Having laid out something of the biblical exegesis that informs the traditional understanding of baptism among Baptists, I’d like to distill a couple of important values this groundwork implies. In other words, what did Baptists think they were doing by latching onto the idea of believers’ baptism?
First, of course, Baptists were attempting to emphasize baptism as initiation into the Christian life. Having concluded that baptism and faith go hand in hand in the New Testament, it was natural to question whether baptism could do and be what the Bible described in the absence of a credible profession of faith. For Baptists, the Christian life properly begins with faith, which is outwardly expressed through baptism.
A Believers’ Church
Second, Baptists practice believers’ baptism out of a deep desire for a believers’ church. Of the two, my sense is that this is the more pressing concern, so it may be worth the effort to unpack it a bit.
Baptists are all over the map theologically. There are Calvinistic Baptists, anti-Calvinistic Baptists, charismatic Baptists, liberal Baptists, etc. There is very little in Baptist doctrine that isn’t echoed by someone else, somewhere. If there is an exception to this rule, it is in the realm of ecclesiology (although we helped shape the thought of Pentecostals, independent evangelicals, and others). Baptists have a distinctive doctrine of the church. More precisely, we believe the church should be an intentional Christian community.
Nobody forces you to join a Baptist church‚ not even your parents. You join because you want to. We understand this to be in harmony with the practice of the early church, in which believers’ baptism was, if not the exclusive practice, certainly normative.
For example, the early church universally observed a period of pre-baptismal instruction (catechumenate) enjoined upon all new converts. The basic pattern for this instruction was in place by the second century and is evident in both the Didache and Justin Martyr. Both of these early sources describe a period of instruction of indeterminate length followed by one or two days of fasting and prayer immediately before the baptism itself:
Having first said all these things [i.e., the ethical instructions of chapters 1-6], baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. … But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whatever others can; but you shall command the baptized to fast one or two days before. (Didache 7:1, 4)
As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. (Justin, First Apology 61)
The catechumenate could vary in length from a few weeks to as long as three years, according to time and place. Generally, however, the longest periods of instruction are only attested in later sources. Eventually, the three-year catechumenate became standard throughout the Christian world.
Although infant baptism was all but universally accepted, adult baptism was the norm. The very existence of a catechetical process implies that the normative experience of Christian baptism was of an adult “who has been convinced and has assented to our teaching” (Justin, First Apology 65). An Anglican investigation has concluded,
It is clear that the doctrine of baptism in the New Testament is stated in relation to the baptism of adults, as was also the case (with two or three exceptions) in the writers of the first three centuries. In every recorded case of baptism in the New Testament, the Gospel has been heard and accepted, and the condition of faith (and presumably repentance) has been consciously fulfilled prior to the reception of the Sacrament. (Baptism and Confirmation Today  34, quoted by G. R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament [Eerdmans, 1962] 310.)
Although Tertullian is not the most authoritative source for patristic theology, it should be noted that he was opposed to infant baptism:
And so, according to the circumstances and disposition, and even age, of each individual, the delay of baptism is preferable; principally, however, in the case of little children. For why is it necessary—if (baptism itself) is not so necessary—that the sponsors likewise should be thrust into danger? Who both themselves, by reason of mortality, may fail to fulfill their promises, and may be disappointed by the development of an evil disposition, in those for whom they stood? The Lord does indeed say, “Forbid them not to come unto me.” Let them “come,” then, while they are growing up; let them “come” while they are learning, while they are learning whither to come; let them become Christians when they have become able to know Christ. Why does the innocent period of life hasten to the “remission of sins”? More caution will be exercised in worldly matters: so that one who is not trusted with earthly substance is trusted with divine! (On Baptism 18)
Origen was the first Christian writer to state the belief that infant baptism was of apostolic origin, although it has been argued that Origen himself may have only become acquainted with the practice later in life (Beasley-Murray, 306). The first clear attestation of the practice to my knowledge is the third-century Apostolic Tradition, commonly (although debatably) attributed to Hippolytus of Rome.
In the fourth century, there was a “widespread hesitation about infant baptism”(Beasley-Murray, 306) that was only set aside due to the influence of Augustine’s sacramental theology. Gregory of Nazianzus recommended the baptism of children (but not infants) “if any danger presses.” But for those who are not in any danger, he still preferred that they finish their pre-baptismal instruction:
But in respect of others I give my advice to wait till the end of the third year [of the catechumenate], or a little more or less, when they may be able to listen and to answer something about the Sacrament; that, even though they do not perfectly understand it, yet at any rate they may know the outlines; and then to sanctify them in soul and body with the great sacrament of our consecration. (Oration 40, 28)
Even when the practice of infant baptism was not questioned, the custom of postponing baptism was somewhat common. The list of saints who were baptized as adults even though they grew up in Christian homes includes Ambrose, Augustine, John Chrysostom, Jerome, and many others. Thus, while few disputed the validity of infant baptism, many apparently questioned its pastoral wisdom. Many would have agreed with Tertullian’s assessment: “If any understand the weighty import of baptism, they will fear its reception more than its delay: sound faith is secure of salvation” (On Baptism 18)
A Fellowship of Disciples
Baptists read these data and see a church striving to maintain itself as a fellowship of the faithful. The disciplina arcani or witholding the particulars of their liturgical practice and theology from the unbaptized feeds into the same impulse. When, in the fourth century, Christianity gained newfound popularity under the auspices of emperor Constantine, Baptists would have applauded the early monastics who fled to the desert to create new forms of intentional Christian community in the face of growing laxity within the church as a whole.
The Baptist ecclesiological critique of many denominations today is that they have slipped away from this intentionality in the same way the Constantinian church did: by baptizing not only converts but also their children, who have not yet professed faith and perhaps never will.
The existence of an intentional catechumenate preceding baptism argues strongly for the idea that the early Fathers saw the church as an intentional community of believers. When, following Constantine, this became less and less a reality, the monastic movement began as a counter-cultural attempt to hold onto this vision of the church as a committed group of believers, with strict entrance requirements and a commitment to a common life. Later on, the magisterial Reformation (Lutherans, Reformed, and Anglican) did away with the monasteries, but did not put anything in their place as a way for committed believers to form intentional communities of faith. In a sense, they managed to out-Constantine the Catholics!
In both of these areas, affirming baptism as the introduction of believers into the life of faith and in the desire to preserve the church as an intentional faith community, I would argue Baptists have it right–and that they are in concert with the earliest church.
At the same time, the undisputed fact that from at least the early third century, Christians were baptizing infants, requires a re-evaluation of these long-held Baptist positions. Is it possible there is more in the New Testament about baptism and conversion-initiation than we have previously seen? We’ll see if that is the case in my next post. (But first, you may want to take a detour to consider another loose end.)