Monday, August 30, 2010

The Plunge Part I: The Water That Divides

I have to say at the outset, what is presented are portions of a study I have done on Water Baptism. In my own spiritual history, I have been on two sides of the debate. I personally hold to the opinion that there are many variants on the dogma of water baptism but that there are two main sides of the debate: The first side being that water baptism is very important even essential in the spiritual composition of the believer. Without the experience of water baptism the person does not realize nor partake of the full essence of salvation but lives in the twilight of all that Christ promised; never to experience His fullness. On the other, water baptism is a reference point that has no power in and of itself but looks back to what has already occurred in the life of the believer. It provides a finishing point on the believer’s journey from the point of repentance to entering a life of discipleship.

I hope when you are finished reading, you can guess what side of the debate I am on now. My charge here is to talk about, at a very high level, scriptural passages that are sources of controversies that surround water baptism and its role. One thing that must be said at the outset, this topic has been debated by great minds in the church over the last two millennia and it is na├»ve to even think that one could ‘box’ up the teachings of water baptism into a parsimonious package. To proceed on the premise that scriptures could be glued together and so present a simple and powerful teaching on water baptism that is replete with spiritual benefits is to say the least sophomoric.

It would be helpful to note that it is not the purpose of this entry, its related entries, to follow to determine exactly ‘what’ water baptism is. In my estimation, that is part of the main cause of division and I will not engage in doing so. All I can do here is point out fallacies of some existing positions on water baptism nothing more is offered. It is my personal conviction that the subject as a whole is indeed clouded in mystery and wonder and cannot be fully sounded in its depth and purpose. My purpose here is to look at particularly three passages of scripture that I suggest to the reader are abused and misapplied. Unfortunately these misapplications have caused significant damage to individuals and more importantly have provided fodder for groups that eventually morph into separatists and elitists in Christ’s church. I will purposely steer away from Mark 16:16 for the very fact that the entry noted could be spurious since it is not present in all historical sources – especially the older ones.


So where do we start? That is probably the hardest point. I had received teachings on Hebrews 6:1-2 particularly the part that dealt with baptisms. While this scripture seems rather innocuous at first glance, it is an example of extreme trajectory and extrapolation from one scripture into a whole world of theology and doctrine. This scripture is examined here for that purpose – the improper usage of biblical verses due to inadequate study and work. While on the surface it seems directly simple as it is misapplied, yet upon further scrutiny, the fallacy of the misapplication becomes clear. To gain a contextual perspective, the scripture will be presented:

“Therefore let us go on toward perfection, leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and faith towards God, instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection from the dead and eternal judgment…”

This scriptural passage as been developed into a systematic Christology by many and varied groups within Christendom. For the most part, those attempting to use these passages as a basis for their teachings about the ‘true’ way of the faithful have built superstructures on these verses that they will tout are unassailable and indisputable – since they are built upon the foundation of Christ. As it concerns the subject of this series – water baptism, let’s begin there. To re-iterate why this scripture is so important to some, is because their entire spiritual economy rests on it! Yet, with a little work and understanding, sound conclusions can be reached that reveal the strength and temper of such teachings as what they really are: plaster of paris that masquerades as bedrock.

Let’s stick with the facts. First, this is a letter to the Hebrews. That is, God’s historical chosen people and those to which the Messiah would be incarnated and they would be the first-fruits of God’s salvation and reconciliation to the world. In the society of that time, ritual washings were a part of the practicing Jew’s life. Therefore, the author of Hebrews was well acquainted with the way the readers would apply such a phrase as ‘instructions about baptisms’. In the original greek the word baptismos is used. This is the plural form of baptisma and so the scripture relates to several baptisms not just one. So, just what are these ‘baptisms?’ To what do they refer? This is where we will employ some perspective from an exegetical scholar G.R. Beasley-Murray. Just to list a little of his credentials, he was known as perhaps the best exegetical scholar England had produced in the twentieth century. He held the Chair of the Exegetical Studies Department at Spurgeon’s College in London, England for many years and has written extensively on the subject of New Testament Baptism. So what does he have to say?

“The employment of baptismos instead of the usual baptisma confirms what in any case most naturally occurs to the reader, that the writer implies as contrast between Christian baptism and other religious ‘washings’. The term is wide enough to include ritual washings of the Old Testament and every kind of baptism of initiates known in the writer’s time, including the baptism of John, the baptisms practiced in the Jordan Valley and by the Dead Sea, Jewish proselyte baptism, and whatever ritual washings existed among various Mystery Religions. Instruction as to the distinctive nature of the Christian rite will have been especially appropriate among the people to whom the Pentateuchal ordinances were known, but in any case ceremonial washings were common enough in the ancient world for such instructions to have been deemed advisable among converts generally.”

In essence, the word baptismos is used to contrast baptism as a rite of the Christian from other practices that they may have been practicing or had knowledge of their application. It was to set apart the baptism in the scriptures from these other ‘washings’. Here is where we begin to ‘strike at the capitals’ as Amos the Old Testament prophet would say. Many modern applications of this same scripture refer to the ‘other’ New Testament baptisms are what is outlined in this passage– that is, the baptism of fire and the baptism of the Spirit. This is where contextual analysis and exegetical application come into play. What Beasley-Murray is relating here is that the proper application of this passage is not to group events as common and related but to contrast them. Since the Spirit baptism and Fire baptism are complementary to water baptism, the word usage here of baptismos is an inappropriate application for the purpose of grouping baptism found in the New Testament. In the literal Greek, the phrase ‘instructions about baptisms’ is translated ‘immersions teaching’ , a comparative usage of the word baptismos found elsewhere in the scriptures refers to the ritual washings of cups, jugs and copper things (Mk 7:4). So, the point here being it is to contrast Christian baptism from other ritual washings to wit the Jews were well acquainted. The idea here is to fundamentally set apart believer’s baptism from any ritual washing not to exposit on the ‘other baptisms’ in the New Testament in other words to set apart the ‘baptisma’ from the ‘baptismos’. What this conclusion sets forth is that any teaching that rests on the misapplication of this scripture has a very fragile ‘foundation’ because it rests on improper application of the teachings the writer of Hebrews was attempting to convey. To put it more strongly, it may be based on a false premise. At this juncture, it is a good reminder that the rite of Christian baptism its merits and role is not being discussed above merely the proper application of the scripture passage in Heb 6:2; yet to make trajectory on this scripture subjects not meant to be applied borders on error and leads to wrong conclusions and so doctrine. When one does so, the result is a ‘flat’ interpretation of the scriptures and shows that proper research has not been applied. I discuss this dynamic in the opening of my last entry:”The House that Jack Built: The Renewing of the Mind” . Our example of misapplication that leads to errant teaching is complete as well as dispelling the usage of Hebrew 6:1-2 to relate to baptisms that are recounted in the New Testament and a part of the Christian experience.

Born Again:The Power of the Water, Spirit or Both.

Another passage used by side one is found in the gospel of John when Jesus is discussing spiritual verities with Nicodemus. In this passage the phrase ‘born again’ is used in the literal Greek this is phrased ‘born from above’. While these are often equated and interchangeable, some of the translation meaning is lost on a twenty-first century believer. In this age, much industry to ferret out the real meaning is left to the scholar and exegete and the meaning is seldom communicated clearly. This is where again one is tempted to ‘flatten’ the scriptures and so lead themselves and unfortunately others that follow them into error. Below is the scriptural passage in the original Greek:

John 3:3-7 “Answered, Jesus and said to him [sic Nicodemus], amen amen I say to you, except some might be born from above, not he is able to see the kingdom of God. Says toward him the Nicodemus; how is able a man to be born old man being? Not he is able into the stomach of the mother of him second to go into and to be born? Answered Jesus, amen amen I say to you, except some might be born from water and spirit, not one is able to go into the kingdom of the God. The one having been born of flesh flesh is, and the one having been born from of the spirit, spirit he is. Not marvel that I said to you, it is necessary you to be born from above. The spirit where it wants blows and the sound of it you hear but not you know from where it comes and where it goes off; thusly is all the one having been born from the spirit.”

So the ‘flat’ conclusion is to require water baptism and spirit baptism for the purpose of experiencing a born again status. This interpretation has been taught and followed by many areas of the Church body throughout the church age namely: Catholicism, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, certain sects within the Church of Christ, Many Pentecostal and Holiness Churches including Apostolic and Latter Rain variants. So, what is the main premise these groups and others who take such tact on this particular scripture here? If water and spirit baptism are not experienced by the believer, they are not in the kingdom of God. Now, the kingdom of God is a subject unto itself and has various shades of meaning but perhaps there are two main schools of thought here: First, one is not ‘saved’, that is, they are bound for hellfire because they have not fulfilled the scriptural mandate that appears present in John 3:3-8 ( and Matt 28:19 and Mark 16:16). Secondly, there are groups that teach one can be justified by the work of Christ and not be born again because they have not experienced water and/or spirit baptism. Thus, they are not a part of the true Church but are in the netherworld of being somehow justified but not complete in their spiritual experience. These are examples of conclusions that can be reached when the scripture is flatly applied. Believe me, entire worlds and economies of God have been built in such speculation. Here is where the scriptures themselves help on how to inflate this scripture to reflect meaning that is what was intended. So, let’s get down to the basics.

First, being born again is not a revolutionary concept solely revealed in the New Testament. This is clear from the gospel of John in the first chapter when the Pharisees queried John the Baptist and said to him “Why are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah nor Elijiah, nor the prophet?” It is very clear that the scribes and Pharisees understood the baptismal rite as very powerful as it concerned a person’s status in Jewish Society in both a natural and spiritual sense. In fact baptisms had been applied in Jewish society to mark a change in the state of the person undergoing it (impure to pure). Here is where the scholars and exegetes can provide proper perspective:

Pesachim “‘One who separates himself from his uncircumcision is like one who separates himself from the grave’ Pes. 91b”

Alfred Erdsheim Biblical History: Old Testament: “As he stepped out of these waters he was considered as born anew --in the language of the Rabbis,as if he were a little child just born (Yeb.22 a ;48 b ;97 b), as a child of one day (Mass.Ger.c.ii.). But this new birth was not a birth from above in the sense of moral or spiritual renovation, but only as implying a new relationship to God, to Israel, and to his own past, present, and future. It was expressly enjoined that all the difficulties of his new citizenship should first be set before him, and if ,after that, he took upon himself the yoke of the law, he should be told how all those sorrows and persecutions were intended to convey a greater blessing, and all those commandments to redound to greater merit. More especially was he to regard himself as a new man in reference to his past. Country, home, habits, friends, and relation were all changed. The past, with all that had belonged to it, was past, and he was a new man -the old, with its defilements, was buried in the waters of baptism.”

G.R.Beasley-Murray Baptism in the New Testament pgs 90-92: “Heathen slaves on their entry into Jewish House [sic to live and serve] were compelled to receive a baptism ‘in the name of slavery,, i.e. to become slaves. Similarly,on their being set free, they were to be immersed ‘in the name of freedom’. Baptism thus sets a man in that relationship which one has in view of the performance of it."

Also by Beasely-Murray: The view that conversion from heathenism to Judaism implies a new life , whether a dying and rising again (See Pesachim entry above), or a new birth, is firmly attested in the Talmud…”

Rabbi Maurice Lamm Mikveh:Immersing in the Ritual Pool “A major function of immersion in the mikveh is for conversion to Judaism. The sages declare that a gentile who wishes to become a Jew must undergo the identical process by which Jewish ancestors converted. As Jews performed immersion at Mt.
Sinai to complete the conversion process they had begun with circumcision as they left Egypt, so converts in every age must immerse in a mikveh.”

To clarify why these points are correlated and are directly relevant to the concept of being born again, each cites the concept of entering into a new form or direction of life. Secondly, there is a point of reference where this occurs namely, the Mikveh (after proper circumcision). One interesting point here is that proselyte baptism is only mentioned in Jewish writings from about the first century a.d. and forward (see Beaseley-Murray pg 23). The proper practice of the mikveh was a main controversy between two leading and foremost rabbinical leaders during the time of Christ: Hillelites and Shammaites which suggests that proselyte baptism was not an innovation but present long enough to be a topic of controversy. However, proselyte baptism is consistent with the advent of the Pharsaic movement who were well ‘immersed’ in ritual washings as a way of obtaining spiritual purity –as the gospels testify due the presence of many references concerning ritual washings.

These points reveal the mind of the Jew for that timeframe boxed in John chapter three. From the above we can approximate with a degree of accuracy, his understanding of Jesus discourse with him. So what can be concluded? Nicodemus understood the power of the Mikveh of which John the Baptist was practicing a type of during that time. Nicodemus understood that water baptism would be a signal of the coming Kingdom of God and its Messiah. However it is proposed here that Nicodemus became confused about the instructions of Jesus when Jesus supplemented his understanding regarding the requirement of being born of the Spirit as well as of water. If that were not true, if water could perform the transition in and of itself, Nicodemus would not have been confused. It was the inclusion by Jesus of the requirement of being born of the Spirit that caused the confusion for Nicodemus. John the Baptist further made the statement that the One who came after him would baptize in the Holy Spirit. So, in proper perspective, the phrase Jesus uses “of water and spirit” is a transitional one. That is one, looking from the present back, He spoke and confirmed the ministry of John the Baptist in preparation of the people to receive the spirit baptism. Looking forward, He spoke in promise of what would be coming: the Spirit baptism He had come to establish in every believing heart. This is perhaps the most consistent approach. Water and Spirit are joined here by the time it marked because clearly water baptism for repentance was demanded of God’s people that when the Spirit was given, He would baptize in the Spirit people who had faith in and had undergone the baptism of John. Nicodemus’ confusion was how was one to be born ‘again’ of the spirit not the water. Water baptism, that is ritual cleansing, he understood and so this was not the focus and subject of his confusion. It was the spirit baptism. This is the focus of Nicodemus’ confusion and Jesus offers a very obscure answer ‘…the wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is the everyone born of the spirit…” In other words it is not to be understood or limited to a point in time or an experience such as water baptism. This is its magnitude and power: it is not limited to an event that can be measured. All we can say is it is experienced by those born from it. God is not going to be limited by time, space and even our experiences and understanding. If one thing is made clear by Jesus, the Spirit of God will NOT be limited in this area and will blow where He wills. Now, one can honestly say from the scriptural point of view that those who received the water baptism of John and Jesus had truly repented and so were readied that when the Spirit was given, the wind of God would blow upon them. This is the context of the phrase. Here again Beasley-Murray helps us out:

““That Jesus brought together what were separated in John’s baptism as an act of obedience and object of hope gives one pause as to the precise meaning of birth ‘of water and Spirit. The unity of the two elements is shown by the use of the single preposition ‘by water and Spirit’. But is the water an agency of new birth in the same fashion as, or in a manner comparable to, the Spirit? Some would reply in the affirmative, but that is surely mistaken. The explanatory discourse that follows v. 5 does not mention again birth ‘of water and Spirit’ but emphasizes the agency of the Spirit as the divine begetter: that which is born of Spirit is Spirit’ v.6 ; ‘Spirit breathes where He wills…so is everyone born of the Spirit’ (v. 8).”

The conjoining of the phrase used here ‘by water and Spirit” in the gospel of John could literally be the transition point of the New Testament on the subject of Water Baptism and Spirit baptism. Even though water baptism is a practice that has endured from that point to this and has its place, Jesus clearly sets forth the coming Spirit baptism and His emphasis changes from water to Spirit in the remaining passages of chapter 3 as He teaches Nicodemus. In the remaining scriptures of this chapter, although seemingly unrelated the discussion of the baptisms and the lifting up of the Son of Man, they are not. This is because the coming of the Spirit therefore its ‘baptism’ would be indelibly linked to the sacrifice of Christ.

In conclusion there is a significant footing present to take the stance that when Jesus instructed Nicodemus to be born again of water and the Spirit, He was referring to a unique point in time between the baptism of John and the day of Pentecost where one would transition to another in importance and emphasis. Contextually, this is perhaps the most reasonable scriptural application and one that does not yield the fruit of controversy.

Circumcision of Heart: Related to Water Baptism?

Finally, there is a passage on Colossians Chapter two that links water baptism to the ‘circumcision of Christ.’ In some movements, this refers to circumcision of heart. At the outset of this portion let me say that some groups apply to water baptism, the event, an ex opera operato quality. That is the power is on the doing or operation of it. Some that practice water baptism in such a way may deny this characteristic but their argument is impotent by the very emphasis they place on it. Without it, some teach that the person is not truly born again nor are they fully prepared to walk the Christian way in power because they lack the spiritual unction assigned to the baptized (of course by them and in the process they teach!). Some even attach the spiritual circumcision referred to by Paul in the book of Romans and Philippians as circumcision of heart and that promised from such Old Testament passages such as Ezekiel 36:26-27 is accomplished in the rite of New Testament baptism. So our charge here is to dissect this scripture mentioned by Paul who is the only Apostle who talks of circumcision of heart. Here is the scripture passage:

Col 2:11-12”...and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; 12 having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were raised up with Him through faith in the working of God who raised Him from the dead…”

There are many concepts and much soteriology in this passage of scripture – so much so a desconstruction may be helpful to bring out the salient points:
There are two independent clauses linked together yet separated by verse (verse 11 and 12). Therefore the second independent clause – “having been buried” can only be viewed as either a supplement of the first or as a conclusion of the first – that is, in both cases, dependent to the prior clause. In the construction, the event of the believer’s circumcision without hands (spiritual circumcision) is linked directly to the circumcision of Christ (i.e. the crucifixion). It is in this event the circumcision of the believer is placed. This is confirmed by the aorist tense used (you were) – which is a simple verbal tense used to mark an action to a specific space-time event in the scriptures. Beasley-Murray comments:

“…Col 2:11 provides a significant exposition of the theology we believed to lie at the back of Romans 6. For although v.12 speaks of baptismal participation in the death of Christ, the preceding statement lays unmistakable emphasis on the suffering of death by Christ Himself. ‘In Him you were circumcised…in the stripping off the body of flesh, in the circumcision of Christ’. Here is a circumcision which entailed the stripping off not of a small portion but the whole body.”

Therefore, the link of spiritual circumcision is to Golgotha not to the baptismal font. This separates the concept of circumcision in any of its aspects – spiritual or otherwise – from the action of baptism. Martin Luther has stated the nature of spiritual circumcision is linked to faith in Christ not water baptism:

“For faith was the spiritual circumcision of the foreskin of the heart, which was symbolised by the literal circumcision of the flesh. And in the same manner it was obviously not Abel's sacrifice that justified him, but it was his faith, by which he offered himself wholly to God and which was symbolised by the outward sacrifice...”

So why is water baptism mentioned in the subsequent dependent passage of this scripture? While it may be a question of semantics to some, it is important that nothing be cast directly to the baptismal event. It is an existential reflection of events that occurred in the time-space of Good Friday to the Easter morn. This should be clear in the scripture passage itself – from its very construction. If anything baptism in verse twelve is eclipsed by the circumcision of Christ not its conclusion. The believer is limited to their ownership of any of the benefits of baptism in that they in each facet cannot be separated from the specific work of Christ that is referred to in their baptism. What we are included in is our level of experience of the event not that we undergo anything personally and individually. Baptism is the anchor of faith already given and acted upon and so confirms but has nothing realized by its occurrence concerning the spiritual circumcision in the life of the believer. As an example of this, if We could metaphorically see the believer as a ‘sentence’, then water baptism is not the noun, verb, adjective, adverb, conjunction, contraction, participle or any other part of speech, it is the ‘period ‘at the end. It has no meaning in and of itself and has nothing to communicate or reveal by itself – it only has a place as to what has come before it.

Succinctly stating it: There is no ex opera operato concerning water baptism. If circumcision of heart is directly linked to water baptism, then one who takes such a position has not only excluded the majority of Christendom (currently) but has also erroneously limited the full work of Christ on Calvary. This is the main fallacy of any teaching that touts water baptism as compositional in the spiritual make up of the believer – it limits or at the very least delays Christ’s deliverance of the believer through the application of the blood of Christ until water baptism is experienced– this cannot ever be.

Conclusion of Part I

The reason for the focus on these three scriptures has been to study the depth and breadth of them in the light of proper context and so application. What has been shown is there is much depth to them and so require that they be appreciated with the degree of careful study that they deserve. In this time of instant revelation and improper scholarship, it is no wonder we find ourselves grappling with each other regarding proper meaning. The result is controversy which leads to friction and so, separation. All the above is an attempt to bring down the mystic and ethereal into a real world application of them. While honestly I still ponder the role of water baptism, I have come to the conclusion, as the subsequent work on this series will show, that there will ever be a mystery of wonder about water baptism that all we can really do is marvel. It is ironic that an act that seeks to unite the body of Christ has itself caused so much division. I personally am convinced it is not God’s intention to have done so. To reduce it to a functionally spiritual tool to be implemented, is to do it an injustice and surely if done so, error will follow on its heels. To say it is not significant is to deny the evidence but to say it holds its own place and value is to make it something it is not. It is a ‘period’ it is punctuation; Jesus being the main subject, the Holy Spirit the verb and ourselves the direct object with the period ending and so signifying the finished work done.

We cannot allow ourselves the luxury of being flat in our interpretation. What has been done in the above is not to define exactly what role water baptism possesses as much as it has been a study in the mis-application of the scriptures and so the forthcoming error in doctrinal positions that could be taken from such projection on the scriptures. I would venture to say that most of what has come about from such misapplication has impacted Christendom for practically the beginning of the twentieth century up to the present and has not united the church in any form or fashion but has fragmented it sometimes beyond recognition.

As Rich Mullins would have said and did say, “Though our blindness separates us, the peace of Christ to you….” That is my fervent prayer. The peace of Christ to all who suffer under the burden of doctrinal oppression and so misinterpretation; if we cannot get it right, it is best if we accept what we know to be true, all flows into one river, the mighty river of the Spirit sourced in the blood that flows from Calvary. Let us all bow and bend to His power.

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