Embracing the Elephant—Toward a Fuller Doctrine and Practice of Water Baptism (Part 1 of 3)

blindmenandelephantIt was six men of Indostan // To learning much inclined, // Who went to see the Elephant // (Though all of them were blind), // That each by observation, // Might satisfy his mind.

In this nineteenth century poem, “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” John Godfrey Saxe recasts an ancient Hindu tale of six blind men who approach an elephant for the first time. The first man examines the elephant’s side and concludes that an elephant is much like a wall. After handling the tusk, a second blind man decides the elephant resembles a sharp spear. The third man imagines an elephant as a snake after feeling the beast’s writhing trunk. The fourth man explores one of the legs of the elephant and pictures a tree. Fiddling with the huge animal’s floppy ear, the fifth man deduces that the elephant is like a fan waving in the air. Finally, the sixth blind man grabs the tail and concludes that the elephant resembles a short rope. Saxe then ends his humorous but profound poem this way:

And so these men of Indostan // Disputed loud and long, // Each in his own opinion // Exceeding stiff and strong, // Though each was partly in the right, // And all were in the wrong!

When it comes to the church’s doctrine and practice of baptism, we encounter a very similar situation as the fictional blind men of Indostan. Whereas both the New Testament and the early church present a multi-faceted doctrine of baptism, various traditions since that time have reduced baptism to one or maybe two of its aspects. Some reduce the purpose of baptism to a public confession of faith in the Triune God (Matt. 28:19). Others may emphasize the individual’s personal association with the saving death and resurrection of Christ pictured in baptism (Rom. 6:3–4). Another group might point to baptism as an act of repentance, by which a convert turns from a life of sin (Eph. 2:1–10; Col. 2:11–14). A fourth contingent might emphasize the public commitment, pledge, or oath a believer makes at baptism to live according to the new life of faith by the power of the Spirit (1 Pet. 3:21). A fifth party may point to baptism as the rite of initiation into the new covenant community, by which believers officially become members of the church (1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:27). Finally, some traditions focus on baptism as the church’s official extension of community “forgiveness” based on their repentance from sin (Acts 2:38; 26:18). To each of these emphases we can legitimately respond, “Yes, baptism is that, but it’s not only that.” Like the blind men of Indostan, “each was partly in the right, and all were in the wrong.”

It’s my contention that most every tradition of baptism has reduced the doctrine and practice of the sacred rite to one or two things when baptism was really intended to be and accomplish many things all at once. Each teacher or tradition has focused variously on the elephant’s tail, ear, side, leg, trunk, or tusk . . . sometimes even pitting one true and legitimate aspect of Christian baptism against another. In this essay I will begin to explore six facets of the doctrine and practice of baptism as reflected in the New Testament and read in light of the early church’s actual beliefs and practices. Through this study I hope to describe the rite in its fullness, suggesting how we might better embrace all of its facets rather than only one or two of them. The six facets of Christian baptism I will explore, starting with the first two in part one of this essay, are the following:

  1. Baptism as public confession of the Trinitarian Faith (Matt. 28:19)
  2. Baptism as personal association with Christ’s death and resurrection (Rom. 6:3–4)
  3. Baptism as repentance from a life of sin (Acts 22:16; 1 Cor. 6:11)
  4. Baptism as a pledge to live a sanctified life (1 Pet. 3:21)
  5. Baptism as a rite of initiation into the covenant community (1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:27)
  6. Baptism as a mark of official community forgiveness (Acts 26:18)

1. Baptism as Public Confession of the Trinitarian Faith (Matt. 28:19)

Jesus Christ commanded that believers be baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). This Trinitarian baptismal rite became standard in the church from day one. In Antioch between 50 and 70, baptism “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” was clearly prescribed (Didache 7.1), and as we know, Antioch itself became a major hub for Gentile missions. Around A.D. 150, Justin Martyr, describing the church’s general practice of baptism as he knew it, said that “as many as are persuaded and believe that the things we teach and say are true” are then baptized “in the name of God the Father and Master of all, and of our Savior, Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit” (Justin, 1 Apology 61).

Today many traditions treat this triune baptism as a mere formula recited while immersing, pouring, or sprinkling the baptized adult or child. They simply say words such as “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” while applying the water. However, in the descriptions of baptism available to us in the writings of the early church, there is little evidence that Jesus’s command to baptize in the name of the triune God was ever treated as a mere formula. Rather, the evidence suggests that triune baptism actually implied a threefold confession of faith in response to three distinct questions followed by three distinct “immersions” or “pourings.”

The exact language seems to have varied from church to church, but the basic outline remained the same. The one baptizing would say something like, “Do you believe in God the Father and Master of all, who made all things?” The one being baptized would respond, “I believe.” The first immersion (or, in some cases, pouring) followed. Then the baptizer would inquire concerning the second article of the Christian faith: “Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, God made flesh, who was born of a virgin, crucified for your sins, rose again from the dead, and ascended to heaven, whence He will come again to judge the living and dead?” The baptized would respond, “I do,” followed by the second washing. Finally, the baptizer asked something like, “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, who through the prophets foretold the things about Christ and gives new life?” The respondent would reply, “I do.” The third and final immersion was administered.

The fact is that the “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” language was not a formula to be recited but a summary of the faith to be confessed. This helps explain why sometimes in the New Testament the baptism is simply referred to as “in the name of Jesus” (Acts 2:38; 8:16; 10:48). It’s not that there were two competing forms of baptism going around in the first century: those baptizing in the name of Jesus only and those baptizing in the name of the Triune God. Rather, the exact wording of the confession of faith varied from person to person and from place to place, but the content was always the same: 1) the God and Father who made all things 2) sent His Son to die for sin, rise again, and ascend to heaven until His return, in order to 3) send the same Holy Spirit who had inspired the Scriptures to indwell the church until the second coming.

Therefore, when Jesus instructed His disciples to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” the implication was that converts were to be instructed concerning basic Christian Trinitarian doctrine—the persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and their work in creation, revelation, redemption, and consummation. Confession of faith at baptism, therefore, confirmed the believer’s understanding of and belief in the triune faith. Clearly, this meant that some kind of pre-baptismal instruction was necessary so that when the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were mentioned, the baptismal candidate didn’t just stand dumbfounded in the water, wondering what the baptizer was talking about.

True, the farther away from the Jewish synagogue the gospel reached, the more doctrinal instruction would be necessary prior to baptism. Jews and God-fearing Gentiles who already knew the Old Testament well would have been quite clear on their doctrine of God the Father, maker of heaven and earth. They would have known something of the Holy Spirit who had empowered the prophets of old and predicted the coming of the Messiah. In fact, they would have been anticipating the advent of that promised Savior and King. All they lacked was the understanding that Jesus of Nazareth was that Savior, King, and Son of God . . . that He was to die to pay for sin and rise again from the dead . . . and that He was to have two comings rather than one. In short, for Jews and God-fearing Gentiles, who already believed in the Old Testament faith, it wasn’t necessary to provide instruction for the entire biblical creation and redemption narrative . . . just the pieces that were incomplete prior to the advent of the Messiah. However, as the gospel penetrated the un-trained pagan Gentiles, more instruction would have been necessary regarding the Christian story as opposed to their non-Christian worldviews and myths. In fact, when Paul preached to the Gentiles in Athens, he began with the doctrine of God as Creator and Father of all (Acts 17:22–31).

We aren’t sure just how much instruction was given concerning the nature and works of the Triune God prior to baptism. It probably depended on where the unbelievers started out in their knowledge and belief in the one true God. For some it may have been a matter of a few simple assertions to connect the dots. For others it may have involved intense instruction, answering questions and dealing with objections. But whatever pre-baptismal doctrinal instruction occurred, we can be sure that when the new believer entered the water and responded to the questions, “Do you believe in God the Father . . . ? Do you believe in God the Son . . . ? Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit . . . ?” it wasn’t the first time they heard of the Father, Son, and Spirit.

In sum, one New Testament and early church facet of baptism is confession of faith in the triune God (Matt. 28:19). A full-bodied doctrine and practice of baptism must include more than this. But it shouldn’t include less.

2. Baptism as Personal Association with Christ’s Death and Resurrection (Rom. 6:3–4)

In its earliest attested form, the person receiving baptism would be fully immersed in the water (Mark 1:10; Acts 8:38–39). This is, in fact, the basic meaning of the Greek term baptizo, “to immerse.” This full immersion pictured the believer’s association with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. Romans 6:3–4 draws this analogy succinctly: “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” Similarly, in Colossians 2:12 Paul says to the believers, “[You have been] buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.”

In this second aspect of water baptism, the focus narrows from the entire Trinitarian creation and redemption narrative to the specific picture of the work of redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In this way, baptism becomes itself a wordless confession of faith—our personal association with the death and resurrection of Christ on our behalf. The core events of the gospel itself—Christ’s death for sin and His resurrection from the dead (1 Cor. 15:1–5)—are played out before all.

As each believer individually participates in this act of confession, baptism is at its most personal. Through the act of baptism, a believer confesses his personal faith in the saving gospel. The young Christian confesses that Christ’s death paid for her sins and that His resurrection promises her own future resurrection from the dead. One cannot imagine a more personal, humiliating, tangible, and meaningful act as an outward sign of one’s inward convictions. One may certainly say “I do” to the question, “Do you believe that Jesus died for your sins and rose from the dead?” But by actually reenacting these saving works before all, the new believer says, “I believe it, but I also apply it personally to myself once and for all.”

To summarize: besides confession of faith in the triune God, a second aspect of New Testament and early church baptism is personal association with Christ’s death and resurrection (Rom. 6:3–4). Yes, a full-bodied doctrine and practice of baptism must include more than this. But it shouldn’t include less.

(NOTE: This series if continued in Part 2 of 3, “Floating with the Elephant”)