Immersion, Pouring, And Sprinkling: A History (End)

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As we have suggested, the early church understood the design of baptism to be the “forgiveness of sins.” This fact is underscored by the special emphasis placed upon the act in second century literature. Among the blessings attributed to baptism by these writers were remission of sins, salvation, eternal life, regeneration and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Such a high view of the design of baptism could only have come from a first century proclamation which intimately connected immersion and salvation. The consistency with which these men stress the essentiality of immersion would be impossible if not for this earlier understanding. It is inconceivable, as some would have us believe, that the whole realm of believers suddenly could have reversed its understanding of the design of baptism within fifty years after the lifetime of the apostles! It is evident that what made the change in mode justifiable in the minds of those who practiced pouring or sprinkling was the conviction that baptism was essential to salvation. The consideration of a substitute would never have occurred had baptism not been considered so important. This is a tremendously significant point which cannot be rationalized; this is corroborative proof that such passages as Mk. 16:16 and Acts 2:38 are to be understood quite literally. Baptism is essential to salvation! There was a predominant conviction of the innocence of infants through the third century. In numerous passages, infants become the standard of purity and sinlessness. Indeed, the whole language of “rebirth” in connection with immersion presupposes the innocent state of the infant. This understanding plus the conviction that baptism was for the forgiveness of sins explains why there is no early reference in support of infant baptism in the post-apostolic literature. Baptism was for sinners, they understood, and babies are not sinners.

By the fourth century, however, baptism had ironically digressed into a “sacramental” act; divorced from its context within the whole of God’s scheme of redemption, the act was given implications unwarranted in New Testament Scripture. Using
John 3:5 as a “prooftext,” a view developed that baptism was necessary for every person who ever lived – without regard to age, spiritual state or pre-New Covenant circumstance. Consequently, an absurd contention such as “Jesus was in Hades baptizing Old Testament saints” could find fertile soil. Naturally, then, the baptism of infants was rationalized as a precautionary measure to assure the safe passage of the infant to heaven should he die. The reasoning was, if no one could enter heaven without baptism, then everyone, whether sinner or not, must be baptized. It is thus seen that contrary to popular conception, the practice of infant baptism actually preceded the doctrine of “original sin.” The first clear reference to infant baptism is found in Tertullian’s writings and he opposed it, nevertheless showing that the practice did have its advocates at the time. Progressively, however, as the baptism of infants became more common, the practice became a decisive argument for the doctrine of original sin. Reversing the view of the prior century, men reasoned that if infants ought to be baptized, then the reason must be because they are sinners since that is the design of baptism. An ironic turnabout indeed! Origen is the first to suggest in a positive defense that infants should be baptized; at his time of writing (mid-third century) the doctrine of original sin had not fully developed, but was present in its early stages. Origen himself suggests that although infants themselves do not have “their own sins,” a stain attaches itself from previous human sin – a stain to be removed by baptism (Homily on Luke, XIV:3). This doctrine would be in full bloom by the middle of the fourth century with the assistance of Augustine.

Observations

It is not difficult to trace the evolution of sprinkling and infant baptism to the present from these sources. As belief in the essentiality of baptism subsided and the presence of “original sin” on the souls of infants has been played down, most mainline Protestant groups have instituted the infant baptism ceremony as a “dedication service” for the parents. Of course this practice has no more in common with the Scriptures than did sprinkling, pouring or the original practice of infant baptism. But as is the case with most innovations, a circumstance occurs which demands, in the minds of its advocates, a “bending” of Scripture. This “bending” is justified on the basis of an “emergency;” however, once justified as an “exceptional” case, all too soon the innovation becomes established as an acceptable practice under any circumstances. We have seen this to be true in the case of the mode and design of baptism and currently witness the tragic consequences of such Scripture wresting in other areas. The only possible remedy for the divided state of modern “Christendom” is a return to the authority of the Scriptures. Doctrines and practices must not be formulated and then justified. The only possible procedure is to examine Scripture first and allow it, as the voice of God, to determine what our practices and beliefs must be. (End)

Bruce Edwards, Jr.

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