Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Baptism – Part 4

Hey Bryan,

Thank you for the insights you have provided on the topic of Baptism. While I am still digesting what you have put together, and while you have a busy week, I wanted to respond to your question on my definition of what Baptism is. I will also provide a helpful summary of the four (4) different views on Baptism I found in Hayford's Bible Handbook.


Your short definition of Baptism is as follows: "baptism is an outward act that represents the inward reality of God's grace received." And so, if I may try to clarify the issue, you see Baptism as a wholly human act of obedience with this action being symbolic of the inward act and working of God.


Here is where the Lutheran definition of Baptism differs with your definition (this definition is from my Reformation Study Bible) – Lutherans and those of the Reformed faith view Baptism as a sign from God that signifies the inward cleansing and remission of sins (Acts 22:16, 1 Cor. 6:11, Eph. 5:25-27). Baptism is Spirit-wrought regeneration and new life (Titus 3:5), and the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit as God's seal testifying and guaranteeing that one will be kept safe in Christ forever (1 Corinthians 12:13, Ephesians 1:13-14). And so, this is the fundamental difference of our two positions – you view Baptism as merely a human act, while the Traditional view of Baptism is that it is from God.

And so, I hope this brings to your mind Jesus' question to the chief priests and elders when He asked them "The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?" (Matthew 21:25, Mark 11:30, Luke 20:4). This story reveals Jesus' authority as coming directly from God. As well as confirming that John's Baptism of Repentance is from heaven and not from man. And of course, this means that the New Testament of Believer's being Baptized into Christ is also from God and not man. This is all from God, and so again I think the Lutheran view of Baptism as coming from God, and not merely a human "symbolic" action is the best Biblical view.


I hope the following summary of the four main views of Baptism from Hayford's Bible Handbook is helpful:

The nature of baptism. Four positions on the nature of baptism and the early church's practice (Acts 2:41; 8:12, 36-39; 9:18; 10:48, etc.) exist among Christian groups.

The sacramental viewAccording to this belief, baptism is a means by which God conveys grace. By undergoing this rite, the person baptized receives remission of sins, and is regenerated or given a new nature and an awakened or strengthened faith. Both Roman Catholics and Lutherans have this view of the nature of baptism, born of their interpretation of John 3:5.

The traditional Roman Catholic belief emphasizes the rite itself—that the power to convey grace is contained within administration of the sacrament of baptism. The Lutheran view concentrates on the faith that is present in the person being baptized; awakened faith due to the preaching of the Word of God.

The convenantal viewSome other Christian groups view baptism as a sign and seal of God's covenant, or God's pledge to save man. That is, because of what He has done and what He has promised, God forgives and regenerates. Thus, on the one hand, baptism is a sign of the covenant; on the other, it is the means by which people enter into that covenant and its benefits are obtained.

In the covenantal view, baptism serves the same purpose for New Testament believers that circumcision did for Old Testament believers, these two procedures being linked in Colossians 2:11-12.

The symbolical viewThis view stresses the symbolic nature of baptism by emphasizing that baptism does not cause an inward change or alter a person's relationship to God in any way, but is a token or outward indication of an inner change already occurred in the believer's life. It serves as a public testimony.

This position explains that the church practices baptism and the believer submits to it because Jesus commanded that this be done and He gave us the example by being baptized Himself. Thus, baptism is an act of obedience, commitment, and proclamation (Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15, 16).

The dynamic viewIncreasing numbers of Christians see elements of truth in other viewpoints, but find their focus on the power (dynamic) inherent in the Holy Spirit's presence at baptism. While repentance and faith must precede the moment, and new birth has been experienced, water baptism is seen as a moment (1) at which a breaking of past bonds to sin may be severed, as Israel's oppressors were defeated—1 Cor. 10:2; (2) when a commitment to separate from the past life of carnal indulgence is made, as circumcision symbolized—Col. 2:11-15; and (3) when the fullness or overflowing of the Holy Spirit's power may be added to enhance the believer's power for witness and ministering (Acts 2:38, 39). This position sees baptism as both a witness and as an encounter. It is symbolic (burial to the past—Rom. 6:3-4) but it is also releasing and empowering for the future.


And so, Lutherans hold to the Sacramental View of Baptism, while Bryan I believe you hold to the 'Symbolic' view. If this is incorrect, please let us know. Otherwise, I will continue looking at the information you have provided, and I hope to have more for you on especially Infant Baptism later on. Yes, I have heard your teaching me about the Great Commission, and I will try and make sure I properly use it in my future posts - J. /s/Tom


Bryan and Meggan said...


That is a great summary of the popular views of baptism, though, as with most doctrinal issues, those camps quickly break down further. I do indeed hold to the symbolic view. And just to bait you further, in my study on this topic I had quickly determined that if I were to conclude that infant baptism was the biblical position, I would actually fall into the covenantal view! Now would that have been for the better or the worse?

In response to you final paragraph on the Lutheran definition of baptism, I would need to sit down and parse it further, but it seems to me that we need to distinguish between water baptism and Spirit baptism. As is apparent in the difference between John’s baptism and Christian baptism, when the Bible uses the word “baptism,” it could refer to a few different baptisms. One of those baptisms is the concept of being baptized in the Spirit (cf. Acts 1:5). Your definition for baptism seems to blur the different categories.

In regards to John’s baptism, a better and more common understanding of it “coming from heaven” is that the command to be baptized originated with God, not John. In other words, John’s baptism was not something man made, and thus has the authority of man behind it. Instead, the command to be baptized came from God, and thus obedience to that command is obedience to God.

It would be like me telling my church that we all need to go get a tattoo that says, “I love God.” The church members rightly ought to ask, “Why? By whose authority is Bryan saying this? Is this just something Bryan wants me to do, or is this something God wants me to do? Where is the command to be tattooed coming from?”

John went around calling the nation of Israel to repent because judgment was coming! And as a sign of the individual’s repentance, the person was baptized by John (“baptism of repentance”; Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3, etc). Well, the people rightly should have asked, “Why? By whose authority is John saying this? Is this just something John wants me to do, or is this something God wants me to do? Where is the command to repent coming from?”

In the context Jesus is showing rather slyly that his authority is from heaven, and so the analogy is that John’s authority too came from heaven. So, I agree that Christian baptism (different from John’s remember, but I’ll grant it to you here) is “from heaven” in the sense that the authority behind the practice of baptism is from God. That in no way necessitates that there is some mystical event(s) occurring at baptism. So I, according to the context of Matt. 21, Mark 11, and Luke 20, see “Baptism as coming from God.”

One last item I thought of regarding the necessity of baptism for salvation. In 1 Corinthians 1:17 Paul said that he was sent by Christ to preach the Gospel, not to baptize. According to Lutheran theology, of what worth would Paul’s missionary work be if baptism is necessary for salvation? Paul did baptize, but he plays that down to the point where he almost wishes he didn’t baptize anyone (see the context of 1 Cor. 1)! How does that passage square with the Lutheran view of baptism? Paul’s supreme desire was to preach the Gospel so that people could believe and experience salvation. Baptism as necessity doesn’t seem to fit in with Paul’s formula for salvation.

Again, thanks for the discussion. I trust it is sharpening many readers in their understanding of this issue.


edward oleander said...

Hello again! Another long semi-coherent post coming...

As you can see from the time of these responses, I'm not getting much else done that I meant to tonight, but what the heck... Any discussion of the foundation beliefs separating symbol from substance is worth an evening's time... Once again I'm glad this has been kept up, even though it's already past bedtime...

First a disclaimer that I should have posted with the first response. I know that as an unbeliever and sideline quarterback, it is inevitable that some of what I say will be offensive to some listeners. Hopefully, at least you two, Tom and Bryan, understand that I mean no disrespect or insult, but I acknowledge that it may be impossible to avoid, as even after 30 years, the lines are sometimes blurry to the outsider. Your discussions are supremely concentrated to within the context of believers, and my only purpose here is to introduce ideas of which I'm sure you're aware, but might not be allowing into your thought chain. I'm here to rattle that chain, and maybe learn a thing or two myself as I play Devil's Advocate and Eternal Cynic.

It should be no surprise that I once again take side with the view that baptism is wholly a symbolic act of man (Tom's Symbolical View below).

Now, if I were a believer, I might say that at one point, God heard his name being tossed about, took a look at what was happening in the river below him, and decided it was a good thing, thereby putting some teeth behind it. I think that comes colourly, if not technically, close to the Dynamical View (Okay, I like making up words) listed after the Symbolical one above.

This dynamical view seems a goodly compromise between the the two opposing camps. It acknowledges the earthly origin of the practice, while still allowing for God to have a current and active roll in the process as it has become today.

So, of course, it must be wrong.

God isn't really known for brokering compromises, and on the rare occasions humans do something that pleases him, there are usually a couple different versions of him telling us about it. I've never heard reference of such a thing, so as nice as it sounds...

This raises a question, O scholars: Except during John's baptism of Jesus, is there anywhere in the Bible where God himself makes any commentary on the matter directly? It wouldn't change my own personal theory, but it would be interesting to know. I believe ALL quotes from God were placed there by human writers, but the wording and tone those authors use can tell you a great deal about their motivations, personal piety, and general culture, so please let me know.

Okay, here's the part where I turn your sacred beliefs into little, squishy bits. Again, please believe me that any offense is unintentional ham-handedness on my part, not intentional disrespect. I only make a single pass at these things, so my wording isn't always at its most eloquent...

I see major problems with God coming up with the idea of baptism and then telling us to do it. The first is that for THE WATER ITSELF to convey some actual blessing, or to be physically necessary for salvation, smacks of idolatry. I'm surprised this hasn't come up already. Be stating that some of God's grace is actually IN the water, or delivered BY the water, gives the inanimate THING the powers of God himself. That view would be perfectly consistent with the more Pagan groups that imbue water directly with Spirit for their own worship, but it sounds odd coming from Christians.

This is where my earlier statement about Christianity SOUNDING like good storytelling comes back into play. For the water to be necessary or convey actual grace/blessing is inconsistent with the FLOW of the mythology as a whole. This is crucial and I don't know if i can convey it correctly, but: Christianity has many instances where the FACTS that are given are inconsistent with the over-all message (like Joshua killing entire peoples including innocents and even animals). There will always be inconsistencies in the story content because a mythology is a tying together of many separate stories into a supposed whole.

BUT!!! The STORYTELLING rhythm and flow can be made consistent almost all the way through the Bible, IF you make interpretations like the Symbolical View. When seen this way, the "story" of baptism fits into the whole in a much smoother fashion. This has always been crucial when storytellers are telling stories that they want to be repeated as FACTS...

Think that was blasphemic? Let's revisit my statement above where I say that all quotes from God were written by humans. WHY would I say that, knowing how it will be received on this blog? Two reasons. 1) Because I am a huge fan of William of Ockham, and 2) People love to lie.

The Stanford School of Journalism concluded in a 2002 study that 71% of all people have knowingly embellished a story to make it more entertaining, or to make themselves seem to be better informed than they were. That same study found that 59% of us have attributed a quote of their own to a famous source, just to give the words more credibility.

Wow... sounds impressive... except that I just made it up. I know that the above things happen a lot, and that pile of bull-hockey made it sound great, which only proves my point. A LOT of people, who think they have a great peice of advice for the world, will attribute it to someone famous to give it credibility. Even more people change or embellish a verbal story, many intentionally, many not. The effect is the same. A normal story becomes an epic myth over time. In a world with few literate people, the truth is subject to even more distortions.

I recently (true story this time) saw a program on the Discovery Channel about Moses as a military commander. He took advantage of a series of disasters (that all followed in a fairly believable chain of events, and lead the Jewish people out of Egypt. The Pillars of Fire and Smoke were easily explained, as were the escape across the Reed Sea (not the Red Sea...). The subsequent 40 years was explained in military terms, along with Joshua's beginning of the conquest of Caanan. It made brilliant sense, and was explainable in earthly terms. This makes it more believable to me than the version in Exodus.

A story of a couple of fisherman barely swimming to shore in a freak storm isn't very interesting... but a story of them being saved by a man walking on water??? Now... I'll make the story more believable by making the star Jesus of Nazareth, who is already thought to be performing miracles... and the stories grow... and grow... and grow. Now you have a simple carpenter who preaches a message of peace and salvation. He hears these stories being circulated about him. He denies some, because they are verifiable and it makes him seem humble. Others he allows to circulate and even grow, because it furthers a VERY worthy message (he believes) about how people should live.

Unfortunately, the whole thing gets out of hand, and he gets crucified. Now his followers really believe in the peace his way of life could bring, so they bribe the guards into letting them steal his body (despite laws against it, corruption WAS endemic at the lower ranks), and these well-meaning followers perpetuate the idea that their carpenter was taken up to heaven, and then provide "witnesses" who said he predicted it. The movement flourishes with many people contributing "sighting" of Jesus for years afterwards (kind of like Elvis and Bigfoot, no?). Again, their stories get out of hand, and most of the original followers run afoul of the authorities. A couple believe in their message peace enough that they willingly die to promulgate it. Similar stories are made up to cover the rest, and the foundations of future Christianity are set...

to me, this scenario, when set in the right time period, has an excellent chance of explaining the beginnings of Christianity in a believable fashion, without actually involving God. Putting an all-loving, all-powerful Christian God into ANY explanation makes it the most complex and convoluted explanation possible, and so has a lesser likelyhood of being true.

Now apply this concept to the other plot-lines in the Bible. It's easy to see well-meaning people who really believed in baptism to give the credit and the DEMAND for it, to God... They put words into God's mouth, because that's how it works with the God of Abraham: If it doesn't come from God, it doesn't have value or credibility. So now, EVERYthing important comes from God. Proverbs is full of stuff that you can't see God really wasting a lot of time on... But giving CREDIT to God gives it authority, and some of the glory reflects back on whoever gave the creds to God (denying that glory with proper humility can make the reflection even brighter). That, my friends, is how it all stacks up to a student of human psychology who works down in the 'hood...

Okay, guys... have at me. Show me something that can't be explained by the blurring effect of time, illiteracy, and human psychosocial proclivities. Notice I didn't even bring up the possibility of evil minds trying to manipulate gullible disciples and illiterate populations for money or better yet, for POWER... That can make my versions even more believable...

Enough for tonight... I have clinic with some really really cold street folks in 7 hours...