It’s time to consider what the New Testament pattern is concerning baptism, and we all know that this is a contentious issue amongst evangelicals, whether charismatic or not. Restorationists, however, are firmly in the “believer’s baptism” camp, and this is the position I will argue for. Baptism is a practise that we can find mentioned in many books in the New Testament, although as usual there is no one place that sets out an exact definition of how the ceremony is to be carried out.
When we first encounter baptism in the New Testament – it is John’s baptism “for repentance”, and was clearly administered to adults. In Acts, again we see that people who believe are then baptised. It is presented as the logical next step to repentance and faith.
Those who argue for infant baptism generally make three points. First, reference is made to various “households” who were baptised. It is argued that this must have included infants. This is of course possible, but not necessary. As someone has pointed out (Fee I think), the word for household can sometimes include animals, but no one thinks they were baptised. If the general understanding was that baptism was something that those who had made some sort of “confession” underwent, then it would be taken for granted that the very small children would go through this at a later stage. Even proponents of infant baptism generally recognise the need for some later ceremony (i.e. confirmation) to make this important stage explicit.
Second, a parallel is seen between circumcision and baptism. There may be something to this, but it is not a very convincing case for arguing for extending baptism to infants. After all, only male children were circumcised. An extra stage needs to be inserted into the argument (Gal 3:28) to make it work. This view is also strongly linked to a certain view of being in the “covenant”, which Restorationists do not generally share.
Finally, it is pointed out that we have some records of the early church practising infant baptism. I am in no position to comment on the evidence or lack of it, and how early this went back, but for Restorationists, this is not a particularly important point. They are happy to concede that the early church may have wandered from the New Testament pattern in a number of ways, and so what exactly they did in regards to baptism is not thought to be binding.
I believe it is much easier to demonstrate etymologically (what the word baptism means), logically (why rivers were used, when jars of water were to hand) and theologically (symbolising dying with Christ and rising to new life) that total immersion was the normal New Testament mode of baptism.
All the baptisms recorded in the New Testament are preceded by some form of public profession of repentance and faith – turning from an old way to follow a new one. These baptisms are also all performed in the presence of witnesses – usually family and friends, but often held in public places.
Apparently, many early churches had “baptismal formulas”, or creeds which affirmed the basic beliefs of the faith, some of which may even be quoted in various New Testament passages. Restorationist churches encourage people to give their “testimony” (although this is not insisted upon), and will usually speak a very short formula before performing the baptism (e.g. “on profession of your faith we baptise you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit”).
Hearing baptismal testimonies is often very encouraging and moving, although sometimes they do reflect a very limited understanding of the gospel. Perhaps we would do well to encourage candidates to make some form of creedal statement of faith as part or instead of this testimony. I thing this would be helpful, as baptism is usually linked to formally joining the church, which requires an assent to the doctrinal statement of the church, which is normally done privately (e.g. signing a form).
More to learn?
Baptism is a subject on which Restorationists feel very confident that the NT pattern is being followed. Yet there are two obscure verses concerning baptism, which people of all persuasions struggle to adequately fit into their theology. 1 Pet 3:21 comes very close to making baptism sound essential to salvation, an idea that evangelicals do not subscribe to. Perhaps it is just that it is inconceivable to Peter that a believer would not go on to be baptised. 1 Cor 15:29 talks about a practise where people were baptized “for the dead”, which barring an archaeological find that sheds some light onto this phrase, must remain an enigma.