Holy Baptism: Revisiting the Rite

a look at Lutheran Liturgical practice by Peter M. Berg 


It was the eleventh day of November 1483, and an infant boy was brought to be baptized at the local parish church not far from his home.1 The child was named after St. Martin, to whom the day was devoted. As a common medieval scene played out, no one could have imagined that this little boy, like the Lord Himself, would be a "sign spoken against." In spite of a saintly name, later polemicists would claim that this child's mother had actually lain with the devil. Though his mother is to be spared this slander, the baby, Martin Luther, was a child of Satan, just as he often confessed, and Baptism became his life-long comfort. "Baptizatus sum," Luther would say.


This event occurred in a time far more difficult than our own when it came to daily survival. Infant mortality being what it was, it was best to drive the devil out of the little ones as soon as possible. Contrast our own day when baptisms are put off until grandma can make her leisurely way back from Florida, and the day of Baptism has no other sense of urgency than a forgotten video camera. Much has changed since those times, in addition to the inordinate delay of so many modern baptisms. The rite has undergone a metamorphosis. It no longer stands alone, but has now become an appendage to the Sunday service, a service all too often left up to the whim of liturgically ill trained pastors and their less knowledgeable voters’ assemblies. Few people today realize that Baptism during the Divine Service, as we know it, is a relatively modern phenomenon, and few can even remember the old rite of the Lutheran Agenda, which itself was different in some respects from the rite which Luther revised. In view of this, it might be time for a reassessment. The purpose of this article is to revisit the rite of Holy Baptism, in particular, to take a look at the rite itself and its modern attachment to the Sunday morning service.


After about two years of not performing a baptism in the Sunday morning service, and not using the baptism rite in Christian Worship (pp. 12-14), I experienced once again what is common practice and usage throughout the synod, when I witnessed my granddaughter's Baptism this past July. The pastor of the congregation offered what has become a common (and expected?) courtesy among WELS pastors, gladly offering me, and even my son, a non-ordained seminary student (!), the opportunity to baptize the child. Why not? Everything is pretty much up for grabs for those with an adiaphoristic mindset, especially in view of our very elastic position on the Holy Ministry. However, this should not be. The pastor loci is to baptize his own flock. Letting those baptize who have a sentimental attachment to the child, but are not the child's called pastor, sends the subtle message that the rite is somehow more special and emotionally satisfying if "gramps" performs the rite, a nascent form of Donatism (with a smiley face). It also sets a precedent for disgruntled members who desire to by-pass the pastor of their parish, whom they might scorn, in favor of "good old retired Pastor Fassbender" when it comes to occasional rites. Furthermore, only in emergencies should the non-ordained baptize (AC XIV). Irregularities in the performance of any rite of the church create doubt, and where there is doubt, faith flounders. Asserting "our glorious Gospel freedom" to do novel things is, in reality, tampering with faith.


It Doesn't Takes a Village


My experience at the aforementioned service confirmed for me the wisdom of the decision made by my associate and myself to perform baptisms outside the Divine Service, following an adaptation of Luther's 1526 revision of the baptismal order. We are not pioneers in this regard, but merely follow the path trod by many knowledgeable confessional pastors. As was previously noted, baptisms in the Sunday service, as we have come to know them, are a relatively new thing. In this country many people over seventy years of age were baptized in their own home. As many old and ornate baptismal certificates read, "in Eltern hause". The earlier frontier experience of American Lutheranism, the long convalescence of mothers, fears of infant mortality, etc. all contributed to this practice, a practice that Lutherans brought with them from the old country.


In reality, throughout the history of the Church, baptisms have taken place at a variety of times and places. At the nativity of the Christian Church baptisms took place in streams, lakes, and domestic baths, and were performed with a variety of applications of water, and even a variety of baptismal formulas. As the catechumenate developed, baptisms took place in connection with the Mass, as at the great Easter Vigil and Pentecost.


However, to compare these baptisms, connected to these annual high feasts, to our own practice of baptisms in the Sunday Divine Service is not entirely analogous, for a number of reasons. The baptisms, which occurred at the Easter Vigil, were the culmination of a lengthy adult catechumenate, which led to the catechumen's first Eucharist on the great Christian Pascha. The Pauline connection of Baptism to the Resurrection (Rom 6) made this a most appropriate time for Baptism. However, early in the post-apostolic era a shift occurs. With the development of the Augustinian sense of original sin, and with infant baptisms out-numbering adult baptisms around the fourth century, baptismal practices, which would endure for centuries, began to take shape. Baptisms occurred within a day or two of birth. Baptisms were sometimes performed outside the parish church in baptisteries, though in northern Europe they were more often performed inside the church. The baptismal service was a stand-alone rite. Unfortunately, over the centuries, the rite became weighed down with many accretions, a matter with which Luther had to contend in his revisions of the rite.  


Today, the rationale for performing baptisms in the Divine Service is that this is a communal thing. The person to be baptized is being brought into the community of the church, it is argued, and the community ought to witness this event and in some way participate as well. Indeed, in the CW rite (one made largely out of whole cloth) the congregation is deputized as a quasi sponsor for the child (as in some other modern rites). While it's true that fellow Christians will pray for those saddled with such a formidable foe as Satan, and will give encouragement to the baptized, and will even "model" for the child (did I really say that?), this does not mean that these salutary things were not done in the days when few witnessed the baptisms of fellow church members. The Church has always prayed for those about to be baptized and given thanks when they were. One does not have to be present at every occasional rite to share in the common bond of believers. Viewing Baptism as a communal thing has the scent of Calvin's view of Baptism as an ordinance, which incorporated the child into the believing community (sans the efficacy of the Sacrament and faith). However, contrary to popular opinion, it doesn't take a village to raise a child.




Having said this, there is something much more to the point when it comes to modern baptism practices. The rites and liturgies of the church have each developed on their own, not without informing and relating to each other, but yet with a purpose which is unique in their service to the church. These various rites and liturgies are not Snap-on-Tools®, which can be attached wherever a capricious pastor desires. As an example, this annoying "mix and match" mindset produces "liturgies" that have a CW, "Morning Praise" (Matins) beginning, with a Holy Communion ending. Presumably this is to shorten those long "Communion Sundays" or to add variety.  If the pastor is worried about the length of God's service to His saints, perhaps he ought to cut out two of his three amusing anecdotes so that the sermon is 20 minutes long instead of 30 (a 12 minute sermon would be ideal). 


The Baptism rite in CW was specifically designed to replace the preparatory portion of the three Sunday morning liturgies in the book (two communion and one non-communion liturgy). Rubrics at the end of the Baptism rite direct the congregation to the point of attachment in each of these liturgies. The written direction notwithstanding, most congregations need a verbal rubric at this point, which merely adds more rubrical clutter to services already overloaded with these directions. (Note: An article on this will appear in an upcoming issue entitled, "Rubrics are Red, Not Read.")


What's at issue here is the integrity of the various rites of the Christian Liturgy. Consider what has happened to the rite of Luther's day at the hands of those who put together the CW service. The CW rite is overly didactic, explaining what the Luther rite states objectively. The confession of sins and Absolution are tucked into the rite. While the connection between Baptism and its restatement in Holy Absolution is obvious, this inclusion of Absolution, in order to satisfy the requirement for an absolution at the beginning of the service, introduces something novel to the rite. The ancient companions of the baptismal rite, the Apostles' Creed and the Our Father, are eliminated, since they appear later in the service. (It should be remembered that the child is baptized into the faith confessed in the Creed, which he confesses through the sponsors, and, by Baptism, is given the right to pray, "Our Father...") One wishes that the rite had become didactic when it came to the sentence, "Our sinful nature need not control us any longer." Standing alone as it does one is moved to ask the Lutheran question, "What does this mean?" The genius of the rite which Luther revised is that it was used for both infants and adults. CW essentially has two rites, one with the traditional questions addressed to the baptized (for adults) and one without (for infants). There is one baptism, one Lord, one faith, etc., let there be one rite. The old objection that people were confused by the questions addressed to the child and answered by the sponsors had nothing to do with ambiguity in the rite, but rather with the non-sacramental prejudices of Protestant outsiders and Lutherans who thought like Protestants. Yes, the questions do prompt questions in Protestant minds, but they also provide an opportunity to reveal the rich sacramentality of the Lutheran faith, and the efficacy of Baptism. The child is not deaf, merely dumb for awhile.2 The questions and answers witness to the Spirit-given faith of the child. Finally, the CW rite deputizes everyone present in the service to some kind of a sponsorial role, regardless of who they are. Let the sponsors be the sponsors. Baptism is not a congregational rite, but rather a rite of the church and the baptized.


Pasting rites together means the elimination of salutary things. Fears about the length of Sunday morning services, which are not altogether unjustified, mean that both of the rites co-joined will suffer, for some things simply must be chopped to keep things at a reasonable length. When the CW version is compared to the Luther rite, one sees how drastic the recension really is. Missing are the Naming, the exorcisms (as if they had a chance in hell anyway), the Flood Prayer, the Our Father, the renunciations, the questions about faith (for the infant rite), and the Creed.  This minimalist approach to the rite of Baptism leaves us with a curious hybrid disconnected in many ways from the tradition of the Luther revision. Not that this matters much to most folks. The current practice is what they are used to, and something they like. Everyone loves babies and it's nice to know that the church is growing. However, this egocentric approach to worship ("I like it!"), which plagues all of Lutheranism, fails to take a larger, churchly view of things.


One wonders if the deficiencies of the CW rite were recognized by the Commission on Worship, for an alternate rite (Holy Baptism II) will be included in the agenda, which will be published next year. Baptism II resembles the rite in the old agenda, and, as the introductory rubric reads, "...may be used in place of Holy Baptism I or for a private Baptism."3 Baptism II contains a version of the Flood Prayer (albeit slimmed down), includes the Creed and the Our Father, and makes provision for the use of a baptism garment and a candle. However, the exorcisms and the questions addressed to the candidate are not included. The introductory remarks are as didactic as those in Baptism I. There are exhortations to the parents, sponsors, and the congregation. The exhortations are preachy and go in the way of the Law. Such exhortations come from the era of Rationalism, which viewed Baptism as the start of a long process of education. The exhortation addressed to the parents states, "Dear parent(s), our Lord Jesus Christ, in instituting Baptism, not only commanded that children should be baptized, but that they should be taught to obey everything he has commanded us. I, therefore, ask you...." The Protestant spin on the word "obey", which fails to understand the nuance of the word threvw, leaves the sentence open to misunderstanding.4 Unfortunately, this rite is also designed to precede the Divine Service. Given the length of the rite, time-conscious presiders might be tempted to reserve baptisms for "non-Communion Sundays." (Finally, a reason to continue the modern tradition of the dry Mass!)


In contrast, the stand-alone rite allows baptisms to take place on any day, rather than just on Sunday, offering more opportunities for scheduling. It provides the opportunity for direct, informal catechesis of any unchurched persons who attend, as the rite is being explained prior to the baptism. The rite is not bound to a set service time, and so makes allowances for those who are late. Most importantly, if the Luther rite is used, then a richness is added to the occasion. 


The Tauffbuchlin


One of the most significant aspects of Luther's reformation was his careful revision of the rites, which comprised the Liturgy of the church. The Baptism rite received his attention in 1523, and this revision was followed by another in 1526, known as the Tauffbuchlin (the Little Baptism Book). These revisions can be described as a scraping away of the barnacles, which had accrued over the centuries.  A comparison of the two revisions reveals that the 1526 rite is much leaner than its predecessor. Eliminated are such things as placing salt into the child's mouth (salt denoting wisdom) and the priest's blowing beneath the child's eyelids? during the first exorcism (the exsufflation). In most cases this paring down was not an effort to deal with false practices, but to reduce things that obscured Baptism itself and were not essential to the Sacrament.5 As Luther wrote in his introduction to the revision, "For assuredly Baptism can be performed without all these, and they are not the sort of devices from which the devil shrinks or flees."6 However, the Reformer's pruning was judicious. Luther's clear understanding of the Gospel and the sacramental theology of the Bible, his catholicity, and his cautious approach resulted in a rich, full, and meaningful rite. His revision became extremely popular in his day and has influenced baptismal rites down to our own day, even outside Lutheranism. As an example, the Baptism rite produced by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer for the Church of England (1549) shows the direct influence of the Tauffbuchlin, especially in its inclusion of the famous Flood Prayer (the Sintflutgebet).





What follows is an example of how an adaptation of the Luther rite is employed in the congregation served by the author. This might serve as a pattern for those interested in this rite. Obviously no two congregations or worship spaces are the same, and so allowances must be made for local circumstances. Just the same, the following description might serve to answer some initial questions. Obviously, the principal resource for this service is Volume 53 of the American Edition of Luther's works (pp 106-109). This service, interspersed with the Reformer's remarks, should be consulted when reviewing the rite described below. It should be noted that the pastor, in the example to be cited, is assisted by a server or acolyte. The server is vested in an alb or in a cassock and surplice. The server helps to prepare for the baptism, carries a paschal candle or processional cross during the movement to the font, and holds the missal during the baptism. Incidentally, this is a good way to initiate an acolyte program in a parish.


The Luther rite begins at the church doors, or in the case under consideration, in the narthex. In the middle of the service the movement of the baptismal party is to the font, symbolizing the child's rescue from Satan and the world (liturgical west) and his entrance into the church (liturgical east - paradise). The service begins with the Pax, followed by the questions, "What do you seek?" and "What is your name?" This is followed by the first exorcism. To date, all contemporary published rites do not include the exorcism.7 This is unfortunate, for this is a powerful testimony to the Fall and Original Sin. Its jarring force serves as a needed catechesis to our post-modern world. Next comes the signing of the cross. When the sign of the cross is related to our baptism, it loses superstitious connotations. Its use by pastors and laity is a salutary custom, which deserves to be reinstated in the Lutheran Church. The Luther rite continues with two collects, the second being the longer of the two. This is the famous Flood Prayer, which reflects the baptismal typology of the Old Testament pericopes of the Easter Vigil. The Flood, the Red Sea deliverance, and the Baptism of Christ are all referenced in this wonderful prayer. The second, or greater, exorcism follows the collects (Just to make sure we got 'em!). The account of Jesus blessing the little children in St. Mark is read as the Gospel. The Our Father is prayed, with the pastor's hand on the head of the child (as in the exorcisms).


The baptismal party now moves to the font. Again, local circumstances will determine just how this is done. With a 70-foot aisle to contend with, and with the long-standing practice of music covering clerical movement, we followed the suggestion of another rite, which we reviewed, and sing a hymn during the movement to the font. Our choice was "We All Believe in One True God" (CW 270, the Tobias Clausnitzer version of the Credo rather than the more difficult Luther version). The first stanza is sung in the narthex, with the second providing "traveling music", and the third stanza sung at the font.


The service at the font is similar to the Luther rite, with these changes: Following another adaptation of a rite, which we reviewed, we have added the anointing with oil, acknowledging its long-standing use in Scripture and church history. At this point, the words spoken by the pastor in the Luther rite, while the baptismal robe is placed on the child, are moved to the anointing. The symbolism here is that the child has been "Christenized", that is, anointed with Christ.  In addition, a candle, symbolizing Christ the Light of the world, is given to the godfather. We did not include the bestowal of the baptismal robe, though its symbolism of Christ's righteousness is most appropriate. The service ends with a collect and the Benediction. The rite is printed in an ordo in an 8x14 format. The baptismal candles can be purchased in cases of 24 at many Christian supply houses. In addition, a banner, with the child's name and date of baptism, is also provided. Those who have witnessed this rite have commented on its reverence and symbolism. The catechesis given to those assembled that day precludes any misunderstanding about what is sacramental and what is symbolic in the rite.


While the editors of this journal commend the Luther rite to our readers, we realize that a host of circumstances will preclude a uniform Lutheran rite. Just the same, we rejoice that the Sacrament is still held in high regard by our people. Here, with the economy of holy words and action, man steps aside, and we see grace at its most gracious! Therefore, we would encourage all Lutheran pastors to preach their people to their baptisms, so that when assaulted by the old evil foe, they might reply with their namesake, "Baptizatus sum!"   §



The Reverend Peter Berg does his baptizing at Our Savior Evangelical-Lutheran Church in ChicagoIllinois.  This article was written for the October 2003 issue while Fr. Berg was rostered Wisconsin Synod.



While Luther insisted that the year was 1484, Melanchthon calculated the birth date as 1483, based on a horoscope, which he worked out for his colleague, a favor which earned the Reformer's ridicule.

2 One of the objections to the questions addressed to the child was that they preceded the actual baptism, assuming faith on the part of the child apart from the Sacrament. Luther was not interested in a "moment of presence" debate in regard to Baptism. The rite is saturated with the Word of God, and where the Word is so is the Spirit, and so is faith. The rite is the very incubator of faith. Therefore, the questions were quite appropriate.

3 The word "private" should be reserved for emergency baptisms at which the essentials of the name of God and water are used apart from a formal rite. Formal rites are the public property of the church whenever they are used, whether they occur with a congregation present or not.

4 This word does not denote the Protestant "walk the walk", but rather has the emphasis of carefully attending to or holding on

to the teachings of Christ.

5 For an excellent overview of the history of the baptismal rite and baptismal practices, see Fr. Charles Cortright's "Ego Te Baptizo...The Church's Liturgy as Instrument of the Baptizing God." delivered at the Symposium of Holy Baptism, Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, September 23 and 24, 2002 A.D. Also Dr. David Scaer’s “Baptism” in the Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics Series, Volume XI, Editor Dr. John Stephenson.

6 AE 53, p. 102.

7 The lone exception is the proposed baptismal rite for the agenda, which will accompany the new hymnal being produced by the worship commission of the LCMS. This rite comes closest to the Tauffbuchlin.



Letters to the Editor 



The above article generated this interesting exchange.


Milton Gibbs writes in regards to the article "Holy Baptism: Revisiting the Rite",


I can see it all now, baptism at Peter Berg's church. Picture, if you will, a screaming child with diaper full to almost overflowing, distraught parents, and a congregation that wonders, every time, why the elders allow this spectacle to go on. After all John the Baptist had only the muddy old Jordan to do his baptizing in. He probably spins in his grave every time Pastor Berg sets out to baptize an infant. Just thought I'd bring it up.


8MM Dear Mr. Gibbs, I can assure you that Blessed John is resting peacefully in his grave. The scene which you fabricated has not occurred at any of the baptisms which I have been privileged to perform. (And, what do spoiled britches have to do with the rite?) Our discerning elders understand that there are 2000 years of church history between John the Forerunner and our age. Dr. Luther acknowledged that august history in his cautious revision of the baptismal rite. If you could witness this reverent rite, my guess is that you would be writing differently and we would be spared your indelicate remarks. We Magpies, you see, are sensitive fellows (PMB). §



And the above exchange generated this response.


Milton Gibbs, among other things, wrote,


To my confused brothers in Christ:  I have read, re-read, re-read, and re-read Peter Berg's baptism practice as outlined in the MM [Vol 1:4] and I do not change my mind one bit. Methinks you protest too much.  My original e-mail message stands. And, now I see that he is in the colloquy program of the LCMS. What's with this guy? Or is there two of him?(God help us if there is).


Since you are not adverse (sic) to letting your message out I will send what MMs I have to WELS pastors, friends of mine, and they can see first hand what the WELS bashers are up to.


The MM could be doing some good for the WELS if it was more edifying, but its object seems to be stultifying the church and spreading the notion that the WELS is anything but Scriptural. The MM is a depressing journal and it has lost all credibility with me. Somebody once said, "You can fool some of the people all of the time, etc, etc, etc."  Sorry.


8MM Dear Milton. Indeed we are confused. For again, you confuse, indeed mystify us, with your comments about the article on Luther’s Baptism rite and so we can't really respond except by saying, again, "huh?"  I can assure you, though, and am certain, that there is only one of him (Fr. Peter Berg), and - saints be praised! - we can finally agree, thank God for that!  Although, there is that cloning thing you know....


You note that we seem to be "spreading the notion that the WELS is anything but Scriptural".  The words and practices of various people and churches in the WELS we have critiqued stand for themselves.  Critics from within the church throughout the ages have suffered the same charge, being troublers of Israel, boars in vineyards, prancing magpies, liturgical lug nuts, WELS bashers et cetera, ad hominem, ad nauseam. However, any church that resents, cannot stand up to, refuses, is unable to answer criticism is one that puts its trust in princes, any pastor or teacher who does makes himself pope, and any laymen who lets them only fools himself. By the way, I believe it was Abraham Lincoln.  And no, Milt, we won't try to fool you again. We needn't.


If you would like we can send you a copy of the so-called Luther baptism rite and you can tell us what it is in there that you object to, just let us know, that is unless you have a copy of the Lutheran Confessions that rightly includes it (see Kolb-Wengert's edition, p. 371ff) (JWB).





Milton Gibbs wrote:


You’re never wrong, are you?


8MM  Not often (JWB).