Wednesday, October 19, 2016

What Baptism Is Not—Merely a Symbol

Philip Baptizing the Eunuch
I have read many treatises on baptism, all of which attempt to define what it is and does.  One expects that approach as a sign of good rhetorical skills; however, my post presents the topic from the opposite direction, to wit, baptism is not merely the external demonstration of an inward reality.  Please do not think that baptism is not a symbol, but my goal is to demonstrate that more is occurring than just a demonstration as posited similarly to Millard Erickson.
Baptism is, then, an act of faith and commitment that one has been united with Christ in his death and resurrection, that one has experienced spiritual circumcision.  (Christian Theology 1110)
I agree with this statement, but it falls short.  To that end, let us look at a familiar passage.
Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.  (1 Pet 3:21-22)
For purposes of this post, I will not address the main clause “baptism … now saves you.”  Rather than dealing with the varied interpretations, I will focus on the dependent clause which follows looking first at the negative component, then the positive.

Not as a removal of dirt from the flesh – The first part of the clause signifies that someone could misunderstand what is intended to be cleansed.  The Mosaic Law prescribed ritual washings that actually cleaned people, offerings, utensils, etc. of whatever uncleanness needed to be removed.  Teachers of the Law added to washings during the Second Temple period in order to maintain external purity:
For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash.  And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.  (Mark 7:3-4)
But as an appeal to God for a good conscience – This where Judaism failed, as Mark alludes to above.  During their ministries, both John and Jesus preached repentance.  Hearers who understood their need for cleansing from sin responded by faith and were baptized.  Confession of sin was exhibited with the appeal to the promise of God for acceptance.  To go back to the Mosaic Law example, the effect on the object washed left it useful in relation to holy things and now applied to the repentant sinner.  There was a change of position.  He who was once separate from a holy God and His dwelling place becomes holy and is useful in His service.

As we can see there is something active happening in baptism, but this is not the only place where we see this.  Turning to the apostle Paul, we note the following acts of identification, death, and new life:
In addition, For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  (Gal 3:27)

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.  (Rom. 6:4)

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.  (Col 2:11-12)
Each of these passages state that something actively occurs to the person who is baptized when it is performed.  This is the clear testimony of Scripture.  More is happening than what has become simply a demonstration (and, sadly, sometimes a sideshow) to encourage other believers.  I encourage the reader to compare what is commonly offered as a generally accepted summary statement on baptism against the biblical texts.  When we reduce this act to mere symbolism of a decision theology, we denigrate the character and work of God actively working in the one baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


Todd T. W. Daly said...

Good stuff Steve! You may have kicked the hornet's nest with this post, but I think your comments/observations are very good. It reminds me of something I recently read by James K. A. Smith: "Baptism isn't primarily a way for us to show our faith and devotion. As with worship more generally, God is the agent here." (You Are What You Love, . 114). Sadly, we evangelicals have made baptism more about us than about God.

Steve Bricker said...

Todd, that post had been percolating for awhile. I figured I would get strong reactions both for and against.

C.M. Dwyer said...

Very nice Steve. I wonder if you found in your research the differentiation between the "baptism of the Spirit" and water baptism. Do you find that there is ground for such a distinction in Scripture?

Steve Bricker said...

Casey, I did not consider that for this post; however, I have reconsidered how to view the Holy Spirit's work in the NT. The general feeling (I use that word purposefully) of the Holy Spirit's work is of immediacy so that the Spirit's work in the book of Acts (and the NT in general) should always be a mystical presence or work. While this indeed happens, the pattern seems to be more of decisions and work in the authority of the Spirit derived from a proper understanding of Scripture. I need to revisit that.

John Wiers said...

The question of the distinction between water baptism and the baptism of the HS really is a variation on the question is baptism merely symbolic as Steve discussed above or is baptism a means of grace?

That further breaks down to the question of what sort of means of grace. Most modern evangelicals deny that either baptism or the Lord's Supper are means of grace. Historically most Christians, including most Reformational Protestants have said both are indeed means of grace. The further issue that divides Reformational Protestants is whether baptism, to stick with the question at hand, is a means of grace that regenerates or a means of grace that assures. The Lutheran tradition says the former, the Reformed tradition that latter.

In other words the classic Reformed approach to baptism is that it does not regenerate the one baptized, but it is a sign of God's grace to the one baptized, assuring the Christian that God is for him/her. It is not primarily a sign of our faith, but a sign of God's grace to us. Baptism is about what God says, not what we do. In one sense some may argue that it's a weaker idea of means of grace than what Lutherans, for example, argue for. However, it is still a means of grace-- assuring grace. This fits with what Steve has written above. In spite of all the claims made by modern evangelicals, nowhere in the New Testament does it say that baptism is a sign of what we do. It always points to what God does. That's why Reformed theologians say it is a means of grace. God is always gracious to his children in Christ and baptism speaks of Christ and the gospel, not our faith. Certainly faith is necessary for the grace signified and sealed by baptism to be of actual benefit, but baptism is about the grace of Christ and not primarily about our faith.

By the way, this lies behind the reasons why Reformed churches baptize infants. They, too, are promised grace because of the covenant, as seen in the covenant sign of circumcision instituted to Abraham, who is the spiritual father of all believers. For more on this, check out any standard Reformed exposition of baptism.

Thanks for exploring this, Steve. Hope I didn't overwhelm with the length of my comments.