Doctrine Committee on Baptism

thKKH0WY9OOne of the reports coming to this year’s General Assembly is on the question of baptism. A request came to the Doctrine Committee from the Church Architecture Committee about the appropriateness of installing baptisteries in Presbyterian meeting houses and the increasing practice of baptism by immersion within PCI. Here’s the full report from the Doctrine Committee. One of the resolutions appended to this report asks the Board of Christian Training to prepare materials so that the whole church membership can be taught what our church believes with regard to this sacrament.

 

Introduction

The Committee was directed by the General Assembly to consider the increasing practice of Baptism by immersion within our denomination and the implications for the faith and practice of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. The Committee reviewed both the subordinate standards of the Church and previous reports of the Doctrine Committee (Reports, 1958;1959;1972;1973;1974;1985). It is evident that the position of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland is that ‘Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but Baptism is rightly administered by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person.’[1]

In 2013, the General Assembly requested the Doctrine Committee to re-write the report on baptism which was the basis of a resolution of the General Board instructing the Church Architecture Committee not to grant permission for the installation of baptisteries in Presbyterian Churches. The connection between our resolution and our remit was clear: the question of whether Presbyterian churches should install baptisteries was the context in which the question of baptism by immersion was put to the Doctrine Committee.

The Doctrine Committee recognizes that baptism by immersion is permissible within PCI. However, there appear to be at least two interpretation of what ‘permission’ means. One interpretation is that baptism by immersion is on par with baptism by pouring, sprinkling or dipping in the sense that no one form of baptism (for adults) is more acceptable than another. Another interpretation is that what ‘permission’ means is that we acknowledge that baptism by immersion is a valid form of baptism, not that immersion is as acceptable as other modes in a church standing in a Reformed tradition which has consistently favoured non-immersionist modes of baptism.

Our belief is that, whichever interpretation of the meaning of ‘permission’ is adopted, baptisteries should not be installed in Presbyterian churches. Their installation would encourage a credo-baptist theology of baptism which would undermine infant baptism. We believe this against the background of widespread uncertainty amongst members of PCI about the basis of infant baptism. We agree that, if asked to explain ‘why Presbyterians baptize infants … many Presbyterians would stumble and blunder the explanation.’[2] It is against this background that both the question of baptism and baptisteries must be considered. In this context, we need to be clear on our answer to two fundamental questions.

1. Is Baptism fundamentally a testimony to conversion?

2. Do the children of believers belong to the people of God?

1. Is Baptism fundamentally a testimony to conversion?

There are three steps in the credobapist argument, as it is widely advanced. First, it is held that the word baptizo means only full immersion. Secondly, it is argued that the mode of Baptism is the essence of the symbolism and meaning of Baptism, that is, personal conversion to Christ. The credobaptist exegesis of such passages as Romans 6 and Colossians 2 is taken to establish that Baptism involves immersion in water (‘being buried with Christ) and resurrection (‘being raised with Christ’) out of the water of death. If these first two points are granted then the third follows – that Baptism may only be administered to those who demonstrate the necessary signs of conversion, viz., personal repentance and faith.

The Reformed paedobaptist response has always been that baptizo need not mean immersion and that the meaning of Baptism is not found primarily in the symbolism of dying and rising, but in the symbolism of cleansing from sin. Baptism is a covenantal washing.[3] This covenantal washing belongs to all whom God calls into his covenant people. The washing points not to what has happened to the individual (the subjective reality) but to what God has done through Jesus Christ (the objective reality). The covenantal backdrop to the paedobaptist position nullifies attempts to lessen the objective meaning of baptism by equating it with individual conversion. Baptism is a covenantal washing for all the people of God (Acts 22:16).

This covenantal understanding of Baptism is reflected both in the mode of Baptism and in the traditional architecture of the Irish Presbyterian Church. The mode of covenantal washing most frequently spoken of in Scripture is pouring or sprinkling and in Christian Baptism sprinkling is ‘lawful … sufficient, and most expedient.’[4] The frequency of sprinkling in covenantal washings is clear from Hebrew 9:10 where the author writes of the ‘various baptisms’ (baptismois) of the Mosaic covenant. The writer then makes reference to three sprinklings (Heb 9:13 cf. Num 19:17-18; Heb 9:19 cf. Ex 24: 6,8; Heb 9:21 cf. Lev 8:19; 16:14)[5]

It is certainly true that conversion may be the occasion of baptism. Inasmuch as this is the case, the baptism of a convert is indirectly or in a secondary respect a sign of conversion, since it is the occasion of the baptism of the particular individual in question. However, baptism is not in its nature a sign of conversion, but a sign of entry into the covenant community of the people of God, the privilege of infants and converts alike. We have to be aware that baptism by immersion tends to suggest the necessity of conversion prior to baptism and this, in turn, seems inevitably to undermine the position ‘that the Church consists of all professing believers together with their children.’ (Reports, 1972, p.13)

The Committee is concerned that any change to the traditional baptismal practice of the church as reflected in the architecture of our meeting houses must inevitably reflect theological shifts in the denomination in the direction of a credobaptist theology.

2. Do the children of believers belong to the people of God?

It is hard to overstate the robustness with which this foundational question has been answered in the Reformed tradition. Calvin writes that ‘immediately from birth God takes and acknowledges them as his children … for he gives them a place among those of his family and household, that is, the members of the church.’ Bavinck notes that ‘the children of believers are not pagans or children of the devil who still … have to be exorcized at their baptism, but children of the covenant, for whom the promise is meant as much as for adults. They are included in the covenant and are holy, not by nature but by virtue of the covenant.’[6]

The basis of this claim in Reformed theology is the doctrine of the covenant: ‘The basic premise of the argument for infant baptism is that the New Testament economy is the unfolding and fulfilment of the covenant made with Abraham and that the necessary implication is the unity and continuity of the church.’[7] The church of Jews and Gentiles stands in continuity with the people of Israel, Gentile believers having been grafted into the people of God in terms of the covenant of grace. As children were part of the covenant community of Israel, so they are part of the new covenant community. Baptism is initiation into the covenant community of God’s people; therefore, children are the proper subjects of baptism.

Baptism functions in the life of the church as a picture, not primarily of the experience or commitment of the individual, but of the covenant salvation of God. This means that the sacrament of Baptism points us to God and what he has done for us in the Lord Jesus Christ – as the Westminster Confession states the matter, ‘a sign and seal of the covenant of grace.’[8]

This focus in Reformed teaching means that the subjects of Baptism are not simply those who can give testimony to a work of grace in their lives. It is too simplistic a reading of Scripture to say that Baptism only follows repentance. Rather, this covenantal washing is rightly administered to those who belong to the covenant. The conviction of the Reformed tradition is that there is ample evidence in both testaments to show that the children of believers belong to the people of God (Genesis 17:7; Matthew 19:14; Ephesians 6:1-3). The status of covenant children is not based on any presumed spiritual experience but on the divine covenantal constitution.[9]

The Committee affirms without reservation the confessional position that the visible Church consists of those who ‘profess the true religion together with their children.’[10] The immersionist practices which would follow the installation of baptisteries would make it difficult for the Church to maintain unity in this fundamental area.

Conclusion

Firstly, the subordinate standards of the church are clear: ‘Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but Baptism is rightly administered by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person.’[11] The Reformed tradition in which PCI stands is agreed that Baptism by pouring or sprinkling is the most appropriate mode of administering the covenantal washing of which Scripture speaks.

Secondly, in upholding this confessional teaching the committee encourages Kirk Sessions to reconsider their motivation for conducting baptisms by immersion. It is the responsibility of Kirk Sessions to ensure that baptisms are administered in the rich assurance of covenantal promises and not on credobaptist assumptions about the connection between the mode of baptism and personal testimony.

Thirdly, the covenantal backdrop to the theology of Baptism underlines that ‘infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized.’[12] This is emphatic in both the Confession and in the traditional practice of the Church. The Code states that ‘A minister shall encourage baptism’ (para 83,1). This means that we cannot consider infant baptism as just one more option amongst others.[13]

Finally, in light of the fact that the Presbyterian Church in Ireland accepts the Trinitarian Baptism of other communities, not least the Roman Catholic Church, the Committee is concerned that the confessional position of the denomination is currently being undermined and urges Kirk Sessions and Presbyteries to ensure that there are no “rebaptisms” of those who received a covenantal washing in infancy: ‘The sacrament of Baptism is but once to be administered unto any person.’[14]

 

 



[1] Westminster Confession of Faith, XXVIII, iii.

[2] Frank A. James III, in his Introduction to Lewis B. Schenck, The Presbyterian Doctrine of Children in the Covenant (2003), p.xvi. The reference is to American Presbyterians.

[3] That Baptism is not by immersion and is a covenantal washing may be seen, for example, in Hebrews 9. See Jay E. Adams, The Meaning and Mode of Baptism (1975), pp.1-15.

[4] Directory for the Public Worship of God, ‘Of the Administration of the Sacraments.’

[5] Adams, Baptism, pp.9-11

[6] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV. xvii. 32; Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Volume Four: Holy Spirit, Church, And the New Creation (2008) p.530.  For a full historical treatment see Schenck, Children in the Covenant, pp.3-52, who cites (p.46) the Westminster Assembly’s Directory for the Public Worship of God which states that children of believers are ‘Christians, and federally holy before Baptism and therefore are they Baptized.’ The issue is not the actual spiritual state of any individual, whether adult or infant, but the fact that membership in the visible Church of God is determined by the covenant declaration of God.

[7] John Murray, Christian Baptism (1980), p.45.

[8] Westminster Confession of Faith, XXVIII, i.

[9] See Murray, Christian Baptism, pp.53-4: ‘It is this fact of the divine institution that constitutes the sufficient ground for administering and receiving this ordinance … no further judgement respecting the secret purpose of God nor respecting God’s secret operations in the heart of those baptised is required as the proper ground upon which the ordinance is administered.’

[10] Westminster Confession of Faith, XXV, ii.

[11] Westminster Confession of Faith, XXVIII, iii.

[12] Westminster Confession of Faith, XXVIII, iv.

[13] Westminster Confession of Faith, XXVIII, v.

[14] Westminster Confession of Faith, XXVIII, vii. Cf Code 83,3.