Friday, July 06, 2007
A Bridge over 'Troubled Waters'-- Rethinking our Theology of Baptism
I was watching the PBS special the other night in which Paul Simon was honored for a career of great song writing with the very first Gershwin Award of the Library of Congress-- certainly a well deserved tribute. Of course one of his most famous songs, actually sung mainly by his partner Art Garfunkel, was "Bridge over Troubled Waters". In a sense, my new book on baptism is meant not merely to further stir up the always boiling pot of baptismal discussion, but to see if we can't get beyond the usual Baptist vs. Paedobaptist deadlock when it comes to discussing this issue especially in Evangelical and more general Protestant discussion.
What I am arguing is that a good deal of water has been shipped by both Baptists and Paedopbaptists when it comes to their theology of baptism, and we need to return ad fontes (yes, the baptismal font) and rethink some of these things in the light of Scripture and earliest Christian practice, rather than in the light of much later Christian squabbles about baptism, especially those generated by the Reformation.
What I am arguing is that there is not really so clear a delineation of what a theology and practice of baptism should look like in the NT that either a strictly Baptistic or a more broad practice can clearly be ruled in or out. In fact, we have no chapters at all in the NT about how and by whom baptism should actually be administered, unlike what we find in the later Christian tract called the Didache. This is surely why we continue to debate and disagree about this very matter.
And no, the Greek verb 'baptidzo' itself does not specify a specific quantity of water to be used, though doubtless immersion is a better symbol of being baptized into Christ's death than other modes of the practice. 'Baptidzo' for example in the Didache is used to describe the practice of pouring water over someone's head, not immersion. This verb does not necessarily imply the ancient equivalent of a watery slam dunk :)
One of the burdens of my little study is to make clear that part of the confusion about baptism comes from the failure to recognize certain facts: 1) water baptism is one thing, the use of the language of water to describe spiritual experiences is quite another. To put it differently water and Spirit baptism are distinguishable things which do not necessarily happen together or at the same time, though that is also possible. Water does not inherently convey Spirit, and reception of the Spirit does not necessarily involve water baptism. This is perfectly clear from a close examination of Acts where we have several patterns--- water followed by Spirit reception, Spirit preceding water baptism, Spirit received without any Christian water baptism for a long period of time (e.g. Apollos), and a few places where water baptism and the reception of the Spirit seem to be nearly simultaneously (e.g. the Ethiopian eunuch). Conclusion--- there is no one mandated pattern or order of these things in the NT. 2) I am also stressing in this book that there are many places where the language of water baptism and its rich symbolism are used to describe a spiritual experience, NOT what happens in or by means of the rite of water baptism itself. Paul for example in 1 Cor. 12 talks about all believers being baptized into one body, not by the minister, but by the Holy Spirit! In this selfsame document he says he is thankful that he did not water baptize more Corinthians, because apparently they tended to take a magical view of what resulted from such a ritual. 3) I am also stressing that too often both the Baptist and Paedobaptist practices have, for the sake of regularity and control, misunderstood the meaning of baptism. Baptism is neither a Christian dedication ritual nor a Christian equivalent to a bar mitzvah-- a rite of passage for a young adult prepared to assume the mantle of his faith consciously and on his own. Baptism in the NT is a rite of initiation, and should be practiced on anyone who is at the point of entering the covenant community or has already done so, whatever their age. Once one has crossed the boundary from the world into Christ one should already have the initiation ritual, the rite of passage into the community. All the baptisms in Acts are missionary baptisms. The book of Acts neither raises nor answers the second generation question-- what do we do with children born into and raised in Christian families who know no other way of life? Should we treat them like little heathens, or are they already a provisional part of the covenant community? 1 Cor. 7 suggests the children of even one Christian parent is 'holy' that is, set apart for God, and not unclean. Acts and Paul's letters (see 1 Cor. 1) as well talks about the baptism of whole households. Were there really no infants in any of these households? These are the right kinds of questions to raise when thinking about how we practice baptism today. Basically we have turned this ritual into something we can manage and do at a specific or regular point in time-- in infancy, or when someone comes of age, or in the rarer case of an adult convert, as soon as they convert. 4) I have shown at length that there is no clear statement in the NT that suggests baptism must be preceded by a confession of faith. Acts 8 and the eunuch story is no exception, if we look at the likely original form of this text, and not its later Western text additions.
I also suggest in this book that we need to be able to distinguish baptism and the Lord's Supper. One is a rite of initiation, the other is a ceremony of confirmation. One is about union with Christ, the other about communion in Christ. One is a passive sacrament, performed for the recipient, the other is a sacrament which requires active participation, active recognizing of the Body, and partaking of the elements. The failure to see the differences between these two sacraments causes continual confusion. And then there is this fact-- a rite of initiation, as a form of a rite of passage, can and should by definition only transpire once in a person's life. As the old saying goes, you can only step into the stream for the first time once. Yet sadly, as my friend Chuck Killian remarked about his own experience growing up in Indiana, in revivalistic circles you may end up going to the altar so many times and being 'born again' so many times that you have stretch-marks on your soul!!!
The reason baptism is said to be 'one' in Ephesians is because it should only be practiced once. You can only be 'initiated' into a religion for the first time once. Our confusion about baptism, even stretches to our confusion about what is symbolized in baptism-- does it symbolize the divine initiative of grace for us, or does it mainly symbolize our response to that initiative? In my view it is intended to symbolize the former, while the Lord's Supper symbolizes the latter. In other words, no one in the early church was asking- "should we withhold baptism from some members of this household until they come of age?" for the very good reason that they saw baptism as an outer and visible sign of what God was doing for and in that family, not, or at least not primarily, a symbol of the human response to God's initiative.
There is a good deal of detailed exegetical discussion in this book and also an attempt to help us all get beyond anachronism-- the reading back into the text of later church practices and notions about baptism. I am also stressing that we need to respect each others practices, since the NT does not clearly mandate exactly how the rite should be performed and on whom, much less where. This I think means, no rebaptisms. If baptism is to be seen as 'one' as Ephes. 4 suggestions, we need to stop the practice of rebaptisms as it violates what the ritual was intended to symbolize-- initiation into Christ and his body. We can have ceremonies of remembering one's baptism and being thankful, but no rebaptisms please unless you just don't think the NT theology of baptism matters much when it comes to praxis. Though Baptists and Paedo-baptists stand on opposite sides of the baptismal waters, I would hope in the 21rst century we could take time to learn about and respect each others legitimate practices, even if we have disagreements about them. Put another way-- the world is watching. If we can't even show respect and mutual support when it comes to the initiation ritual into Christ, who should anyone think there is a 'one true church apostolic and universal'?
Think on these things.