A Tempest In a Baptistry

The question of re-baptism and the distress it caused in the sixteen hundreds, including what has at times been described as bloody murder, is still with us.

In 1965, President Johnson’s daughter Luci was re-baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. While most of the world took no notice of the event, it created a very big ripple in a very small puddle, and generated a great deal of very loud conversation amongst the few who did.

The re-baptism happened at Luci’s request. It seems her request, and the resulting baptism, are now generally deemed to have been inappropriate.

Under common high church usage, the only allowable reason for re-baptizing an individual is if the original baptism was improperly conducted. An individual’s own judgment and wishes should be completely irrelevant. The matter should be decided by priests and canon lawyers, without regard to the wishes of the person seeking re-baptism. Miss Johnson’s request is, mostly, considered to have been out of order and her priest in error.

Why?

Because, re-baptism brings the validity of the first baptism into question.

In an age when many people are not even sure there is a god, the question is not: “why no one cares?” The question is: “why anyone cares?” The few who do are concerned with the hope of church reunification; this requires a level of reciprocity and mutual respect.

In the sixteen hundreds life was different. Those few who questioned the existence of God, mostly, kept their heads down to keep their heads on. The question of re-baptism was a very serious matter, a matter of eternal life and death, a matter some were ready to die for and others to kill over.

When Christianity was the means of achieving eternal bliss and ease, baptizing a child insured she was going to heaven, probably by way of purgatory. Everyone was happy. Then along came someone quoting scripture and claiming infant baptism isn’t worth the water it is written on. If they are right, everyone you have ever known who has died is not going to heaven and neither are you. Suddenly no one is happy. These people must be proven wrong and made to cease the vicious act of spreading their contrarian doctrines that threaten people’s happiness and their immortal souls.

Now, if baptism’s validity is solely a matter of a properly performed rite, irregardless of an inner experience or lack there of, then baptism is effective by virtue of the performance of the rite itself.

From a Roman Catholic stand point, according to a Catholic priest in my home town, proper form means she was baptized by a supposed Christian, (any Catholic can baptize in an emergency, and any baptized Christian is deemed Catholic even if he or she is also deemed a schismatic or a heretic) using the phrase “in the name of the Father the Son and the Holy Ghost.”

If Luther is correct in saying the saving grace of Christ is by faith alone (sola fide), then, if one baptizes infants unto salvation, the unconscious response of a newborn must qualify as “faith.”

It is a common doctrine that baptism is a once in a lifetime occurrence. This doctrine is found in the Westminster Confession and other like documents. Yet if a person’s “baptism” is not valid, then, she is not “re-baptized” but given true baptism for the first time. On this point the Roman Catholic Church in both its orthodox and reformed incarnations and the Anabaptists in their multiple incarnations are, almost, in complete agreement.

The difficulty is: “What constitutes valid baptism?”

The Roman Catholic answer is: “baptism is valid if the rite is correctly administered.” If the authority of the baptizer, and the actions performed, are proper then the baptism is valid. There is wide latitude and leeway inside the boundaries of what is acceptable to the Roman Catholic Church.

On the other hand the Anabaptist answer is: “when the person being baptized has not met the prerequisites of baptism (as found in the disputed verse Act 8:37 KJV, and elsewhere) then the baptism is invalid.” When the party being baptized has no intention of undertaking the spiritual journey of death and resurrection symbolized in the rite, or when she is incapable of understanding the experience, then it is an empty ritual. Ritual without belief is meaningless.

Baptism, as taught by Anabaptists, is a public act of obedience following repentance from sin and the acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Please note; this requires the recipient of baptism to have reached the age of accountability.

In the sixteen hundreds, the Anabaptists were condemned for re-baptizing because it brought the validity of infant baptism into question. They did not see it as re-baptism because to them infant baptism lacked validity. Today, even with the strict tradition of some of the Reformed Churches, demanding a communicant undergo confirmation of their infant baptism and make a good confession of faith before they are allowed to fully participate in all aspects of church fellowship, most of the Anabaptists still do not see any validity in infant baptism.

Of course, the Anabaptists would like all people to become Anabaptists, but this is America, and everyone has the right to go to hell any way they wish. (Insistence on separation of church and state and the right of the individual to serve God according to her own understanding is another troubling idea the Anabaptist held during the reformation.)

Anabaptists are still, by Roman Catholic definition, schismatics and heretics. Also, the mostly Lutheran letter of protest sent to the second diet of Speier in the early fifteen hundreds, which caused the word Protestant to be coined, unequivocally states that Anabaptists should be executed without trial wherever and whenever found. Anabaptists did not and do not commonly practice re-baptism. For the most part they baptize into the body of Christ and are usually willing to recognize the value of valid baptisms other than their own. They baptize according to the teaching of the New Testament as they understand it in keeping with traditions which they claim are subordinate to the word of God.

Yes, that means Anabaptists still question the validity of infant baptism. Their cheerful willingness to baptize anyone who has reached the age of accountability and has made an acceptable profession of faith, whether they were formerly christened with water by another denomination or not, continues to be a contentious subject in the small puddle inhabited by those few who not only understand the question but actually care. It is quite a tempest in a baptistery even today. Thank God, it is no long a bloody tempest.

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About Terry Howard

I have in my life been paid for working as, in or at: lawn care, onion topping, haying, fruit picking, general farm labor, fast food, retail, truck driver, construction, gear stacker, stock puller, truck loader, ice house production, auto body/paint shop, janitorial, tutoring, printer’s assistant, stage actor, plastic extrusion, sculptor, teacher, bus driver, direct sales, title examiner, interior decorating, route delivery, waiter, deck hand, marine engineer, reftan/dairy hand, aluminum extrusion and stamping, kosher chef, ren-fair manager, general contractor, landlord, several other things that I do not care to mention and, now, for writing.

I was born in Michigan City Indiana, where my father worked as a machinist while pastoring a General Baptist Church, which makes me a Hoosier, but in my family a Hoosier is an Ozarky who didn’t make it to Detroit. It has been said, and I attest to the truth, that the Celts are alive and living in the Ozarks under assumed names.

I have lived in nine states and abroad. After dropping out of high school to go to college I have studied formally in two colleges, one university, and one graduate school. I have learned much more from studying informally in other settings. My wife, Lauri, and I currently live in California.