Believer’s baptism and those who got in “hot water”

August 19, 2013

by Ron F. Hale

In his renowned work on 16th Century Anabaptists, Dr. William R. Estep[1] says, “If the most obvious demarcation between the Reformers and the Roman Catholics was biblical authority, that between the Reformers and the Anabaptists was believer’s baptism. Believer’s baptism was for the Anabaptists the logical implementation of the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura.”[2] Believers’ baptism, by its very nature, eliminates any possibility of infant baptism.[3] “If you can show me a single instance of infant baptism in the Bible, I am defeated,” was the repeated challenge by one Anabaptist leader whom I will mention in a moment.

Southern Baptists need to understand the theological tributaries that have pointed us to deep pools and simple truths through the years. As Baptists, we were dunked down under.  We were not sprinkled or poured upon. “A little dab’ll do ya”[4] was not the sentiment of the Baptist pastor that laid me back into a watery grave (Rom. 6:4) and raised me up to walk in newness of life at the age of 23. I went under, realizing that Jesus had already forgiven me of my sins through the shedding of His blood and the water baptism was my first step of obedience in following Him.

Why wasn’t I baptized as a baby at the back of the sanctuary, thereby symbolizing the Roman Catholic position that baptism is required for “entrance” into the Church?   Why wasn’t water sprinkled or  poured over my head as I leaned over a church font at the front of the church (next to the communion table) as it is done in many Presbyterian, Methodist, Anglican, and Reformed churches?

It is because some people paid a horrific price to help the Church recapture a simple but spot on understanding of New Testament (NT) baptism. They helped us acquire a “symbolic view” over a “sacramental view” of the things that Jesus asked us to do in His name. In 2013, it is easy for someone to shrug their shoulders and with pious groan say, “So what! What’s the big deal?”  Then why were thousands of Anabaptists burned at the stake, drowned, or tied to torture racks in the name of a state-run church?  Dr. Sam Storms indicates that more than 5,000 Anabaptists were executed in Switzerland by 1535.[5]

When a Christian or groups of believers close their eyes to the biblical meaning and historical practice of this simple doctrine, then we must call into question their explanations on the deeper doctrines of the faith which were once delivered unto the saints. Intentionally ignoring the biblical meaning, mode, and merits of the practice of immersing a new believer adds up to theological malpractice. With just the NT Greek text book of Erasmus (ink barely dry), early Anabaptists were able to discern the lost ordinance of NT baptism.  Just think of all the latest theological tools that are available today to study the meaning of “baptizo”[6] and the historicity of the Acts of the Apostles. Yet, tradition trumps the implicit instructions[7] and example of our Lord in many denominations.

Whether directly or indirectly, the work and witness of Dr. Balthasar Hubmaier[8] richly nourishes the theological tributaries of Southern Baptists and other congregations of like faith and order.  Without men like Hubmaier, the Southern Baptist Convention would have never existed.  In fact, had it not been for Hubmaier and other Anabaptists, the Church today would resemble the Catholic church of the 16th Century or the early years of the Lutheran or Reformed congregations in Europe.  Far more serious than a tiff between theologs at a local Starbucks Café, these Radical Reformers entered into conflict with life at stake. The heavy hand of the state-controlled church put one’s life on the line as someone acquired a biblical conviction that baptism should be withheld from their infant, especially when laws were passed making such an action worthy of capital punishment by decree of church and state

Balthazar Hubmaier never gained the popularity of a Luther, Calvin, or Zwingli. Anabaptist leaders did not live long enough to start schools of higher learning or write books on systematic theology for as the old saying goes – they stayed in “hot water” with the authorities. Most leaders stayed on the run as fugitives.  However, Hubmaier lived long enough to instill in many the belief that the Church must free itself of governmental exploitation and control. As a “free church,” it is comprised of believers who have confessed their faith through baptism.  Since infants are incapable of believing, they were to be raised in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. This was a radical departure from Catholicism and the “covenant theology” of the Magisterial Reformers. And, that is why the early Anabaptists were put to death by both sides.

Dr. Hubmaier became the most capable 16th Century defender of the Anabaptist position on baptism; and, of the 11 books and pamphlets that he wrote on the ordinances, six relate to baptism.[9] He never grew tired of showing others that the baptizing of infants was never presented in the Bible.  He once said, “What need have infants of another’s faith – that of their fathers, mothers, godparents, or of the church?  You claim such a thing, but with no basis in the Bible.”[10]

Balthasar Hubmaier was arrested in the new jurisdiction of King Ferdinand[11] and was taken to Vienna and burned at the stake on March 10, 1528.  Upon arriving at the scaffold, he cried out a prayer in the Swiss dialect, “O my gracious God, grant me grace in great suffering!” He pardoned his accusers and asked for forgiveness if he had offended anyone. Three days after his death, a large stone was tied around the neck of his wife and she was drowned in the Danube River.[12]

Given that early Anabaptists stayed in “hot water” with both the Roman Catholics and Protestant Reformers, today Southern Baptists can gather at baptisteries, lakes, rivers, and beaches to peacefully celebrate believer’s baptism by immersion.  I look forward to many conversations with these brave Anabaptist martyrs in eternity.

© Ron F. Hale, August 13, 2013


[1] William R. Estep (1920-2000) was the Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church History at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas.

[2] William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story, Third Edition, (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1975, 1996) 201.

[3] Ibid. 207.

[4] From a popular jingle for a men’s hair care product in the 1950s called Brylcreem.

[6]  The Greek word “baptizo” was brought into the English Bible without translation. The omega or “o” was deleted and the English “e” was added.  Therefore the word was transliterated without trying to discover the true meaning of the word of which it is to dip, plunge, and immerse, to sink.  The Greeks had a word for sprinkle (rhantizo), and one for pour (cheo), but (baptizo) was used for immerse.]

[7] In the Great Commission there is no mention of baptizing infants.  John the Baptist did not baptize infants.  Infants were not baptized by Jesus or his disciples. The NT shows that people were baptized “after” they believed in Jesus (infants can’t believe). The NT shows that baptism is equally for male and female believers since it shows each being immersed, therefore, it does not correlate to the Jewish initiation ritual of circumcision where only males participated.  The NT shows that immersion best pictures the death, burial, and resurrection Jesus Christ. The Apostles baptized by immersion.

[8] Hubmaier received both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in 1511. In 1512, he received a doctor’s degree from the University of Ingolstadt under John Eck.

[9] William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story, Third Edition, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975, 1996)207.

[10] Ibid. 221.

[11] Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor, and ruler of Hungary and Bohemia during Dr. Hubmaier’s execution.