For most of Christian history, the rite of baptism was universally thought to be unrepeatable. If a person was baptized with water in the name of the Holy Trinity, whether as an infant, child, or adult, that person was considered validly baptized and could not be baptized again. Church Fathers, medieval scholastics, and Reformers cited Paul’s declaration that there was “one Lord, one faith, one baptism,” as well as the Nicene Creed’s acknowledgement of “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins” as justification for this position.[i] This strongly held theological commitment sometimes manifested itself politically. In certain contexts in Christian history (for example, in the Justinian Byzantine Empire or in Reformation-era Zurich), adult rebaptism was an offense punishable by death![ii] For these reasons, “the vast majority of all Christians from the third or fourth century on” were baptized in infancy and never re-baptized as adults.[iii]
With the advent of the Reformation, however, the issue of infant baptism and adult rebaptism was seriously reexamined. To the great chagrin of Catholics, Lutherans, and Reformed alike, Anabaptists rejected the practice of infant baptism and re-baptized adults who had been baptized in infancy. Since then, other post-Reformation Christian groups, such as Baptists, Pentecostals, and non-denominational Evangelicals, have also administered rebaptism to persons baptized as infants. What does this practice represent theologically? What does it mean for the person who undergoes rebaptism? Of course, the answers to these questions will depend on the perspective of the one answering them. In this essay, I will present the credobaptist perspective on rebaptism, along with a theological and sociological critique of infant baptism. Then I will present the paedobaptist perspective on rebaptism, as well as a sustained theological and sociological critique of adult rebaptism.[iv]
It is noteworthy that not all credobaptist churches re-baptize. While not baptizing infants themselves, such churches do not require new members to undergo rebaptism if they were baptized as infants. These credobaptists decline to re-baptize out of respect for the spiritual journeys of other Christians, as well as because rebaptism is thought to evidence an un-ecumenical and divisive posture in an already-fractured Christian landscape.[v] Even so, rebaptism is a common enough practice in Anabaptist, Southern Baptist, and Evangelical denominations that a broad perspective on rebaptism can be ascertained. For these credobaptists, baptism is a rite which symbolizes a person’s conversion to Jesus Christ, which has already taken place. Since infants are presumably unable to be converted to Christ, they are not proper recipients of baptism.[vi] According to this view, those who were baptized in infancy were never truly baptized at all, and so rebaptism as a believer is not rebaptism, but a first baptism.[vii]
Credobaptists who hold to this understanding see rebaptism as an appropriate corrective to infant baptism. Commitment to Christ can never be done vicariously; parents cannot believe “for” their children. Every individual will appear before the judgement seat of God, not with all the members of their family and community, but by themselves, answerable for “what [they have] done in the body, whether good or evil.”[viii] Because divine judgement is so radically personal, every person must make a decision for or against Christ on their own. Baptism thus represents the individual’s decision for Christ, which they have made as responsible and accountable creatures before God. Additionally, a person who is baptized as a believer can personally remember their baptism, unlike those who are baptized as infants. Those who are baptized or re-baptized as believers can look back on their mature baptism as a moment when they decisively turned their back on sin and towards Christ. Believer’s baptism therefore gives them an experience to draw upon in times of spiritual doubt or struggle.
Furthermore, rebaptism represents a visceral rejection of both the Erastianism and “cheap grace” historically associated with infant baptism. Since the legalization of Christianity by Constantine in the fourth century, church and state became so closely related that infant baptism was transformed into a badge of inclusion in the state church. Baptism came to represent national and cultural identity more than spiritual identity. For this reason, infant baptism arguably no longer bore witness to either the grace of God or authentic commitment to Christ.[ix] This lamentable situation failed to live up to the radical nature of baptism in the early Christian Church. In that context, to be baptized was to set oneself apart as a member of a community which was frequently persecuted. To accept baptism was to show that one had definitively renounced their previous religious affiliation, whether that was rabbinical Judaism, imperial Roman religion, or paganism. Baptism cost its subjects something, socially and personally. Disownment by one’s family or community, persecution, or even death could be the cost borne by the baptizand.
If state Christianity is the dominant environment, however, accepting baptism is no longer a costly commitment, especially if it is administered in infancy as a matter of social decorum. To be re-baptized, then, not only signifies a rejection of the integrated church-state society inherited from the Constantinian era but is an attempt to model one’s baptism after those of the early Christians.[x] One could even argue that to be re-baptized upon a profession of faith is to renounce nominal Christianity as one would renounce paganism. In societies where infant baptism is the norm, to be re-baptized could result in ostracism, antagonism from family members, and (in some historical cases) legal prosecution. In these ways, rebaptism retains the costly nature of baptism in the New Testament and early Church.
While these critiques of infant baptism outlined above may seem compelling, they are not convincing enough to warrant the practice of rebaptism. For example, paedobaptists readily concede that God will judge each person individually on whether they made a genuine commitment to Christ as Lord and Savior. It is not clear, however, that those who were baptized as infants are somehow unable or less likely to make such a commitment. Baptism is not the only way a person can demonstrate their commitment to Christ; surely, living the Christian life demonstrates one’s commitment to Christ.
As to the charge that infant baptism became associated with Erastianism and cheap grace, this may well be the case, but the abuse of a practice does not imply the need for its abolition. Almost every doctrine or practice in the history of the Church has been abused or distorted, but such distortion calls for correction, not elimination.[xi] Even so, it is not self-evident that infant baptism is necessarily connotative of cheap grace or a lack of costly commitment. For example, Coptic Christians have been persecuted for centuries, in many cases experiencing martyrdom. Copts are typically baptized as infants, and the thought of being re-baptized as an adult would either be offensive or simply not occur to most Coptic Christians. Nonetheless, their commitment to Christ has in many cases proved quite costly, just as it was costly for the Christians of the early Church. It is clear, then, that costly grace, as opposed to cheap grace, is not a function of whether someone receives baptism as an infant or an adult, but of whether someone is devoted to Christ. It is unlikely that those who persecute Christians are concerned with when they were baptized; the important fact is that they are baptized Christians at all.
Another reason paedobaptists reject rebaptism is a different understanding of the relation of baptism to time. In the credobaptist understanding of baptism, correct order is essential in establishing the validity of baptism: one must repent, then have faith in Christ, then be baptized. The paedobaptist, on the other hand, understands the symbolic meaning of baptism to hold irrespective of baptism’s temporal relation to one’s conversion. If baptism symbolizes a person’s death to sin and resurrection to life with Christ, as both credobaptists and paedobaptists affirm, then this symbolic meaning holds, whether baptism occurs before or after one’s conversion. If one is baptized as an infant and is converted to Christ later in life, then baptism is a proleptic symbol which stands at the head of one’s life and prefigures the conversion that is to come. If one is converted to Christ, then baptized, baptism is an anamnestic symbol of the conversion that has already occurred. Baptism symbolizes one’s conversion, either by looking forward or backwards.[xii]
This distinction is crucial to the present consideration of rebaptism, as it illustrates the principle that “proper” chronological order is relativized to God, who transcends time and can consider all points on a timeline at once, rather than sequentially, as humans do. Symbolic meaning is tied to temporal chronology only for humans, not for God. Even if baptism is considered from a human perspective, a baptized person can appreciate what baptism symbolizes irrespective of when it occurred in relation to their conversion (while acknowledging that the exact time of a person’s conversion to Christ is not always so easy to identify).
Moreover, our personal timeline does not belong to us, but to God. God is the creator of all things, including time, and so all time ultimately belongs to him. Human beings exist in time, but do not own it—time is only “on loan” to us from God. Therefore, God’s choice of how our lives unfold in time trumps our preferences regarding the timing of our baptism in relation to our conversion. A person’s life rarely unfolds in a perfectly structured and ideally ordered way. Rather, there are false starts, loose ends, and events that could have occurred more ideally at different times. These temporal imperfections are to be humbly accepted as part of what it means to be human. Similarly, while a person may not like that they were baptized as an infant, to not be re-baptized is to respect that God, in his sovereignty, willed for that person to be born into a family that baptized its children; infant baptism is a part of their personal history whether they like it or not. Such persons were baptized on time that they didn’t choose, but that God and the covenantal community chose for them. To not be re-baptized, even if one wishes one was baptized as a believer, is to humbly yield to the community’s choices on our behalf and to God’s prerogative in determining the sequence of our lives.[xiii] For a person to undergo rebaptism is for them to attempt to take back control of their personal timeline and insert baptism where they think it should fit. Our time ultimately belongs to God, and so our personal timelines are not ours to manipulate to our satisfaction.
Perfecting one’s chronology also does not ensure faithfulness to Christ any more than being raised in a Christian household.[xiv] Even if one repents, believes in Christ, and is baptized after their conversion, in imitation of the conversion narratives in the Book of Acts, fidelity to Christ is a lifelong task that is not reducible to doing things in the right order. While it is certainly understandable to express concern over an infant baptizand’s potential for falling away, even an adult baptism is no guarantee of lifelong faithfulness to Christ. Every baptism, whether infant or adult, is done in hope, not in certainty: hope that the person being baptized will be faithful to the One who for their sake died and rose again.[xv]
Another dimension of the paedobaptist response to rebaptism is the relativization of the role of memory in the administration of baptism. While credobaptists emphasize the importance of personally remembering one’s baptism, memory of one’s baptism is not necessary for making sense of one’s baptism. While it is true that being baptized or re-baptized as a believer can be a profoundly moving experience and an important memory to draw upon in times of spiritual crisis, it is also true that memory of one’s experience is not necessarily the best grounds for assurance or understanding. For instance, what must it be like to be baptized as a believer and not feel anything? Might this cast doubt on the authenticity of one’s conversion experience or obscure the meaning of baptism for that person? If the meaning of baptism is thought to coincide with one’s memory of baptism, then there is a danger of not being able to separate the meaning of baptism from its emotional impact as an experience.
This danger is not as pronounced for those who are baptized in infancy and never re-baptized. Baptism for them is something beyond memory, beyond experience, and thus can be appreciated for what it objectively stands for rather than what they felt when they received it.
A person does not remember their early childhood, but their parents loved them and were raising them nonetheless. Similarly, God is at work in our early lives whether we remember it or not. Therefore, to argue that a person should be re-baptized so they can remember the experience of being baptized is to place stock in emotive experience rather than the objective grace of God which transcends our memory.
Rebaptism may also overemphasize the role of human action in salvation. Those who desire to be re-baptized can be understandably enthusiastic about demonstrating their personal commitment to Christ in a public, tangible manner, an experience they missed out on when baptized as infants.[xvi] This enthusiasm, however, could become a triumphalist posture that proudly announces to the world the decision one has made, as if the decision of faith is itself an accomplishment. It is noteworthy that infant baptism leaves no room for such a posture. Indeed, the baptizand, as an infant, is completely helpless and cannot boast about anything he or she has done. Infant baptism is thus a striking picture of the dependence of the human being on God. Just as an infant cannot clean itself, feed itself, or take care of itself when ill, so the infant baptizand is unable to provide for his or her own spiritual needs. The sacraments testify that, like a mother, God cleans us (baptism), feeds us (communion), and heals us (anointing of the sick). Rebaptism risks taking a symbol of God’s grace for helpless and dependent sinners and proudly wearing it as a badge of one’s faithfulness to God.[xvii]
Furthermore, the credobaptist objection that baptism should be something that individuals choose for themselves can be seen as an outworking of the modern era’s individualist emphasis on personal choice. Contrary to popular modern sentiments, a person’s life is not the sum of that person’s decisions and choices. While consumerist messages in the Western media often encourage people to “have it their way,” to “choose their own adventure,” or to “be what you wanna be,” Christian theology has historically emphasized that our identity is not chosen by us but is given to us by God. Indeed, there are many aspects of our identity that we do not choose for ourselves. We do not decide the time and place of our birth, our parents, or our genetic inheritance. God chooses these things for us without our input or consultation. Infant baptism (and the corresponding rejection of rebaptism) acknowledges that baptism is one of many things that are chosen for us, for our good, whether we request it or not. Baptism is a community event which transcends a person’s claim to define themselves on their own terms. Rebaptism therefore ultimately runs the risk of being an ecclesial form of the self-definition and self-determination so highly valued in the modern Western world (but, alas, not the ancient Jewish or Christian worlds). A refusal to be re-baptized denotes the humble acknowledgement that the beginning of our life with God was initiated, not by our choice, but by the covenantal care of the community, and ultimately by God himself. To put it biblically, we did not choose him. He chose us.[xviii]
A final observation on this subject concerns the impact of rebaptism on one’s attitude toward other Christians. As Baptist theologian Willie Jennings notes, it can be tempting for credobaptists to use the reception of believer’s baptism as a litmus test for genuine commitment to Christ—that is, that those who were baptized as infants are nominal Christians, but those baptized (or re-baptized) as believers are the ones who are truly committed to Christ.[xix] The equation of infant baptism and nominal Christianity on the one hand and believer’s baptism and genuine Christianity on the other fails to explain the radically Christ-centered lives of millions of Christians who are both sincerely devoted to Christ and were baptized as infants. Of course, there are also millions of devout Christians who were baptized at a mature age; this is part of the reason it is so appropriate to view infant baptism and believer’s baptism as “equivalent alternatives,” rather than to assert that one of these modes is defective and needs correction.[xx]
In summary, there are several reasons why Christians baptized as infants should not be re-baptized as adults. Declining to be re-baptized hedges against the individualism and self-determination characteristic of Western modernity. To not be re-baptized is to eschew reliance on emotion or memory of an experience as grounds for making sense of baptism. It is to respect God’s role as Lord of our personal timelines and to acknowledge that doing things in the “right order” does not establish or ensure faithfulness to Christ. Finally, it resists the triumphalism potentially involved with emphasizing the human decision of faith over the prevenience of divine grace. Recognizing these truths will help Christians baptized as infants rejoice in their one baptism into the one faith of the one Lord.
[i] Ephesians 4:5 (ESV); The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church Together with The Psalter of Psalms of David According to the Use of The Episcopal Church (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 1979), 327.
[ii] Hans-Jurgen Goertz, The Anabaptists (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2013), 119.
[iii] Karl Barth, Karl Barth Letters 1961-1968. trans. Geoffrey William Bromiley (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1981), 189.
[iv] Throughout the paper, “paedobaptist” refers to Christian churches or individuals who believe in baptizing professing believers and their children, while “credobaptist” refers to Christian churches or individuals who believe in baptizing only professing believers.
[v] See Jim Somerville, “Rethinking Re-Baptism: What It Means to Be a Member.” Institute for Faith and Learning at Baylor University, 2014, https://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/224504.pdf.
[vi] Tom Elliff, “Understanding Baptism.” SBC Life (Journal of the Southern Baptist Convention), September 2006, http://www.sbclife.net/Articles/2006/09/sla5.
[vii] “It’s Not “Re-Baptism”: It’s Baptism,” Pulpit and Pen, January 16, 2014, accessed April 16, 2018, http://pulpitandpen.org/2014/01/16/its-not-re-baptism-its-baptism/.
[viii] 2 Corinthians 5:10, ESV
[ix] James W. McClendon, Jr., Systematic Theology: Doctrine (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 391.
[x] See George Hunsinger and Martha L. Moore-Keish, “Twentieth-Century and Contemporary Protestant Sacramental Theology” in The Oxford Handbook of Sacramental Theology ed. Hans Boersma and Matthew Levering (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 403.
[xi] Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, Second ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 285.
[xii] Gerhard O. Forde, “Something to Believe: A Theological Perspective on Infant Baptism,” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 47, no. 3 (July 1993): 235-236.
[xiii] Karl Barth is perhaps the most well-known example of a Christian who was baptized as an infant, later came to vigorously oppose the practice of infant baptism, and yet refused to be re-baptized: “I have never maintained that [infant baptism] is not valid baptism. What was said to me back then, unfortunately without my being asked or able to reply, was said, and therefore I do not see why I should replace that baptism by another and second one. I regarded and still regard it as more correct and important to take my one baptism very seriously” [Karl Barth, Karl Barth Letters 1961-1968 trans. Geoffrey William Bromiley (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1981), 189.]
[xiv] Willie James Jennings, “Grace without Remainder: Why Baptists Should Baptize Their Babies” in Grace upon Grace: Essays in Honor of Thomas A. Langford, ed. Robert K. Johnston, L. Gregory Jones, and Jonathan R. Wilson (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), 209.
[xv] Ibid., 214.
[xvi] Reformed Church in America’s Commission on Theology, The Church Speaks: Papers of the Commission on Theology, Reformed Church in America, 1959-1984 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1985), 102.
[xvii] This is not to say that one’s total inability to save oneself is not represented in believer’s baptism. Adult converts are helpless to save themselves as well, which is why they receive baptism as one receives a gift; one does not baptize oneself as an accomplishment. The point is that rebaptism could obscure this reality by emphasizing the decision of the baptizand over the passive reception of salvation as a gift.
[xviii] John 15:16.
[xix] Jennings, “Grace without Remainder,” 212.
[xx] Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, Faith and Order Paper No. 111 (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1982), 5.
Fahey, Michael. “Sacraments.” In The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, edited by John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance, 273-276. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Luther, Martin. “Concerning Rebaptism: A Letter to Two Pastors.” In Luther’s Works Vol. 40: Church and Ministry II, edited by Helmut H. Lehman. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1958.
McMaken, W. Travis. The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013.