A reader has asked about the meaning of Hebrews 6.2 — “the doctrine of baptisms.”
To what does the author make reference? Does he allude to John’s baptism, Christ’s baptism, Holy Spirit baptism, the baptism of fire — or some other combination of baptisms?
And what is the significance of the plural, baptisms? Doesn’t Paul say there is only “one baptism” (Eph. 4.5)? These are surely well-conceived questions, deserving explanation.
There have been many kinds of baptisms (e.g., water, Spirit, fire, etc.), several of which were still in force when Paul composed the Ephesian letter.
The baptism with fire, for instance, alludes to the fire of eternal judgment against the wicked, with which Christ “burns up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Mt. 3.11-12). This baptism remains ever-extant (cf. Luke 16.19ff; 2 Peter 2.9, ASV; NKJV).
That said, please observe that Paul does not argue that there is only one kind of baptism (which would involve Eph. 4.5 and Heb. 6.2 in clear contradiction). Rather, speaking of those things which unite the disciples of Christ into the same “calling” (Eph. 4.1-3), the apostle argues there is one saving baptism, which unites us into the same profession (Christianity). Consider:
(1) There are many kinds of lords ("so-called"—1 Cor. 8.5), but only “one Lord” (Eph. 4.5a) that unites believers into a common salvation (cf. Acts 4.12);
(2) There are many kinds of faiths, but only “one faith” that saves (Eph. 4.5b);
(3) Equally so, there are many kinds of baptisms, but only “one” saving, uniting baptism (Eph. 4.5c).
Matthew Henry put it like this:
"One baptism, by which we profess our faith, being baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; and so the same sacramental covenant, whereby we engage ourselves to the Lord Christ” (566).
David Lipscomb concurs, saying:
“one baptism—one burial of him whose heart is purified by faith, who has been crucified with Jesus Christ to sin, that he may rise to walk in newness of life with the risen and glorified Savior” (73).
In short, there is only “one baptism” which unites believers into a common profession, purifying our hearts through faith — namely, baptism in water (in tandem with faith in the Spirit’s message, cf. Jn. 3.3-5; Titus 3.5). Noted Biblical scholar, F.F. Bruce, observes that:
“…baptism in the New Testament is always baptism in water unless the context shows it to be something else; that is to say, the word is always to be understood literally unless the context indicates a figurative meaning” (1973, 106).
Water baptism is the only baptism which saves us (1 Peter 3.21), provides us with the “remission of sins” (Acts 2.38; 22.16), places us into the fold of Christ (Gal. 3.26-27), making us his disciple (Matt. 28.19).
Hence, though there are several kinds of baptisms (plural), which accomplish various things, water baptism is the “one baptism” that unites us in the Spirit, gives us the bond of peace, and joins us in the same profession of faith (cf. Eph. 4.1-5).
With that in mind, then, there is no conflict between Ephesians 4.5 (one baptism) and Hebrews 6.2 (baptisms).
The Context of Hebrews 6.2
There are several contextual matters that contribute to the meaning of, “the doctrine of baptisms.”
First, Hebrew Christians are the audience of this letter. They are in danger of slipping back to the Old Covenant (Heb. 2.1-4; 3.12ff; 7.11ff; etc…). In order to combat this, the Spirit argues:
(1) Christ is better than the prophets (1.1-4);
(2) Christ is better than the angels, who gave the Law to Moses (1.5-14; 2.1-18);
(3) Christ is better than Moses (3.1-4.13);
(4) Christ is a better High Priest than Aaron (4.16-8.6);
(5) The New Covenant itself is superior to the Old (8.7-10.18).
Accordingly, the remarks leading up to Hebrews 6.2 — the doctrine of baptisms — stem from the backdrop of Judaism.
Second, the verses leading up to the passage in question (Hebrews 5.10-14) involve Jewish doctrine.
The author wants to tell his Hebrew brethren about how the priesthood of Christ came through the “order of Melchizedek” (5.10), but they were too “dull of hearing” (5.11) to understand the significance of that Old Testament principle.
The Hebrew Christians should have been skilled in understanding how the principles laid out in the Old Testament served as a foundation for the Christian age — the Old Testament was a “schoolmaster (one who trains and disciplines children to bring them to maturity) to lead us to Christ” (Gal. 3.24) — but, unfortunately, they were in need of learning the basics of that covenant — “the first principles of the oracles of God” (5.12) — all over again (5.12-14). They could not grasp the significance of Melchizedek’s priesthood because of their lack of “skill” in reading that “word of righteousness” (i.e., the Old Testament) for themselves.
Third, the “elementary principles of Christ” (Heb. 6.1), in this context, thus refers to those doctrines and principles which came from the Old Testament — the schoolmaster.
Of course, after Christ established the faith, the schoolmaster was no longer necessary (Gal. 3.25), and the OT was taken out of the way (Col. 2.14; Heb. 7.12; 8.13), though it is still “written for our learning” (Rom. 15.4).
It follows, then, that the “foundation of repentance…faith…baptisms…laying on of hands…resurrection…eternal judgment” each stem originally from the Old Testament (see especially Hebrews 11 for further clarification). They were given by God to the Hebrews to prepare them for the Christian age. But, unfortunately, when they read the Old Testament, they failed to grasp the connection.
The “doctrine of baptisms” (Heb. 6.2), therefore, refers to the various Jewish washings and immersions, which were prescribed in the OT — for example, the baptism of the bird to cleanse a leper ritually (Lev. 14.4-9); the seven baptisms (immersions) of Naaman the leper in the Jordan river (2 Kings 5.1-14); the various baptisms of the priests to become ceremonially clean (cf. Num. 19.7) etc.
Bruce suggests that some “baptist groups that flourished in Judaism at the beginning of the Christian era” also may have been included in this expression (1984, 115-116), though that is speculative at best. He mentions specifically the Qumran community, and the Jews in Rome, taking their cue from Numbers 19 and Ezekiel 36.25, as examples of such first-century Jewish baptisms. See my article on the meaning of baptism for added insight: “What Is Baptism?”
It is further noteworthy that the author in Hebrews 6.2 does not use the word, baptisma (regularly used in the New Testament for Christian baptism, and John’s baptism), but, baptismos. This same word is used of the Jewish ritual-purification of vessels — the “washing (baptismos) of cups, pitchers, copper vessels, and couches” (Mark 7.4) — and again in Hebrews 9.10, where the Old Covenant was “concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings (baptismos), and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation (i.e., the Christian age).”
Thus, the Old Testament teachings of baptisms paved the way for Christ and the New Testament — they were “symbolic for the present time” (Heb. 9.9) — serving as a foundation for Christianity and the “washing of regeneration” (Titus 3.5), or baptism in water “for the remission of sins” (Acts 2.38; 8.36ff; 22.16). The Hebrew Christians didn’t understand this point, and sought to leave Christ and go back to Moses. This was foolish, dangerous, and unnecessary.
No passage of Scripture, in its proper contextual light, has ever been shown to contradict another. While there is only “one baptism” which unites us in a common calling (Eph. 4.1-5), there are many other kinds of baptisms which serve other purposes as well (e.g., Hebrews 6.2).
Jewish baptisms, in particular, served as a “foundation” for the Christian era, enabling the Jewish people to comprehend the connection between faith, cleansing, and water in divine service, preparing them ultimately for Christ and eternal salvation.
May we, “if God permits” (Heb. 6.3), embrace these “elementary principles of Christ,” and, having fixed them firmly in our hearts, “leave” these ‘milky’ Jewish principles in order to “go on to” the ‘meaty’ Christian principles of “perfection” (maturation, 6.1) in the Lord. Only then will we be skilled enough in the “word of righteousness” to have our “senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (5.14).
Bruce, F. F. Answers to Questions. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1973. Bruce, F. F. The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids, MI: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984. Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Volume 6: Acts to Revelation. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2000. Lipscomb, David. A Commentary on the New Testament Epistles, Volume IV: Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians. Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate Co., 1963.