The Baptist View of Baptism: Symbol or Sacrament? (Series on Baptism)

Painting of infant baptism from the Catacombs

A painting of the baptism of a child from the Catacombs of Rome.

(Part of an in-depth series on Baptism. Part 1.)

In this and ensuing posts I will examine in particular the view of Baptism held by Baptists and other evangelicals in their tradition: that Baptism is not sacramental but merely a symbol. I want to make every effort to be fair and consider the Baptist arguments in full; so I would very much like any comments supporting the Baptist view. I am curious, and will listen and not argue.

The first major difference of opinion among Christians regarding Baptism is whether or not Baptism actually does something — whether Baptism regenerates us; whether it is efficacious in applying the grace of God through faith, as Catholics, Orthodox, and some Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, and Reformed believe; and among evangelical Christians, the Churches of Christ.* I will call this the “sacramental” view, though I know not everyone embraces that term — what I mean is that we believe in baptismal regeneration.

* And well, I am starting to get lost in the denomination soup of who believes what. I think I may need to order the newest edition of the Handbook of Denominations in the United States after all, as mine is now over a decade old!

We Catholics define a Sacrament as an outward sign that symbolizes as well as actually accomplishes an inward grace: in the case of Baptism, the washing with water brings about the washing away of our sins; being placed under water represents our burial with Christ and rebirth in His Resurrection (Romans 6:3–5). We will return to this later.

The Baptist View: Origins

Believer's baptism

Beliver’s baptism (From here).

On the other hand, in what I will call the “Baptist” view — since in modern evangelicalism, it seems to have descended from the Baptists — Baptism is understood as merely a symbol, a sign, a public profession of the grace and regeneration that has already taken place in the believer’s life by faith alone. In addition to Baptists, my Pentecostals and many other groups of evangelicals follow this understanding. The symbolic view of Baptism appears to be Zwinglian in origin, though the history of the Baptists themselves is more difficult to follow. Historians are divided about their origins, some claiming influence from the radical Anabaptists. But the belief was stated clearly as early as the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith:

Baptism is an ordinance of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, to be unto the party baptized, a sign of his fellowship with him, in his death and resurrection; of his being engrafted into him; of remission of sins; and of giving up into God, through Jesus Christ, to live and walk in newness of life (Romans 6:3–5; Colossians 2:12; Galatians 3:27; Mark 1:4; Acts 22:16) (1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith §29.1).

[Many thanks to ReformedOnTheWeb for the links to early Baptist confessions of faith, without which I would have been lost without a map.]

Ulrich Zwingli, by Hans Asper (ca. 1531)

Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531), by Hans Asper (ca. 1531) (Wikimedia). I really like this portrait of Zwingli more than any other I’ve seen.

Like so much of the movement of the Reformation, the rejection of Baptism’s sacramentality and of sacramentality in general seems to have been in part a reaction against the “sacerdotalism” of the Catholic Church, that the work of God’s grace was only administered through the hands of priests. Many other proponents of sola fide, justification “by faith alone,” including Luther himself, even though they rejected the sacerdotal priesthood, affirmed that the sacraments of the Church, in particular Baptism and the Eucharist, were the “means of grace” through which the Holy Spirit worked. But this thread of Protestant thought rejected the Sacraments in the view that they were “works” — and that justification “by faith alone” excluded the idea that any other action was necessary for salvation. This seems, more than anything else, to have been the origin of the interpretation.

In Scripture

The Apostle Paul

The Sunday school Paul returns!

I have searched high and low for an argument from any particular verse of Scripture that is used to support the Baptist view, and found only this: Rather than any specific verse that supports a purely symbolic understanding, the view stems from a general interpretation of all Scripture referring to Baptism as symbolic.

Is this justified? Certainly Scripture describing Baptism, especially in the words of Paul, is rich with symbolism. Paul describes Baptism as burial with Christ in death and resurrection in His new life:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:3–5)

We Catholics agree that Baptism is symbolic; but it isn’t only symbolic. In actually accomplishes the grace it represents: we, buried with Christ, are raised from being dead in sin and given new life in the Holy Spirit.

Beyond this interpretation, the only basis I have found for the belief that Baptism is purely symbolic, and thus not necessary for salvation, rests on the fact that in three noted cases in the New Testament, the regeneration of sinners seems to have been accomplished apart from Baptism: (1) the repentant thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43), (2) Saul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), and (3) the fall of the Holy Spirit on the gathered Gentiles at the house of Cornelius (Acts 10:24–48).

Next time, I’ll take a close look at these passages and consider what support they give to the Baptist view. Are they indeed indicative that regeneration is apart from Baptism and Baptism is not necessary for salvation? Does the rest of Scripture support this view? For now, I will step back — partly because I would dearly like the input on my Baptist friends, to share with me whatever other support they find in Scripture for their views, and partly because this post is just far too long already.

16 thoughts on “The Baptist View of Baptism: Symbol or Sacrament? (Series on Baptism)

  1. I feel like seeing baptism, communion, etc as only symbolic is to imply that God’s into “make believe” , or playing silly games. God doesn’t kid around that way. Only my opinion, and not meant as disrespectful of anyone’s viewpoint. That’s just my sense of it.

  2. Not much to disagree with you on here. From my experiences, the verses used to support what you’re calling the “Baptist view” are the ones dealing with belief/confession as necessities for salvation and that do not mention baptism. Verses like Rom. 10:9-13. I’ve even heard Mk. 16:16 used because Jesus didn’t say “but he who has disbelieved AND HAS NOT BEEN BAPTIZED shall be condemned.” Quite ridiculous logic there if you’re familiar with the verse.

    I’m looking forward to your analysis of those three section of scripture! Already thinking through them in my mind.

    • Thanks. 🙂 I’m looking forward to it, too. Yes, I don’t understand how people can look past these verses, and the clear fact that in every other case of conversion in the New Testament, being baptized was the logical next step to believing, as if part of the very same thought or action. And all the times baptism is tied to the washing away of sins — it seems difficult to accept them all as merely figurative.

  3. I agree much with you on this. My only difference is that I do not believe that baptism accomplishes grace, but fulfills our obedience to Christ when he said “believe and be baptized.” The two go hand in hand. Without baptism, there is definitely an impediment.

    • An impediment to salvation? Because Baptists still say that we are obligated to be baptized out of obedience. What supports your argument that it doesn’t accomplish grace?

      And thanks for the comment. Peace be with you. 🙂

        • Well then, how is your belief different than the Baptist one I present above? And what supports your belief? And out of curiosity, what group or tradition of Christians are you a part of? I am not trying to be disputatious, but am genuinely curious.

  4. Pingback: Does Baptism Regenerate? A Look at the Times It Didn’t (Series on Baptism) | The Lonely Pilgrim

  5. But the NT seems to assume that we remember our baptisms – no matter the advanced or primitive theological nuances we give to it. How would a Catholic know of their burial and resurrection in Baptism? The Orthodox at least immerse kids (3x), there is no sprinkling – but there is still no memory of it. Sprinkling seems like taking Pepsi instead of fruit of the vine for Communion (forgive me for jumping around). My biggest struggle with the NT and the Church fathers is that they often refer one to remember their baptism. How could I if I was baptized as an infant? How could it be a Pledge of a Good conscience (1 Peter), a shared experience (Romans 6) and radical break with Judaism (Matthew 28 – F, S, HS)? How might it fully represent that now God’s “religion” is from Faith to Faith (Romans 1: 17), in other words an expression of Trust in Christ, rather than a biological birthright like the Jews sometimes assumed? Truly history is on the side of infant baptism and I do want to respect the historical witness, but if the Bible teaches us anything it teaches that the Community never gets it right. The church is in need of CONSTANT reformation. Thank you.

    • Hi, I’m going back through and checking for comments I’ve missed. And I’m sorry I missed this one.

      I don’t know where you get the idea that the New Testament “seems to assume that we remember our baptisms” — care to enlighten me? Sure, nearly all of the recipients of the New Testament would have been adult converts who would remember their baptisms — but that’s no more a proof for the thesis that we are supposed to retain a conscious memory of our baptisms (or else it’s not valid?), than the absence of explicit testimony of infant baptism in the New Testament is a proof against its practice. In the cases of the adult converts in the New Testament, yes, baptism was all of the things you say. But in addition to the things you name, baptism also functions as the “circumcision of Christ,” incorporating us into Christ’s New Covenant (Colossians 2:11–12) and into the the Body of Christ, the Church (1 Corinthians 12:12–14, Galatians 3:25–29, Ephesians 4:1–6) — which are perfectly good reasons why infants can and should be baptized, and why they were from the earliest days of the Church.

      Remember that the Catholic Church is not just the “community” — it is the divine institution of the Body of Christ, founded upon a rock, which Christ promised would never falter, and would be guided into all truth by the Holy Spirit. Yes, the Church is in need of constant reformation — but in terms of the doctrine and morals of the faith, the Church does get it right.

      • So let me know if I’ve missed your infant posts, but I don’t think you’ve directly addressed that yet? (in other words, don’t take up your valuable time to write me another lengthy response – life is short). So I’m going to write very superficially – I think my verses do indicate being cognitively aware of baptism. I don’t think yours indicate infant baptism. Even the great Colossians citation is a stretch. If we stick to context the emphasis is on that Baptism is something Christ is doing and not human tradition – read on in Colossians and this was a specific problem Paul is addressing and tells them in chpt.3 to focus on Christ. So the Col. reference is not concerned with bringing up images of baby boys and their parts, but the image of the importance of Christ doing something to you in baptism and not just a dead tradition. Christianity (some say) took over a Jewish practice of how to enable Gentiles to be “jews”. This was the Gentile version of coming over to God (without messing with body parts). It would be interesting to find out if this Jewish convert theory about baptism is true – did they ever do it to Gentile babies? The reason why 3000 people could be baptized is because Synagogues possessed large baptismals – bathing stations (not sprinkling stations). I’m also curious about the “Church Fathers” my Protestant bias is that infant baptism is first mentioned when Augustine is fighting Pelagius and Augustine doesn’t justify the practice, but uses the practice itself as part of his argument. Actually arguing FOR or against it was something that may not be recorded (which I know you will say is an argument for it). By the way, baptism was absolutely assumed – I agree. It is frustrating that we don’t have more information. The Didache is the first document that reveals a diversity of practice. That if you can’t find enough water do 3 head pourings. This may be as close as we get – and if so, then that’s fine because it says in line with Paul the early Christians did not fixate on the exact formula of the ritual (though it says nothing about infants, unfortunately). I guess I can rest with the fact that Catholics have a confirmation, which is the conscious taking on of the Faith of/in Jesus Christ. Blessings on your studies and relationships, D.

        • No, I haven’t written them yet, but you’re not the only person eagerly awaiting them, so I think I will hurry it up soon. Writing this response will give me fodder for later use in a post.

          No, certainly Paul wasn’t speaking specifically of infant baptism. But he does demonstrate what it is that baptism does — and some of the things it does, namely that it incorporates us into the Body of Christ and into His covenant, are things that are fitting to have done to an infant. If baptism in the new covenant is analogous to circumcision in the old covenant, then it was something fitting for an infant. Likewise in the old covenant, for an adult male to be accepted as a Jewish convert, he must make an informed declaration of his faith in God — but the same is not expected of the infant.

          In case you missed it, here is my exegesis showing that Paul explicitly referred to Baptism as the “circumcision of Christ.”

          Do you have a reference for synagogues having “bathing stations”? John 2 makes clear that the stone water jars in which Jesus turned the water to wine were λίθιναι ὑδρίαι ἓξκατὰ τὸν καθαρισμὸν (lithinai hydrai kata ton katharismon), stone water jars in accordance with or used for purification, specifically Jewish ceremonial washing or purification. These weren’t bathtubs. Bathtubs were great luxuries for the extremely wealthy, and would not have been common in your corner synagogue, especially not in an arid country where water was so much a premium. It would have been costly and inefficient to full a tub every time someone needed to wash, and such water would quickly become filthy and foul just by many people washing or just by sitting there stagnant. The stone jars would have been used by pouring water over the hands and feet (cf. Exodus 30:18–21), not by filling a tub to take a bath. Remember that the Hebrews were desert nomads when these ordinances were established! It must have been a very vivid image to John in retrospect, Jesus performing his first miracle with these stone jars, these great symbols of the old covenant — bringing new wine out of old vessels, symbolizing both the new covenant in his blood that wine would become, and the transformation of washing that his blood would bring.

          In any case, the Christian rite of Baptism was not a mere “replacement” for the Jewish rites of purification or even something Jewish that was co-opted for Christian purposes — it was something that superseded it, as John tells us (John 3:25–30). Baptism was never held to wash the soul or to give any kind of new birth. Nicodemus, a Pharisee fully versed in Jewish tradition, didn’t have the slightest clue what Jesus was talking about when Jesus told him he must be “born again” (John 3:3). The closest direct analogue to Baptism that the Church Fathers saw in the Old Testament, in the sense of actually washing, was the healing of Naaman (2 Kings 5). The old covenant Jewish purification rituals were seldom compared to Baptism, let alone seen as a Jewish practice that was co-opted.

          You keep referencing “sprinkling”: Scripture itself offers sprinkling as an image of Baptism. Certainly Baptism, in addition to the symbolizing death and burial with Christ, also represents a sprinkling with the blood of Christ (cf. 1 Peter 1:2). The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews urges us to “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:22). God, speaking through the prophet Ezekiel, promises that he will “sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you” (Ezekiel 36:25).

          The testimony is universal in the tradition of the Church that aspersion (sprinkling) is a valid method of the Sacrament. Immersion was most likely the ordinary method even in the West (I think I’ve noted the incidents even in Scripture in which immersion would have been impractical and unlikely?) until the eleventh or twelfth century (note the many magnificent stone baptisteries in Europe), after which effusion (pouring) became common. According to the Didache, as you point out, pouring was a valid means in cases of necessity even dating to apostolic times, and certainly this was the method used in baptism on sick beds (baptismae clini). St. Cyprian of Carthage testifies to the validity of baptizing the sick by sprinkling (Letters 75.12, A.D. 255). Tertullian describes Baptism being done “with so great simplicity, without pomp, without any considerable novelty of preparation, finally, without expense, a man is dipped in water, and amid the utterance of some few words, is sprinkled, and then rises again” (On Baptism, A.D. 203). The Roman Catechism (a.k.a. Catechism of the Council of Trent) states that immersion, effusion (pouring), and aspersion (sprinkling) were all valid methods received from tradition, and notes that “aspersion [was] the manner in which there is reason to believe Peter administered baptism, when on one day he converted and baptized three thousand persons.” Also, of course, see the fresco from the Catacombs of Rome at the top of this very post — a common motif in early Christian art — in which Baptism is accomplished by pouring, not immersion.

          Regarding the Baptism of infants, we have no reason to believe that Jesus would not receive even infants into his mercy. St. Luke tells us:

          “Now they were bringing even infants [βρέφη, literally fetuses or newborns!] to [Jesus] that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to him, saying, ‘Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.'” (Luke 18:15–17)

          From the Church Fathers, Irenaeus (ca. A.D. 180) testifies, in the course of a discussion of Jesus’s age, which is dated from the age at which he was baptized (Luke 3:23):

          “[Jesus] came to save all through means of Himself — all, I say, who through Him are born again to God — infants [infantes], and children [parvulos], and boys [pueros], and youths [juvenes], and old men [seniores] [These are all the stages of life from birth to old age according to the classical mind —JTR]. He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age, being at the same time made to them an example of piety, righteousness, and submission; a youth for youths, becoming an example to youths, and thus sanctifying them for the Lord. So likewise He was an old man for old men, that He might be a perfect Master for all, not merely as respects the setting forth of the truth, but also as regards age, sanctifying at the same time the aged also, and becoming an example to them likewise.” (Adversus haereses II.XXII.3, ANF edition)

          Being “born again to God” is certainly language evoking baptism. Even the Protestant editors of the ANF note here, “It has been remarked by Wall and others, that we have here the statement of a valuable fact as to the baptism of infants in the primitive Church.”

          The Apostolic Tradition, ascribed to Hippolytus of Rome (ca. A.D. 215), describes the rite of baptism it testifies to be apostolic:

          “At the hour in which the cock crows, they shall first pray over the water. When they come to the water, the water shall be pure and flowing, that is, the water of a spring or a flowing body of water. Then they shall take off all their clothes. The children shall be baptized first. All of the children who can answer for themselves, let them answer. If there are any children who cannot answer for themselves, let their parents answer for them, or someone else from their family. After this, the men will be baptized. Finally, the women, after they have unbound their hair, and removed their jewelry. No one shall take any foreign object with themselves down into the water.” (Apostolic Tradition 21)

          Origen tells us:

          “Every soul that is born into flesh is soiled by the filth of wickedness and sin. … In the Church, baptism is given for the remission of sins, and, according to the usage of the Church, baptism is given even to infants. If there were nothing in infants which required the remission of sins and nothing in them pertinent to forgiveness, the grace of baptism would seem superfluous” (Homilies on Leviticus 8:3 [A.D. 248]).

          “The Church received from the apostles the tradition of giving baptism even to infants. The apostles, to whom were committed the secrets of the divine sacraments, knew there are in everyone innate strains of [original] sin, which must be washed away through water and the Spirit” (Commentaries on Romans 5:9 [A.D. 248]).

          Cyprian of Carthage tells us:

          “As to what pertains to the case of infants: You [Fidus] said that they ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, that the old law of circumcision must be taken into consideration, and that you did not think that one should be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day after his birth. In our council it seemed to us far otherwise. No one agreed to the course which you thought should be taken. Rather, we all judge that the mercy and grace of God ought to be denied to no man born. … If, in the case of the worst sinners and those who formerly sinned much against God, when afterwards they believe, the remission of their sins is granted and no one is held back from baptism and grace, how much more, then, should an infant not be held back, who, having but recently been born, has done no sin, except that, born of the flesh according to Adam, he has contracted the contagion of that old death from his first being born. For this very reason does he [an infant] approach more easily to receive the remission of sins: because the sins forgiven him are not his own but those of another” (Letters 64:5).

          The question being here raised is not whether infants should be baptized, but whether newborns should be baptized immediately, or whether the Church should wait until the eighth day in analogue to circumcision. The question of whether infants should be baptized was never even raised! Nowhere in any of these texts is there any indication that infant baptism was a recent innovation, but rather the testimony is universal and explicit that this was an apostolic practice. (If you’d like even more from the Church Fathers, here’s a lot more.)

  6. That was your short response? So here is a possible source of 100s of ritual pools used by Jews

    1 Peter (exiles, etc.) and Hebrews (tabernacle, etc.) are using OT imagery, not referencing baptism.

    The old pictures often show someone standing in a river or pool of water while having water poured on their heads.

    Yeah, about that original sin idea . . . Sin as inherited biological disease, rather than rebellion, choice or influence. If the difference between original humanity and “fallen” humanity is that now we have some kind of deadly inherited seed separate and apart from our conscious actions, thoughts and attitudes then Scripture contradicts itself and sin is ultimately a punishment or “God’s fault”.

    I think infant baptism is a lovely picture of God’s Grace separate and a part from our action and the Catholic (Orthodox) tradition definitely make up for any slant against conscious decision later in life by having a broader (and better) understanding of salvation (that it is a process, a life process and not some kind of 1 time thing).

    So I think Earliest Christians received baptism (we know what the Greek word means, correct? lol) as conscious adults, but then it made perfect sense to try and figure out what to do with Children. We had a guy start a Bible study off with just 1 question: Are our Children Christian? 1 answer was immediately no, another answer was immediately yes. So as conscious baptizers we do get confused about the status of children – which is unfortunate. So I can see the practice absolutely informing the theology. There’s a fancy Latin phrase for that, but I leave scholarly stuff to you.

    I’m looking for jobs in a tradition that allow for Infant baptism, so though I’ve spent 25 years in a “Anabaptist” tradition I’m looking to get out just as fast as I can (too legalistic, narrow minded – at least some of them, usually I’ve worked at a college town so that changes the way people think, but now, for the first time, I’m not and it is horrible). And some days if I could financially swing it I’d go get a Masters in Biology, do something else for a living and become Orthodox (my BS is in Bio, then I have a MDiv). You are an excellent apologetic person for the Catholic tradition. Richest blessings to you. If you seriously want me to write more in critiquing I’d be happy to, but only as an exercise to hone your skills – lol.

    • “Short”? I’m afraid I don’t know the meaning of the word. 😉

      I care about truth. An apologist who argues for the truth of something whether it’s true or not is nothing more than a sophist. If any part of my argument seems thin, please tell me — but I care more about addressing your concerns than winning an argument.

      That is interesting about mikves. I’ll have to look into that further. But the New Testament Scriptures don’t seem to be aware of them. The only talk of purification in the Jewish context is the Pharisees’ handwashing (Mark 7:1-9) and the aforementioned stone jars.

      1 Peter (exiles, etc.) and Hebrews (tabernacle, etc.) are using OT imagery, not referencing baptism.

      So Old Testament imagery can’t be used to reference baptism? The “sprinkling clean” by “clean water” of Ezekiel is most certainly a prefiguration of baptism. In the verse in Hebrews, “hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” is most certainly a reference to baptism — where in the Old Testament, aside from Ezekiel, do you find “hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience”? And for Peter — has he really been sprinkled with the blood of Jesus? How has he been made clean, if not by baptism?

      Original sin is a doctrine whose history has many twists and turns, but the basic idea is quite biblical (Romans 5:12ff, 1 Corinthians 15:21f). In modern Catholic theology it is considered to be more a privation of original justice and sanctifying grace, a state that we are born into, an inherited fallen nature more than an inherited actual sin (see especially CCC 404‒406). It is a “stain” or “contagion” mostly by analogy.

      we know what the Greek word means, correct? lol

      We know what the etymology of the Greek word is. What the Greek word “means” is defined by usage, and meanings change over time.

      In the New Testament, there are many cases of the head of a household being baptized, “he and all his family.” So the idea that “our children are Christian” was certainly there even in Scripture — and our wives, and our servants (and our dogs and cats?). “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord!” Though it’s a bit paternalistic to say that children “belong” to their parents, a large part of the baptismal liturgy for children (which, if you haven’t read, you should) is the affirmation by the parents and godparents that the child will be raised in the Christian faith, and by the whole church community that they will support them in it. It really is a rite of the child being received and welcomed into the community — wrapped in the folds of the love and salvation of Christ, I like to think.

      God bless you as well. May the peace of Christ be with you.

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