Saturday, January 26, 2008

Baptism I

At Olivia's prompting, I'm starting to put down in words what I believe about baptism (and perhaps, later, the Lord's Supper). Like all good theological expositions, the best are probably the most concise. When someone needs to use a ton of verbage, he probably doesn't know what he's talking about (enter: most philosophers). Yet being a verbal processor, I seem to lack the ability to state what I want to say in a few, well-thought words. As I strive for brevity and clarity, forgive my drifts into locquaciousness.

The Bible isn't concrete about its meaning and practice.

Until Ulrich Zwingli broke with historic church teaching and practice in the 1500s, both the Eastern and Western churches had seemingly always practiced infant baptism and viewed it as a great communication of God’s grace to sinful humans. Zwingli and the Anabaptists, with their resulting baptism only of professing believers, were a new phenomenon. But are they wholly baseless in their theology, especially in light of the Reformation’s cry, Sola scriptura? I think not. The reality is that the biblical instances of the word “baptism” and “water” and “washing” and the like are fairly ambiguous.

(1) The Acts of the Apostles shows many new converts to Christianity being baptized, with a belief-then-baptism order. Accordingly, all churches unanimously agree that adult converts who have not grown up in the “covenant community” of the church need to receive baptism when they confess their faith in the Lord Jesus. But Acts is silent about children born within the church to believing parents. Valid arguments cannot be made from silence (i.e., "because it doesn't say this, it clearly cannot say this"). We must always have positive arguments for or against something.

(2) Acts does mention explicitly the baptism of whole households (16:15, 33). However, two things are not mentioned: whether or not children were present or included in the “household”; and whether or not everyone in the household had confessed faith in Christ. The varying translations of these passages allow for varied inferences. (In the aforementioned passages the NIV leaves one thinking that personal faith of each member was involved, while the ESV gives the impression that the faith of the household’s head was the prime element, leading to others’ salvation.)

(3) Passages referring to baptism are explicitly and strongly tied to rebirth, renewal, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, faith, repentance, forgiveness, water, and washing (e.g., Acts 2:38-39; 22:16; Rom. 6:3-4; Gal. 3:26-27; Eph. 5:26; Col. 2:11-12; Tit. 3:5; 1 Pet. 3:21). It’s impossible to separate baptism from these blessings secured by Jesus' redemptive work. However, there is no explicit explanation in Scripture of whether baptism effects and confirms these things in the life of the believer, or whether baptism is the response of the believer to his previous Spiritual rebirth and ingrafting into the body of Christ. I tend to embrace the former view.

(4) Several passages using “water” and “washing” (loutron; literally, “bath”), along with “enlighten”, have traditionally been interpreted as baptismal references. (For “water” and “washing”, see John 3:5; Acts 22:16; Eph. 5:26; Tit. 3:5; Heb. 10:22; for “enlighten” see Heb. 6:4; 10:32). However, valid explanations of these apart from baptism exist that do not demand baptism as the referent. But I must agree with Dr. Michael Horton when he warns, “one bends over backwards to explain away passages in which [water] baptism is explicitly linked to regeneration and forgiveness of sins” (God of Promise, p. 153).

For these reasons I view baptismal doctrine and practice with a degree of charity, recognizing that one cannot be too dogmatic about the interpretation of these passages. Yet at the same time we’re seeking to be faithful to the God-breathed canon alone as our standard, there are two caveats to keep in mind. (1) Biblical interpretation can never be divorced from the Spirit-filled church through whom and for whom it was written, and among whom it is lived. Truth is guarded by the Spirit’s work in the church, and therefore we have creeds and confessions that guard orthodox interpretations and practices. Sola scriptura means that our beliefs are based in Scripture alone, but not in Scripture that is alone. (2) Because the goal of the Scriptures is the life of God’s people, I think we must consider the implications of our baptismal theology and what effects result in the life of the church. Where the Bible is ambiguous regarding a matter, we ought to ask, all else being equal, Does this exalt the free and sovereign grace of the holy, triune God who acts in history to redeem the world? Does it lead us to boast in him alone—or is the emphasis on our decisions, works, and resources? Sola scriptura is not without soli Deo gloria.


Forthcoming posts will likely follow these topics:

(1) Laying the groundwork: seeing through my lenses. (2) Baptism is the NT counterpart of OT circumcision. (3) Baptism is therefore a sign and seal of the covenant of grace. (4) Baptism not only pledges mercy but also contains a warning. (5) Baptism involves mystery. (6) Baptism is eschatological. (7) Infant baptism is not only valid, but the most fitting expression of grace. (8) Baptism of believers alone can actually serve to undermine the function of baptism (but this is not true of all credobaptism). (9) All modes of baptism (submersion, pouring, or sprinkling) are appropriate.

If and when I continue these posts, know that they are simply a way for me to express what I currently believe. I am hardly an expert on such things, and my beliefs are always open to change.


Ted M. Gossard said...

Very good post, Andrew, and your plan is well thought out. You sound like a theological professor to me!

I agree with much of what you say here, and I need to keep reading (have been catching up on sleep more than I had planned to, today!).

Yes, we read Scripture with a theological paradigm hopefully well grounded in Scripture. And your point about our reading of Scripture and interpretations taking into account the interpretation of the Church through the centuries, I think is well taken. That's why, even though I don't buy infant baptism nor the theology underlying it, I respect it, and see it as a viable interpretation of Scripture.

The Reformers, when you read them and their arguments (e.g., Calvin's Institutes), you'll find that their practice is not entirely sola Scriptura, but is influenced and appeals back to the Church's practice, in places, not to Scripture. Though overall they are good on sola Scriptura, in general or in a relative way.

From what I've read, or remember, neither did "the radical reformers," the Anabaptist really practice sola Scriptura to the full, though their belief and practice may have been a stronger attempt to break from Church tradition deemed additional to Scripture.

The Reformers wanted to stand on Scripture. I think their mentality was to keep what seems verifiable from Scripture that was within the Church, along with that which while not supported by Scripture, is not violating Scripture. (too many words, and you did so well in saying alot in few!)

I want to add just one more point here: Yes, our faith should exalt God and not humanity, as to our belief and practice and interpretation of Scripture. But one cannot press that paradigm, as important as it is, to dictate the interpretation of Scripture. You say, your view of baptism more promotes God's working and the mystery in it, and his glory, therefore it is the right interpretation of Scripture. This kind of argument Calvin uses in reference to baptism in other ways- actually not as sound as you're dong- in places, but in itself proves nothing, I think, in the interpretation of Scripture, or passages about baptism.

But more later. (I've go to read up, and prepare for homegroup tomorrow evening).

Keep up the good work, brother. You are doing well. (and I'll be working on this some more, myself)

Ted M. Gossard said...

uh...I'd be better off to say that you say your paradigm of the glory of God gives more weight to the interpretation of baptism to which you hold...

Ted M. Gossard said...

I'd like to add this from reading and remembering past reading: I think it is tenous at best to put infant baptism in the first century, since there's no direct evidence from what's written. Nothing explicit.

Though it was cited earlier (after Didache- early second century), infant baptism did not take hold as the rule it appears until the early middle ages (AD 500). It makes me wonder if this was related somehow to the Constantinian revolution of the Church in which some beliefs and practices counter earlier beliefs and practices of Christians in prior centuries. I think there's truth in this, though wondering what a historical theological scholar, or scholars would say on it.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Good morning. One more from my barrage.

The practice of the historic church- east and west- had its beginning. It seems there comes a time when it's clear that this is what the church does, infant baptism- but this is not clear until around AD 500.

And the Didache (c 100) (early second century) mentions nothing of infant baptism; the baptism that is mentioned would have to be adults or those of age since fasting is called for for the ones to be baptized.

So it's better to call Zwingli and the Anabaptist's practice new FOR ITS TIME. And not surprising, since the people were getting new access to Scripture, wanted to go back to the sources and were questioning the authority of the Church.

It becomes clear afterwords, espeically with Origen (185-c254) and Tertullian (c155-230)- and probably true with Irenaeus (c130-202). I read in one place it was not the standard practice until the early middle ages, which begins AD 500. Another place I just read now states- and I'll pull the source this article quotes:

"The practice of infant baptism was unknown at this period (the first century). ... That not till so late a period as Irenaeus [c. 140-203 C.E.], a trace of infant baptism appears, and that it first became recognized as an apostolic tradition in the course of the third century, is evidence rather against than for the admission of its apostolic origin" (Augustus Neander, History of the Planting and Training of the Christian Church by the Apostles, 1864, p. 162)

Again though, while what the church practices is important as the pillar and foundation of the truth- (Timothy), neither is the church infallible, as we well know. Or else there would have been no Reformation, none of all the divisions we have among ourselves today and from the beginning as Protestants.

We take history in consideration, we weigh their interpretation of Scripture and the practice coming from it (e.g., good and bad or controverted among Protestants from Augustine alone- though much good, of course) and we go back to the Scriptures ourselves, hopefully in community and work on interpreting them with the help of the Spirit and considering but not being bound to all past interpretations.

Goodness. I end here. I don't like long posts and comments, but I figure you're patient enough, Andrew, to hang in there and listen, just as I want to listen well to you.

Again, I'm not thinking I'm teaching you, but setting forth what I beleive on the issue of baptism and why- just as you are doing.

Halfmom, AKA, Susan said...

Interesting comment you left on the hyperlinked blog. The timeline of change was what interested me most - how your life circumstances and the people you were around affected your belief system.

I really liked his byline, "In the end, the only question that really matters is whether Christ is telling the truth".

Andrew said...

I must admit that I am not well-read at all regarding early church history. Thanks for what you've pointed out.

Ted M. Gossard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ted M. Gossard said...


Your welcome (I failed to proof read and didn't like a rather small glitch in my deleted version of this comment.)

A couple great present day standards and good places to start are A History of Christian Thought: From the Beginnings to the Council of Chalcedon, Volume 1, revised edition by Justo L. Gonzalez, and Theology of the Reformers, by Timothy George. Both are written clearly without losing substance, and are good at giving us a decent understanding of the forming of Christian orthodoxy, and the other, of the Protestant Reformation.

I really need to read up on it more myself. There are certainly great books on people such as Calvin and Luther.