As I try to grasp the nature of transcendence and contingency I often toy with various mental images and metaphors. Below is one of those. Tell me if it makes sense and where it falls short:

Draw a big circle on a whiteboard. Make it big. Now look at that circle. Inside goes all that is created.

What is in the circle?

Start listing what is created. The Earth, the Sun, Moon and stars, in fact, the whole cosmos. Write it down in the circle. What else? People. Animals. Plants, and anything else that’s living. Write those down. Inanimate stuff like rocks and things. Write those down. How about natural laws? How about time and space? Dark matter, quarks, scientific theories? How about ideas, even thoughts? Write them down too. You could continue writing until the circle is so filled with words it is a solid color, and you could still keep writing. But don’t forget to include some things we might not think to include. Creation is not just the physical world, it also includes the spiritual realm. So write down Heaven, angels, demons, Hades, ghosts, purgatory, and anything else you can think of that exists and is created. Don’t forget to include sickness, disease, suffering and death. And write down life, love,  joy, virtue, and truth. Some of these things are also eternal. That may be so, but if they exist in creation they are also created. So write down eternity too. And don’t forget to include you. This is not just a mental exercise. You are involved, including your body, your mind, your past and present, your desires and thoughts (they are part of this creation as well), and your soul. It’s true for all of us.

You see the list can get quite large. We can write down just abut everything we can think of, everything in all of this world and in the spiritual realms. It’s all created.

Now where is God? Write “God” outside the circle.

You now have a circle filled with words, and the word God written outside the circle. This is a rather simple exercise to frame the idea that God is transcendent. He is wholly other. God, as the transcendent, outside the circle, person is utterly unknowable. He is not unknowable because He is some kind of  impersonal force like fate. He is unknowable because He is transcendent . . . unless He chooses to reveal Himself to us.

So now, inside the circle, write down Jesus. God, as any Christian knows and proclaims, came into creation as a created being, a man. So Jesus is created, at least his humanity is created. It sounds strange to think of Jesus as created because we also know him to be the Logos and pre-existent, but in one sense he is, in that to be fully human he had to fully be part of this creation, be a creature as we are. Thus, Jesus is, in one sense, created like us. One can think of an author creating a character in a story that represents the author. Jesus is not just a character, so to speak, but he does represent the Father to us at the level of non-transcendent creation. If creation is like a grand novel then Jesus is one of the characters, come into the novel to represent the author. The incarnation is a mystery, but it is God entering His creation as one of us and revealing Himself to us.

Also write down the Bible. If the Bible is inspired, as Christian believe, then it is another example of the transcendent God revealing Himself to us. Other things we might forget: The burning bush before Moses, the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire before the Israelites, manna in the wilderness, and other miraculous things. These are all examples of God revealing Himself to us. We cannot transcend the boundary between creation and non-creation. We are completely bound within creation, but God can move freely, do as He pleases, reveal or not reveal Himself to us. In fact, it is even tricky to write the word “God” outside the circle. The word God, written on a whiteboard outside a circle that represents all that is created, is fine as a simple mental exercise, but even it is too limiting, too much of a boundary for God.

But we are human. We have to work with what we’ve got.

Notice I am not saying very much about God. I am not claiming to tell anyone that I know God in some detailed or decisive way. I only have the same evidence as you. I believe the evidence, but I know that I can be very wrong in how I interpret and understand the evidence. Lots of people claim to know God and to speak for God. Because God has revealed Himself we can say some things about God, we can make some claims, but we must be humble. We do not reveal God. We do not pull back the curtain to reveal the creator. God is the author. He is the source. He makes Himself known.

We are only like Moses hiding behind the rock as God passes by on the other side, or as Job getting a glimpse of the awesomeness of God after all that speculating. In both cases God does the revealing as a frightening and overwhelming gift. If one is not brought low can one say that God is known? That is the point of the last several chapters in Job. I wonder if the book of Job is not really about suffering as much as it is about the limits of human speculation about God. Thinking about God, who He is, what He is all about, His attributes, His character, is good and worthy, but it must begin with falling on one’s face before God. He is not a topic of study, He is the I AM to be feared and worshiped.

Finally, with our circle encompassing all that is created and God outside the circle, there is the matter of contingency. You see, all that the circle represents, all that is created and what we know, can vanish in an instant if God desires. All that is created is contingent on God. All that is within the circle exists because God wills its existence. In other words, God continuously keeps the circle whole and functioning. We can do nothing apart from God’s will, and yet, as a mystery of human existence, we are given our own wills with which we are to freely choose.

Paul and baptism

As part of my ongoing study of Christian baptism I have now come to an important passage in the first chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians. Paul says a fair amount on baptism throughout his letters to the early churches. Most of the verses on baptism from Paul seem to assume things about baptism that must have been understood by those of that time, but are not necessarily the same assumptions we have today. In other words, Paul often mentions baptism without providing a complete teaching on baptism, probably because he didn’t feel he needed to explain everything. His readers probably knew what he was talking about. For us today, with two thousand years of various traditions and teachings, we have to work to figure out what Paul thought on baptism. Did Paul think baptism was required for a Christian, whether to received the Holy Spirit or to be initiated into the visible church or to receive some kind of grace? Or did Paul think baptism was a good cultural thing to do, a meaningful thing to do, but a thing that could and should be tossed aside if it causes one to stumble in the faith?

As with my previous posts on baptism, this one is a kind of meditation and not a final statement.

The passage from 1 Corinthians chapter one is important because we have Paul raising the issue of baptism in light of larger issues of faith and understanding within a church community. Here are the key verses:

1 Corinthians 1:4-17 (ESV):
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge—even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you—so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

This is a powerful passage and it must be pointed out that the issue at hand is not baptism but quarreling, and really quarreling about who different groups within the church community were “following.” In other words, it is clear that Paul is not writing to the Corinthian about baptism, but baptism was a piece of the picture, enough so that Paul must bring it up so as to explain how or where the Corinthians got things wrong.

I want to make it clear that I am no scholar regarding the New Testament or the theology of Paul. What I want to do, as in my previous posts on baptism, is to use this passage to provoke my thinking and see where it may lead. You can participate in the process via the comments. Let’s go through this passage.

Paul says: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge—even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you—so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

My notes: Paul affirms their faith. Is the “grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus” a grace imparted at baptism? There does not seem to be any indication of that. He says they were enriched in speech and knowledge, that they lack no spiritual gift, and that Jesus Christ will sustain them guiltless to the end. what we don’t have here is the means laid out. Just how was this grace given? When was it given? What does it mean to be enriched in him, in all speech and all knowledge? How was the testimony confirmed? What did that look like? What are the spiritual gifts Paul means here? How does Jesus sustain anyone? I find passages like this one difficult. It is packed with ideas that I feel I know, but on reflection I realize I don’t. Spending my entire life within Christianity has produced a tendency to read such passages without reflection, for I “know” what Paul means. Do I? What I find interesting is that Paul is writing that these things are true, and then he will go on to say that he is glad he baptized very few of the Corinthians. Does this mean that all these things (grace, spiritual gifts, etc.) are true even if one does not receive baptism. I would say it might.

Paul says: “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

My notes: Here Paul reminds the Corinthians that God is faithful, that they can count on Him. The question I have is whether the entering into the fellowship of Christ requires baptism. From what Paul is going to say many would say probably not. I am not so sure. It might.

Paul says: “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”

My notes: Here Paul addresses the main issue at hand. There are divisions and Paul calls for unity. Exactly what Paul means by “the same mind and the same judgement” I am not sure. Is this primarily doctrinal? Did these divisions produce lack of unity elsewhere? Did various factions refuse to fellowship with other factions? I would say we must read the rest of the letter to answer those questions.

As an aside: How, in light of this passage, should we understand the East/West Schism of 1054, or the Reformation, or the subsequent Protestant divisions?

Paul says: “For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”

My notes: Here we have more of a picture of the nature of the divisions, that is, quarreling. Is this quarreling merely doctrinal disagreement? Or are the Corinthians also being unloving? The history of Christianity has taught us that we can have different doctrines and practices and still love each other even though we often don’t. It seems that Paul sees these divisions as a kind of dividing up of Christ. What does that mean? Clearly one aspect is that the Corinthians have turned their focus from Christ to individual teachers. Whether these teachers represent, in the minds of the Corinthians, different doctrines, approaches, styles, or charisms is unclear. Did some follow Apollos because he was a more dynamic leader, or because he emphasized certain things, or because he has a different nuance on doctrine. I would guess his doctrine was sound and in line with Paul. Could it be that there were some differences, but the differences insignificant, and the problem is that the Corinthians made a big deal out of insignificant things while forgetting the big picture?

Paul asks whether they were baptized in the name of Paul. Clearly the Corinthians, and Paul, saw baptism as being meaningful. To be baptized in the name of Paul is very different than being baptized in the name of Jesus. But why? Paul would not draw this distinction if he did not see baptism as being meaningful. However, how meaningful? It would seem that baptism means, at least in part, to be a follower. How did the Corinthians gets this wrong? Christians today follow Christ, but they do so by being part of a tradition. Thus, one might say, though not necessarily in these words, I follow Christ by following Luther, or I follow Christ because I am a Catholic (or Baptist, or Anglican, etc.). Is this any different than the Corinthians? Baptism becomes an important question when one changes denominations or goes from Protestant to Catholic or  vice versa. Was one’s baptism valid? Have we made too much of baptism or, maybe, too little? Have we divided, and then continued to divide and to divide, Christ?

Paul says  “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.)”

My notes: This is the first of two “big” verses in terms of baptism. How can Paul say that he thanks God he did not baptize very many of the Corinthians? What this would imply is that baptism is relatively unimportant to the bigger issues of unity. (I was tempted to say bigger issues of faith, but it could be argued Paul is not directly dealing with that here, though it is probably implied.) In fact, one could conclude that Paul is implying that baptism is not necessary and, apparently for the Corinthians, it has become a kind of stumbling block anyway. Better to not be baptized, Paul would seem to be saying, and receive salvation, than to be baptized and then falsify one’s baptism by turning to divisions. Or, one could say, it is not the name into which one is baptized as much as it is the name that one follows with one’s life. In other words, one’s life will demonstrate one’s allegiances, not one’s baptism.

Of course, Paul did baptize the Corinthians, even if only a few. Could it be that Paul is not saying baptism is relatively unimportant, but instead is saying that it is too important to take so lightly as the Corinthians have taken it? In other words, if one was baptized into Christ, and yet tramples on that baptism with petty divisions, would it have been better to have not been baptized in the first place? Could this, then, be an argument for baptism, and not only that, but for a high view of baptism? It seems to me that Paul is angry (or at least deeply worried), so much so that he wishes he had not performed such an important and sacred act as baptizing any more than he did. It is as though he is saying, “How dare you disdain your holy baptism, which brought you into the unity of Christ and his church, by now dividing Christ up with your divisions. Did not that baptism mean anything to you? Do you not understand how profound and precious is that baptism?” These, of course, are not Paul’s words, but do they get at his meaning? I am incline to think so.

Paul says: “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”

My notes: This is the second “big” verse. Here Paul contrasts baptism and preaching the gospel. It would seem that, again, Paul is dismissing baptism by comparison to the gospel. In other words, Paul says, it would seem, that baptism may be just fine, but compared to the gospel it is nothing. Therefore, we Christians—so it goes by implication—can get baptized if we want to, but Paul wasn’t that into baptism for he knew what was important, that is, the gospel. But is this what Paul is truly saying? Maybe. I wish I could call him up and pester him with questions (I’ve got a lot and I know I’m not the only one. Mostly, though, I just want an excuse to make the call and talk to him). What we must realize, though, is that the Corinthians are not asking why Paul never baptizes anyone. That is not their question. The fact is he did; Paul preached the gospel and he baptized.

As I understand it Paul went around the Mediterranean preaching the gospel and baptizing converts. I would guess that he saw these two activities as being combined, maybe even inextricably linked. What I see him doing here is not denying or downgrading baptism, but calling the Corinthians on lying, that is, on accepting the gospel, getting baptized in the name of Christ, and then denying both by their divisions. This verse may, in fact, imply a high view of baptism, not a low one. I do not see the issue here being that the Corinthians had a perverted view of baptism, such that baptism was a magical rite that made one into a Christian. I don’t even see this as a correction of the Corinthians’ view of baptism as much as it is Paul pointing out that he is glad he did not baptize anyone who is now acting out a blatant disregard for the gospel for which their baptism is a part (or for which it stands).

It is clear that Paul’s concern in 1 Corinthians 1:4-17 is about schisms forming in the church (specifically the local church in Corinth) and not about baptism. In fact, I would argue the entire letter is about divisions, including many passages that are often taken out of context, like Paul’s famous exhortation on love recited at so many weddings. What, then, did baptism have to do with salvation in Paul’s thinking? I would argue that one has to start with Paul’s understanding of what it means to become a Christian. I have neither the intellect or space to unpack that here, nor do I want to fall into hubris, however, one thing that seems clear enough is that to become a Christian is to become a member of the church, that is, the body of Christ. There are many interpretations of what this means, but it must at least mean that one is now a part of that group which follows Christ.

My thoughts here align somewhat with what is called the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), though I have not bought into that perspective entirely, nor can I say I fully understand it. However, it seems clear to me that Christians, now grafted into the people of God, find their identity as Christians, that is, as members of that group. But for Paul it is nothing like merely being a member of a club, rather it is far more radical than that. Later in Corinthians Paul, with thoughts (I would argue) of the Corinthians’ divisions foremost on his mind, he reminds them of the children of Israel being saved by God and rescued from slavery in Egypt. He says:

For I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. (1 Corinthians 10:1-4a)

It is interesting that Paul says they were baptized into Moses. It would seem that that baptism came about as a result of being both under the cloud and walking through the parted waters of the Red Sea on dry ground; a place of immanent death and, I would assume, a terrifying experience. This passing through corresponds to the going under the water in baptism which corresponds with Christs’ death. The question here is whether the baptism into Moses was merely a symbolic act signifying an internal or spiritual reality. I would say no.

The Israelites did not go through the sea in the kind of voluntary way we tend to think about baptism. They were desperate, they were facing death from the Egyptians bearing down on them, they were angry at Moses, then the sea parted and they fled. The act was accomplished by God, and it was nearly an act of coercion. Sure, they did not have to go, but when someone puts a gun to your head you will probably do what they say. This is not to say that God made them walk through the Red Sea, but it comes close, and it is not until after they are safe on the other side, with the Egyptian army drowned behind them, that they turn to God and sing His praises. (That strikes me as a very human story.) One could also say they did not have a choice in being under the cloud. In short, their baptism was done by God for their benefit as He put His seal on them. It was one of the things, along with the spiritual food (manna?) and spiritual drink (water from the rock?), that God gave/did to make them His people. In this sense baptism was not a sign of repentance and a profound heart change. It was not even a sign of choosing to be the people of God. It was something done to the “fathers” to make them members of a select group of people, a people called out by God and to God. The terrifying I AM came upon them, as it were, and declared them His people. Is Christian baptism like this in some way? I would say yes on two counts.

First, we are saved because God saves us. He chooses us as an act of His grace and, in response, also as an act of His grace we choose Him. It is a two-way street, yes, but God does all the driving. It is act and response. Second, because God’s grace pours out on us we then enter into that group of people we call the church. We are His people, like our “fathers” the Israelites. Thus, like the Israelites passing through the sea we receive faith, and like the Israelites becoming the people of God we also become God’s people. I am not arguing that gentile Christians are Jews, or have quite the same unique status in His universe, but that Christianity comes from Judaism and the Jews are our brothers and sisters. We are kin.

Paul wants the Corinthians to see that, like their fathers, they too have been baptized into a membership, that is the body of Christ. It follows then that if all Christians are children of God we should not have divisions. It does not matter what one’s background, social status, ethnicity, etc. Paul says, again in the letter to the Corinthians:

For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:13)

So, did Paul think baptism was required for a Christian, whether to received the Holy Spirit or to be initiated into the visible church or to receive some kind of grace? It would seem the answer is three yeses. The next question is whether this baptism is the work that God does through His spirit or whether it is the act of water baptism that has become our tradition, or is it both? Is it another example of God acting and we responding? If Paul wants us to draw a connection with how God made the Israelites His people then the answer might be yes. Their story included both the act of God and the physical/visible baptism of cloud and sea. I suppose God could have done anything. He could have written an entirely different story. He could have chosen them but never told them. He could do the same for us. But He didn’t for them, and He doesn’t for us. Still, is this baptism of the Spirit or of water, or both?

I am inclined to think Paul uses the word to mean technically by water. We know there are references in the New Testament that specifically refer to water (Acts 8:36-39, Acts 10:47-48a), and they are apparently positive about water, that is, the apostles do not say that water baptism is no longer required, nor do they teach that it is now inappropriate (even in 1 Corinthians, as I suggested above). We also know that baptism by water was a Jewish practice (and maybe throughout the pagan world), and Paul was steeped in Judaism. We also know that Jesus baptized with water (John 3:22-26). And, finally, we know the early church practiced baptism, which should not quickly be dismissed. What we have mentioned in the New Testament is that to believe the gospel and become a Christian involved repentance, being baptized, and receiving the Holy Spirit. How all that fits together I am not yet sure, but I believe Paul understood baptism in this “formula” as being water baptism, but as also being inextricably intertwined with repentance and receiving the Holy Spirit. Is there an order to these three activities? I am not sure. Maybe it is different for each of us.

A tentative conclusion of sorts: I have inherited a non-sacramental theology. I am a child of the Reformation (which was not a true reformation from what I can tell, but a rebellion, for good or ill. I am still deciding) and I have deep roots in certain beliefs. But I wonder if the stripping of everything (all external religion, smells, bells, recited prayers, and even baptism) in an attempt to get at some kind of pure essence (an essential Christianity) that we have not turned our back of God in some way. From scriptures we see that God is both all about the heart (internal) and action (external). We see God giving a carefully described, detailed, rule-bound religion to the Israelites. I always thought that He did that as a way to either lay burdens on them in order to teach them something, or in order to make them be separate from the rest of the world. I now think God gave them religion because He made human beings to be religious. The religion that God gave His people was a gift in light of their created design, their humanness. He gave them a raft of symbolic acts and religious practices that He then connected to their hearts and to His providence. Could it be that we also are to have the internal and the external moving in concert? Is religion a good thing for us Christians? Has the “passing through the sea” become now a spiritual, internal process leading to faith with no necessary external component? This is the great question for me, one that I am still sorting out, but a question that might be leading me back, in some fashion, to a pre-Reformation expression of Christianity.

East and West

My ongoing study of baptism has led me to look at the early church fathers and then, consequently, to Eastern Orthodox perspectives. I am always curious to find out what kinds of assumptions I hold when it comes to my understanding of the faith. This understanding can be either theological arguments or, more likely, unexamined views. The assumptions can be consciously or unconsciously held. In other words, what do I take as truth? (I wrote something about this before.) The question is not only in terms of final conclusions, but also in terms of what is the right way to frame one’s perspective. The “givens” we assume and often hold uncritically play a big role in the conclusions we accept.

My history is Protestant in terms of my foundational training. Recently I have been curious about Catholicism, and have done some studying in that regard. Consequently my thinking has expanded and I have been humbled by how little I know. Now I find the Orthodox Church fascinating—and I wonder which way is right, or more right; which perspective is the best to have, and which place is the best from which to start?

With this in mind, I was shook up somewhat by the following passage from James Payton’s book, Light from the Christian East. He says:

As heir to the emphasis of Roman civilization, Christianity in the Latin West was much concerned with law. In that Roman legal tradition for which the Roman Empire was justly famous, concerns with status before the law, with guilt and justice, with debt and credit, and with other similar matters were foundational, ultimate considerations. Consequently, it is hardly surprising that Western Christian theology, ecclesiastical practice and piety all came to reflect concerns with matters that properly belong in a court of law—specifically, in God’s court. This was true already in the period of antiquity; it remained so throughout the Middle Ages in the West; it is unmistakable in the concerns of the Protestant Reformation as well. Questions of merit and debt, of satisfaction and payment, of justification and condemnation, are all appropriate and natural questions within this approach. To this day, Western Christianity has been shaped by this ancient Roman heritage which has been transmitted down through the centuries.

In contrast, the eastern half of the Roman Empire was not preoccupied with questions of law and legal standing. The prior concerns of Hellenistic intellectual culture shaped both the questions asked and the answers given by the church in that culture. In the East, those questions, rooted in careful philosophical thought, converged especially on the contrast between light and darkness, life and death, spirit and matter, and on the limitations of human reason. Christians in the East sought to address the underlying questions of their society by emphasizing those elements of the apostolic message that spoke to such issues. Questions of guilt and legality, for example, or of satisfaction and payment were not the main issues for Eastern Christianity; instead, Eastern Christians focused on the struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness, on the process of salvation, on the gift of eternal life and communion with God. Even so, Christianity in the East was reserved about the capacities of human reason to express adequately the mysteries of the faith.

I realize that most of my formal understanding of Christianity is fully and fundamentally western. I say formal because along with my theology there is also my experience and intuition. Consequently, and as I study more and more beyond the “safe” boundaries proscribed by my Protestant training, I am finding the Eastern Christian perspective tugging at me. This is due, in part at least, to the fact that my experience points to “the struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness, on the process of salvation, on the gift of eternal life and on communion with God.” I have so much more to learn about Eastern Christianity but, thus far, it fascinates me deeply.

Becoming religious—via baptism

The Sort of Person They Call a Christian: First Picture
by Søren Kierkegaard
From The Attack Upon “Christendom” (1854-1855)

     It is a young man—let us think of it so, reality furnishes examples in abundance—it is a young man, we can imagine him with more than ordinary ability, knowledge, interested in public events, a politician, even taking an active part as such.
     As for religion, his religion is—that he has none at all. To think of God never occurs to him, any more than it does to go to church, and it is certainly not on religious grounds he eschews that; he almost fears that to read God’s Word at home would make him ridiculous.
     When it turns out that the situation requires him to express himself about religion and there is some danger in doing it, he gets out of the difficulty by saying, as is the truth, “I have no opinion at all, such things have never concerned me.”
     This same young man who feels no need of religion feels the need of being—paterfamilias. He marries, then he has a child, he is—presumptive father. And then what happens?
     Well, our young man is, as they say, in hot water about this child; in the capacity of presumptive father he is compelled to have a religion. And so it turns out that he has the Evangelical Lutheran religion.
     How pitiful it is to have religion in this way. As a man, he has no religion; when there might be danger connected with having even an opinion about religion, he has no religion—but in the capacity of presumptive father he has (risum teneatis!)1 that religion precisely which extols the single state.
     So they notify the priest, the midwife arrives with the baby, a young lady holds the infant’s bonnet coquettishly, several young men who also have no religion render the presumptive father the service of having, as godfathers, the Evangelical Christian religion, and assume obligation for the Christian upbringing of the child, while a silken priest with a graceful gesture sprinkles water three times on the dear little baby and dries his hands gracefully with the towel—
     And this they dare to present to God under the name of Christian baptism. Baptism—it was with this sacred ceremony the Savior of the world was consecrated for His life’s work, and after Him the disciples, men who had well reached the age of discretion and who then, dead to this life (therefore immersed three times, signifying that they were baptized into communion with Christ’s death), promised to be willing to live as sacrificed men in this world of falsehood and evil.
     The priests, however, these holy men, understand their business, and understand too that if (as Christianity must unconditionally require of every sensible man) it were so that only when a person has reached the age of discretion his is permitted to decide upon the religion he will have—the priests understand very well that in this way their trade would not amount to much. And therefore these holy witnesses to the truth insinuate themselves into the lying-in room, where the mother is weak after the suffering she has gone through, and the paterfamilias is—in hot water. And then under the name of baptism they have the courage to present to God a ceremony such as that which has been described, into which a little bit of truth might be brought nevertheless, if the young lady, instead of holding the little bonnet sentimentally over the baby, were satirically to hold a night cap over the presumptive father. For to have religion in that way is, spiritually considered, a pitiful comedy. A person has no religion; but by reason of family circumstances, first because the mother got into the family way, the paterfamilias in turn got into embarrassment owing to that, and then with the ceremonies connected with the sweet little baby—by reason of all this a person has—the Evangelical Lutheran religion.

1. Do not laugh!

I posted this earlier this week, then Blogger blew up and I had to re-edit and re-post it. I had originally written an introduction, but I can’t remember what I wrote. So this time I left it off.

Westminster Confession of Faith on Baptism

My ignorance of the Westminster Confession of Faith may be without bounds. I know it is Calvinist in its premises and adopted by the Church of Scotland and used by Presbyterian churches worldwide. My notes in between each point and between the footnotes below probably display my ignorance better than anything I can say in this preface. Nonetheless, I am using the Westminster Confession’s teaching on baptism to spark my thinking and to help me raise questions in my pursuit of understanding baptism in the life of faith. What I find, and what I hope everyone will find who examines such famous and weighty documents as the Westminster Confession of Faith, is that it does not stand alone as an unassailable statement. It is, in fact, a document created by men and believed by men, and not without a raft of assumptions holding it up. Are those assumptions true? Maybe, but I do not want to assume they are.

Chapter XXVIII
Of Baptism

I. Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ,[1] not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church;[2] but also to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace,[3] of his ingrafting into Christ,[4] of regeneration,[5] of remission of sins,[6] and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in the newness of life.[7] Which sacrament is, by Christ’s own appointment, to be continued in His Church until the end of the world.[8]

My notes: Each point here makes sense to me, is what I was taught growing up, and yet most now are in question in my mind. Is baptism truly a sacrament? (I have many questions on the very idea of sacraments—another thing I need to study.) Is baptism required for “admission . . . into the visible church?” Does baptism ingraft us into Christ, provide regeneration, remission of sins, etc.? If baptism is strictly or primarily the spiritual activity of the Holy Spirit then I would say “yes.” If baptism is the traditional act of water immersion, then I am not so sure, except maybe the admission into the visible church (which is certainly not the same as being saved). If we take baptism as being a sign of the ingrafting,  regeneration, remission, etc., then I would say that’s true enough. If it is only a sign, then such a weighty statement on baptism is prone to cause misunderstanding and may lead Christians to think baptism is more than it is and something that it is not.

Also, it seems to me that many of the footnotes are not proof of the statements they refer to, or are, at least, linked to. This, I think, is a big deal. From point #1 above and the footnotes below it is clear that this confession of faith is less of an argument and more a statement, and a statement expressing a particular church tradition. It is not the only possible understanding of scripture (or even of tradition), though, like any creed, it tends to assume that status. I have strong reservations about creeds, and I tend to be non-creedal in my approach to faith. The fear of heresy tends to produce individuals with atrophied brains and shriveled souls. Thanks be to God for His love that overcomes our fears.

II. The outward element to be used in this sacrament is water, wherewith the party is to be baptized, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, by a minister of the Gospel, lawfully called thereunto.[9]

My notes: I find it interesting that in footnote [2] it says: “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body….” By implication, then, Christian baptism is spiritual, or done by the Spirit rather than a water baptism, unless by spirit Paul means idea, which I doubt. I am sure there are plenty of arguments to show water baptism and Spirit baptism are linked or even the same, but that water is used may have more to do with Church traditions born out of popular cultural traditions than from biblical commands. Also, what does it mean that a minister of the gospel is “lawfully called thereunto?” Does that mean a priest? And how is one lawfully called? What is that process, what does that mean? In Catholic doctrine it is expected that a priest would perform the baptism, but there is provision for baptism being administered by anyone, even a non-believer, as long as the process is properly followed. I don’t see such a provision called out here.

III. Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but Baptism is rightly administered by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person.[10]

My notes: Again, I do not see such a rule—that immersion, pouring, and sprinkling are all considered fine—called out in scripture, even in the footnotes (which seem more a mashup of verses than an argument). Thus, this is a determination by the Church as far as I can tell. For a Fundamentalist (of which I was nearly one) such a position is untenable, but I no longer have any issue with it. Sprinkle away! Still, I find it interesting that “rightly administered” cannot mean “as clearly described by the apostles” or some such thing, for we do not have any clear rules set forth on the actions or process of baptism in the Bible. Thus, this must refer to the church traditions which have been handed down. Fine enough, but which ones? Are we not back then to the Catholic (or Orthodox) church? “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant,” said Cardinal Newman. Is that where we have come?

IV. Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ,[11] but also the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized.[12]

My notes: I agree that infant baptism is a great way for parents and their church community to make a public dedication to the infant and to say they will raise him/her in light of the truth of scripture, etc. Does baptism, however, confer anything on the child spiritually? Does it bring anything down from Heaven upon the child? Is grace imparted? Other than a public dedication, why do it? Some churches do not do infant baptism but still do dedications. Is that not enough? Most of the footnotes do not specifically call out baptism, and not one clearly calls out baptism of children. I know it is not uncommon for many to believe that infant baptism confers some amount of divine grace on the child and therefore parents often feel obligated to have their children baptized, and worry if they don’t. This is an important issue that I am still sorting out.

V. Although it is a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance,[13] yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it:[14] or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated.[15]

My notes: I find this statement crazy-making. As I understand it: One can be save without baptism, one can be regenerated without baptism, and one can be baptized and be neither saved or regenerated, BUT it is a great sin to contemn or neglect baptism. What about the pearl of great price? Was that not enough? What makes it a great sin unless, for a given individual, the rejection of baptism is because God has been rejected as well? Is baptism a touchstone of faith? Is it that one does not need to be baptized to be saved, but rejecting baptism calls into question the validity of one’s claims to believe? Religion has a tendency to place heavy weights on people, weights that we carry around as burdens and yet, in light of eternity, are nothing. Is this one of those?

VI. The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered;[16] yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongs unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in His appointed time.[17]

My notes: This point raises a lot of questions: How does baptism have efficacy, what is the agency of or in it? Is it the act of baptism that produces its efficacy? Is there only one way, one “right use” of baptism? What grace is promised? Salvation, sanctification, what? How is it really exhibited? Tongues of fire, righteousness, what? Is the council of God’s own will different than just God’s will? This point, and my questions, get at the very nature and doctrines of sacramental theology—something I am still sorting out.

VII. The sacrament of Baptism is but once to be administered unto any person.[18]

My notes: This makes sense to me, however, if this is water baptism, I don’t see any “one time only” rules set out in scripture.

[1] MAT 28:19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

My notes: What does baptism mean here? Does it mean with water or with the Spirit? Does this command make it a sacrament? See my previous post on baptism and the “great commission.”

[2] 1CO 12:13 For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.

My notes: Here we have baptism “by one Spirit.” Does the Spirit use water to accomplish this baptism? Or does water baptism need to accompany this spiritual baptism? I would tend to say this has to do with the work of God on our hearts, calling us to repentance, and not to water baptism. So then how is this a seal? I am also confused by the wording: “drink into one Spirit.” What does that mean?

[3] ROM 4:11 And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also. COL 2:11 In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: 12 Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.

My notes: Here we have “the seal.” It is not baptism, rather it is righteousness, it is the circumcision of the the heart, made without hands. Therefore the seal is not something imparted or administered through the agency of a priest or fellow believer. It must be a seal that comes from God directly, for we know that no amount of water, blessed or otherwise, can ever reach a person’s heart/will. In fact, the Romans passage calls into question the validity of any outward, physical mark or action. Here we have the distinction made between circumcision and non-circumcision. When Paul says, “though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also,” could one also assume, in another context, “though they be not baptized; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also?” Certainly we have a situation where righteousness is imputed and no mention of baptism. Regarding Colossians, is there also a baptism made without hands? In terms of circumcision and baptism, what is more important, physical circumcision or spiritual circumcision? Physical baptism or spiritual baptism? If spiritual then what emphasis should we place on the physical? Should we disregarded the physical, outward sign as superfluous? Are we to be that strict, that iconoclastic? Or does God give us, and ordain, religion as an outward set of practices that, though not the core essence of faith, are still part of our humanity? If God was so concerned that his people would mistake the outward for the inward then why did He take so much care to give them minute details of religious practice? Is a man rightly related to his faith, understanding fully the nature of salvation and God’s grace, also called, then, in some way, to be religious? If we disdain religion and its outward practices, including baptism, are we rejecting God or, at least, our God-like imageness?

[4] GAL 3:27 For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. ROM 6:5 For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection.

My notes: Again, what does it mean to be baptized “into” Christ? Is this metaphysical, mystical, spiritual, metaphorical, what? Is this baptism water baptism? Does scripture teach that water baptism is necessary? Paul argues that we will be planted (or united) together in the likeness Christ’s death (in a death like his); is that uniting a product strictly or even actually of the physical one-time act of baptism? The previous verses Paul says: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 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.” (Roman 6:3-4, ESV) It would seem that Paul does have in mind baptism here as the one-time act, but is that a baptism by water or by the Spirit? Let’s assume it is water baptism; I would hazard a guess that Paul does not see water baptism as magical in this regard (and officially, neither do most of the Christian traditions), rather Paul is saying something like, “Remember that day you were baptized, remember that public statement you made before everyone that you are now a follower of Christ? Well then, if you take that seriously then be committed to not letting sin reign in your life… etc.” In this sense can we not say, then, that the continued commitments of our hearts and the kind of lives we live as a consequence of those commitments is the greater “sign and seal” of the covenant of God’s grace, more so than any act of water baptism could ever be?

[5] TIT 3:5 Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost.

My notes: See my previous post on the question of “washing of regeneration.” My conclusion is that this washing is not so clearly water baptism, or any kind of baptism administered by human hands. Though I still have questions. Let’s look closer at the Titus passage: “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:4-7) When Paul says it’s not by works done by us in righteousness, this could mean (or include) not by water baptism. When he says it’s by God’s mercy that we are washed by the Holy Spirit, that indicates it is a God initiated spiritual baptism. Paul goes on to use the picture of pouring, that is it is God pouring His Spirit out on us, which implies, again, a spiritual baptism not a water baptism.

[6] MAR 1:4 John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.

My notes: I think we must keep in mind that the baptism of John and the baptism of the Spirit are potentially two entirely different baptisms, rooted though they are in the gospel (one announces and the other seals). The question I am still trying to answer is whether Jesus saw John’s baptism as a picture or example of future Christian baptism, or whether John’s baptism was the old, Jewish custom that will be supplanted by the new spiritual baptism of the the Holy Spirit. Even John points to Jesus’ baptism by saying that he (John) baptizes with water but one is coming who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. (Matthew 3:11)

[7] ROM 6:3 Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

My notes: One argument for water baptism that makes a lot of sense to me is that to go under the water is visually and symbolically like going into death. Coming up out of the water, again, is like resurrection. However, see my notes on Footnote #4.

[8] MAT 28:19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

My notes: here again we have a “great commission” statement. See my previous post on this. In short, this verse (and all the great commission passages) does not necessarily imply water baptism. Also, this verse does not say, and only thinly implies, if at all, that baptism is to be continued in perpetuity.

[9] MAT 3:11 I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire. JOH 1:33 And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. MAT 28:19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: 20 Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.

My notes: This footnote is to be proof for two things: the requirement to baptize with water and to baptize in the name of  Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. First, both Matthew 3:11 and John 1:33 could (and more properly?) be understood as an argument against water baptism for Christians. See my post on this. Second, are we to understand Christ’s command to baptize in the name of . . . as a formula? That is, are they to specifically baptize with water and, while doing so, say “I now baptize you in the name of . . .?” Personally I love the formula. When I witness a baptism I literally get chills. So I don’t have any issue with the formula per se, but are we to understand the formula as having been commanded by Christ is the sense that we have tended traditionally to understand it?

[10] HEB 9:10 Which stood only in meats and drinks, and divers washings, and carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation. 19 For when Moses had spoken every precept to all the people according to the law, he took the blood of calves and of goats, with water, and scarlet wool, and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book, and all the people, 20 Saying, This is the blood of the testament which God hath enjoined unto you. 21 Moreover he sprinkled with blood both the tabernacle, and all the vessels of the ministry. 22 And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission. ACT 2:41 Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. 16:33 And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes; and was baptized, he and all his, straightway. MAR 7:4 And when they come from the market, except they wash, they eat not. And many other things there be, which they have received to hold, as the washing of cups, and pots, brasen vessels, and of tables.

My notes: I am over my head entirely with the book of Hebrews, but with all these passages, I find no proof for the point above. How do these passages undergird an argument that baptism can be full immersion or pouring or sprinkling? I don’t see it.

[11] MAR 16:15 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. 16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. ACT 8:37 And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. 38 And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him.

My notes: Verse 37 of Acts chapter 8 is likely not in the original text, but was added somewhere after in order to make the story fit with established church doctrine. I do not have an issue per se with the ideas in the verse, but I would not quote it to support dogma. Interestingly, this passage shows a rather solitary baptism, a baptism not as part of a local church community and, presumably, without other witnesses. Therefore, the baptism of the eunuch does not seem to be for the purpose of admission into the visible church, and yet it appears to be considered adequate, certainly from Philip’s perspective. I am still sorting this one out.

[12] GEN 17:7 And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee. 9 And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations. GAL 3:9 So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham. 14 That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. COL 2:11 In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: 12 Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead. ACT 2:38 Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. 39 For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call. ROM 4:11 And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also: 12 And the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised. 1CO 7:14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy. MAT 28:19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. MAR 10:13 And they brought young children to him, that he should touch them: and his disciples rebuked those that brought them. 14 But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. 15 Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein. 16 And he took them up in his arms, put his hands upon them, and blessed them. LUK 18:15 And they brought unto him also infants, that he would touch them: but when his disciples saw it, they rebuked them.

My notes: There are just too many verses and ideas here to tackle in these notes. See my previous posts [post 1, post 2, post 3] that will cover some of these verses and ideas.

[13] LUK 7:30 But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the counsel of God against themselves, being not baptized of him. EXO 4:24 And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the Lord met him, and sought to kill him. 25 Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me. 26 So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision.

My notes: The Luke reference makes sense in light of the point above, but it does not specify water or spiritual baptism, which may makes some sense here. Certainly the Pharisees rejected God and his Messiah. Was their rejection of baptism a sign of that ultimate rejection? Is it the same issue for us today, either because we are in a different time, culture, and place, or because we are in a post-Christ’s death/resurrection world? The Exodus reference perplexes me.

[14] ROM 4:11 And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also. ACT 10:2 A devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God alway. 4 And when he looked on him, he was afraid, and said, What is it, Lord? And he said unto him, Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God. 22 And they said, Cornelius the centurion, a just man, and one that feareth God, and of good report among all the nation of the Jews, was warned from God by an holy angel to send for thee into his house, and to hear words of thee. 31 And said, Cornelius, thy prayer is heard, and thine alms are had in remembrance in the sight of God. 45 And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost. 47 Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?

My notes: Here we have one of the clearest references to water baptism being performed by an apostle. Was water baptism necessary, or merely a common cultural practice of the time? Could it be that Peter saw the necessity of water baptism in order that a visual sign is provided to “they of the circumcision” that God has given the good news to the Gentiles? Does this hold true for us today?

[15] ACT 8:13 Then Simon himself believed also: and when he was baptized, he continued with Philip, and wondered, beholding the miracles and signs which were done. 23 For I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity.

My notes: From what I can tell, here we have an example of a man getting baptized and yet it not fundamentally changing him; he still must be confronted with a fuller understanding of the truth. Also, Acts 8:16 clearly says that baptism does not or, at least sometimes does not, lead to one being filled with the Holy Spirit. Interestingly, it is through the laying on of hands that they received the Holy Spirit. Is this spiritual baptism? Is this the baptism that the apostles are commanded to take to the world? Is this the kind of baptism that John the Baptist said the Christ would bring, whereas John only brought water baptism?

[16] JOH 3:5 Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. 8 The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.

My notes: See my previous post for my thoughts on being born of water and spirit.I am still working through this one.

[17] GAL 3:27 For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. TIT 3:5 Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; EPH 5:25 Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; 26 That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word. ACT 2:38 Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. 41 Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls.

My notes: I am not convince the Ephesian passage means baptism in water, or baptism at all. It could be a metaphor or image of how the truth (word) replaces or cleanses (washing) the mind and/or heart of the repentant individual. Then again, it could be water baptism.

[18] TIT 3:5 Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost.

My notes: As far as I call tell, this verse offers no argument or evidence of support to point VII. In fact, could not the washing and the renewing be ongoing actions and not a one time only act?

Tentative conclusion: Me desire is not to challenge the Westminster Confession of Faith. Too many minds far greater than mine have tackled and supported this important document. However, I find in it so many questions that I cannot without many qualifications accept it as a clear and accurate picture of apostolic teaching. It may be, but my notes should make it clear that, as I said in the preface, the Westminster Confession rests on a raft of assumptions.

Love Wins: Rob Bell discusses the gospel

The following video is of Rob Bell being interviewed by Peter Wallace. Forget all the goofy controversy that has surrounded publication of Bell’s book, Love Wins, and just listen to Bell talk about the gospel. This is a very thought provoking discussion and Bell is a master at getting to heart of the matter.

Thoughts on Art, Popular Culture, and the Gospel

In 1994 I wrote the following article for McKenzie Study Center, an institution and a group of people that have been very influential in my life. It is hard to believe that was seventeen years ago. I am curious if what I wrote is still relevant. You can tell me if it is. At the time I was very influenced by several books, not least of which were Addicted to Mediocrity by Frank Schaeffer, and Art Needs No Justification by H. R. Rookmaaker, plus the other books I reference below. I was also very influenced by my friend and mentor Wes Hurd. I wrote the article, in part, because I felt a kind of barrier put up between the church (for me mainstream evangelical protestant Christianity) and thoughtful contemplation of art, artmaking, and the life of artists. My faith was being formed and shaped through my dialogues on art and its relationship to faith and church. I think some of the issues have shifted since then (but you can tell me if they haven’t) and I hope they have. But I still feel that artists are largely viewed askance by Christianity in America. My desire, and what inspired me seventeen years ago to write this article, is that we will claim art as evidence of our like-God imageness and begin to proclaim the greatness of creation and creating, even if only just for the beauty of it.

Thoughts on Art, Popular Culture, and the Gospel
To say that the couch in your living room or the pictures on your walls have a profound effect upon your life may sound strange. But they do. The things we surround ourselves with, from the films we watch to the color and texture of our bathroom tile, influence the way we think and feel. The nature of this influence may be enigmatic, but we know it is there. We know that the aesthetics of MTV, its look and feel, influence the youth of our world. We know that the aesthetics of an art gallery encourage quiet contemplation, whereas the aesthetics of a video arcade do not. And we know that living in an apartment with dark brown walls has a decidedly different feel than living in an apartment with white walls. The look, texture, and sound of our surroundings influences us because of our aesthetic sense.
People may say, “I’m not artistically inclined,” or, “I don’t really know anything about art,” or even, “I never think about art.” But God gave each of us the ability to respond in some way to aesthetic expression. Being aesthetically sensitive is part of being human; it is one of the basic emotional and intellectual components with which God made us; it is a talent we all have, though it may be more developed in some than in others.
All objects, even the bathroom tile, have aesthetic properties, good or bad, exquisite or mundane. In this paper, I will focus on objects made primarily for aesthetic reasons, those objects we typically refer to as “art” and “popular culture.” Although the term “art” can be elusive—one man’s art may be another man’s junk—we usually mean certain categories of communication, certain media: music, poetry, drama, literary fiction, visual depiction, ballet and modern dance, cinema, and sculpture. “Popular culture,” while more familiar to most of us, is more difficult to define, in part because of the familiarity, in part because the word “culture” can embrace almost everything associated with human beings. Generally, however, “popular culture” consists of media like television, radio, movies, and rock music.
The difference between an object of art and an object of popular culture is not merely the medium which conveys it—novel versus movie, for example. The difference between art and popular culture involves intent. Popular culture is intended to reach the widest possible audience by appealing to the lowest common denominators of taste and understanding. Art, on the other hand, often appeals to a very narrow audience and often is intended to challenge the audience’s or the viewer’s understanding and taste. Any of the media I have mentioned can be art or popular culture—depending on its intent.
We are living in an increasingly visual age. More and more, we rely on the conveyance of information and the substantiation of world views through visual media (painting, film, and television, for example) rather than the printed or spoken word. Our generation, both Christian and non-Christian, is adrift on a sea of images which not only express the world views of multiple realities and the ineffability of truth, but which also take the great works of human expression and make them mundane through mass reproduction. In his book, The Christian, The Arts, and Truth, Frank Gaebelein points out that “No other generation in history has been more besieged by the arts in their big-money, people-manipulating use than ours.” This is the world we live in. We may try to be “not of this world,” but we will always be “in the world.” We cannot escape the world any more than we can escape ourselves, but we can understand the world.
As Christians, we must develop a tough critical-mindedness in relation to this growing visual culture. As creatures, we are accountable to the sovereign God who built into us an aesthetic sense that responds to art and popular culture. But as Christians, we have a responsibility, not only to our God-given aesthetic sense, but to be salt of the earth. T. S. Elliot wrote:

What is incumbent on all Christians is the duty of maintaining consciously certain standards and criteria of criticism over and above those applied by the rest of the world. We must remember that the greater part of our reading matter [and other media of art and popular culture] is written…by people who have no real belief in a supreme order.

Unfortunately, all too often we don’t apply a tough critical-mindedness to understanding the arts. For one reason or another, our culture is generally critically indifferent to the arts and popular culture, except for the occasional whines about violence on television. This is dangerous. Violence on television is a true problem, but the sensibilities of television may have greater, and worse, implications for our culture than just its content. Jaques Barzun has said, “Art is power; it can weaken or destroy the civilization that created it. It can enlarge or trivialize the imagination.” The powers of our most treasured media are not forced upon us, however; we accept them willingly and uncritically. In other words, we may be facing into a “Huxlian” world where people love the very technologies that undo their capacity to think and to discourse effectively. If we believe in a God who demands that we effectively communicate the truth of the Gospel to a dying world, then we must be diligent in defending our minds as well as our faith. We must consciously choose to be aware of our surroundings, of the world we live in, of the power of our culture and its forms of communication.
Most of our experiences of art and popular culture come to us during our leisure hours, which we have more of than any previous generation. But leisure is not inherently good; it is potential waiting to be put to good use. Unfortunately, our culture’s use of leisure has become an attempt to feed an ever-increasing craving for new and more exciting ways of being entertained. We could point to bungee jumpers who seek a moment of terror to produce an extra ounce of adrenaline. But we could also point to those of us on the ground waiting for the new fall season of television, the latest film, or the “hottest” pop-rock-rehash. We accept the bombardment of our senses as standard fair without realizing that our imaginations are being pulverized.
Entertainment has become the standard manner by which our culture, both non-Christian and Christian, typically communicates. Our educational system, our political system, and even the Church (through television and youth ministries) all rely upon entertainment media to convey their message. The ramifications of this “policy” are frightening. In his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman writes, “I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether.” We must ask ourselves whether or not the message of the Gospel is “translatable” into every “language” or method of communication without the message becoming tainted by the method. It is quite appropriate that the Bible is a book and not a comic strip or game show. If, as Marshall McLuhan posited, “the medium is the message,” then we should ask whether or not a medium like television (with Oprah Winfrey, “Leave it to Beaver,” and advertisements for Preparation H) provides an adequate means for expressing the truth and nature of the Gospel—or even the news of the world. We need a tough critical-mindedness in order to provide an answer.
The way we Christians express our faith to the world is obviously important. But the way our Christian subculture expresses itself to itself is also important. Art and popular culture are key elements of that “expressing.” Although art is not the only litmus test of true spirituality, if it is true that Christian art, and the Church’s attitude toward art, reflect Christian theology, then it would appear that the Church is in a questionable state. Christianity, which once led the western world in the production of art, is rarely, if ever, heard from now. This is a symptom of our age, but it is also a symptom of what we have accepted as “okay.” Franky Schaeffer has adroitly pointed out that a quick perusal of our local Christian bookstore or television programming reveals an outstanding feature of the modern Christian world: an addiction to mediocrity. Far too much of what we accept as significant elements of our leisure, of what we call art, isn’t even good.
Christians are to be witnesses for the truth of the Gospel. We must not completely turn our backs on our culture. We must not live in a social vacuum. But we must be careful in what we accept as good and worthy from our culture. And we must know what we will not accept.
In part, this paper is my testimony. Although I don’t have specific answers to our cultural crisis, I know that my interest in the arts spurred my own journey in my faith. As I became more sensitive to what the arts can offer—when excellence is the standard—I began to realize that the church in which I grew up did not have adequate answers to my questions about the purposes of art. Consequently, it did not offer solid answers about human creativity. This ineptitude, I felt, came not merely from ignorance, but from bad theology about creativity and about what it means to be human. Through the arts I saw the glory of God and the glory of His wonderful creation, man. This is why the arts are important to me. This is why understanding the arts is a valuable and noble pursuit—not for its own sake, but for my sake and the sake of the world in which I live.
Copyright September 1994 by McKenzie Study Center.

Meditations on baptism (part 3)

What does the “great commission” say or imply regarding water baptism?

The history of Christianity makes clear that the primary assumption concerning baptism is that it involves water, whether immersion or pouring or sprinkling. We find this assumption with most all of the Christian groups or denominations. Debates concerning its nature (sign or sacrament), its timing (infant baptism or believer’s baptism), and its method (immersion or pouring) continue, but all involve water. Is water baptism biblical in a post-Christ’s death/resurrection Christianity?

“Did Christ command his disciples 
to baptize with water?”


How’s that for a book title? It was also published under the title Why Friends (Quakers) do not baptize with water. I think we know where Rev. Moon* stands on the subject of water baptism. My ideas in this post are influenced and guided somewhat by Moon’s, who, I believe from the title of his book, was a Quaker. I would, however, point the reader to Rev. Moon’s book (and any other similar book) rather than this post to fully dig into this subject.

Let’s take a look at Christ’s command to his apostles to carry forward the message of the gospel. There are seven places in scripture (that I know of) where the so-called great commission is declared or referenced. They are as follows in the ESV translation:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, (Matthew 28:19)

My notes: Here we have baptism mentioned. Does this baptism have to be with water? Is it required to be water by the text? No. One will, of course, assume water baptism if that is the expectation, but it is not clear from the text.

And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. (Mark 16:15)

My notes: Here baptism is not even referenced. If baptizing converts is so critical to salvation, or even just being accepted into the visible/local church body, why is it not called out here? One could argue that proclaiming the gospel includes baptism, but that would be a stretch. When Christ came proclaiming the gospel, he was proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. In Matthew 4:17-25 we read of Jesus beginning his ministry, teaching in the synagogues, healing, gathering his disciples, etc. Nowhere in this passage does it say that Jesus baptized his disciples into his ministry, or baptized others, or called for baptism. It is unlikely that Jesus had a low view of baptism, for he was just baptized by John the Baptist—even insisted on it—but we don’t see Jesus carrying on John’s baptism. Thus, it does not appear that proclaiming the gospel necessarily required baptism such as John preached, at least not from these verses.

Curious: What does “to the whole creation” mean? I assume this only means people, but maybe St. Francis was right.

. . . and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24:47)

My notes: Here again we have the key message to be carried by the disciples to all the nations, and it does not specifically call out baptism. What it calls out is repentance and forgiveness of sins. And again we could link baptism to this message, especially repentance since that was connected to baptism with John the Baptist’s preaching. But the connection might also be a stretch, and it is not made in this verse. Given the importance placed on baptism in the history of the church (only the baptized could partake of the Eucharist), one would guess that Luke would have know the importance of baptism and called it out here, but he does not. What does that say about the traditional understanding of baptism?

Also: It is interesting that “beginning from Jerusalem” is included. This highlights, intentionally or not, the particularly Jewish origins of the gospel. I think we can easily forget this.

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (John 20:21)

My notes: Again baptism is not mentioned. This verse calls us to examine how the Father sent Jesus, since that is the way the disciples are being sent. We should take a look at the context (John 20:19b-23): Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me,even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” Notice that the “commission” to the disciples comes right after Jesus showed them his wounds. Could it be that that is how they should be sent, that is, as servants willing to lay down their lives for Christ’s sake? Then the words, “as the Father has sent me” point to an orientation of their hearts, to their primary commitments, rather than to a method of converting others, such as through baptism. This does not negate baptism outright, but it does seem, by implication, to relegate it to a lesser or non-essential position. What it does foreground is the role the apostles will play in forgiveness, a role I am not able to unpack at this time. Regardless, Christ sends the apostles into the world and does not mention baptism.

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

My notes: Again baptism is not mentioned. Here we have the “commission” calling out the witness nature of the apostles ministry. From what I can tell there is no mention of baptism, at least not water baptism. However, could it be that “when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” refers to a spiritual baptism? Is that how we are to understand Christian baptism, as from the Holy Spirit rather than through water?

And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. (Acts 10:42)

My notes: Again baptism is not mentioned. Preaching and testifying make up the work of the “commission.” However, the next several verses say this: While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days. (Acts 10:44-48) Here we have water baptism clearly called out, but only after those to be baptized have had the Holy Spirit fall on them. They do not get baptized in order to receive the Holy Spirit, at least not here. It is also clear that that falling of the Spirit produced visible evidences. Water baptism follows divine baptism. Is Peter merely adding a Jewish custom to a new Christian custom? Why the need for water at all?

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (1 Corinthians 1:17)

My notes: Here the apostle Paul clearly makes a distinction between baptizing and preaching. In his mind the act of baptizing was either secondary to preaching, or not important at all. It was the telling of the gospel, and the hearers believing it, that was critical. If the church has traditionally made baptism a requirement for either entering church membership or for salvation (or both), why does Paul take such a low view of baptism? If I had to choose Paul’s view or church tradition I would choose Paul.

It is important to quote James H. Moon at this point:

Peter did preach to the people and the Holy Spirit fell upon them as it had fallen upon others of them in the beginning, at Pentecost. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he said “John indeed baptized with water, but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

Here Peter was made instrumental in baptizing with the Holy Spirit through Gospel preaching, and he recognized this to be the same baptism which his Lord had promised should supersede John’s water baptism and the same as that with which they were filled eight years before, in the beginning at Pentecost, and the Pentecost baptism he said was that which the prophet Joel foretold should be poured out upon all flesh; upon sons and daughters, servants and handmaidens, and that they should prophecy.

Can anything be plainer than that this Pentecost baptism and that the baptism which was poured out upon the household of Cornelius as Peter preached, and the baptism which our Lord promised in the place of John’s water baptism and the baptism which Joel foretold should be poured out upon all flesh are all one and the same baptism, and does it not follow that this is the baptism of the commission, the one baptism of the Gospel, and that this is Christian baptism and that there is no water in it?

Because Peter and others continued to baptize with water is no evidence to the contrary. They continued their old Jewish customs generally. They pronounced it necessary to abstain from certain meats. They insisted that Paul should adhere to circumcision. They refused to eat with Gentiles. With such Jewish proclivities how could they at once abandon water baptism? (p. 7-8)

I am not yet convinced that the apostles continued the practice of water baptism merely because they couldn’t completely abandon their Jewish customs. However, the power of culture is remarkable, and it could be true. I also do not know how often and in what contexts they performed water baptism, and in what contexts they did not.

What is fascinating to notice about the so-called “great commission” references is not only that baptism is rarely mentioned, and that water baptism seems absent altogether, but that there is no baptismal or liturgical formula given. They are all different in wording even if they are all the same in their underlying meaning. This would imply that in the early church the perspective was not formulaic regarding the “process” of becoming a Christian, rather there is the recognition that the Holy Spirit works to change men’s hearts, the gospel is proclaimed (in many possible ways and contexts), and receptive souls are added to the growing number of faithful. The apostles were told to take that message of hope to the world. They were not told, it would clearly seem, to convert people with baptism, though they are not barred from performing baptisms. I am not against Christian traditions growing up and becoming standard practice, at least not in principle, but it does not appear, at least from this brief overview, that our popular baptismal formulas go back as far as the apostles. If this is so then what we may have inherited are extra-biblical Christian traditions, for better or for worse. It must be emphasized that we are only looking at “great commission” verses here and drawing some conclusions.

Tentative conclusion: The early church may have practiced water baptism because they inherited that practice from their Jewish and pagan cultures. However, the apostles were not specifically told to baptize with water, rather to take the gospel to the world. Our various church traditions around baptism may be more Jewish and pagan than about following Christ. Though I cannot say for sure.

This leads me to several more questions. Can we derive a thesis statement like this: Without the gospel water baptism is meaningless, and with the gospel it is unnecessary. Or is that going too far? Was water baptism assumed and thus there was no need to specifically add it to the apostles charge? What do we do with Matthew 28:19, which does mention baptism? What do we do with church tradition?

* not Rev. Sun Myung Moon (just in case you were wondering).

Saint Augustine on Death without Baptism

This is continuation of sorts from my previous post on the early church fathers on baptism.

The City of God, Book XIII, Chapter 7

Of the Death Which the Unbaptized Suffer for the Confession of Christ.

For whatever unbaptized persons die confessing Christ, this confession is of the same efficacy for the remission of sins as if they were washed in the sacred font of baptism. For He who said, “Unless a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God,” [1] made also an exception in their favor, in that other sentence where He no less absolutely said, “Whosoever shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven;” [2] and in another place, “Whosoever will lose his life for my sake, shall find it.” [3] And this explains the verse, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.” [4] For what is more precious than a death by which a man’s sins are all forgiven, and his merits increased an hundredfold? For those who have been baptized when they could no longer escape death, and have departed this life with all their sins blotted out have not equal merit with those who did not defer death, though it was in their power to do so, but preferred to end their life by confessing Christ, rather than by denying Him to secure an opportunity of baptism. And even had they denied Him under pressure of the fear of death, this too would have been forgiven them in that baptism, in which was remitted even the enormous wickedness of those who had slain Christ. But how abundant in these men must have been the grace of the Spirit, who breathes where He lists, seeing that they so dearly loved Christ as to be unable to deny Him even in so sore an emergency, and with so sure a hope of pardon! Precious, therefore, is the death of the saints, to whom the grace of Christ has been applied with such gracious effects, that they do not hesitate to meet death themselves, if so be they might meet Him. And precious is it, also, because it has proved that what was originally ordained for the punishment of the sinner, has been used for the production of a richer harvest of righteousness. But not on this account should we look upon death as a good thing, for it is diverted to such useful purposes, not by any virtue of its own, but by the divine interference. Death was originally proposed as an object of dread, that sin might not be committed; now it must be undergone that sin may not be committed, or, if committed, be remitted, and the award of righteousness bestowed on him whose victory has earned it.

My notes: Clearly Augustine has in view the idea that if one dies because of one’s faith, that is, put to death because one is a Christian, that death acts as a baptism even if one was never baptized according to the traditions of the Church. In other words, one does not need to be baptized, that is immersed (or doused) in water, in order to be saved if one dies for Christ before one can be properly baptized. Martyrdom is a baptism. By implication, then, other than martyrdom one must undergo traditional water baptism in order to be saved. Water baptism seems to be required by the early church on the whole.

Other questions: Does baptism blot out sins? Is martyrdom a guarantee of salvation? How does death increase one’s merits a hundred fold? I need to study Augustine more. I fear I am in far too deep of waters for now.

Finally: What do we do with verses such as Matthew 7:21-23. Christ says: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'” Along with casting out demons and doing mighty works in the name of Christ, could this verse have included “even being put to death in your name?” Presumably, then, one can still be a martyr and not be “known” by Christ. Thus, it would follow, martyrdom does (or might) not overide the true spititual condition of the individual, even if that death is seen as a kind of baptism that comes as a result of “confessing Christ.” Again, I do not know enough of Augustine’s thought to know what was his position on this.

[1] John 3:5
[2] Matthew 10:32
[3] Matthew 16:25
[4] Psalms 116:15

The early church fathers on baptism

20th century icon of the fathers of the 
first ecumenical council in Nicaea (325 CE).
(courtesy: Orthodox Church in America)

The following quotes (snippets really) on baptism from the early church fathers are taken from the web site The Church Fathers. I quote them here as part of my research of baptism. My knowledge of the early church fathers falls somewhere between little and none. My fundamentalist training considered them not apostolic enough, and therefore too Catholic, so I never studied them. I am beginning to realize that is a mistake which I am trying to correct. These quotes are also out of context. Therefore they could use more exegesis than I can give here. However, I will use them to spark my thoughts and get a sense of what the early church thought about baptism. I also assume the church fathers have in mind traditional water baptism. After each quote I have included my thoughts, which are mostly questions. I welcome your notes/questions and insights as well. I am sure there is a lot more the early church fathers have to say on baptism.

The Letter of Barnabas
“Regarding [baptism], we have the evidence of Scripture that Israel would refuse to accept the washing which confers the remission of sins and would set up a substitution of their own instead [Ps. 1:3–6]. Observe there how he describes both the water and the cross in the same figure. His meaning is, ‘Blessed are those who go down into the water with their hopes set on the cross.’ Here he is saying that after we have stepped down into the water, burdened with sin and defilement, we come up out of it bearing fruit, with reverence in our hearts and the hope of Jesus in our souls” (Letter of Barnabas 11:1–10 [A.D. 74]).

My notes: The interpretation of Psalm 1:3-6 seems to me a stretch, if not outright goofy (though I am willing to be wrong, especially if the author is actually a witness of Christ). The cross, as a method of torture and death was used by the Romans, and maybe used earlier, but probably not as early as King David. To see every tree in the OT as a reference to the cross of Christ goes too far. Regardless, though the idea of a suffering messiah was not unknown in ancient Israel, it is not likely the psalmist had a suffering messiah in view here. And it is even less likely that these verses are evidence that Israel would “refuse to accept the washing which confers the remission of sins.” It seems more proper to see these lines contrasting the righteous, or good Jew against the wicked Jew. Apart from the Psalm citation, the statement, “after we have stepped down into the water, burdened with sin and defilement, we come up out of it bearing fruit, with reverence in our hearts and the hope of Jesus in our souls” makes some sense, but can also be interpreted different ways. Does baptism confer these things to the believer, or is it symbolic of an interior reality already present? Does baptism actually confer the remission of sins? What are the fruits? I would count the author of this letter, whoever he is, as a fellow believer, but I would probably disagree with his method of prooftexting, and question his understanding of baptism. I also wonder, am I seeing his words through my own reformed prism?

“‘I have heard, sir,’ said I, ‘from some teacher, that there is no other repentance except that which took place when we went down into the water and obtained the remission of our former sins.’ He said to me, ‘You have heard rightly, for so it is’” (The Shepherd 4:3:1–2 [A.D. 80]).

My notes: We know the baptism of John was for repentance. Was the baptism of Jesus for the remission of sins? Or was it for entering the community of believers in a similar way circumcision was an act required to be a member of the nation of Israel? Do we obtain the remission of sins via baptism? Is baptism and repentance essentially the same thing? It appears, at least, that in A.D. 80 it was common to see baptism and repentance as being linked, and probably inseparable. Is this how Jesus understood baptism? If baptism does remove sins, is it only for former sins? Does one get baptized in order to get a “clean slate” and start over? Can one repent and not be baptized and still be saved? Can one ignore baptism and still be saved? Can one consciously refuse baptism and still be saved? 

Ignatius of Antioch
“Let none of you turn deserter. Let your baptism be your armor; your faith, your helmet; your love, your spear; your patient endurance, your panoply” (Letter to Polycarp 6 [A.D. 110]).

My notes: I imagine Ignatius is equating baptism with faith, which makes some sense. Still, I wonder how baptism can be all though things. If we see baptism as being a kind of key that allows one to enter into the community of faith, and that community is the support for one’s ow faith, then I can see the connection, somewhat. But can baptism be one’s faith, helmet, love… etc.? If one repents and is baptized can one turn deserter? What power, then, has baptism? Does it have any, at least in conferring something spiritual and lasting to the individual? Or is it a sign of repentance and fidelity to the truth of the gospel, but can still be either a false sign altogether, or merely a sign attributed to a sinner who, because he is a sinner, will betray that sign, even against his own will?

Second Clement
“For, if we do the will of Christ, we shall find rest; but if otherwise, then nothing shall deliver us from eternal punishment, if we should disobey his commandments. . . . [W]ith what confidence shall we, if we keep not our baptism pure and undefiled, enter into the kingdom of God? Or who shall be our advocate, unless we be found having holy and righteous works?’ (Second Clement 6:7–9 [A.D. 150]).

My notes: If we understand baptism as one of Jesus’ commandments then to not get baptized is to not do the will of Christ. It would seem that we have two choices, baptism or righteous works. Since we cannot have righteous works then we need an advocate, who is Christ. Therefore we must obey Christ’s commandments and receive baptism. That makes sense to me, as long as our understanding of baptism is correct, and if Jesus commanded us to be baptized, which he did, but which might be understood in differing ways. What does it mean to keep our baptism pure and undefiled? If baptism removes all former sins, does this mean that one must not sin anymore after baptism? Will Christ only be an advocate to those who have been baptized and kept that baptism pure and undefiled? I like: “For, if we do the will of Christ, we shall fine rest.” However, does this mean baptism confers rest?

Justin Martyr
“Whoever are convinced and believe that what they are taught and told by us is the truth, and professes to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to beseech God in fasting for the remission of their former sins, while we pray and fast with them. Then they are led by us to a place where there is water, and they are reborn in the same kind of rebirth in which we ourselves were reborn: ‘In the name of God, the Lord and Father of all, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit,’ they receive the washing of water. For Christ said, ‘Unless you be reborn, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven’” (First Apology 61:14–17 [A.D. 151]).

My notes: This passage seems rather straight forward and biblical. I am not sure what I think about the beseeching “God in fasting for the remission of their former sins.” This process is a bit more than what a modern American evangelical would require, more than merely saying a little prayer and getting a hug from your camp counselor. On the other hand we are a culture that places no value on suffering. Note that it is not merely the individual convert who fasts, but the church fasts with him. I find that compelling, and telling in terms of the communal nature of faith. If the church fasts with you then it seems appropriate that baptism would also be required, for it is a kind of initiation rite. However, does fasting or baptism or any other action adequately take care of former sins? If so, how?

Theophilus of Antioch
“Moreover, those things which were created from the waters were blessed by God, so that this might also be a sign that men would at a future time receive repentance and remission of sins through water and the bath of regeneration—all who proceed to the truth and are born again and receive a blessing from God” (To Autolycus 2:16 [A.D. 181]).

My notes: Theophilus is in the middle of writing about the creation of the world. He is in day 5 of creation and describes creatures coming from the sea. Thus “those things” refer to living creatures proceeding from the waters. I do not see how this can be a sign of future repentance and remission of sins via baptism. Is there any other biblical evidence that makes this link? Also, what is the nature of this blessing from God?

Clement of Alexandria
“When we are baptized, we are enlightened. Being enlightened, we are adopted as sons. Adopted as sons, we are made perfect. Made perfect, we become immortal . . . ‘and sons of the Most High’ [Ps. 82:6]. This work is variously called grace, illumination, perfection, and washing. It is a washing by which we are cleansed of sins, a gift of grace by which the punishments due our sins are remitted, an illumination by which we behold that holy light of salvation” (The Instructor of Children 1:6:26:1 [A.D. 191]).

My notes: I find a lot of terms in this quote that need clarification. What does “enlightened” mean in this context? Is it that one’s eyes are now open to the truth? Does baptism effect such enlightenment, or is baptism done because of enlightenment? I cannot tell if Clement has a sequence in mind here or if he is just mashing together a bunch of elements that all come together at the time of conversion. I like that he says our sins are remitted by a “gift of grace.” We do the baptizing, but it is still ultimately a gift of grace by which we are saved.

“Happy is our sacrament of water, in that, by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free and admitted into eternal life. . . . [But] a viper of the [Gnostic] Cainite heresy, lately conversant in this quarter, has carried away a great number with her most venomous doctrine, making it her first aim to destroy baptism—which is quite in accordance with nature, for vipers and.asps . . . themselves generally do live in arid and waterless places. But we, little fishes after the example of our [Great] Fish, Jesus Christ, are born in water, nor have we safety in any other way than by permanently abiding in water. So that most monstrous creature, who had no right to teach even sound doctrine, knew full well how to kill the little fishes—by taking them away from the water!” (Baptism 1 [A.D. 203]).

“Baptism itself is a corporal act by which we are plunged into the water, while its effect is spiritual, in that we are freed from our sins” (ibid., 7:2).

My notes: Apparently there were Gnostics who preached against baptism, or at least downplayed its importance. This is the first quote here that calls baptism a sacrament. I’m not sure if that is meaningful. The imagery of snakes and fishes is interesting, but I’m not sure if it’s a good argument. Tertullian says baptism is a physical (corporal) act, but its effect is spiritual. Is that a causal relationship? Does the act of baptism truly produce a spiritual effect? Does baptism truly free us from our sin? Or is this an expression (human language) of a bigger picture in which baptism is a visible sign that stands for the work of the Holy Spirit and the heart of belief?

“And the bishop shall lay his hand upon them [the newly baptized], invoking and saying: ‘O Lord God, who did count these worthy of deserving the forgiveness of sins by the laver of regeneration, make them worthy to be filled with your Holy Spirit and send upon them thy grace [in confirmation], that they may serve you according to your will” (The Apostolic Tradition 22:1 [A.D. 215]).

My notes: This quote appears to be instructions for baptism. If I understand the sequence: a) individuals get baptized, b) their sins are therefore forgiven, c) they are now worthy to receive the Holy Spirit, d) which is conferred upon the individuals by the laying on of hands by the bishop. Is this not a mix of biblical teaching and non-biblical (or extra-biblical) traditions?

Cyprian of Carthage
“While I was lying in darkness . . . I thought it indeed difficult and hard to believe . . . that divine mercy was promised for my salvation, so that anyone might be born again and quickened unto a new life by the laver of the saving water, he might put off what he had been before, and, although the structure of the body remained, he might change himself in soul and mind. . . . But afterwards, when the stain of my past life had been washed away by means of the water of rebirth, a light from above poured itself upon my chastened and now pure heart; afterwards, through the Spirit which is breathed from heaven, a second birth made of me a new man” (To Donatus 3–4 [A.D. 246]).

My notes: Cyprian seems to overstep both the power of baptism (if any) and the nature of salvation. When he says, “…anyone might be born again and quickened unto a new life by the laver of the saving water…” he implies that baptism itself does the saving. He goes on to imply that the individual can change himself in soul and mind by getting baptized. Repentance may be implied in these words, but it is not explicit. Then he says, “… a light from above poured itself upon my chastened and now pure heart…” implying (or rather directly stating) that his heart is now pure. If he is speaking only in heavenly terms, in terms of some kind of economy of grace, then this might make sense logically (though it still might be wrong), but he seems to say, rather, that his heart is actually pure, free of sin. I believe this is an unbiblical position.

Aphraahat the Persian Sage
“From baptism we receive the Spirit of Christ. At that same moment in which the priests invoke the Spirit, heaven opens, and he descends and rests upon the waters, and those who are baptized are clothed in him. The Spirit is absent from all those who are born of the flesh, until they come to the water of rebirth, and then they receive the Holy Spirit. . . . [I]n the second birth, that through baptism, they receive the Holy Spirit” (Treatises 6:14:4 [A.D. 340]).

My notes: What interests me here is the idea of the priest invoking the Spirit. Is this possible? Is this biblical? It sounds more like magic. Also, it is clear in the passage that one does not (cannot?) receive the Spirit until after (or through) baptism.

Cyril of Jerusalem
“If any man does not receive baptism, he does not have salvation. The only exception is the martyrs, who, even without water, will receive baptism, for the Savior calls martyrdom a baptism [Mark 10:38]. . . . Bearing your sins, you go down into the water; but the calling down of grace seals your soul and does not permit that you afterwards be swallowed up by the fearsome dragon. You go down dead in your sins, and you come up made alive in righteousness” (Catechetical Lectures 3:10, 12 [A.D. 350]).

My notes: It is clear that Cyril sees baptism is an essential requirement for salvation. Does scripture make such a strict demand? Is one made alive in righteousness through baptism? If so, how does that align with our experience of continuing to sin after baptism?

Basil the Great
“For prisoners, baptism is ransom, forgiveness of debts, the death of sin, regeneration of the soul, a resplendent garment, an unbreakable seal, a chariot to heaven, a royal protector, a gift of adoption” (Sermons on Moral and Practical Subjects 13:5 [A.D. 379]).

My notes: Here we have another list, as with Ignatius of Antioch, that equates baptism with a number of things: a chariot to heaven, and royal protector… etc. Is baptism all these things? If so, are we to understand baptism here as being the symbol of the who package of salvation and all that it delivers? Or are these strictly qualities of baptism?

Council of Constantinople I
“We believe . . . in one baptism for the remission of sins” (Nicene Creed [A.D. 381]).

My notes: This seems rather straightforward and I don’t have any questions. However, I do need to study the creeds.

Ambrose of Milan
“The Lord was baptized, not to be cleansed himself but to cleanse the waters, so that those waters, cleansed by the flesh of Christ which knew no sin, might have the power of baptism. Whoever comes, therefore, to the washing of Christ lays aside his sins” (Commentary on Luke 2:83 [A.D. 389]).

My notes: The idea of Christ cleansing the waters reminds me of Luther’s idea that “Christ puts salvation into baptism.” If Luther is right then I would say Ambrose is right.

“It is an excellent thing that the Punic [North African] Christians call baptism salvation and the sacrament of Christ’s body nothing else than life. Whence does this derive, except from an ancient and, as I suppose, apostolic tradition, by which the churches of Christ hold inherently that without baptism and participation at the table of the Lord it is impossible for any man to attain either to the kingdom of God or to salvation and life eternal? This is the witness of Scripture too” (Forgiveness and the Just Deserts of Sin, and the Baptism of Infants 1:24:34 [A.D. 412]).

“The sacrament of baptism is most assuredly the sacrament of regeneration” (ibid., 2:27:43).

“Baptism washes away all, absolutely all, our sins, whether of deed, word, or thought, whether sins original or added, whether knowingly or unknowingly contracted” (Against Two Letters of the Pelagians 3:3:5 [A.D. 420]).

“This is the meaning of the great sacrament of baptism, which is celebrated among us: all who attain to this grace die thereby to sin—as he himself [Jesus] is said to have died to sin because he died in the flesh (that is, ‘in the likeness of sin’)—and they are thereby alive by being reborn in the baptismal font, just as he rose again from the sepulcher. This is the case no matter what the age of the body. For whether it be a newborn infant or a decrepit old man—since no one should be barred from baptism—just so, there is no one who does not die to sin in baptism. Infants die to original sin only; adults, to all those sins which they have added, through their evil living, to the burden they brought with them at birth” (Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Love 13[41] [A.D. 421]).

My notes: I am not ready to tackle Augustine. He deserves much more attention from me. Nonetheless, I am not sure I understand the idea of an infant dying to original sin. Does that baptized infant then require adult baptism later for evil living? If adult baptism takes care of the sins of evil living up to that point, does repeated baptism take care of repeated evil living? I would doubt Augustine would say so. I still have much to sort out regarding infant baptism, for I was trained in the “believer’s baptism” perspective and that’s the one that makes sense to me.