Two clergymen were trying to pin down what the other believed about baptism: ‘What if the person is immersed up to his neck? Is that enough?’ asked the Anglican. ‘No,’ said the Baptist. ‘What about up to his eyebrows, then?’ ‘No,’ insisted the Baptist. ‘Well, what if only a tiny bit of his forehead remains dry?’ ‘No, of course not.’‘Ah,’ said the Anglican triumphantly. ‘So what you are saying is that the most important thing is to wet the forehead.’
Despite all the bad jokes on the subject, there are no real divisions in the Church about the method of baptism. Those who use a few drops of water (such as Anglicans and Catholics) don’t have a problem with immersion ? they just don’t think it is necessary. And those who do practise immersion will usually allow exceptions on grounds of health, which implies that they believe full immersion is not functionally necessary.
But what about the issue of when to baptise? Isn’t that a huge bone of contention? Well, no; the Church isn’t really divided by this, either. Those who baptise babies also baptise adults, and those who only baptise ‘believers’ are often willing to baptise very youngchildren.
What really divides the Church is belief about what baptism is. Does it admit an individual into membership of the Church, or is it a public witness of their repentance?
Jews in Jesus’ day understood and practised baptism very differently. They baptised themselves most days. Houses excavated from that time usually have a baptism tank in the floor, a mikvah. This was a hole about the size of an upright coffin with steps into it. It wouldn’t have been particularly clean; fresh water flowed into the top of it and overflowed into a drain, but this only really freshened the top. Its purpose was to cleanse a person from ceremonial impurities, rather than to wash off the dirt.
Impurity in Moses’ Law came from sexual activity, menstruation, or being under the same roof as a corpse (Leviticus 15; Numbers 19). Someone could also become impure by touching an impure person or using something that they had used ? a chair or cup, for example ? so it was therefore almost impossible to avoid. According to the law, cleansing wasn’t really necessary until a person wanted to do something sacred such as eating a Passover meal or visiting the Temple. However, Jews in Jesus’ day wanted to be holy at all times, so every day they stripped naked and immersed themselves in the mikvah.
I almost fell into one of these excavated holes. One rainy afternoon in Jerusalem several years ago, I went to look at the newly uncovered Temple steps. No one was around, and I am sorry to admit that I stepped over the rope ? I just couldn’t resist treading on the steps that Jesus had actually walked on. There were also new excavations of the foundations of various ancient buildings close by. I recognised the rectangular edges inside one of these, just as I was about to walk through a large puddle. I immediately pulled back with my heart beating and visions of newspaper headlines saying, ‘British academic hits head and drowns in first-century mikvah’
The way that John baptised was revolutionary: it was done in public (so presumably the person wasn’t naked); it was performed by someone (John); and it was for cleansing of ‘sin’ ? not for impurity. This was the first time someone had offered Jews aceremony for removing moral sins, and it became immensely popular. The Temple ‘sin offerings’ were for breaking specific laws, such as the Sabbath regulations; they didn’t cover moral sins like losing one’s temper with one’s wife or hitting her or even committing adultery. These types of sin were dealt with by repentance which becomes effective on the Day of Atonement. But John’s baptism gave Jews a way to deal with these sins immediately and very graphically.
What really divides the Church is belief about what baptism is
Christians adopted John’s baptism, but also changed it. It was no longer important who performed the baptism (John 4:2) and it became a one-time initiation, rather than a regular cleansing from sins (Matthew 28:19). This reinforced the distinction between Judaism and Christianity: the constantly repeated Temple sacrifices were replaced by the single sacrificial act of Jesus, sothe washing away of sin at baptism happens only once.
These changes introduced two problems: What if you sin after baptism? And are you saved if you die before baptism? The first was a big problem in the early Church, because there was a widespread belief that any sins after baptism were unforgivable. For this reason many believers, such as Constantine, put off baptism till their deathbed, just in case. This is not a problem today, but the second issue is: do we need baptism for salvation?
Churches have differing understandings of the meaning of baptism. Some believe it enacts admission into the protection of the Church, so it is important to baptise babies. Others understand it to indicate an individual’s repentance, which means it should be delayed till that repentance has actually occurred.
Paul’s answer was: ‘We are buried with him through baptism into death and raised with him’ (see Romans 6:3-4). This tells us that eternal life starts at baptism. However, it told the original readers something different, because they faced a different problem.
When Gentiles became Jews, they were immersed in order to ‘separate them from the grave’ (Mishnah Pesachim 8:8). This was because all Gentiles suffered from corpse impurity, which they contracted by entering any building where someone had died. Jewish houses were cleaned after someone had died in it, but almost all Gentile buildings had permanent corpse impurity. Converts therefore had to be cleansed from death impurity by immersion, otherwise they would bring this contamination into the Jewish community.
When Christians adopted baptism, we can imagine that Jews taunted them about using a ‘baptism from death’, just as they taunted them about God’s curse on any corpse which is hung (Deuteronomy 21:23). And just as Paul answered the taunts about the crucifixion by turning it into something positive: yes, Jesus took God’s curse for us (Deuteronomy 21:23; Galatians 3:13), he did the same thing with the taunt about baptism and death. He said: yes, baptism is about death ? we share the death and resurrection of Jesus (Romans 6:3-4).
The Church later picked up this reference to resurrection and started teaching that new life starts at baptism. In the 16th century, Reformation theologians reasserted that salvation depended only on faith leading to repentance and not on baptism or other ceremonies. This created a permanent split in the Church.
A few years ago, the Catholic Church revised their view significantly. In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI decreed that unbaptised babies do go to heaven and not to limbo. This reversed the belief affirmed as recently as 1905 by Pope Pius X that ‘Children who die without baptism…do not deserve paradise’. Of course, this papal pronouncement hasn’t completely undone the deep-seated division that is based on the belief that baptism is necessary for salvation. Catholic and Orthodox churches continue to baptise babies in the hope that they will confirm their repentance at a later date, while Protestants withhold baptism till that repentance occurs. Anglicans, in their special way, stand in the middle and do both.
But there is another remarkable ray of hope: most churches now recognise each other’s baptisms. Some might say that aspects of a baptism carried out in a different church were ‘wrong’, but more and more realise that heaven is not so fussy and accept that the person is baptised in the eyes of God. I think this represents a game-changing viewpoint: in heaven, our doctrinal differences are merely human squabbles. That’s how most non-Christians regard them, and perhaps they are right.