Baptism is the rite of admission into the Christian Church, and practiced by all denominations.
Its origin is most likely sought in:
- (a) the Jewish practice of baptizing the proselytes, and
- (b) in the baptism of John the Baptist for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4). Jesus underwent this latter baptism (Mark 1:9) and may have baptized his disciples for sometime but never made baptism a critical part of his ministry.
However, the Christian tradition recalls Jesus’ post-resurrection command to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19-20) as the institution of the rite.
The doctrine which attended baptism in the early church was variable. For example, baptism might be for the washing away of sins (Acts 2:38), a dying with Christ (Romans 6:4), a rebirth (John 3:5), or the occasion of the gift of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13). These multiple concepts as well as the vagueness of the passages speaking of the baptism of households (e.g. Acts 16:33) makes it nearly impossible to declare whether infants were baptized, a debate ravaging many denominations.
The theology or the command to be baptized gained much momentum during the third and fourth centuries with the writings of Saint Augustine. Augustine connected baptism to original sin (see Great Myth: Original Sin); baptism erased the punishment of original sin or the sin of Adam. Coinciding with this was the belief that baptism confers a character upon the recipient (who thus can never be re-baptized even after apostasy), and which is valid even if administered in heresy or schism. Baptism permitted the soul to be united with God otherwise it could never be with him. With the acceptance of this teaching, becoming dogmatic, by the Roman Catholic Church infant baptism became the norm. Augustine insisted unbaptized infants went to hell. The Church hesitant to fully embrace this latter teaching developed the concept of Limbo, a place of eternal happiness to which unbaptized souls that have not experienced personal so go but never see the face of God, but this too has come into doubt. Some Catholic authorities say no one can say what God prepares for these souls. Hanging in doubt for the objective observer who cares for children is the condition of the stillborn, the unbaptized infant, and the aborted fetus. One is reminded of the scriptural passage in which Christ rebuked his disciples for not letting the people bringing their children to him. He was very displeased and said, “Permit the little children to come unto me, forbid them not; for such is the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter it.” He them took the children in his arms, put his hands on them, and blessed then. (Mark 10:14-16) Christ gave no indication that the children were to be baptized.
Despite of the above infant baptism remained the norm displacing the delay of baptism until one’s deathbed. Baptism was termed a sacrament and remained so during the medieval theology. During the Reformation, in the sixteenth century, Reformers modified this theology. Luther reconciled the necessity of baptism with his doctrine of justification by faith alone, regarding baptism as a promise of divine grace after which a person’s sons are no longer imputed to him or her. Zwingli, however, viewed baptism as a sign of admission into the Christian community. Calvin taught baptism only benefited the elect, those having faith without which it was not effective. However the radical Anabaptists understood baptism exclusively to be a response of faith on the part of the individual to the gospel, thus rejected infant baptism.
Except among those denominations which now only practice baptism of believers (chiefly Baptists, Disciples, Jehovah’s Witnesses, some Pentecostals, and the Plymouth Brethren), baptism forms the first part of the Christian initiation to be completed in confirmation (which in some Orthodox churches follows immediately).
Many adopted the view of baptism as being a sign of administration or initiation into the Christian community. Their argument rests on the belief that John the Baptist’s baptism of Jesus signaled the beginning or initiation of his ministry, which is asserted by the belief that Jesus, being the son of God, was without sin, and therefore he had no necessity to be baptized from sin. Baptism when considered within this concept dismisses the belief that it remits man’s guilt of original sin and its necessity to do so.
During the earliest forms of Christian baptism the candidate stood in water, and water was poured over the upper part of the body. This was technically called “immersion,” but the term has been broadened to include the dipping or submersion of the entire body under the water. The baptismal application used in many Orthodox denominations is affusion, the threefold pouring of water over the head, and exceptional baptism of aspiration or the sprinkling of water over the head. A.G.H.
Bowker, John. ed. The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. New York. Oxford University Press. 1997. pp. 125-126
St. Augustine of Hippo. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Augustine_of_Hippo>