Thursday, February 26, 2015

Debunking Baptismal Myths #4: Trump Cards and Semantic Ranges

We’re looking in depth at a series of objections raised by one of our readers to the Protestant argument that one must be a believer to be baptized.

One such objection cites the words of Peter to Jews in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost right after the Holy Spirit had come upon the disciples. The sound from heaven of a mighty, rushing wind drew Jews from all around, and upon their arrival they found a group of Galileans mysteriously speaking in languages ranging from those of Mesopotamia to those of Crete and the Arab nations.

Peter takes the opportunity to explain the meaning of the miracle, winding up with this challenge:

“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”

The Trump Card

Our reader replies:

“Acts 2:39 — Peter then says baptism is specifically given to children as well as adults. ‘Those far off’ refers to those who were at their ‘homes’ (primarily infants and children). God’s covenant family includes children. The word ‘children’ that Peter used comes from the Greek word ‘teknon’ which also includes infants.”

The trump card in this particular line of argument is the interpretation of a single word in the original Greek (also used to refer to John the Baptist at his circumcision) to show that teknon may be used to describe a child only eight days old:

“Luke 1:59 — this proves that ‘teknon’ includes infants. Here, John as a ‘teknon’ (infant) was circumcised. See also Acts 21:21 which uses ‘teknon’ for eight-day old babies. So baptism is for infants as well as adults.”

Really? Let’s have a look at how Peter used the word “children” and what he actually said.

Words and Semantic Range

Firstly, I agree with Catholics that “children” [teknois] includes infants. There is no reason to dispute this. But teknon and words related to it possess huge semantic ranges, as does the word “children” in English. In fact, it seems to me that the New Testament writers use these words metaphorically more often than literally.

Some examples:

  • as a term of affection, as in when Jesus said to the fully grown paralytic, to whom he was not related at all, “Son [teknon], be of good cheer”.
  • to describe spiritual trainees, as when the Lord Jesus refers to the fully grown disciples as teknois.
  • to refer to descendants generally, whether infant, grown or not yet born.
  • nationally, to describe Israelites (referred to as “children”, whereas Gentiles are depicted as “dogs”).

There is more. Among its other uses, teknois is also a synonym for “inhabitants”, as in “children” of a particular city. It has a wide range of possible meanings and applies to the broadest possible spectrum of humanity. It is arguably less specific than the word “people” in English. Every one of us is teknon, frequently in more than one sense.

If Peter had meant to teach that small children or infants ought to be baptized, the word paidion, though also employed figuratively on occasion, is a favourite among New Testament writers to signify an infant or small child. Had Peter used it instead, we might be baby steps closer to having a legitimate argument to consider. But he didn’t.

In order to even begin building a doctrine on Peter’s choice of a single Greek word, it would be necessary to demonstrate that he was not using teknois in one of its other common senses. For instance, it would be absurd to claim that the Lord’s disciples were literal infants on the basis of the etymology of the word he used to address them. We rightly look to other scriptures to determine the approximate age of Peter, James and John.

We should do the same with regard to the doctrine of baptism.

Relationship, Not Age

When a word is used to describe everything from an eight-day old through to a fully grown adult, and when it is further used in all manner of metaphorical senses, the only possible conclusion we may reasonably draw is that the primary force of teknon in scripture is to describe relationship, not age. In every instance, teknon refers to a relationship based on either blood or common character.

So Peter is not saying anything specifically about babies, nor is he talking about age at all. He is not even speaking specifically about baptism by the time he gets to v39 and mentions “children” and “promise”. What he is telling the Jews at Pentecost is that the grace of God demonstrated in giving his promised Spirit is being offered not just to them, but to those they loved, and even to people in other cities and countries all on the same basis — repentance and baptism; a change of heart and conduct, and a public declaration of relationship to Christ.

He’s not talking here about conditions under which baptism may appropriately take place, nor is he suggesting that baptism saves. He’s simply talking about the extent of God’s grace.

No wonder 3,000 people got saved that day.

Devout Jews “Dwelling” in Jerusalem

Secondly, it is suggested that the phrase “those far off” once again refers to infant children, in this case in distant homes. But the children of the Jews who heard Peter that day were unlikely to be anywhere other than in their mothers’ arms, and their homes were only as far away as the distance from which the sound of rushing wind from heaven could be heard. We are told the audience was comprised of devout Jews “dwelling” in Jerusalem.

If we must get caught up in parsing the Greek, the word “dwelling” in the original is katoikeo, meaning “inhabiting”. We know Peter’s audience had been born all over the known world because they understood the particular languages in which they heard the disciples miraculously speaking. But these Jews who heard Peter in Acts 2 lived in Jerusalem where Peter was preaching. Peter calls them “men of Israel”. They resided there. What sense would it make to use “those far off” to describe their children?

The interpretation of “those far off” advanced by our reader requires that over 3,000 Jews Peter addressed at Pentecost — the same Jews that become the core of the growing church in Jerusalem that we read about in the first few chapters of Acts; the same ones who were all together in one place and who sold their possessions and belongings to share with all — were all from out of town and had left wives and children behind in other cities far away.

So what happened? Did all 3,000 “visitors” decide to stay? Or does “far off” really mean “close by”? Sorry, but neither context nor word study bear out this interpretation.

A much more natural reading of Peter’s words is that “those far off” refers to people other than the Jews who comprised Peter’s audience, specifically Gentiles (“all flesh”, “everyone”), to whom the Holy Spirit was also promised. Peter quotes the Old Testament in verses 17-21 of the same chapter to make precisely this point.

This latter interpretation has the advantage of being consistent with both the passage and the overall teaching of the apostles on baptism and salvation.

Two Different Groups

Thirdly, Peter distinguishes the “children” from those who are “far off”. It is not “children who are far off”, as our friend would have it (and as Peter could easily have phrased it, had that been his intention), but rather “children” and “all who are far off” — two different groups of individuals entirely. They form two separate categories of potential believers. The second clause is not an amplification of the first but something new and historic — the inclusion of the Gentiles by faith and repentance, the same basis on which the Jews at Pentecost were being received into Christ.

Why Does It Matter?

Some folks at this point will be quite reasonably throwing up their hands: “What does it all really matter? Some Christians do this, some Christians do that. So what? It’s not like Catholics sacrifice infants to Baal, so why make a big deal of the meaning of baptism?”

First, the way we approach scripture generally matters. How we treat the Bible when we are trying to understand it in the smaller matters will be the same way we approach it about more important issues. If we are content with sloppy scholarship, twisted meanings, ill thought-out explanations and dishonest answers in the little things, we will be at home with the same methods when there is something larger at stake.

Second, it is consequential because sprinkling an infant leads to a false sense of security for parents, child and church alike. A wrong understanding of baptism hinders one’s grasp of the importance of salvation by faith alone. If we trust in baptism to get us to heaven, we line up against the teaching of the New Testament and the very gospel itself in introducing works as a means of salvation. And even if we regard baptism as merely a necessary supplement to faith in Christ, we have still abandoned the concept that Christ alone saves.


  1. Tom, I am impressed, this has been a detailed and well thought out dissection of the baptism of the believer.

    Can I persuade you to now take up the Petros and petra controversy? I cannot understand how Matthew 16:18 can become so convoluted that verses such as 1 Corinthians 10:4 have to be totally ignored. I could never be accused of being a Greek scholar, but with the internet I don't have to be. I only have to be able to read and understand how to let Matthew Henry help me translate Greek to English.

    This is but a single example, there are many as you know.

    "the rock moreover was Christ"
    petra = Christos
    petra != Petros

    Can you elaborate?

    1. I quite agree with you about 1 Corinthians 10:4, Micah -- it is very much on point. Meanwhile, I'm not sure if you've seen this post. I may not get into the disagreement over the Greek to the extent that would interest you (like you, I have no academic qualifications to debate it in any great depth; I'm a typical layman with a dictionary who reads a lot; thankfully there has been enough discussion generated by many scriptural controversies that even us laymen can tell when we're reading codswallop), but it does address the controversy itself, and by odd coincidence is one of our four or five most-read posts since we started cominguntrue.

    2. My apologies, not only did I see that post I commented on it. You know what they say about memory and age.

  2. Hmm, I do not intend to stoke the fire, but this is too sweet an opportunity to not point this out. See the text below, which illustrates the sentiment during the Protestant Reformation, that seems to contradict your statement about Baal and the Catholic Church :-/. It is clear that sentiments have largely quieted down since then (but of course not entirely). But it does suggest that rapprochement between churches may indeed be difficult.

    The Book of Concord, translated and edited by Theodore Tappert, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House / Muhlenberg Press, 1959)

    Apology of the Augsburg Confession [1531], Article XXIV: The Mass

    Carnal men cannot stand it when only the sacrifice of Christ is honored as a propitiation. For they do not understand the righteousness of faith but give equal honor to other sacrifices and services. A false idea clung to the wicked priests in Judah, and in Israel the worship of Baal continued; yet the church of God was there, condemning wicked services. So in the papal realm the worship of Baal clings -- namely, the abuse of the Mass . . . And it seems that this worship of Baal will endure together with the papal realm until Christ comes to judge and by the glory of his coming destroys the kingdom of Antichrist. Meanwhile all those who truly believe the Gospel should reject those wicked services invented against God's command to obscure the glory of Christ and the righteousness of faith.

    1. Hi Q. There are probably lots of sentiments expressed by Protestants about Catholicism and the mass over the years with which I would either not completely agree, or which I would qualify or moderate in some way. Fortunately I don't presume to speak for all Protestants and they don't speak for me. It seems to me that while there is something more than a little distasteful about a doctrine that the physical body of Christ is present in a wafer, it really isn't in the same ballpark as placing a child on the altar.

      It's a minor cavil, but I also note that dissenters from Baal in Judah from Baal worship in Judah are referred to by this particular Protestant as the "church of God", something which I believe is inaccurate and a source of great confusion in Christendom.

    2. Concerning the eucharist I understand that even within Protestant denominations there is a divergence of views.

      Here is a Protestant viewpoint,

      and here is a Catholic one (in both cases there are numerous other write-ups to be found of course).

      Here is my personal one:

      First, it is clear that Christ predicted the difficulty with his teaching regarding that topic, is it not?

      It is further clear that it is irrational to suggest that God would want his creatures to commit cannibalism. You can (as a matter of fact must) therefore stipulate that, by definition, it cannot be cannibalism, or you are committing to an irrational idea, are diminishing God, and your motives, abilities, and perhaps your character, become questionable. This means you have to look for a different explanation.

      Personally, since I claim to be a rational person, then why would I subscribe to an irrational idea of committing cannibalism, which would be a real contradiction to my claim?

      Well, here is why and it is strongly based on my background as a scientist/engineer in the "hard" sciences (physics, math, Reliability materials and product/process development and analysis).

      Transubstantiation leaves the physical form and material of the Eucharist intact. Obviously you know that when you receive communion.

      The Catholic teaching is that the Eucharist is a spiritual food.

      Also, I know enough, that every material thing in this universe is essentially a form of energy even if congealed into what we call atomic and subatomic matter. Now, when God as spirit createt the world he apparently used and translated his spiritual energy into a just as ethereal physical energy with localization enabled. God and his emissary angels clearly have the ability to move back and forth within the two energy domains. Hence, the Eucharist, after all, is nothing else than a spiritual food (a medicine, if you will) that links these two domains to heal and counter the corrupt influence of the material world within the domain of human creation. Since the doctor (Christ) prescribed the medicine, it is therefore only wise to go with his recommendation.

  3. Pardon me for not quite getting it, Q, but are you not simultaneously saying the Lord is and isn't bodily present in the wafer? Is this a case of having one's wafer and eating it too?

  4. Well, yes, Tom. You know that of course because you know I am a Catholic. Your question, I suppose, is therefore intended to emphasize that your particular branch of Protestantism (evangelical) does not believe in the Eucharist? It may also be your point to make a gentle reminder that perhaps my claim of being a rational person does not go hand in hand with a belief in the actual presence of Christ in the Eucharist :-).

    Frankly, as I may have mentioned before, I assign probabilities to my beliefs and knowledge, which means therefore for practically everything happening in my life. My probabilities are greater for the Catholic version of this than the Protestant one, and that's it. Not least of which are contributors to my probability assessment as, e.g., given in the link below describing the many miracles and testimonials throughout history concerning Christ's real presence in the Eucharist.

    Another point adding to my probability score is my contention that faith and belief in Christ/God has to be experiential. A point I always emphasize with atheists in that you cannot find and evaluate God/faith from the outside, but you have to experience it from the inside, practice it, to see if it meets its promises. In other words, you have to at least run the experiment before coming to your conclusions. This applies to receiving the Eucharist as well.

  5. Actually, I wasn't trying to be snide (though I might have taken the opportunity to be mildly droll). I just thought your comments on Lord's bodily presence in the eucharist were phrased ambiguously enough that I wanted to clarify which you meant.

    So as far as probabilities go, I get that you are saying you see the Catholic interpretive schema as being more likely than the Protestant version. But I'm wondering, within the set of Catholic dogmas that you think are probably true (or truer), do you have some beliefs that seem to you more probable than others? Are there some, for instance (and you don't have to name them -- I'm just curious), that seem more likely than others?

    1. My interest is with no dogma in particular Tom. You can probably get a good idea from the web concerning the difference between Evangelical and Catholic dogma here -

      And some idea of the old sectarian discussions concerning baptism, eucharist, etc. carried on forever over here.

      No, what I am specifically wondering about is that no one else is wondering about the state of affairs in Christendom and questioning whether an approach of "my way or the highway" can ever change that and is something that's acceptable to God.

      In my opinion, if the Catholic church had steered clear of politics in the middle ages (and had sold fewer indulgences :-) there would probably still be one faith. After all, it became a political power play by the German princes who where interested to get a monkey off their back, not exactly because they were the more saintly people. The last point also applies to Luther who was completely unsaintly (to the point of foul language and vulgarity) and definitely did not qualify to start a church. It could only happen because it was in the political interest of the power elite.

      But, that's human nature for you and water under the bridge. Now, how does one proceed from here? The fact that the church splintering continues to the point of having reached over 20000 Protestant denominations (because if Luther can start his own church, so can I) does not seem odd to anyone (except me?) and that's why I called it a mess in a previous comment.

      I fully understand the difference in approach towards interpretation in faith that eventually congealed between the churches. Believe me there are Catholics who envy the Protestants for their concise formula, which is short on responsibility but long in a simplistic and unrealistic approach by claiming that the need to strive and struggle to live a decent live is unnecessary works because only you and basically not God has further input into the situation. Your input being to say at the end I Belief (in Christ) as though it is a magic formula and God's input being - Well Said, therefore you are saved - so we can ignore how you lived. That is sooo unrealistic and an improbable interpretation of the Bible, but of course so attractive to human nature, and therefore so popular. It's attractive to run your life as your own and sole authority and you can do as you please as long as there is some easy declaration by you later on by which you ASSUME you are saved.

      Now again, how does one sort this out, the easy way (the Protestant way) or the hard way? Personally, I have my own thoughts on that. We seem to all ignore the most simple fact, namely, that God is and always was fully aware that this situation would arise, as he is always aware of human history. We are therefore allowed to fail ourselves and him by making wrong choices and not remedying things when called for (and my contention is that if you have generated 20000 plus versions of Christianity you have made the wrong decisions and choices). The question is, why are we allowed to do so if God really exists (the question of the atheist)? And that is the question that really must be addressed. It is possible that marching in lock step under the umbrella of a single church is not best for Christianity and that more people are brought to Christ with greater diversity of denominations, so God creates good out of harm (once more), but that's speculation. I read about an answer once given by persons having gone through an NDE (near death experience) where they were told that life is a like a school that is meant to teach us how to live and learn to make the right choices.

      Maybe that's really what it is about and, fortunately, there are already people who make that happen.

  6. Several suggestions for your consideration Q:

    You mention the "my way or the highway" mentality as a source of division. The problem is somewhat deeper in that nobody on either side of the Protestant / Catholic division thinks of it that way at all. Both sides believe they are defending not their own honour, but rather the honour of God. THAT'S what makes the differences insurmountable in many cases and that's why views are so entrenched.

    Secondly, you mention multiple Protestant denominations - 20,000 is your number. Suffice it to say the only way to get near that number is to parse minor differences between Protestants so greatly as to be ludicrous. The vast majority of Protestants belong to one of only several distinct denominations and even those differences are often relatively small. I often work collaboratively alongside Pentecostals, Baptists and several others - and I don't consider them unsaved or unloved. They're often tremendous people and tremendous brothers and sisters in Christ - they're just not completely on board with things as I see them.

    To be fair when we look at the Catholic church, we see *exactly* the same thing without the differing names. There are more mature and less mature Catholics who accept and embrace differing degrees of the Catholic doctrine. There are "Catholic" practices and principles that are accepted in NYC but would never be accepted by "Catholics" in sub Saharan Africa. There are *huge* differences under a single big-tent dubbed "Catholic", so to point the finger at Protestants as if they were the only divided group is unrealistic. Catholics are divided too in 20,000 ways if you wish to parse it that finely.

    Thirdly, Protestants aren't the church. Neither are Catholics. We can call the church divided if we wish. But it isn't. Because the only church that matters is the church Christ is building. From what I can see of it (and I see it only dimly), He has a very good idea of what He is doing and who is in / who is out. I'd bet that there will be some Catholics in His composition and I know there will be some Protestants. He'll surprise us.

    Lastly, you suggest that Protestants teach that "I believe" is a sort of magic token that - once spoken - assures even a wildly sinful person can basically force his way into God's heaven. Nothing could be further from conventional Protestant theology. What IS clear is that many will make a claim to heaven which the Lord Himself will reject by saying "depart from me, I never knew you". If there are any Protestants (or Catholics) who think that a magic phrase, or beads, or donations or even baptism will in and of itself "earn" heaven, they are in for a very bitter disappointment indeed.

    1. That's a very upbeat comment, Bernie. Actually, if you think about it, you are correct about the fact that Christ is the CEO here and ultimately is responsible for where the business is going and for how well it is doing. So we can breathe a sigh of relief and just make our contributions as best we can.

      Although, I cannot help bursting your bubble a bit in that I gave you a low ball estimate of 20000 denominations, the actual one was pegged at 30000 to 40000 ;-).