The Baptism Debate: Is there a middle way?

Baptism has been a point of contention among Christians for centuries. Who should be baptized? Should it be limited to those with a credible profession of faith? Or are children of believing parents proper canidates also? And how much water should or must be used? For some, full immersion is essential for authentic baptism. But since the early centuries of the Church, baptism has been administered through sprinkling and pouring as well. The line is typically drawn between paedobaptists (who sprinkle infants) and credobaptists (who immerse upon a credible profession of faith). Both groups have exchanged strong words more than a few times. Could there be a middle way?
New Testament scholar Mike Bird has written two thought-provoking posts with precisely this aim of finding a middle way (part 1, part 2). Bird helpfully points out that both credo and paedo baptism have roots in early Christian history, and that both have something to teach us. He also reminds us that it is very difficult to get a very clear picture of how children of believers were regarded when it came to baptism in the New Testament period. I particularly appreciate his language of “gospel baptism” as an effort to get beyond the standard debate and a call to various demoninations to recognize one another’s baptisms. I also appreciate Bird’s irenic tone and his desire to urge the Church towards unity with regard to our chief initiatory rite.
There is one point I’d like to press a little, and it is a point that Bird touched on briefly in the first post. Bird points out that paedobaptism helpfully points us to God’s prevening grace while credobaptism reminds us of the importance of a personal experience of God and warns us against nominal belief. The difference between paedos and credos is much deeper, though. Paedobaptists see baptism as primarily a sign of God’s gracious covenant while (if I understand correctly) credobaptists see baptism as primarily a badge or sign of personal faith. For the paedobaptist, baptism is something God does through his Church; for the credobaptist, baptism is something the person does. There is a fundamental difference here that could be spoken of in terms of the direction of the action. For the paedobaptist, God acts towards the baptized person; for the credobaptist, the baptized person acts in faith towards God. I’m not sure it is simply a matter of emphasis; it seems to me to be a fundamentally different view of baptism. I’m with Bird on searching for common ground and unity on this issue, and I’m curious how he would respond to this apparent point of contradiction in our common endeavor for middle way.
For the sake of clarity, let me add that when paedobaptists (like myself) baptize adults after they become believers, we are not actually practicing believer’s baptism. Our understanding of baptism does not change depending on the age the candidate. When I baptize an adult, I explain to them that this is a sign of God’s covenant bestowed on them out of his grace. It is, of course, recieved in faith, but it is not primarily a sign of faith. We are not both paedo and credobaptists. We are paedobaptists who understand that baptism is a sign of the covenant and rightly belongs to all who are participants in that covenant, whether they are our children or newly believing adult brothers and sisters.
What do you think? Is there a middle way in the baptism debate? Or is there a fundamental and irreconcilable contradiction?

14 thoughts on “The Baptism Debate: Is there a middle way?


    When the Ethiopian eunuch said what hinders me from being baptized, did he mean what hinders me from being immersed, poured, or sprinkled?

    Acts 8:36 Now as they went down the road, they came to somewater. And the eunuch said, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?” (NKJV)

    Acts 8:36 As they were going down the road, they came to somewater; and the eunuch said, “Look! Here's some water! Is there any reason why I shouldn't be immersed?” (CJB-Complete Jewish Bible)

    Acts 8:36 And , as they went on their way, they came to certain water; and the eunuch said, Look, here is water; what is there to hinder me from being immersed? (TBVOTNT-The Better Version of The New Testament by Chester Estes)

    There are no translations of the Bible that translates Acts 8:36 as…”What hinders me from being poured or sprinkled.”

    The only place water baptism is expressed as sprinkling and pouring is in books written by men. Do preachers, pastors, priests, and the early church fathers have the authority to change immersion to sprinkling or pouring?

    If preachers, pastors, priests, and the early church fathers have been given the authority to change immersion to sprinkling or pouring, then why can they not change water to olive oil or milk. The example of a man-made verse of Scripture. (Acts 8:36 Now as they went down the road, they came to some olive oil or milk. And the eunuch said, “See here is olive oil or milk. What hinders me from being poured or sprinkled?”)

    God has not authorized any preacher, pastor, priest, nor the early church fathers to change immersion to poured or sprinkled.

    God inspired one book, the Bible.



  2. Maybe the Infant Baptism debate has been approached from the wrong direction. Instead of starting with our disagreements, let's start with what Baptists/evangelicals and orthodox Christians AGREE upon: All persons who believe and have faith in Christ as their Savior should follow his command and be baptized as soon as possible.

    So the next question is: Can an infant believe and have faith?

    Evangelical and Baptist brothers and sisters in Christ: If I can prove to you from Scripture that infants not only can but DO believe and have faith, would you accept infant baptism as Scriptural?


  3. So how can intelligent, educated Baptists and baptistic evangelical Christians read the same Bible as we orthodox Christians and come up with a completely different interpretation of the Bible? I would like to compare our two different approaches to interpreting the Bible with a non-biblical quote as an example.

    How does one interpret this phrase: “All men are created equal” from the US Bill of Rights?

    Baptist approach: Let's look at the original language at the time that this phrase was written in the late 1700's and see what the original meaning of each of the words in the phrase was: So…the word “men” meant “the plural of one adult male human being”. Therefore, this phrase means that all men, every adult male human being on earth, is created equal. That is the meaning in the original language. Any other interpretation of this phrase is false.

    Lutheran approach: Let's look at the original language of this text and the cultural context in which it was written. Also, let's look at the writings of contemporary writers of that period to see that they believed that the writers of the Bill of Rights meant to say in the phrase in question. So…when comparing the original language of the text with the documented, known cultural context, verified by the writings of other contemporary writers of that time period, we reach the conclusion that the phrase used by the writers of the US Bill of Rights “all men are created equal” did NOT mean that all adult, human males on planet earth are created equal, but that only WHITE European males are created equal.

    Does any educated person today really believe that the Southern signers of the US Constitution believed that adult black males were created equal to them?? (Most Northerners did not believe that either.)

    Do you see how easy it is to arrive at a different interpretation of any “ancient” document if you are unwilling to look at contemporary evidence from that time period to confirm your interpretation?

    There is NO evidence of any early Christian believing the Baptist/evangelical position of Symbolic, adult-only Baptism; that in Baptism God does NOT forgive sins. The Baptist/evangelical interpretation of Scripture is very logical and reasonable, but as in the case of the “Baptist” interpretation of the Bill of Rights…it is completely wrong!

    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals


  4. I would say that there is no single “Baptist view.” There is diversity in the Baptist tradition. But historically, the Particular Baptist tradition (that is, the Reformed Baptist tradition) has been closer to the Calvinist view on the meaning of the ordinances. See chapters 28-30 in the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith. Note especially the more Calvinistic understanding of the Lord's Supper in chapter 30, para 1. Since baptism comes after conversion in the Baptist view, baptism serves in much the same way as the Lord's Supper. God is active in the ordinances in that he confirms “the faith of believers in all the benefits” of Christ's death. I admit that my idea of the “three actors” in baptism was inspired by reading the Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck. But I still think this idea fits best in the Baptist view. Paedobaptist views tend to downplay the signficance of the baptized person. Many baptistic (as opposed to Baptist) evangelicals tend to downplay the significance of God and the church. I think that the Particular Baptist tradition best preserves the significance of all three actors. For a helpful treatment of baptism from a Baptist perspective check out this sermon by Russell Moore:


  5. I'm late to this discussion. However, I find Luke's comments about the three actors, etc. to be a new idea. That is, like Matt, I have never heard this.

    What I have always heard (from Baptists and those within my own denomnination who argue against infant baptism) is that baptism is primarily, if not exclusively, the individuals action (giving some room for the role of the church). – It is not that God does not act in salvation. That is certainly the case, but that is seen as what happened when the persons “got saved.” Baptism, itself, is a sign and symbol of what God has done and of that person's faith/acceptance. However, God is not seen as active IN baptism, itself (God already acted in their getting saved).

    Baptism is seen, thus, as an ordinance, but not a sacrament (a means of receiving God's grace; God at work in and through the sacrament).

    In other words, it may be a “sign” of what God has done, but God is not “doing it” in the act of baptism itself. Those who baptize babies tend to believe that God is at work in the baptism.

    Am I wrong about this, Luke?



  6. Another element of this debate that gets missed is God's view of authority. If God vested the authority in a man to represent his family, He vested the right for a father to represent his family before God. Thus, the status of the 'whole family' WRT to baptism was set by the father and husband of that family and not by individuals themselves, until at least they possessed authority unto themselves.

    Thus if the father of a family was baptised (as head of the house [Num 1:2-4]), it meant the whole family was also baptised (see [Acts 16:31-33] for example). It was only once children left and formed families of their own through marriage that the children had any influence of their own.

    This model for baptism was based upon the preceding model for circumcision. One's status as baptised (or circumcised) was covered by the status of the head of the house in whom authority for the house was vested; until such time an adult child would depart to form a family for themselves and assume authority for themselves. (One could carry forward their previous status through continued faith.)

    In our individualistic culture, where every person has a 'vote' so-to-speak, we fail to see that baptism (or circumcision) was not normally the individualistic thing it has become, instead it reflected a property of the family in which one was raised.

    Thus paedo-baptism is perfectly legitimate for those under the age of consent, just as credo-baptism is perfectly legitimate for those over. Does this mean we need two baptisms?

    No! There is only one Lord, one faith and one baptism [Eph 4:5] whether or not one was baptised under the authority of one's household (paedo) continued on in faith, or under one's own authority as the head of a house (credo). Both expressions we discuss here are legitimate.

    Both types of baptism represent our death to the power of sin [Rom 6:4][Col 2:12]. Once baptised, we are resurrected unto Christ (and indeed this is our first resurrection) [1 Peter 3:18-22][Col 2:12][Rom 6:4]. Thus, credo and paedo baptism are clearly complimentary expressions of faith, rather than contradictory ones as so often portrayed.

    Matt, this is why with paedo-baptism, baptism is covenantial; because in paedo-baptism God is honouring his covenantial promise to the father towards the father's children, whereas in credo-baptism one is experiencing that promise directly.

    It continues to amaze, how we take an issue like this, and turn it into a doctrinal fight. This is yet another product of the individualist (humanistic) lens by which we view our world, and show us how much more we need to grow in our faiths.


  7. My sentiments were similar. Also, Bird's desire basically shows up already in paedobaptist denominations where adult baptisms from other denominations and by various modes are typically recognized. In Bird's proposal, the only ones who would really have to give up anything would be the credobaptists.


  8. I did read Bird's posts. I think his via media tends to downplay the significance of baptism for the sake of unity. A church is either going “baptize” babies or it isn't. A church is either going to allow people at the Lord's Table who haven't been baptized (as believers) or they aren't. It seems to me that in a fallen world, in which we cannot reach agreement on this issue, denominations become necessary in order for each group to practice ecclesiology as their consciences see fit. We can still share Christian fellowship outside the structures of our churches, but we probably can't mesh the two under a single roof without diminishing the importance of the debate.


  9. Hi Luke,

    Thanks for your comment. I did figure that you might jump in, and I expected a little criticism on just the point you raised. It's good to hear you articulate a more nuanced view of baptism than what I'm used to hearing from my credo friends. However, I wonder whether the view you've articulated is really understood by most credobaptists. Far be it from me to tell you what baptists believe, but I've never actually heard a baptist explain baptism the way that you have here. The sign of faith aspect is usually chief.

    We are well here. Hope you are as well.



  10. Hey Matt,
    You knew I would chime in, didn't you? I think it may be reductionistic to say, “credobaptists see baptism as primarily a badge or sign of personal faith,” and, “for the credobaptist, baptism is something the person does.” The response of faith is certainly a critical aspect of the credobaptist position. But in the credobaptist view, there are three actors involved in the drama of baptism. God is the primary actor because it is he who unites the believer to Christ in his death, burial and resurrection (Rom. 6). The believer is also an actor, in that baptism is a public profession of his faith. But there is a sense in which he is merely a passive actor. He submits himself to be plunged under water and is at the mercy of another to pull him from the waters of death. Which brings us to the third actor: the church. Baptism is a church ordinance; it is not merely an individual statement. The church also is professing that this indivudal, though worthy of God's judgment, has been rescued from judgment by virtue of their union with Christ. Perhaps baptists can do a better job of articulating all this, but it seems to me that the baptist position best preserves the importance of all three actors in baptism: God, the believer, and the church. The covenantal aspect is also not missing; it's just that, in the baptist view, the New Covenant is established only with believers, not believers and their as-yet unregenerate children (Jer. 31:34).
    Hope you're doing well.


  11. Thanks for the comments, guys.

    Larry, I too am doubtful that much commonality will be found on the issue. And paedobaptists already recognize the baptisms of credobaptists anyway. So, there's not much more room for compromise unless we give up our paedo theology altogether, which isn't going to happen.

    John, I agree with your reasoning from the missionary situation in the NT. I've had similar thoughts before.

    Thanks for reading.


  12. I like your last paragraph.

    In a recent discussion, my thinking was this: Among the Jews, there were two ways to become a Jew. Be born of Jewish parents and be marked as one of the covenant people (if male) or convert and go through a set of prescribed rituals. They had ways for babies and adults to enter the people of God.

    So do we. Both are valid. In the NT we see more adult baptism than infant because this was a case of missionary conversions to adults. We have zero evidence about what happened even in Acts when a baby was born. Since infant baptism was attested to very early in the church, it seems credible to be that infant baptism was always practiced.

    I don't know if this is a “middle” way or not. It is the one that makes sense to me (and I was baptized as an adult).


  13. Thank you for these links to Mr. Bird's thoughts. An important issue, to be sure. The optimistic part of me thinks more conversation and looking for common ground would be helpful, but the realist part of me doubts there's much common ground to be found in the end.


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