Believer's baptism (occasionally called credobaptism, from the Latin word credo meaning "I believe") is the Christian practice of baptism as this is understood by many evangelical denominations, particularly those that descend from the Anabaptist and English Baptist tradition. According to their understanding, a person is baptized on the basis of his or her profession of faith in Jesus Christ and as admission into a local community of faith.
The contrasting belief, held in nearly every other Christian tradition, is infant baptism (pedobaptism or paedobaptism, from the Greek paido meaning "child"), in which infants or young children are baptized if one or both parents are already members of the denomination. Such is the practice in the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Churches, Coptic and Oriental Orthodox Churches, Lutheran Churches, Anglican and Episcopal Churches, and others.
Baptisms are performed in various ways: believer's baptism is typically only by immersion or pouring (also called affusion) and infant baptism by either immersion, affusion, and aspersion (sprinkling). Believer's baptism is often referred to as adult baptism due to the denial that faith can exist prior to the age of accountability. Believer's baptism is also often extended to children so long as they are old enough to earnestly profess their faith.
The oldest surviving manual of church discipline, the Didache, envisions the baptism of adults. Advocates of believer's baptism contend that non-Biblical records are not authoritative, and that no evidence exists from the Bible or early Christian literature that infant baptism was practiced by the apostles. Defenders of infant baptism have attempted to trace the practice to the New Testament era, but generally acknowledge that no unambiguous evidence exists that the practice existed prior to the 2nd century.
Another argument posed by some advocates of believer's baptism focuses on the fact that most churches that practice infant baptism were heavily intertwined with the state in medieval and Reformation-era Europe. In many instances, citizens of a nation were required under penalty of law to belong to the state church. Infant baptism marked the infant as a citizen of the nation and a loyal subject of the reigning political order as much as it marked the infant as a Christian. To denominations like the Baptists, which have historically stressed religious liberty, toleration, and separation of church and state, this practice is an unacceptable violation of the basic human right to self-determination in matters of spirituality and religion; but this argument does little to dissuade the many pedobaptistic churches today which are, as in the United States and most other Western nations, unburdened by any compulsion to baptize anyone because of a governmental demand.
Other advocates of credobaptism—who contend that non-Biblical records are not religiously authoritative—draw from biographical information contained in such records (patristics), to establish that the apostolic tradition was for children to become catechumens and baptized only after being trained and discipled in the basics of Christian doctrine. Examples include the lives of St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil of Caesarea, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Jerome, Origen and others who were each baptized at adult age (sometimes 30 years or older), despite the fact of them having a Christian mother.
Further, credobaptists point to St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine and others who wrote procedures for catechumenical instruction (contrasted to writing procedures for the baptizing of infants.) It is a widely held opinion that St. Augustine, who had no Christian father, was an ardent advocate for infant baptism. However, his mother, Monica, was a Christian. St. Augustine was baptized at the age of 30 by St. Ambrose.
In addition, earlier patristical writings such as the Didache and Tertullian prescribe baptismal candidates to fasting, prayer, confessions, etc. before being allowed to be baptized. Tertullian (son of a presbyter) writes, "Christians are made, not born." On the other hand, Tertullian acknowledges that infant baptism was a common practice in his day. He opposes it not on doctrinal grounds but practical ones, suggesting that baptism be postponed until after marriage so that one can be cleansed of the fornication one commits before marriage in baptism. Tertullian later in life became a Montanist and the strict views on post-baptismal sin which that sect took affected some of his writing.
In the church
Several ecclesiastical histories seem to omit any discussion of infant baptism. Eusebius of Caesarea (~260–340 AD) gives ample discussion of baptisms, but makes no reference to the baptism of infants. Instead, Eusebius discusses the various positions, particularly during the time of Cyprian, wherein it was discussed whether those who were baptized by heretics needed to be re-baptized. This might be argued to be irrelevant if the individuals involved in heresy were baptized as infants, but the question was really whether a sacrament was valid if administered by a heretic, and so the question was whether a person baptized by a heretic should be rebaptized.
Likewise, the church history of Socrates Scholasticus (305–438 AD) mentions a handful of examples of baptisms, none of which describe the baptizing of infants. However, by this time the practice of baptizing infants was common, as can be seen in the anti-Pelagian writings of Augustine.
Similarly, the church history written by Evagrius Scholasticus (431–594 AD) also provides descriptions of baptisms, none of which communicate the baptism of infants.
The book Martyrs Mirror documents the history of credobaptists through 1660.
For the first 300 years of the church, the common requirement for baptism was a profession of faith following a conversion to Christianity. Advocates of believers' baptism argue that this implies infants would not be baptized since they could not profess faith for themselves. Beginning with Augustine, the Catholic Church solidified the practice of infant baptism and there is little mention of competing practices until the 1500s. Augustine held the view that baptism was a requirement for the washing away of sins. He was faced with the issue of whether an unconscious or unwilling individual on their deathbed should be baptized; he felt it was better to err on the side of caution and baptize such a person. In the early 16th century, the Anabaptist movement began demanding that baptismal candidates be able to make a confession of faith that is freely chosen, thus rejecting the baptism of infants. This and other doctrinal differences led both Catholics and Protestants to persecute the Anabaptists, executing them by fire, sword, or drowning. Anabaptist groups spread across Europe and later to Russia and the Americas. In 1609, the Baptist movement applies this practice in all its churches.
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Christians who practice believer's baptism believe that saving grace and church membership are gifts from God by the recipient's faith alone and cannot be imparted or transferred from one person to another (such as from parent to child) by sacraments such as baptism. These tenets render infant baptism meaningless within their belief system. Because infants cannot hear or believe the gospel message, they cannot repent nor profess Christ as the Son of God. Credobaptists have differing views concerning the status of children who are too young to profess faith (Matthew 19:14).
Believer's baptism is held by Baptists, Mennonites, and many other Christians to have no saving effect, but to be a public expression of faith, symbolically representative of the inner conversion of the person being baptized. Many other Christian churches hold baptism to have salvific value.
The Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and many "Bible" and non-denominational churches understand baptism to be an integral part of the conversion process, rather than just a symbol of conversion. Integral teachings of the Churches of Christ include the following:
- Baptism by immersion is a necessary part of salvation without which one cannot enter into the kingdom of God, John 3:3–5; 1 Peter 3:21
- The church, set up by Christ with the keys given to the Apostles (Matthew 16:16–18, 18:18) was established on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2 and required baptism for "remission of sins" among the penitent believers and promised the "gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38)
- Without the indwelling Holy Spirit obtained at the time of immersion, there is no salvation, Acts 5:32, Romans 8:9–11, 16.
There are many denominations and faith communities which hold to baptism for believers only, but do not hold that baptism contributes in any measure to salvation — which is also the view of some of the churches that do practice infant baptism. With respect to the second bullet point above — that baptism was a commandment for the remission of sins — these believe that was specific to the Jewish believers being addressed at that point in time. Their being baptized would be seen as publicly distancing themselves from the actions of the religious leaders who had participated in rejecting and then crucifying Jesus. These do not hold that baptism is still required for Jewish believers today, but rather that baptism was a command to Jewish believers at that point in time.
Later in the book of Acts, both when Samaritans joined the church for the first time (Acts 8:12ff), and when Gentiles joined the Church for the first time (Acts 10:44ff), baptism followed immediately and was even commanded in Acts 10. Whether or not these examples of baptism that are found in the New Testament proves that children are categorically ineligible for baptism is disputed.
Arguments for credobaptism
Advocates of believer's baptism argue that the New Testament does not describe instances of infant baptism, and that during the New Testament era, the early church required converts to have conscious, deliberate faith in Jesus Christ. Defenders of infant baptism counter that the book of Acts records instances of the baptism of entire households. The assumption is that these household baptisms involved infants that are incapable of personal belief. Defenders of infant baptism have claimed that baptism replaces the Jewish practice of circumcision, citing Colossians 2:11–13 as New Testament support, and is therefore appropriate for infants. Advocates of believer's baptism counter that the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 was called to clarify circumcision long after the practice of baptism was established. In the Old Covenant, males were circumcised. In the New Covenant, all — male and female, Jew and Greek, bond and free — may join the family of God. The KJV says in Acts 8:36-37, "[...] and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized? And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God." Modern Bible versions omit the 37th verse, which is used to argue that the requirements for baptism are to believe in Christ. Since infants cannot "believe with all [their] heart", infants are not baptized.
Many Reformed Baptists (Calvinistic Baptists) agree with the principles of Covenant Theology and agree that Baptism has, in a sense, replaced circumcision as the sign of covenant. They disagree with the typical Calvinist argument that, as the sign of the covenant in the Old Testament (namely circumcision) was administered to infants, so should the sign of the covenant in the New Testament church (namely baptism) be ministered to infants. They (Reformed Baptists) argue that the Old Testament covenent pertained to the actual descendents of Jacob which made up the physical nation of Israel, whereas the covenant community in the New Testament constitutes the spiritual sons of Abraham and thus form the spiritual Israel. Thus, they argue, the sign of the covenant should only be administered to spiritual sons. From Galatians 3:7, they (Reformed Baptists) argue that it is "people of faith who are the sons of Abraham" and baptism should be administered only to confessing believers and not infants, who are incapable of producing the requisite faith.
Theologians from churches that teach infant baptism point to Jesus' statement that children should be allowed to come to him. Advocates of believer's baptism counter that Jesus blessed the children and did not baptize them. While Jesus is recorded as baptizing in John 3:22–26, he called upon his followers to baptize "all nations." Advocates of believer's baptism do evangelize children, even if they do not baptize all of them. Most Baptist evangelists, however, only limit infant baptism.
Age of accountability
Believer's baptism is administered only to persons who have passed the age of accountability or reason, which is based upon a reading of the New Testament that only believers should be baptized. Some claim that it is also based upon the Jewish tradition of Bar Mitzvah at the age of 12 or 13, at which point Jewish children become responsible for their actions and "one to whom the commandments apply." This analogy is not very helpful since a Jew who is not Bar Mitzvah is nonetheless considered to be fully a Jew—whereas the notion of an "unbaptized Christian" is more problematic. Many Christian theologians, including Zwingli, regard baptism as analogous to the Jewish practice of circumcision, rather than analogous to the Bar Mitzvah ceremony, although there are no explicit sections of the New Testament that support this idea.
Among credobaptists, differences in denominational practice (and in psychological development among children) can cause the "age of accountability" to be set higher or lower. Many developmentally challenged individuals never reach this stage regardless of age. Sometimes the pastor or church leader will determine the believer's understanding and conviction through personal interviews. In the case of a minor, parents' permission will also often be sought.
It is common for churches which practice believer's baptism to administer the ordinance to children aged eight or nine, following some training in the rudiments of the faith. Pedobaptists often question whether this abuses the belief that there is an "age of accountability," since that term traditionally has referred to the ability to discern between good and evil actions, not to the ability to comprehend and assent to all the complexities of the Christian faith which adults might reasonably be expected to affirm as a condition of receiving baptism.
However, not all credobaptists believe in an "age of accountability." Furthermore, not all credobaptists believe in the doctrine of original sin. Many credobaptists believe that they are only held responsible for their personal sins, and that Jesus addressed the sins of Adam on the cross. As a result, according to these Christians, an infant does not need to repent and baptize away sins they have never personally committed.
In areas where those who practice believer's baptism are the physical or cultural majority, the ritual may function as a rite of passage by which the child is granted the status of an adult. Most denominations who practice believer's baptism also specify the mode of baptism, generally preferring immersion (in which the baptisand is lowered completely beneath the surface of a body of water) over affusion (in which water or holy water is sprinkled or poured over the baptisand). Holy water may also be employed in exorcisms, purification of the living space, etc. and is not restricted to use in baptism. In the case of physical disability or inability to be totally submerged under water, as with the elderly, bedridden, and nearly dead, the pouring of water upon the baptismal candidate is acceptable to some despite the usual contention of credobaptists that unless there is immersion, the act cannot, by definition, be a baptism.
In some denominations, believer's baptism is a prerequisite to full church membership. This is generally the case with churches with a congregational form of church government. Persons who wish to become part of the church must undergo believer's baptism in that local body or another body whose baptism the local body honors. Typically, local churches will honor the baptism of another church, if that tradition is of similar faith and practice, or if not, then if the person was baptized (usually by immersion) subsequent to conversion.
Believer's baptism is one of several distinctive doctrines associated closely with the Baptist and Anabaptist (literally, rebaptizer) traditions, and their theological relatives. Among these are the members of the American Restoration Movement. Churches associated with Pentecostalism also practice believer's baptism.
In Holiness, Baptist and Pentecostal churches, a ritual known as Dedication or Infant Dedication supplements or replaces infant baptism. However, unlike baptism, the rite is centered upon the parents, who dedicate the child to God and vow to raise him or her in a God-fearing home. Although Dedication often occurs at the same age as infant baptism, it is not considered a replacement for baptism nor is it considered salvific for the child.
Believer's baptism is more prevalent in Christian traditions that maintain that there is a state of innocence from birth to the age of accountability (if the believer, because of mental or emotional disability, is not likely to gain the ability to judge the morality of his or her actions, this state of innocency persists for life). Credobaptism is less prevalent in traditions that maintain that the corruption of original sin is present at birth and is sufficient guilt in the eyes of God to cause the child to be damned or be in limbo, should he die before baptism.
Many churches that baptize infants, such as the Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Reformed, Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran, Moravian, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox denominations, previously functioned as national, state-established churches in various European and Latin American countries. During the Reformation, the relationship of the church to the state was a contentious issue, and infant baptism was seen as a way to ensure that society remained religiously homogeneous. As a result, groups that rejected infant baptism were seen as subversive and were often persecuted.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints completely rejects infant baptism. Little children are considered both born without sin and incapable of committing sin. They have no need of baptism until age eight, when they can begin to learn to discern right from wrong, and are thus accountable to God for their own actions. People completely incapable of understanding right from wrong, regardless of age, are also considered as not accountable for their actions, and are not baptized.
One standard theological argument leveled against believer's baptism is that it makes the efficacy of the sacrament dependent upon the understanding of the baptism; that is, it depends upon what the baptized knows. This is said by paedobaptists to run counter to the Calvinistic belief that God saves whomever he wills, regardless of any worth or knowledge on the part of the saved. Reformed Baptists and other Calvinist theologians counter that believer's baptism is fully consistent with Calvin's doctrine of unconditional election, and that when properly understood it is also the most appropriate expression of Covenant theology.
Even in theological circles where some response to God's call is considered necessary for the convert (such as belief, confession, repentance, and prayer), a believer's baptism is usually categorized as a work instead of a response of faith, though not always (see Baptism in the Christian churches and churches of Christ). Among the Churches of Christ, for example, baptism is seen as a passive act of faith rather than a meritorious work; it "is a confession that a person has nothing to offer God." While Churches of Christ do not describe baptism as a "sacrament," their view of it can legitimately be described as "sacramental." They see the power of baptism coming from God, who chose to use baptism as a vehicle, rather than from the water or the act itself, and understand baptism to be an integral part of the conversion process, rather than just a symbol of conversion. A recent trend is to emphasize the transformational aspect of baptism: instead of describing it as just a legal requirement or sign of something that happened in the past, it is seen as "the event that places the believer 'into Christ' where God does the ongoing work of transformation." Because of the belief that baptism is a necessary part of salvation, some Baptists hold that the Churches of Christ endorse the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. However, members of the Churches of Christ reject this, arguing that since faith and repentance are necessary, and that the cleansing of sins is by the blood of Christ through the grace of God, baptism is not an inherently redeeming ritual. One author from the churches of Christ describes the relationship between faith and baptism: "Faith is the reason why a person is a child of God; baptism is the time at which one is incorporated into Christ and so becomes a child of God" (italics in the source). Baptism is understood as a confessional expression of faith and repentance, rather than a "work" that earns salvation.
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