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Some loosely organized thoughts on baptism

July 26, 2013 1 comment

I’ve been prompted by an essay question, of sorts, for an application I’m currently (finally) finishing for a graduate program at a seminary in my area. It’s a Baptist seminary. Obviously, one of the distinguishing qualities of the Baptist denomination is its doctrine concerning baptism. Not being Baptist, I have been tasked to think deeply about a doctrine that had been previously inconsequential to my spiritual life. However, I’ve read a few articles on the subject as well as the corresponding biblical texts, and the doctrine has wormed its way to the front of my mind as an integral part of the Christian faith.

That said, these are a few of the conclusions that I’ve come to. NB: this will not be an extensively cited, academic work. It may be appropriate to term it “polemical”, although I’ve never been one to refer to someone as a polemicist. NB2: My writing is rusty, and I will choose to use my right of discretion with this post; i.e., I will not proofread it once I finish. I apologize in advance. I hope I’m sufficiently clear. I’m lazy tonight.

The doctrine of baptism is necessarily divided into two principal, interrelated qualities. These two qualities are the 1) “Spiritual” Baptism, or the “baptism of the Spirit“, and the 2) Physical Baptism. We mustn’t conflate the two qualities, as though they are or accomplish the same thing. They do not, and yet the biblical testimony is that of correlating distinction. That is, although spiritual baptism and physical baptism are distinct, they cannot be separated so wholly as to signify that the two qualities are actually two different doctrines. As an analogy, one could compare the spiritual baptism to the spark that ignites a flare from a flare gun, and the physical baptism to the flare itself. Both images correspond to the same action–shooting a flare gun–, and, fortuitously, the first leads to the second, as is the case in baptism.

Baptism corresponds to the Old Testament practice of circumcision, especially though not only in its dual qualities. In the same manner that the covenant people of God in the Old Testament were to practice circumcision in order to differentiate themselves from the non-covenant world, those in the New Testament are to practice baptism in order to differentiate them from the rest of the world. However, the spiritual quality underlying this practice is a promise made by God to “circumcise your hearts” in order that the people would love Yahweh (Deuteronomy 30:6), explained by Jesus as being the summation of the Law minus love for neighbor, and that the believer is buried and raised with Christ in baptism (Romans 6). The circumcision and baptism relationship is affirmed by classic Presbyterians.

Concerning the first of two qualities, the spiritual baptism may also be titled the baptism of the Spirit. I do not believe I am qualified to redeem that term from its abuse at the hands of many Charismatics, and so I’ll leave that to others. We can leave that discussion to this: the doctrine that the baptism of the Spirit is a post-conversion empowerment for ministry cannot be substantiated in any manner but eisegetical proof-texting. Rather, all believers do undergo spiritual baptism. It is not a normative state that ought to be pursued but a descriptive state of being that describes the state of all believers–the cover charge to get into the “Christian club”, as it were.

Spiritual baptism, rather, I believe is synonymous with being born again, or regeneration. So, where Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again, I hold that Paul speaks of the same occurrence when he talks about baptism. My reasoning to this correlation is that the movement in both images is similar. In both instances, we have a person who is emerging anew into the world, whether from “the womb” or from the waters of baptism. Compounding this correlation is the end given concerning the new birth by Jesus and baptism by Paul. In both instances, the reemergence of the individual either results in or is synonymous with new life. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life,” Paul, in Romans 6:4. And, in John 3:3-5, Jesus and Nicodemus have this exchange:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Nicodemus questions, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mothers womb and be born?”

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

Using baptism as the image of the new life over against “being born again” seems to have this advantage. The reemergence of the individual in baptism is explicitly preceded by the submersion into water. That is, baptism includes both submersion and reemergence, whereas the new birth touches merely upon the reemergence. If we hold to the standard biblical hermeneutic that we have a progressively more clear, though nonetheless inerrant, understanding of biblical doctrines from the patriarchs through the prophets to Jesus and finally culminating in the apostles, there is no tension in this correlation. The apostles expounded, or revealed, that which was hidden or shrouded in the Old Testament (which includes every single one of Jesus’ teachings prior to his death and resurrection, since “Testament” is more properly translated as “Covenant”, the new one of which [Jeremiah 31:31] did not begin until Jesus was raised).

Concerning the second quality of baptism, the physical baptism serves as a “sign and symbol”, to borrow Calvin’s language, of the regeneration that has occurred in the believer. The physical baptism serves as concrete imagery of several aspects of salvation. For example, baptism signifies being tied to the death of Christ in submersion and to his resurrection in emergence from the water. It also signifies the washing of regeneration through the water itself, that being impossible by the shadowed sacrament of circumcision. Physical baptism follows spirit baptism, in that it is undertaken by one who has taken hold of the promises of the gospel by grace through faith. For this reason, we are able to say that physical baptism is a normative state to be pursued by believers. That is to say, a physical baptism does not begin the Christian life but it ought to be part. Physical baptism ought also to be done through immersion in order to more clearly demonstrate what has occurred in the spirit of the individual. That is, he has gone into the grave with Christ and arisen anew. This imagery is not suited by aspersion (sprinkling) or affusion (pouring). However, I will not be dogmatic on this point; it’s far too minor, in my opinion, to quibble over.

As far as the baptism of infants and children is concerned, I do not have developed thoughts, and so I will leave that question for another post. As always, your feedback, criticisms, and questions are welcome.

Grace and peace

 

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