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What Were the Apostles Thinking?

Having outlined a Baptist vision of water-baptism (here, here, and here), perhaps my non-Baptist readers can appreciate the obstacles that face the average Baptist church when it comes to accepting the validity of infant baptism. And yet, that is precisely the area I am wanting to probe. And, if any argument is going to convince Baptists, it is going to have to begin with the biblical evidence.

Household Baptisms?

But what sort of evidence will suffice? With all due respect to my pedobaptist brothers and sisters, I’m afraid the notices of “household baptisms” in the book of Acts and elsewhere (e.g., 1 Cor 1:16) are inconclusive. Yes, there may have been infants attached to those households, but we must look carefully at what those passages actually say. For example, here is how the baptism of the Philippian jailer and his household is described:

[Paul and Silas] spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God. (Acts 16:32-34)

So, how are we to imagine these possible infant baptisms transpiring? Father brings home Paul and Silas in the middle of the night. Perhaps Mother runs to awaken the sleeping infants in their cribs so the apostles could proclaim the gospel to “all who were in his house.” Then, baptized, these infants—certainly to be included as part of the “entire household”—rejoiced that that Father has become a believer. I don’t mean to ridicule but merely to appeal for consistency: if infants are understood to have been included in the baptism of the entire family, then surely they must be included in the hearing of the word of the Lord beforehand and the rejoicing afterward. If there is no warrant for the latter, there is no warrant for the former either.

The problem with these texts is that they are silent on the subject of infant baptism. Therefore, they do not make a compelling case one way or another. Indeed, I would argue that any position one may take on the subject of infant baptism is an argument from silence because the practice is nowhere addressed in the New Testament! There may or may not be texts that argue inferentially for the baptism of infants; there are none that describe—or explicitly condemn (or endorse)—the practice.

The Baptism of John

There are, however, a variety of texts that challenge the normative New Testament baptismal practice I have been outlining. These texts describe baptisms that took place in some manner that subverts the notion that the tight connection between faith, baptism, and reception of the Spirit that is abundantly evident in the New Testament is in fact an ironclad rule. There is a pattern, but there are also exceptions.

The most obvious exception is the baptism administered by John the Baptist. There are two texts in Acts that deal with this exception, and it is instructive that a different course of action was taken in each. First, there is the story of Apollos, an eloquent preacher with an accurate understanding of Jesus, “though he knew only the baptism of John” (Acts 18:25). Luke suggests there was something deficient about Apollos’ ministry. He needed Priscilla and Aquila to “explain the Way of God to him more accurately” (v. 26). Even so, he received their endorsement to continue his ministry in Achaia.

On the other hand, Acts 19 tells of certain “disciples” who did not seem to measure up to Paul’s expectations. On further questioning, he discovered that they, too, had received John’s baptism, but they had not heard of the Holy Spirit (19:2-3). Paul’s response, unlike Priscilla and Aquila’s response to Apollos, was to urge them to faith in Jesus. Having heard Paul’s message, they were baptized (actually, rebaptized), and “when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them” (19:6).

Whatever may be said about John’s baptism, it was not the same thing as Christian baptism “in the name of Jesus.” One might be justified in thinking, then, that anyone who had been baptized into John’s baptism would need to be rebaptized upon one’s profession of faith in Christ. But this was not the case! Rather, John’s baptism seems to have been good enough in one case but not in another (Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament, 112). Paul believed the “baptists” in Ephesus needed rebaptism, but Priscilla and Aquila did not think the same thing about Apollos. The difference, it seems, is that while Apollos had an accurate understanding of Jesus and gave evidence of the Spirit (namely, his bold speech; see Acts 4:8, 31, etc.), the Ephesian disciples did not.

The Samaritans’ Baptisms

One of the thorniest passages in the Bible on the topic of the relationship between faith, baptism, and the Spirit is the so-called “Samaritan Pentecost” described in Acts 8:14-17. Dunn (Baptism in the Spirit, 55ff.) even titled his chapter on this passage “The Riddle of Samaria.” Sacramental theology upholds this story as a justification for the sacrament of confirmation; Pentecostals see it as proof that baptism in the Holy Spirit is an experience that follows after conversion.

Philip had preached the gospel in Samaria and those who believed his message were baptized (Acts 8:12). But something was wrong. If Acts has prepared us for a quick succession from faith to baptism to the reception of the Spirit (see Acts 2:38), this story throws a speed bump on the road. It took the later ministrations of Peter and John before the Samaritans received the Holy Spirit (v. 17).

I don’t want to get bogged down in why the normative pattern is broken here. Suffice to say, if there were ever a story that would justify the rebaptism of those who, having previously been baptized, only later came into the fullness of Christian experience, this is it. And yet, the Samaritan believers were not rebaptized! Even though their baptisms did not result in (or spring from; see Acts 10:44-48) the reception of the Spirit, it was not deemed necessary to baptize them all over again. Now that they had at last received the Spirit, their prior baptisms were considered sufficient. Do we have here an apostolic warrant for the idea that, even if an element of the conversion-initiation complex is initially missing (in this case, the gift of the Spirit), the baptism itself need not be repeated when all the pieces have finally come into place?

The Non-baptisms at Pentecost

Finally, we must raise the question of whether some of the apostles and other early believers were baptized at all. Of course, several of the Twelve were prior disciples of John the Baptist. But others of their number were not, nor is there any sure indication that they were baptized either before or after the day of Pentecost. The situation then was as Beasley-Murray describes:

At Pentecost the Spirit came upon the disciples with no other condition than that of prayer; they are not baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, either prior to or after the event. (105)

Admittedly, the disciples at Pentecost were in a unique situation. With the resurrection and the coming of the Spirit, the old age has begun to pass away and Christ’s new order has arrived. There was no call for them to be baptized because “everything that baptism signified in its divine and human aspects had been realized in them” (107).


The above exceptions to the normative pattern of Christian conversion-initiation ought to warn Baptists against being overly legalistic when it comes to acknowledging the baptisms of those who were baptized as infants. What were the apostles thinking when they countenanced these exceptions? Perhaps they believed that God remains in control of faith, baptism, and the Spirit, and is not bound to a single method of imparting these gifts to his people. To paraphrase Jesus, the sacraments were made for humankind, and not humankind for the sacraments.

The New Testament reveals a normative pattern for Christian conversion-initiation. It also reveals that God is at liberty to dispense with this pattern at his good pleasure. I would argue that acknowledging this possibility does not threaten the dearest values Baptists hold on the issue of baptism, as I hope to demonstrate in my final post in this series.



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