A plea for solid reflection on the meaning of baptism

Baptists have excelled at emphasizing the biblical requirements for a true baptism, namely baptism should be by immersion and believers only are the proper subjects of baptism. What they have not always been equally adept at is explaining the answer to this question: what does baptism mean? Yesterday evening when I got home from Quebec I watched a baptism via the wonder of the internet and heard a relatively extensive discourse about what baptism is not: it is not a saving event, the water is not important (by which I gather the baptizer meant that the water contains no “sacramental” properties—surely he could not have meant that baptism does not require water, which would be very odd for a Baptist to assert), and that baptism is merely a symbol.

Listening to this largely negative explanation of what baptism is not, I was struck by the fact that our Baptist forebears in the defining eras of Baptist thought—the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—would have had some concerns about these remarks. They had a rich baptismal theology. The remarks that I heard yesterday preceding the baptisms were wafer-thin in real theological reflection and stemmed more from the nineteenth-century Baptist reaction to the genuine theological errors of Campbellism than the biblical witness.

For instance, what does one make of this remark by the venerable Andrew Fuller: “The immersion of the body in water, which is a purifying element contains a profession of our faith in Christ, through the shedding of whose blood we are cleansed from all sin. Hence, baptism in the name of Christ is said to be for the remission of sins. Not that there is any virtue in the element, whatever be the quantity; nor in the ceremony, though of Divine appointment: but it contains a sign of the way in which we must be saved. Sin is washed away in baptism in the same sense as Christ’s flesh is eaten, and his blood drank, in the Lord’s supper: the sign, when rightly used leads to the thing signified” [The Practical Uses of Christian Baptism (Complete Works, III, 341)]. This statement “leads to the thing signified” seems to mean that when the person being baptized has such a faith as Fuller describes, then baptism confirms this faith and the individual’s share in the benefits of the gospel.

In other words, baptism is the place where conversion to Christ is ratified and, to borrow a phrase from another great Calvinistic Baptist theologian of the eighteenth century, John Gill, “faith discovers itself.” [An Exposition of the New Testament (1809 ed.; repr. Paris, Arkansas: The Baptist Standard Bearer, Inc., 1989), I, 495, commentary on Mark 16:16].

We need to recover this rich baptismal thought of our forebears that was drawn from the extensive discussion of baptism in the New Testament, and move beyond the largely negative picture of baptism I heard yesterday on the internet.