The Rev. Dr. J. Jayakiran Sebastian is a Presbyter of the Church of South India and Associate Professor in the Department of Theology and Ethics at the United Theological College, Bangalore, India.
Used by permission of the author.
The author examines the practice, meaning and implications of baptism, within a multi-cultural context.
"By the sacrament of baptism a person is truly incorporated into Christ and into his Church and is reborn to a sharing of the divine life. Baptism, therefore, constitutes the sacramental bond of unity existing among all who through it are reborn. Baptism, of itself, is the beginning, for it is directed toward the acquiring of fullness of life in Christ. It is thus ordered to the profession of faith, to the full integration into the economy of salvation, and to Eucharistic communion. Instituted by the Lord himself, baptism, by which one participates in the mystery of his death and resurrection, involves conversion, faith, the remission of sin, and the gift of grace."
Although the above statement reflects a carefully reasoned out theological position, and incorporates the concern for unity, in actual fact churches all over the world, including churches in India, continue to struggle with the meaning and implications, as well as the practice of baptism.
One of the major questions that continues to dominate discussions on baptism is the question regarding the relationship between the understanding of baptism as the basis for the unity of the church and the reality of the divergences between those churches who hold to the reality of infant baptism and those churches who stress the necessity of believer’s baptism. In a fine article analysing various aspects of baptism, Dagmar Heller points out that "[t]he greatest divergence evident in the responses [of the churches to the BEM document] concerns the question of the practice of infant baptism over against the practice of adult baptism." With this introduction, let us move on to a consideration of the BEM document and also look back at some of the stages of the ecumenical journey, and also follow some of the post-BEM developments. The specific issue of infant and believers baptism will also be studied. The article will conclude with some questions related to baptism in the Indian context.
The BEM Document and its Optimism:
In 1982, the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, following a long and arduous journey, published the document entitled "Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry," following a meeting in Lima, Peru, where representatives of "virtually all major church traditions," including "Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Old Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed, Methodist, United, Disciples, Baptist, Adventist and Pentecostal," reached theological convergence on various issues regarding baptism, eucharist and ministry. This major ecumenical document has, since its adoption, "led to a process of discussion, exchange and response which is of major ecumenical significance."
The following quotation on baptism from the BEM document, accentuates the longing and illustrates the great desire of the ecumenical movement to move towards convergence in the understandings of the churches with regard to what could be considered some of the basic convictions of Christianity:
Administered in obedience to our Lord, baptism is a sign and seal of our common discipleship. Through baptism, Christians are brought into union with Christ, with each other and with the Church of every time and place. Our common baptism, which unites us to Christ in faith, is thus a basic bond of unity.
With regard to baptism, the BEM document itself recognizes in the commentary section that
The inability of the churches mutually to recognize their various practices of baptism as sharing in the one baptism, and their actual dividedness in spite of mutual baptismal recognition, have given dramatic visibility to the broken witness of the Church. … The need to recover baptismal unity is at the heart of the ecumenical task as it is central for the realization of genuine partnership within the Christian communities.
Regarding the baptism of believers and infants the hope was expressed in the commentary part that "[t]he differences between infant and believers’ baptism become less sharp when it is recognized that both forms of baptism embody God’s own initiative in Christ and express a response of faith made within the believing community."
This means that, on the one hand, there was a growing desire to achieve some kind of commonly agreed upon basis on which the churches can faithfully witness; on the other hand, there was a growing frustration with the seeming inability to come to terms with the hope testified to by Jesus "that all may be one" (John 17: 21), a hope which remained more a dream than a reality. This unfulfilled dream, however, did not offer a reason to stagnate in helpless fatalism, but to acknowledge that the "aims and activities" of the ecumenical movement included a recognition that
The grace of God has impelled members of many Churches and ecclesial Communities, especially in the course of the present century, to strive to overcome the divisions inherited from the past and to build anew a communion of love by prayer, by repentance and by asking pardon of each other for sins of disunity past and present, by meeting in practical forms of cooperation and in theological dialogue.
It is clear that the BEM document was an attempt to consciously, creatively, sincerely and prayerfully to face up to the challenges of the time and to offer to the churches a document, which while not being in a position to satisfy everyone and reflect every shade of opinion, nevertheless, optimistically looked forward to a time of greater ecumenical interaction, moving beyond "the false ecumenical solution of a comfortable denominationalism in which the churches each tend their own gardens, careful not to bother or insult others, but in no way living out or even seeking a truly common life."
Approaches to BEM: One Example:
In 1979, a consultation "inaugurated" by the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, which was held at Louisville, Kentucky, at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, brought together representatives of the paedo-baptist and believer-baptist traditions "to reflect on some kind of consensus in the understanding and practice of baptism." This was a sincere and open attempt to set out not only the theological understanding of that which divided various traditions, one from the other, but also to suggest theological and practical guidelines toward overcoming such divisions.
This is indicated by the fact that along with one article entitled "The Authority and Justification for Infant Baptism," there was another entitled "The Authority and Justification for Believers’ Baptism." The writer who wrote on infant baptism pleaded that the
scandalous division over something as basic and fundamentally simple as Christian initiation must stop; it devastatingly hinders the mission of the Church to evangelize the world according to the Great Commission of Christ; it keeps churches from sharing each other’s Christian riches to their mutual great impoverishment. Pedobaptists must therefore rise above inadequate understandings of original sin and the grace of baptism itself and resolutely refuse to baptize infants whose parents give no reasonable promise of Christian nurture; believer baptists must resolutely resist the temptation to build their Christian identity exclusively on the practice and theology of New Testament baptism and to maintain it on a once legitimate but now obsolete critique of sixteenth and seventeenth century Church-State baptismal practices.
The writer who wrote on believers’ baptism pragmatically suggested that
In a time when Christians are endeavouring to establish full recognition of each other’s Churches various solutions appear to be possible. (1) Baptists should recognise the legitimacy of infant baptism where it is followed by profession of faith and acceptance into full church membership. (2) Paedobaptists should recognize the legitimacy of baptism on profession of faith of those baptized in infancy.
One of the obvious difficulties with these suggestions is that the fundamental issue as to how the individual churches themselves have internalized different understandings of baptism as being a part of their existence and self-identity, an existence and identity which has very often been at least partially shaped as a reaction to the teachings propounded by other churches, has not been adequately addressed.
The BEM Document and the Variety of Responses:
It was clear to all those involved in the effort leading up to the production and publication of the BEM document that although in one sense it marked the culmination of a difficult journey, it also signalled the beginning of another journey, no less difficult. The document was sent to all member churches, asking them "to prepare an official response to this text at the highest appropriate level of authority, whether it be a council, synod, conference, assembly or other body." That is to say, it was recognised that the reception of the document would be the ultimate test of its value and worth. The responses were collected in six volumes, which indicate the range and diversity of opinions. It is clear that the process of responding to the BEM document, and the insights that it contains, has not been free of friction and even hostility. The Faith and Order Commission points out that "the critical comments and suggestions for further clarification occupy more space in the responses than the positive affirmations, which are usually expressed, however, in a clear and encouraging manner."
In the summary of these responses to the BEM document, in the section on "Baptism of believers and infants," some of the important points raised included
– the question as to the sharp contrast between "infant" and "believer," in the sense that the baptism of an infant within the context of a believing community can also be characterised as "believer’s baptism";
– the question regarding the claim made in BEM (IV. A. 11) that in the New Testament what is most clearly attested is "baptism on personal profession of faith";
– the question as to whether the BEM text "has too easily settled for compromise and too easily dismissed a fundamental incompatibility between infant and adult believer’s baptism";
– the question regarding the baptism of the handicapped, "who lack sufficient intellectual capacity to make a mature profession of faith";
– the question regarding a theological foundation for the "unrepeatability" of baptism, and the practical implications of this for those churches who do not regard the baptism of believing adults, who had been baptised as children, as "re-baptism".
All this indicates that even in the period immediately after the publication of the BEM document there was guarded optimism coupled with a plea not to over-simplify complex issues.
BEM and Beyond:
There is an increasing attempt by churches belonging to different confessional families, groupings of those oriented in a particular theological direction, or even by individual churches themselves, to engage in bilateral or multilateral dialogues, where specific issues regarding the doctrines and practices that continue to be both theological and practical irritants, like the practice of Baptism or the existence of mixed marriages are discussed, analysed and debated, and attempts made to produce consensus documents for further study and action. This does not mean that such conversations and attempts are oriented merely towards the relational praxis of the churches in the contemporary context, without taking into consideration the history of the churches, and their Biblical and Patristic heritage. The ecumenical movement has taken seriously the meaning of the Apostolic Faith in today’s context, especially as it is related to the ecumenical significance of the creedal formulations of the Church. All this means that there is a dynamic attempt being made to integrate the varying concerns of the different member churches in the ecumenical movement as it relates to their ongoing life, work, and witness. Günther Gassmann writes:
The discussion on baptism, eucharist and ministry have been at the centre of the Faith and Order movement and Commission from the very beginning. Differences in the understanding and practice of these three foundational expressions of the life of the church have contributed to the divisions between the churches and are still a barrier to eucharistic communion. Consequently, the search for consensus and convergence on these three issues and the common understanding that mutual recognition of baptism, eucharist and ministry is an essential requirement and expression of the visible unity of the church have marked the work of Faith and Order since 1927.
As an example from within the ecumenical movement, the Orthodox position on the interrelationship between the Spirit and Baptism can be quoted from an article entitled "Orthodox Reflections on the Assembly Theme," where it is affirmed that
[b]uilding upon basic human values, the Spirit prepares human persons for the reception of the gospel and salvation in Christ through baptism. As the water of baptism is exorcised of evil and becomes a vehicle for the sanctification of creation, so those baptized in the sanctified waters and sealed with the Spirit receive the power of the Spirit to confront evil and the problems facing the world today ….
At the seventh Assembly of the World Council of Churches held in Canberra in 1991, an attempt was made to describe what unity meant for the churches in today’s context. This statement The Unity of the Church as Koinonia: Gift and Calling, among other things, called upon all churches "to recognize each other’s baptism on the basis of the BEM document … ." The Faith and Order Commission, in taking this call and mandate seriously, pointed out that
[a]mong the most positive elements in the movement towards koinonia is the convergence in our understanding of baptism, and especially the common affirmation of baptism as incorporation into the common life in Christ, in koinonia. (…) In spite of this growing convergence, some questions remain … As regards baptism, these questions concern not only different understandings of baptism and its sacramental nature, but also different conceptions of the relationship of baptism to faith, the action of the Holy Spirit and membership of the Church.
Given this reality of promise and potential on the one hand, and pitfalls and problems, on the other, it is clear that Koinonia, at least with regard to baptism, continues to be an area of debate and dialogue, both within the ecumenical movement and in congregational situations.
One other point that has to be made is that there are tentative attempts being made to address the issue raised by baptism in its relationship to conversion. In an article entitled "The Concept of Conversion in the Ecumenical Movement: A Historical and Documentary Survey", Ans van der Bent points out that "the time is overdue for the church to examine its doctrine of conversion carefully and to subject its language to the test of both theological and psychological enquiry." He refers to the study document prepared for the fourth assembly of the WCC in Uppsala in 1968 by Paul Löffler entitled Conversion to God and Service to Man, where Löffler wrote "… conversion and baptism, while linked with the entry into the church, do not serve its interests but the larger purpose of God for the whole creation." In concluding his survey , van der Bent makes a soteriological comment:
All Christian traditions do not suffice to proclaim fully salvation to the world. It also implies that the exchange of conversions between Christians and people of other living faiths cannot render God’s love for the whole human race totally transparent. The openings of individual heart’s to God, the obedient mission and ministry of the churches and the liberating search for a pluralistic theology of faiths are but adumbrations of the one God who is the author and the completer of all salvation.
Both Löffler’s comment and van der Bent’s point tend towards an inclusivistic understanding of salvation. Therefore it would be important to take seriously the comment from Stanley J. Samartha, who asks why words like mission and conversion evoke dread in countries in Asia and Africa today, and goes on to say
[c]onversion, instead of being a vertical movement toward God, a genuine renewal of life, has become a horizontal movement of groups of people from one community to another, very often backed by economic affluence, organizational strength and technological power. It also seriously disrupts the political life of the country by influencing the voting patterns of people. Why then should Christians be surprised when the very words mission and conversion provoke so much anxiety, suspicion, and fear?
Infant and Believer’s Baptism: The Example of the Church of North India:
The Church of North India, which came into existence as a united church in 1970, as a union of former Anglicans, Baptists, Brethren, Disciples, Methodists (British and Australasian), Presbyterians and Congregationalists, is one of the few denominations in the world which makes space for the practice of either infant or believer’s baptism within the one church. In the constitution under Section V: The Sacraments of the Church, Sub-Section: A. Baptism, Clause 4, we read:
In as much as the Church of North India will have within its membership both persons who practise Infant Baptism in the sincere belief that this is in harmony with the mind of the Lord, and those whose conviction it is that the Sacrament can only properly be administered to a believer, both Infant Baptism and Believer’s Baptism shall be accepted as alternative practices in the Church of North India.
The Constitution goes on to discuss how those baptised in one of these two ways can then become a communicant member.
Here we have an example of how it has been possible, both in theological and practical terms, to uphold the validity of the alternate means of understanding and practising baptism within the wider framework of the unity of the church. What is needed now is a detailed qualitative analysis of how the vision has translated into reality within the CNI.
Lingering Questions Regarding Baptism in India Today:
Although this paper has been concerned with tracing the issue regarding infant and believer’s baptism within the ecumenical movement, other important points regarding baptism in the Indian context cannot be brushed aside. The important point regarding baptism and its relation to our neighbours of other faiths or of no faith at all, is one such. Stanley J. Samartha, in an article entitled "The Holy Spirit and People of Other Faiths" points out, after an analysis of scriptural citations regarding baptism and the Holy Spirit, that "the possibility of the Spirit being present and active among those who are not baptized, and in communities outside the visible boundaries of the institutional church, should be left open rather than closed." This is a question that continues to provoke impassioned, and sometimes emotional, debate, both at the local level and in wider forums.
One cannot overlook the pointed and provocative remark made by M. M. Thomas in one of his last published articles that "the question of giving to the unbaptised Christ-bhakts in other religious communities, a sense of full belonging to the spiritual fellowship of the church including participation in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper needs exploration."
One also needs to examine the question regarding baptism and church membership. With regard to baptism and the church, a pertinent question comes from Leelamma Athyal who asks: "When the church gets more people to join its membership through baptism, it rejoices. But should it? Is it because the Church’s membership has increased? Or, because some people have become the disciples of Jesus." We need to ask whether after almost two thousand years of existence the church has recognised its orientation in terms of the Kingdom. If we pray, along with the writer of the Didache: "… let your church be gathered from the four corners of the earth into your kingdom," then how do we understand the sacrament of baptism in relation to the church and in relation to the kingdom? If the church is understood as "an agent to implement the mission of God," then what is the role of those who claim to be members of the church through baptism? If clergy and laity are called upon to remember that they "are in the church not for our own sake but for the mission to which God has called us," then does baptism bring with it the mission imperative? If mission is primarily understood in terms of the mission of God, then what is the link between this understanding of mission and the understanding of baptism as an entry into the institution called the church? Joseph Mattam writes:
Baptism understood as the expression and celebration of one’s conversion to Christ, of one’s acceptance of Christ and his ways, of one’s attitudinal changes to form a more inclusive community with the one goal of a fuller humanity is still meaningful. Baptism understood as the celebration of a new vision of society, of a new pattern of relationship with people, God and the cosmos is still desirable. When we welcome people to baptism, in the context of the poor and dalits in India, it is a call to a counter culture (not a separate Christian culture) which will empower the poor and will help them change their self-image and transform their world view into a new cooperative pattern. It is in view of this mission that baptism becomes meaningful, not in terms of the salvation of few individuals.
The sacrament of baptism has, down the ages, been a source of bitter controversy and dispute. As the church in India prepares to enter the new millennium, it is high time that the rich insights, the detailed discussions, the joyful and painful experiences, are all harvested, winnowed and sieved, so that a return to the sources, a reaching back, can truly be the means of moving forward toward an uncertain, yet challenging future, as a church grasped by the vision of unity, in this multi-cultural and multi-religious land of ours.
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Extract from the BEM Document on Baptism of Believers and Infants.
IV. Baptismal Practice
A. Baptism of Believers and Infants
11. While the possibility that infant baptism was also practised in the apostolic age cannot be excluded, baptism upon personal profession of faith is the most clearly attested pattern in the New Testament documents.
In the course of history, the practice of baptism has developed in a variety of forms. Some churches baptize infants brought by parents or guardians who are ready, in and with the Church, to bring up the children in Christian faith. Other churches practise exclusively the baptism of the believers who are able to make a personal confession of faith. Some of these churches encourage infants or children to be presented and blessed in a service which usually involves thanks-giving for the gift of the child and also the commitment of the mother and father to Christian parenthood.
All churches baptize believers coming from other religions or from unbelief who accept the Christian faith and participate in catechetical instruction.
12. Both the baptism of believers and the baptism of infants takes place in the Church as the community of faith. When one who can answer for himself or herself is baptized, a personal confession of faith will be an integral part of the baptismal service. When an infant is baptized, the personal response will be offered at a later moment in life. In both cases, the baptized person will have to grow in the understanding of faith. For those baptized upon their own confession of faith, there is always the constant requirement of a continuing growth of personal response in faith. In the case of infants, personal confession is expected later, and Christian nurture is directed to the eliciting of this confession. All baptism is rooted in and declares Christ’s faithfulness unto death. It has its setting within the life and faith of the Church and, through the witness of the whole Church, points to the faithfulness of God, the ground of all life in faith. At every baptism the whole congregation reaffirms its faith in God and pledges itself to provide an environment of witness and service. Baptism should, therefore, always be celebrated and developed in the setting of the Christian community.
13. Baptism is an unrepeatable act. Any practice which might be interpreted as "re-baptism" must be avoided.