*Flowing out of previous exchanges that Joseph Porter and I have had over the meaning and significance of baptism this past year, we mutually decided that it might be helpful to take our discussion public here at the Fish Tank. Below you can read our initial thoughts, with Joseph taking the lead this time. In future weeks we will take turns leading off on a topic or passage, with the other responding. We hope many of you will join in this important conversation in the comments section each week!
“Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And God permitting, we will do so” (Hebrews 6.1-3).
In the first century, the writer of Hebrews considered repentance, faith, and baptism (along with the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment) to be “elementary teachings” (v. 1). It was his desire that the Church could leave behind such simple matters and mature beyond spiritual milk to spiritual food (Hebrews 5.12-13).
Two thousand years later, the Church has yet to be weaned off spiritual milk. Two thousand years later, it is my firm belief that the elementary teachings of yesteryear are, for most of us, far from elementary. Two thousand years later, the foundation must be laid yet again.
Baptism, according to Hebrews 6, is foundational. Nevertheless, nothing could be more varied than the theology and practice of baptism within contemporary Christianity. Some baptize infants, others adults; some baptize by immersion, others by sprinkling (aspersion) or pouring (afflusion); some believe they are saved at baptism, while others believe baptism is purely symbolic, an “outward sign of an inward grace.”
My counterpart Nick and I both agree on many things about baptism – for example, that baptism is necessary for believers and that it is connected, in some fashion, to Christ’s death and resurrection. Concerning more specific questions about baptism, however – most prominently, whether we are saved before baptism or in baptism (something about which I have written before) – we disagree.
With regards to this series on baptism, my hopes are twofold. Most obviously, it is my hope that this exploration of baptism can draw Nick, me, and our readers closer to the truth concerning baptism. More importantly, however, it is my hope that wrestling with the Scriptures can allow the Church to blossom through self-scrutiny and prepare herself for the solid food that She and the world so desperately need.
“The extent and nature of the grace which the New Testament writers declare to be present in baptism is astonishing for any who come to the study freshly with an open mind.” (G. R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament, p. 263)
“There is no gift or power which the apostolic documents do not ascribe to baptism.” (Adolf Schlatter, The Theology of the Apostles: The Development of New Testament Theology, Vol. 2)
While it will soon become clear that I view Joseph’s interpretation and understanding of baptism as going a good deal too far beyond the teaching of the New Testament on salvation, I feel compelled to begin by acknowledging that I have found myself admiring his diligence to take seriously what the Scriptures teach, regardless of where such an orientation may lead. Many believers whose views would be closer to my own on paper nonetheless fail to exhibit this virtue and are often so captive to their own pre-understandings and systematic theological systems that they fail to ever entertain fundamentally different convictions on baptism. Being on the right side of this issue does not justify the frequent lack of drive and attention given to the Scriptures. Indeed, while my own views on baptism fit much more comfortably within a classic Protestant framework, nevertheless I share Joseph’s conviction that much of the contemporary church in the West has radically undervalued and misunderstood the importance and role of baptism in the Christian life. And the rampant neglect shows in our shoddy communal practices. This is a dire problem, for one’s understanding of baptism is intimately tied up with one’s grasp of the Gospel itself. We cannot sever the two.
If we dare, as Beasley-Murray recommends, to approach the NT with an open mind and eager to glean our theology from its pages (shocking!), we ought to be utterly staggered at how central and vital baptism was for the early Christians–particularly in view of the comparitively weaker significance it receives from us today. Baptism was not a subsidiary issue in the early church on par with the question of what foods were clean or what days were holy (Romans 14). Ephesians 4:4-6 should fast disabuse us of any such notion.
The NT writers repeatedly turn to baptism to unpack and communicate the essence of the Gospel: that Jesus died for our sins and was raised up for our justification, and that moreover we are urgently called to repentance and faith in light of these new divine realities. Whatever else becoming a Christian means, it means participating in this death and sharing in this new life through the Spirit. In this series I hope to speak to those who hold a typically Protestant “symbolic” view as much as to anyone else. We simply need to take baptism more seriously than we have tended to of late. Here’s a test I think we should all occasionally apply to our own theological systems to evaluate their validity (or lack thereof): given what I believe about x, would I ever actually (and naturally without undue qualifications) speak or write the same way that the NT writers did about x? If not, that’s a problem.
Yet against Joseph, I am not persuaded that the water rite of baptism itself saves or spiritually operates on us internally apart from or in addition to faith. To flesh this out with an example, imagine a professing Christian who came to faith six months ago but who has not yet undergone water baptism—for whatever reason, whether due to lack of understanding, or bad theology in their particular community of believers, or whatever. This person would not, in my understanding, have the crucial experience of regeneration or salvation or adoption or reconciliation with God delayed until such a moment, assuming they truly had faith in Christ all along. Nor should such a one be treated by the community of believers as if that were the case, unless the new professing believer has been clearly presented with Jesus’ call to baptism and blatantly refused it.
By faith alone a person is united to the crucified and risen Christ and by faith alone he or she is graciously granted the indwelling Spirit by our Father. All obedience—including getting baptized—flows from such saving faith. Whatever else baptism does or represents in the New Testament, it does not occupy the role that only faith possesses in connecting us to Jesus. Of course, this problem arises for me (others do for Joseph): it sure sounds as if some passages are saying that baptism connects us to Jesus and saves us. Stay tuned for my explanations…
I conclude this initial post by pointing out several other important issues on which Joseph and I agree, before we begin to disagree in earnest next week! First, we both affirm that the hypothetical scenario I just described is absolutely foreign to the thought world and experience of the NT writers. An actual real-life professing Christian who is not baptized would be a contradiction in terms for the early church. Thus such a dilemma is both uniquely ours and (unfortunately) never addressed in the NT, for the same exact reason marauding pink elephants in crowded urban locales and the suspect moral status of country music are not given their due. This must constantly be kept in mind as we dialogue–we are dealing at times with contemporary issues that the NT writers did not foresee. Second, we both have a high view of the role of the Scriptures in theological formation, even as we also both hold a healthy dose of respect for the long history of the church’s collective—and often varied—teaching on baptism. Both sources must be in on the conversation, yet Scripture trumps Augustine and Athanasius (or Luther and Calvin, if you prefer). Third, neither of us holds that the water rite of baptism itself guarantees anything for the individual receiving it apart from the necessity of persevering faith in Christ and the obedience which flows from it, even until the end of one’s earthly life. Water baptism will not magically shield us from the holy judgment of God if we decisively turn away from Christ our King in unbelief or if we tread lightly on his commandments in perpetual disobedience (cf. I Corinthians 10:1ff). Fourth, baptism should be reserved for professing believers; we both view the practice of infant baptism as existing in significant tension with the meaning and significance of baptism in the New Testament and thus reject it.
Finally, let me encourage our readers to take some time to ponder these passages in the coming week in preparation for this series: Matthew 28:18-20, Romans 6:3-4, I Corinthians 1:11-17, 12:12-13, Galatians 3:26-27, Ephesians 4:4-6, Colossians 2:11-12, Hebrews 10:22, I Peter 3:21, and Acts 2:37-41, 8:12-13, 8:14-16, 8:35-40, 9:17-18, 10:44-48, 11:15-18, 16:14-15, 16:30-34, 18:24-19:7, 22:16