Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Wikipedia vs. Baptism

Where does one begin on the subject of baptism?

If there is a more misunderstood Christian practice in all of the New Testament, I cannot think what it might be. I suspect even the issue of speaking in ‘tongues’ can’t touch it with respect to the degree of confusion produced by the variety of teaching extant.

How widespread and how deeply rooted are the misconceptions about it? I suppose one might look at different denominational opinions on the subject and assess them one by one, but I’m really more interested in what the man on the street (and perhaps even in the pew) thinks than in esoteric positions held by theologians that have failed to make an impression on the masses.

So, to Wikipedia, our barometer of popular cultural understanding:
Baptism (from the Greek noun βάπτισμα baptisma) is a Christian rite of admission and adoption, almost invariably with the use of water, into the Christian Church generally and also a particular church.”
I’d maintain that while this definition represents a fairly common view in Christendom, it fails to accurately set out the teaching of Scripture. Which is kinda that only thing that matters, actually.

Really, the definition is wrong in just about every possible way.

To begin, we need to recognize that the Bible uses the word ‘baptism’ in several different ways. Conflating one with another can be a source of significant bewilderment, not to mention doctrinal error.

To give some examples, it speaks of ‘John’s baptism’, a physical baptism that signified repentance, then also a spiritual ‘baptism into Moses’ experienced by the nation of Israel, and even the ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit’, which is also not a physical baptism; no water at all is involved. The Lord even spoke of his death metaphorically as a ‘baptism’.

But these other, historical meanings and uses of ‘baptism’ are surely not what confuses many Christians today. None of these varieties of baptism tells us how believers should be baptized in 2014 and what baptism in the church age actually does or signifies.

So let’s stick to the subject of water baptism, which Wikipedia refers to as a ‘rite’.

Wikipedia’s definition may do an injustice to the teaching of the Bible, but it provides a concise way of setting out the differences between the word of God and popular thought.

‘A rite of admission and adoption’

Perhaps by ‘adoption’ our favourite encyclopaedia-by-committee means to say that in baptism one adopts a set of beliefs or an affiliation, but since they don’t explain the use of the word in their definition of baptism, there’s no real way to know. But adoption as set out in the Bible is not something associated with water baptism except in the most indirect sense. While the baptism of the Holy Spirit has been occasionally linked with the idea of adoption by followers of John Calvin, among others, it simply isn’t a Scriptural theme one would normally associate with water baptism.

But water baptism IS a rite of admission in this particular sense: that one is always baptized ‘into’ something. John’s disciples were ‘baptized into’ John’s baptism. Israel was baptized ‘into’ Moses. Being baptized ‘into’ something is a feature of every type of baptism.

Still, rather than ‘admission’, I’d prefer to use the words ‘identification with’. Water baptism is a deliberate choice to identify yourself with someone, be it John the Baptist or the Lord Jesus Christ. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance, but nobody called it ‘repentance baptism’; they referred to it as John’s baptism.

‘Almost invariably with the use of water’

This phrase needs to be rewritten as simply ‘invariably by immersion’ (or more correctly, submersion), which is to say without alteration, without exception, without option. Water baptism in the word of God inevitably and only occurs in a body of water, not by drizzling, sprinkling or spraying. The Greek word itself means to dip, and to do so thoroughly. Every water-baptized person in Scripture stepped into a lake, river or other body of water, went down into the water and came back up out of it. Other rituals are certainly more common today, but they do not qualify as baptism in any biblical sense.

Why is sprinkling inadequate? It has neither precept nor precedent in the Bible, for one. Put bluntly, we’re not told to do it, and we have no examples of it. That should be reason enough.

But it’s a wholly inadequate picture, for another. Why? Because Christian water baptism is identification with Christ himself at each stage of his death, burial and resurrection. The act of going under the water and reemerging is a precise physical analog to the spiritual reality being symbolized thereby. The act of sprinkling has a different spiritual significance entirely.

‘Into the Christian Church generally’

The idea that water baptism admits us to the Church universal (or ‘general’) is another error caused by conflating it with baptism with the Holy Spirit.

The fact that, by the Spirit, all Christians are baptized into a ‘body’, and that the body in question is the church universal, is indisputable. It is plainly stated that “in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free”. But it is equally certain the baptism whereby this was accomplished was historical rather than ongoing, accomplished rather than commanded, spiritual rather than physical and corporate rather than individual (though its reality was demonstrated through the actions of individuals).

By “historical rather than ongoing” I mean that baptism with the Holy Spirit was the commencement of a new spiritual reality made evident to the world in a number of significant events that occurred between the Lord’s death and sometime before the last book of the Bible was written. It comprised a series of landmarks in the history of the early church that fulfilled Old Testament prophecy and confirmed the new work that the Lord was doing as he built his church.

By “accomplished rather than commanded” I mean that baptism with the Holy Spirit was entirely an act of God. Believers contributed nothing to it whatsoever except perhaps that in a couple of instances, God initiated it when the apostles laid hands on particular groups of Christians. This stands in sharp contrast to water baptism, which is the plain command of the risen Christ to his followers: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”, and only takes place if and when we obey it. Which all believers ought to; other than the dying thief, I cannot think of a Scriptural example of an unbaptized believer.

By “spiritual rather than physical” I mean that it involved no water at all. It was accompanied by “the blowing of a violent wind” and “what seemed to be tongues of fire”.

By “corporate rather than individual” I mean that baptism with the Holy Spirit incorporated and brought together all races and classes of men equally into the body of Christ, his church. Unlike water baptism, it was not concerned with the relationship between Christ and individual believers; rather, it has united all sorts of formerly adverse and distinct groups and made them all one in Christ.

It was prophesied by both John the Baptist and the Lord himself. It began at Pentecost, continued with the Samaritans in Acts 8 and the household of Cornelius in Acts 10, and extended even to a dozen men in Ephesus in Acts 19. It was characterized by speaking in tongues and prophesying, and even associated with water baptism and/or laying on of hands by the apostles, though the order of events seems to have been pretty much irrelevant. Some believed first, some were water baptized then baptized with the Holy Spirit; for others, like the household of Cornelius, the Holy Spirit fell on them and gave evidence that they were part of the body of Christ before their water baptisms even took place.

At any rate, one thing is very clear: water baptism and baptism with the Holy Spirit are quite distinct.

Believers today benefit from this historical act of incorporation too, but it wasn’t and isn’t water baptism that made or makes us part of it.

Water baptism is baptism into Christ. It is identification with him personally. Yes, he is the head of the church. Yes, it is his spiritual ‘body’. But the fact that in the process of identifying ourselves with him we also find ourselves identified with his spiritual body is (comparatively) incidental.

To emphasize the ‘Christian Church’ is to put the shoe on the wrong foot; to miss the primary purpose of water baptism. We are not identifying with an institution; far less are we knocking on its doors to gain admission or seeking the acceptance of man. We are identifying with the death, burial and resurrection of the Son of God himself. The church exists for his glory, not the other way around.

Water baptism is merely symbolic. It has no ‘magical’ properties. It does not confer salvation, and it does not make you a different person, a church member or anything else. It is a public acknowledgement of a desire to live differently and that doing so will be accomplished, not by will or effort, but only through the power of Christ’s resurrection. Peter calls it “an appeal to God for a good conscience”.

‘Into a particular church’

Even less does baptism, at least in any spiritual sense, admit one into ‘a particular church’. Yes, there are certain denominations that regard baptism as a rite of passage that brings you into association with them.

But they do so with no Scriptural authority whatsoever, whether they be United, Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian or any other local gathering. Human beings may certainly opt to open the doors of their buildings to you or even to keep you out if they wish. Baptism has nothing whatsoever to do with that in the eyes of God.

Despite the confusion around the subject, baptism remains and should remain a singularly important event in the life of every believer, whether its significance is properly understood or otherwise.

It would be a shame to enter into it with little or no idea of what it actually means.

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