This week's service from Saint Laika's got me thinking about baptism and I was soon wondering why it was that Jesus never baptised anybody. It seems to me that the fact that baptism is the primary sacrament of most of the Christian Church and yet never performed by Christ indicates that those verses in the Gospels that call for baptism are not from the time of Christ at all but later inventions, inserted by the early Church to explain why baptism was a major part of their practice and to validate the sacrament. This would then beg the question, why did baptism become connected to the Christian tradition in such a strong way?

I think that if Jesus was a historical figure then so also was John the Baptist. I think it highly likely that Jesus was baptised in the River Jordan by John as it was such a scandal to those Christians who believed him to be the Son of God, that he did. Why would they have included an untrue story in their narrative that inferred that their Lord and Saviour had sinned? From the Gospel record we can be pretty certain that Christ had a following and that John the Baptist also had disciples. There was some movement between the two camps as well as frequent communication. The two cults were compatible and both Jesus and John the Baptist refused to compete with or disrespect each other. The separateness of the two cults is also emphasised by the fact that both Christ and John became the focus of two new religions, one of which was to become the dominant religion of the world whilst the other was to disappear underground and become connected to pre-existing baptism cults, Zoroastrianism and gnosticism. I think it may well be that the early near extinction of the cult of John the Baptist, the rise of Christianity and the adoption of baptism as the primary sacrament of the Christian Church are all connected. I believe that it is very likely that sometime between the death of Christ on the cross and the writing of the Gospels either the two cults officially joined together or the Christians decided to actively draw John the Baptist's followers into their organisation. It must have been an event such as one of these that led to the insertion of the insistence on baptism in the Gospel narratives, the invention of the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth and the mythologising of John's conception and birth.

There is no doubt that the merger of the two proto-faiths into one led to a whole that was far stronger than its two component parts. But it was at a cost. It strikes me that the early Christians were far more intent on institutionalising their faith than the followers of John the Baptist. The Christians quickly adopted hierarchy, rules and initiation rituals as part of the organisation of their religion. It was at this point that the sacrament of baptism became corrupted from what it was originally and became a tool of control rather than a open door leading from captivity into freedom.

The thing is baptism was not originally about joining anything. Neither was it originally connected to any form of catechism. The baptism of John the Baptist was about repentance alone. The sacrament appears to have been freely given by John to anybody who asked for it. After they had been baptised people went home to get on with their lives. As Christ did not instruct those he taught to form a new religion it is most likely that he did hold to the concept of John's baptism being the joining of a new religion either.

John's baptism was a sacrament of God's absolute grace. The baptism as practiced by most of the Christian Church from its earliest days to the present is a conditional sacrament and although the Church emphasises the grace of God in its liturgies of baptism it has, in reality, become a gatekeeper deciding who is worthy to be the recipient of God's grace and who is not, with some denominations being a lot more selective than others. Basically a person who is worthy of receiving God's grace is, in the opinion of the institutional Church, a person who agrees with all its dogmas.

I suggest that the only way to retrieve John's baptism and insert it back into the everyday life of the Church is to remove the sacrament from the control of the Church, to make it a sacrament given, without further questioning, to anybody who claims that they are truly repentant of their sins and who wishes to be born again. There should be no proselytising after the event and the practitioners of the sacrament of baptism should proceed about their work independent from the Church hierarchies whatever their own denominational home might be.

Furthermore, and probably most controversially, if the sacrament of baptism is freed from its chaining to church membership, I wonder if it is really necessary to restrict it to being partaken of only once by each individual. Why should it not be a frequently enjoyed sacrament, a continuing washing away of sins, as it is understood to be by the Mandaeans of Iraq. The liberation of baptism from being a once only event to being a sacrament of the same continuously refreshing nature as the eucharistic sacrament would get rid of all our arguments about when a person should become baptised. It would also give those of us whose baptisms consisted of having a drop of water sprinkled on our heads at a time of our life that we can't even remember the opportunity to undergo a proper baptism which consists of full submersion of the whole body in flowing water.


BAPTISM — 3 Comments

  1. haven’t had a chance to consider your St. Laika’s service, but in respect of what you have written here, a few thoughts:

    1. We have no evidence that Jesus’ baptism was not an historical event – in the earliest strata of the evidence. In fact, it seems the oldest tradition is that still found in some variant manuscripts of Luke’s Gospel with 3:22 having originally ended “You are my Son, today I have begotten You.” Further, in the oldest extra-canonical evidence, it is clear that baptism of the believers was more closely related to Jesus’ baptism and the theology of John 3, rather than taking its theology from Romans 6.

    2. Yes, John and Jesus had their own followings, but we have no evidence that the followers of John became anything other than followers of Jesus or went back to being regular Jews. Whilst John was added to the stories of gnostic traditions, there appears to be a historical disconnect between them and John and his original followers. We also have no evidence that the followers of John were especially numerous, certainly not significant enough in number to make it likely that they had particular effect on Christian doctrine. And messianic figures like John, and indeed Jesus, were ten a penny in early first century Palestine – though only the most troublesome were noticed by the Romans. I would have to reject your hypothesis that John started a cult worthy of the name – any claim he did is a argument from silence.

    3. I’m not sure I see any evidence of baptism as a ‘tool of control’ until perhaps the medieval period. Throughout the patristic era, it seems to remain far more of an ‘open door’. Amongst the patristic writers, I can see no evidence of a set of entrance criteria beyond (See Ambrose, so 4th century) a prototypical form of what we know as the Apostles’ Creed. Earlier than that, it might seen that the requirement was simply to respond ‘credo’ to the three questions of the interrogatory form of the baptismal formula*. There was an expectation of transformation of life, but I can’t see any reason not to consider that a logical theological conclusion from what the the Early Church claimed baptism to be.

    4. None of the mainstream churches restricts who may baptise validly. As a matter of good order, most require it to be performed by the priest/minister/elder with the relevant responsibility. However, all (or at least all who were signatory to the Lima Statement – Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, published by the World Council of Churches, Geneva, 1982) accept the validity of baptism provided it is performed using the Trinitarian formula and using water. There is a general preference that the minister of the sacrament is themselves baptised, but even that is not considered necessary for the validity of the sacrament.

    As I say, just a few thoughts!



    *The interrogatory formula for anyone unfamiliar was something like this:
    Minister: Do you believe in God the Father?
    Candidate: I believe.

    M: Do you believe in God the Son?
    C: I believe.

    M: Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?
    C: I believe.

    …where represents an application of water, probably at its earliest immersion or submersion.

    • Baptism followed a lengthy catechesis from early on in the history of the Church. In any case, as you yourself point out, baptism had become about belief not repentance.

  2. I would hesitate to be confident on the existence of a lengthy catechesis before the 4th century, though at that stage it was sufficiently widespread to make it unlikely to be an innovation. There seems to have been some sort of catechumenate prior to that, but I’m not certain that it was essentially theological teaching rather than, as some of the earliest material from it suggests, essential lifestyle and ethical in nature – which would be necessary in relation to repentance – after all it follows to need to know what sin is.

    What I would suggest you are overlooking in the gospel accounts of John’s baptism is the uniformity of the audience – most (almost all?) of those hearing John were Jews and therefore familiar with, and at least in principal accepting of, the theological framework he was teaching within, and the ethical understanding to lead to a common definition of sin.

    Once the Church started moving out into the wider world, it started recruiting Gentiles who didn’t work from the same frame of reference, and needed some instruction on why one needs to repent from sin, and what those sins might be.

    As to how that might influence practice today, we are far more in the position of a mission to the Gentiles than to the mission to the Jews.

    Also, coming back to John, I’m not sure we can say he required only repentance. That is the part of his message the evangelists felt it necessary to include in their accounts, but that is not to say it was the whole of his message. The use of baptism and related water rites, other than by John, in late second Temple Judaism appears to be to be about returning to God, or joining the Jewish community as an outsider, and consequently has a similar ‘acceptance of doctrine’ aspect to it as in the Christian tradition.