NOTE: This is Part 3 of a series on “Baptists and Baptism.”

One of the clearest facts of church history is from shortly after the founding of the first Baptist Church on English soil to the present time, Baptists have affirmed immersion as the only biblical mode of baptism.[1] From the 17th century until today, Baptist authors have produced a plethora of books and pamphlets on Baptism. Many of these were called forth in answer to paedobaptist objections to believer’s baptism by immersion.

English Baptists wasted no time in engaging their paedobaptist counterparts in baptismal debates. Numerous records cataloguing these debates exist.

One of the earliest and most famous was the debate between Daniel Featley and William Kiffin. Featley’s 1645 book entitled The Dippers dipt: or, the Anabaptists Duck’d and Plung’d over Head and Eares, at a Disputation in Southwark chronicled the debate. Featley, at the age of 62 and a veteran debater took on Kiffin who was 36 at the time.[2]

Featley castigated his opponents with the charge Anabaptism was a heresy long ago condemned, then proceeded to denigrate Kiffin and the other three Baptists accompanying him by insulting their scholarly capacity since they were rudely dressed, and chiding them for their lack of knowledge of Greek and Hebrew.

Early into the debate, Kiffin asked Featley the question “What is the nature of a visible Church?” This question was prophetic since the single most distinctive contribution Baptists make to church history is our ecclesiology. The statement also illustrates the important theological conviction that the baptism question cannot be separated from the question of the nature of the church. Any discussion about baptism presupposes ecclesiology.

The conflicts between Anabaptists and paedobaptists in the 16th century and beyond were primarily over the question of the nature of a New Testament church.[3]

Michael Jinkins correctly distinguished between two different understandings of the church: the church as voluntary association, which reflects an emphasis on conversion as the necessary condition for full participation in the community of believers, and church as a gathered body, emphasizing the inclusion of children who have not yet made the gospel their own by faith. He rightly noted that these two perspectives “inevitably compete,” and “there is an undeniable and irresolvable conflict between them.”[4]

The fountainhead of this conflict began with the Reformation. William Estep perceptively noted:

A most important fact often overlooked is that the very concept of the gathered church, which is the heart of Separatism, was Anabaptist in origin and not a conscious product of the Magisterial Reform.[5]

From the perspective of the Magisterial Reformers, if believer’s baptism were initiated, the unity of the church would be jeopardized. As J. Warns noted: “Baptism is the issue whereby the State church stands or falls,”[6] a fact which goes a long way towards explaining Luther, Calvin and Zwingli’s vitriolic opposition to the Anabaptists. “If the rightfulness of infant baptism is called into question, the rightfulness of a state church in general is called into question.”[7] What Baptists have always desired was a return to biblical ecclesiology, which includes a return to believers’ baptism by immersion.

With respect to Baptism, three central issues have been at the heart of the debate since the Reformation: meaning, subjects and mode.

As to meaning, is it a sacrament or symbolic? As to subjects, are they infants or believers? As to mode, is it immersion or sprinkling/pouring? Baptists have universally held that immersion is the only biblical and hence proper mode of baptism. Southern Baptists, along with most other Baptists, consider baptism by any mode other than immersion to be invalid baptism.[8] The major question to be answered is: does the New Testament know of any kind of baptism other than immersion?

[1] As demonstrated from Baptist histories as well as Baptist Confessions of Faith. See W. L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, rev. ed., (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1969). Article XL of the 1644 London Confession prescribes immersion, as do all subsequent revisions of this confession. All other Baptist confessions, English, American and other nationalities to the present time affirm immersion as the only scriptural mode of baptism. See James Leo Garrett, “The Theology and Practice of Baptism: A Southern Baptist View,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 28.2 (Spring, 1986), 66, for a listing of eight Baptist Confessions with their specific wording on the mode of baptism.

[2] For a summary discussion of this debate along with some of the more controversial debates conducted between the outbreak of the English civil war and the Restoration of Charles II, consult J. G. Goadby, Bye-Paths in Baptist History (London: Elliot Stock, 1871) 139-179. On the Featley-Kiffin debate, See also H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1987), 80.

[3] “[T]he question of baptism cannot be separated from the question of the Church. It is indissolubly bound up with it. Indeed one has to say that the question of the Church has precedence over the question of Baptism.” (Johannes Schneider, Baptism and Church in the New Testament, trans. by Ernest Payne (London: Carey Kingsgate Press, 1957), 50.

[4] Michael Jinkins, “The Gift of the Church: Ecclesia Crucis, Peccatrix Maxima, and the Missio Dei,” Evangelical Ecclesiology, ed. by John Stackhouse (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 185. “If we don’t really know what baptism is we don’t really know what the church is either.” (Leonard J. Vander Zee, Christ, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, 112)

[5] William Estep, “A Believing People: Historical Background” in The Concept of the Believers’ Church: Addresses from the 1968 Louisville Conference; ed. by James Leo Garrett (Scottsdale, Penn.: Herald Press, 1969), 47. Author’s italics.

[6] Johannes Warns, Baptism: Studies in the Original Christian Baptism; its History and Conflicts, its Relation to a State or National Church and its Significance for the Present Time. G. H. Lang, translator. (London: Paternoster, 1957, James and Klock reprint, 1976), 240.

[7] Ibid. 251. “There can be no biblical solution to the question of baptism as long as one holds fast the conception of a State Church” (264). The Magisterial Reformers thought that without infant baptism, which was so ingrained in the populace, the whole fabric of the church might be torn asunder. Surprisingly, Baptists found a strange ally when Karl Barth wrote: “There can be no doubt that in all Zwingli’s baptismal works one seeks in vain a true elucidation of what takes place in baptism. . . . His will and purpose in relation to the Anabaptists is quite plain. Infant baptism must be accepted at all costs as the shibboleth of the people of God.” (Church Dogmatics 4:1 [Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1956], 129. This last sentence applies to Luther and Calvin as well. Barth’s The Teaching of the Church Regarding Baptism was published in German in 1943 and was translated in English by Ernest Payne, a Baptist, in 1948.

[8] Although Baptists affirm immersion as baptism’s only proper mode, they allow for a variety of means to immerse, including laying the candidate backwards under water, as practiced by the early English Baptists, or bowing the candidate forward under water, as practiced by the Greek, Armenian, and Oriental churches. The latter posture is reflected in Tertullian’s comment: “The Christians. . .were baptized by bowing down, with great simplicity, without pomp or many words.” See also Adoniram Judson, “An Address on the Mode of Baptism,” Fundamentalist Journal 6, no. 4, (April, 1987), 49-50, which he gave June 7, 1846, describing this posture of immersion on the mission field as being congruent with the early church. One Baptist preacher said in 1643 that all were “to be rebaptized stark naked, and diped as well head as tayle.” (Henry Dexter, The True Story of John Smyth (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1818), 56, as quoted in L. McBeth, Baptist History, 48.