument that the word baptizo in Greek itself proves it was immersion. This seems a kind of root fallacy that insists the root must dictate how a word is used in practice. But words take on a life of their own and often leave the root or etymological building from which they came. Nevertheless, I have no problem with the usual suggestion that JB probably immersed in the river. Again, this does not take us yet to the question of what a Christian mode of baptism might be.

2. Infant: It seems to me very likely that all or at least nearly all of those who came to JB were adults. They were preparing Israel for the Messiah by purging it of its sins. Of course, I would not say absolutely that no children were involved. It seems a little difficult logistically in that they would have to travel out to the river from wherever. I also wonder how many women he would have baptized. I wonder if there were many.

Does this impact the discussion of Christian infant baptism? We'll have to wait for an argument from someone that baptism must involve repentance and therefore would not apply to an infant. For the moment, we will simply note that JB's baptism is not Christian baptism and therefore that it is somewhat of a unique moment in salvation's history that does not directly affect our discussion of Christian baptism.

3. Repeatable? I doubt that JB's baptism was meant to be repeatable, although baptism in general was in Jewish culture at the time. JB was preparing for the Messiah. That would normally have been a one time act I think.

Paulís Writings

I suppose Paul's comments in 1 Corinthians on baptism are a little surprising at first. Paul starts off in chapter 1 sounding like baptism wasn't a high priority for him and seems to have difficulty remembering who he had actually baptized while he was at Corinth. He baptized Crispus and Gaius, ďoh, and now that I think of it,Ē I baptized the house of Stephanus as well (1:14-16).

The way Paul says all this, and a little extra reflection, stretches my imagination a little. For one thing, the baptism of the house of Stephanus is introduced as if it were an oversight. He started in 1:14 with the impression that Crispus and Gaius were it. Further, it is then doubly suspicious that the house of Stephanus shows up in chapter 16, and we find out that Stephanus and his servants were in fact the first converts of southern Greece!!! (16:15). How do you forget that? And, indeed, it makes sense to see them as the ones who brought the letter that Paul is answering for so many chapters of 1 Corinthians (chaps. 7ff).

In short, I have good reason to see Paul's de-emphasis on baptism in chapter 1 closely in relation to the situation at Corinth. So I'll respect Quakers and Salvationists who might use this chapter as an argument against the significance of baptism. But ultimately I think Paul considered baptism the fare of every convert. See next paragraph.

Galatians 3:27 implies that all the true sons of God (which, remember, explicitly includes women in this passage) have been baptized. Romans 6:3 also implies that baptism is the common experience of all Christians. In a side note to Friends and Salvationists, we have no evidence here that Paul used the word baptism only in relation to the Spirit. Indeed, Ephesians (which may not reflect Paul's normal use of language, but that's a different issue) speaks only of one baptism (Eph. 4:5).

And if we have to decide on the evidence whether it is more likely that a reference to baptism without explanation would be to water or to a more metaphorical meaning, the normal use of the word is the more likely. Hebrews will later use the image of the washing of the body with pure water (Heb. 10:22); Acts clearly uses baptism primarily in relation to literal water (cf. Acts 8:36); and Paul speaks of being buried with Christ (6:4)--so tempting to see such a comment in relation to immersion in water.

I imagine that most of Paul's references to baptism in these passages relate to adult baptism. After all, he was a church planter who 1) did not like to minister where the gospel had already reached (cf. Rom. 15:20) and 2) saw himself as an apostle to Gentiles rather than to Jews (cf. Gal. 2:8). It thus makes sense that most of his baptisms were adults accepting Christ for the first time.

As a side note, Paul never connects baptism with repentance. Indeed, repentance is not one of Paul's dominant categories, an observation that has sparked a good deal of discussion in terms of how Paul related to his Jewish background.

We can at this point ask how the early Christians came to baptize. For various reasons I will leave Matthew 28:19 out of consideration at this point. I imagine that early Christian baptism was an extension of JB's baptism. At first I imagine that many Christians continued to baptize in preparation for Christ's return and the restoration of the nation of Israel. I wonder if at first they saw such baptism much differently from the baptism of JB.

I imagine that baptism was an essential part of converting to Judaism if you were a Gentile. I don't think it was an initiatory rite per se, but rather essential because a Gentile would simply have massive amounts of sins to cleanse. A Jew who accepted Christ as Messiah would want to purify him or herself in preparation no doubt, and perhaps eventually as a sign of allegiance and acceptance of the gospel. Whenever the early Christians came to see Jesus' death to have atoning value (I think almost immediately), baptism in Jesus' name would have been a completely appropriate way of appropriating that atonement.

These are all thought experiments, attempts to fill in gaps in our knowledge of how the early church got from Jesus to Paul. Acts is of course written much later and, as the gospels, is written with the benefit of hindsight.

So eventually Christian baptism is connected with the death of Christ (e.g., Rom. 6:4). It is uniting with Christ. For Gentiles in particular, Paul connects it with adoption into the people of God (e.g., Gal. 3:27). It is possible, although I will just mention the thought, that from 1 Corinthians to Galatians we see some solidifying of Paul's practice of baptism. Since many evangelicals date Galatians before 1 Corinthians, of course, that thought would not be viable for them.

I do not find it at all surprising that Paul baptized whole households like that of Stephanus (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:16). Would this have included children? Given the way I think Paul thinks, I believe it would have. On the other hand, given how pragmatic Paul was, we can wonder whether he would have baptized very small babies. I'm not sure that Paul would have been a stickler on a particular mode of baptism, but I suspect he at least primarily immersed.

The next text you might expect me to turn to is 1 Corinthians 7:14. In this "strange" verse, Paul encourages those married to unbelievers to stay with them. His reasoning goes like this: the unbelieving spouse is sanctified by the believing spouse, and this sanctifies (makes holy) the children as well. Needless to say, this is not a verse that the typical evangelical would have written. We usually resort to some banal comment on spiritual influence--which seems a rather weak translation of "to sanctify."

Indeed, Paul addresses the church at Corinth as "those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called..." The most natural inference is that the unbeliever and the church are brought into the church by their relationship with the believer--the holiness is contagious in the direction of the non-believer and the children. Now Paul does not equate such sanctification with being saved. He tells the believer not to worry if the unbeliever departs: "How do you know if you will save your spouse?" Here we remember that Paul thinks of salvation mostly in the future tense, as escaping God's wrath on the Day of Judgment (e.g., Rom. 5:9). The connection with the believer brings them into the Spiritual force field of the church, but it does not ensure that they will escape the coming wrath of God.

What does this imply about child baptism? I don't know whether the practical side of baptizing an infant came into play with Paul. But if Paul considered the children from even one Christian parent "in" and sanctified, then how much more would he have considered children from two Christian parents in. I truly believe that Paul would have baptized everyone in the household who was at all willing, including children. And think it would even have been appropriate in that world for fathers of households even to twist a few arms in some cases.

So if Paul were here today and were to comment on this issue, I truly believe he would be in favor of infant baptism--the children are sanctified by the believing parent or parents. Salvation is not thereby a done deal, for salvation depends on where you stand when God comes in judgment. And there might just be a whole lot of time between childhood and that Day.

I don't think I should close until I have mentioned Paul's peculiar reference to baptism for the dead in 1 Corinthians 15:29: "Then what will those are baptized on behalf of the dead do? If the dead are not raised at all, why are they even baptized for them?"

To be clear, Paul does not include himself among this group. He does not argue against such individuals, but he does not argue for them either. Here are some thoughts:

1. He is surely referring to Christians, unless this is some strange mystery religion rite he has in mind. Baptism seems a word with a Jewish provenance. But Jews themselves would probably not feel a need to baptize so that other Jews would be part of the resurrection.

2. So we most likely have Gentile Christians being baptized for individuals who died before the Christian message came. Or perhaps we have Jewish Christians who believed baptism in Jesus' name was essential for resurrection and are doing similar things. In either case, Paul's argument makes it clear that it is baptism with a view to future resurrection.

3. Whoever they are, they must be some group that the audience of 1 Corinthians would respect or that Paul thinks they might respect. Apollos or Peter would fit that bill, but I have difficulty picturing Peter teaching this. Wouldn't he more assume that Jewish heroes of faith would be resurrected? Very difficult. 1 Peter 4:6 may picture Christ preaching to the dead after his resurrection, another possible solution to the question.

While I find the following interpretation difficult, it is where I'm at right now. After Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians, we have the teaching that the dead in Christ will rise. But there is no clear teaching by Paul on other dead. What about Jews before Christ? What about Gentiles who never heard of Christ? I wonder if some segments of Gentile Christianity started baptizing themselves for family who had never heard the gospel so that they might be part of the resurrection.

Again, Paul does not promote such a practice. But it helps us get into the minds of the ancient church a little, a church that existed in a world where identity was far more a matter of the groups in which you were embedded than of you as an individual. You can bet that if they were being baptized for the dead, then they were having their infants baptized as well.

So some options on how we might reflect on our often hyper-individualistic focus today: 1) a God-sanctioned development in understanding from that of the NT world, 2) a balancing out of excess in the early church, 3) we might see it needing some corrective, a partial by product of our own cultural factors today.




When we mention Acts, 2:38 springs to mind: "Repent, let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and to all those far off, as many as the Lord our God should call."

Clearly this reference targets adults (or at least those mature enough to repent) who accept Christ and repent of their sins. They are to be baptized and will in association receive the Holy Spirit. We have no evidence of the laying on of hands being done to infants in the early church. The Spirit is the boundary line for truly being in for Acts and it is connected to water baptism in Acts. So there you have it: I've given a strong argument to those who would argue that baptism must only be a matter of individuals who are capable of repentance.

However, I don't think this is the end of the story. I've already suggested why I think Paul would be in favor of child baptism if he were here today. Here's why I don't think Acts should be used to contradict this position:

1. Acts is an idealized portrayal of the early church, not a special on the History Channel. I want to make it clear that this does not in any way make me think of Acts as false or untrustworthy in message. It just means that we are getting a theological portrayal in Acts that must be balanced with other theological portrayals, particularly that of Paul.

Think of it this way: if all we had were Luke, we would have a significantly different sense of who Jesus was and what he did than we have when we factor Matthew, Mark, and John into the equation. For example, we would not know that Jesus ministered for three years or had pre-existed before he came to earth. We would not have nearly as great a sense of the saving significance of his death as we do if we only had Luke. Unfortunately, we don't have the second volumes of Matthew, Mark, or John. And you can bet they would shed just as much contrasting light on Acts as Matthew, Mark, and John do on Luke.

Paul's writings give us some hints of what these portrayals might look like. For example, 2 Corinthians 12 lets us know that it was not just the Jews who were after Paul in Damascus. In fact, Paul never mentions any Jews being after him. It is rather the ethnarch under King Aretas, the Arabian king. What we find as we go through Acts as a whole is that one of its thematic tendencies is to downplay conflict between Christians and secular authorities, choosing rather to put blame on non-Christian Jews. This contrast between Paul and Acts 9 is one example.

If Galatians 2 and Acts 15 are the same event--and the most natural way of taking "after 14 years" in Gal. 2:1 pushes in this direction--then we have quite contrasting perspectives on the same event. Paul emphasizes that he went to James, Peter, and John because God told him to and emphasizes his independence from their authority. In Acts he is a delegate from Antioch and looks well submitted and subordinate. In Galatians it looks like a private meeting. In Acts it looks like a General Conference. Paul's writings never mention the letter issued from the conference of Acts 15, even though some of the same subjects came up explicitly at Corinth later (by any reckoning of dating).

Many other "hints" in Acts could be mentioned that make it clear that there is a good deal of artistry and theology in this presentation, as I believe was appropriate for an ancient writer. In that sense, Acts does not always give us the three dimensional portrait we find in Paul. Paul is so "real time" that some accuse him of being hopelessly contradictory as he argues in different ways for different contexts (sometimes with the very same verses in contrasting ways!). Acts is more two-dimensional, the portrait of a general superintendant showing how the church is supposed to be, with everything done decently and in order. And of course it is a very good portrait of what the church should be. I find no fault in a beautiful portrait that is what it intends to be.

2. So we find hints that indeed many of Acts' statements are general statements of theology that are not necessarily exhaustive in scope. So we see whole households being baptized in Acts 16:15 and 33. I believe this would have included children.

One question we face when we read Acts is whether all Christians will have or should have exactly the same experiences as the Christians in Acts. For example, can a person today receive the Holy Spirit and become a Christian if no one is around to lay hands on him or her? I think so.

Are all experiences of the Holy Spirit going to be as dramatic as on the Day of Pentecost? Should we see more individuals speaking in tongues than do today when people receive the Holy Spirit? I don't think necessarily so. Perhaps I am wrong, but I don't think that everyone will have a huge emotional experience when they ask God to forgive them of their sins. If you have truly surrendered yourself to God's lordship, I believe you should claim by faith to have received the Holy Spirit and to be bound for the kingdom. I think you should do this whether you feel any differently or not. I would of course hope that you would feel a special sense of peace, but it sure seems like some of our emotional wires are unfortunately crossed up for any number of reasons.

I believe we should take Acts as a general picture of conversion but not force everyone into it as a Procrustean bed, the cookie cutter model for every single person. I believe Acts is highlighting theology in its portrayal. It is not at all clear to me that Peter and John were constantly being called all over the place to lay hands on people so that they could receive the Holy Spirit. In addition to the beautiful structure that Acts presents, we have hints throughout the New Testament of more charismatic things going on with less of a chain of command. Paul considered himself just as much an authority as the "pillars" of Jerusalem and probably would not have liked the way he was portrayed at all points in Acts.

In short, Acts far more gives us the "rule" rather than the exception. It is the place to find the fundamentals of the early church more than the nuances. At least that's the way I see it.

So the household baptisms of Acts, in my opinion, give us some sense of this on this topic. I think Luke would say something like this: "Oh, if you got the impression from my portrayal of the standard conversion that we did not baptize children, that was unintended because we did."




I do not believe we are limited to the practices of the early church on many issues.For example, I donít think it is wrong for us to build church buildings rather than meeting in homes.I do not agree with Augustine that infants need to be baptized to account for original sin.In reading his Enchiridion, I am really left wondering if he believed a stillborn child would go to hell, even if it were with a very light punishment for them.


I believe

1. That salvation is a separate issue from baptism.God will probably receive un-baptized believers and being baptized does not ensure your future salvation.


2. That water baptism is normative for Christians and is a sacrament that catalyzes Godís grace to you, particularly his saving grace.But again, the most crucial element in the equation is receiving the Holy Spirit, and this often happens before baptism for adults.Does it happen after baptism for infants?I am unsure but am willing to consider that baptized infants have the Spirit long before they personally commit.


3. That baptism relates to the cleansing of sin and inclusion in the church.I believe in this sense that the early church, including Paul and Acts, included children in baptism, considered them part of the sanctified, and believed their sins forgiven.All they need do is continue in the race once they appropriated such salvation personally.I associate the current emphasis on credo baptism a sign of the individualistic orientation of our culture.