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.


Douglass said...

Dr. W,
Thanks for this post. I am very interested in the subject of baptism and can't wait to read your book. I grew up United Methodist and was baptized as an infant by sprinkling I believe. I never really questioned it or anything until several years back when I befriended many Baptist types who criticized the infant practice as wrong, unbiblical and that it 'didn't count' because I did not make the decision to do it and because I was not immersed. So yeah the whole baptism thing and what it really means and whether there is a right or wrong way to do it interests me a great deal.
One last thought, is it true that in performing infant baptism, the United Methodist thought is that it is a symbol of prevenient grace and a sign of being embraced by the community of beleivers? I heard something like that once and wasn't sure if that had an ounce of truth or not?
Thanks for your blog.

Unknown said...

I'm curious about the difference between Spirit and water baptisms. Shouldn't there be a unity between the two? I guess I think of Spirit baptism as upper story of sorts and the physical water baptism as lower story. It would make sense to me that the two would be unified. But then again, I'm not an NT scholar. :-) Thanks

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Douglas and Ben:

Douglas you are right that Methodists tend to see infant baptism as a sacrament of prevenient grace, a sign that God has already placed the child in the Christian community before it was even able to respond.

Ben, if you look at Acts carefully you will see that the reception of the Spirit, and the receiving of water baptism are regularly distinguished in text after text, though once and while it would seem the two things can happen at about the same time.


Unknown said...

In Acts 2, isn't the Holy Spirit promised after baptism, isn't the Greek future in tense? This seems to be the only scripture that I know of that makes a promise concerning the "when" of reception. Am I off here?

Nance said...

Thanks for the post, Dr. Witherington. I was wondering if and when you'd take a look at the new book here; and now that the look's been taken, I'd say this certainly sounds like a good read.

Leslie said...

Dr. Witherington,

I'm interested in your idea about baptidzo not meaning immersion necessarily. As far as I can tell, there is no reason to doubt that in NT practice, the word was always associated with immersion. You mentioned immersion being a better symbol, but honestly I can think of no other appropriate or acceptable symbol. Col. 2:12 and Rom. 6:4 seem to bear this out. Being "buried" with Christ is what baptism symbolizes, and I cannot see how that occurs with water only sprinkled or poured over a person. I'm not trying to be legalistic here, but the symbolism of being buried with Christ is extremely significant. Indeed, in Gal. 3:26-27, Paul links being baptized to putting on Christ. Also, as I see it, going to the Didache is of little use here. Given the large gulf between possible time frames, the "pouring" action in the Didache could easily have been something that had developed, rather than what was actually taught by the apostles. Again, the word in the NT gives all indication that it does specify at least enough water to be "buried". Regardless, I do hope we avoid any slam dunking! ;)

"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."

This is an interesting notion as well, but I'm with Dr. Morris on this matter, who says "Some think that baptism established a "mystic relationship" (Héring) between baptizer and baptized, but it is not easy to establish this in the New Testament" (p.42). To be sure, they were focusing a lot on who baptism connected them to, but they had the wrong "who" in mind.

I appreciate your thoughts. I think we need to be careful though, as we can easily get too loose with how we connect baptism to our burial (and resurrection) with Christ.

Larry Chouinard said...

I look forward to reading your book on baptism. I've always appreciated your nuanced treatment of texts and the spirit with which you engage alternative views. Without passing judgment on another's relationship to Christ, I do wonder if infant baptism and sprinkling truly captures the symbolic significance of NT baptism. Baptism of infants may be a form of parental dedication, but it hardly entails a personal faith commitment implied in the practice of baptism in the NT. Baptism is a sign of commitment to Jesus and God's reign. I cannot understand how sprinkling water on an infant captures baptism's significance or it's symbolic connection to Jesus' resurrection (Rom. 6). I've not found the practice of household baptisms as persuasive as you, since I'm not persuaded that children need baptism or that infant baptism somehow communicates grace in a different way than the baptism of an adult believer. Indeed, as argued by G.R. Beasley-Murray, "It is fallacious to argue that grace is greater where the recipient is unconscious of it, incapable of recognizing it and of responding to it! Moreover, it could be argued that prevenient grace is seen more grandly in believers' baptism than in infant baptism, since the believer recognizes both the wonder of Christ's prior self-giving and the reality of the divine overruling of his Life, leading him to the knowledge of Christ and confession of Him in baptism" (Baptism in the New Testament, p. 380).
So, while I do not dispute one's salvation, there does seem to be greater weight in the NT for immersing adult believers than sprinkling infants in anticipation of a future commitment.

J. K. Jones said...

Interesting post.

I intend to buy and read your book.

Alan Knox said...

Dr. Witherington,

Thank you for this post. I appreciate the way that you've approached this topic, and I look forward to reading your book. Can you help me understand something that you said in your post?

You said: "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." When you say "covenant community" do you mean the community of believers that are now under the new covenant with God, or do you mean a group of believers who covenant with one another? Or, is there another option that I'm missing?



LoieJ said...

Very interesting post. I've always wondered, coming from an infant baptism background, why Baptists, etc. make such a big deal about the age of baptism if it is "only symbolic." I've know of gradeschool children making a committment to Christ and being told that they weren't old enough for baptism.

The other thing I've wondered about is "rebaptism" of people changing denominations. To me it is like saying that God's words and God's water weren't real and powerful. Which is to say, that the former religion was false.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Leslie:

Two key points to you. Baptism is not a symbol of our resurrection. Resurrection is associated in Rom. 6 with our walking in newness of life, not with our baptism practices. In other words, it is associated with what comes after baptism. Secondly, the Didache is a first century Christian document, written by those in touch with the apostles. Thirdly, if we are talking about the Holy Land and we are talking about the 40% of the year when it never rains, almost nobody would have been immersed, even if they went to the Jordan, which was a creek in most places by June.

Ben Witherington said...


By covenant community I mean the church.


Ben Witherington said...

Hi Rob:

Actually, no Acts 2 does not specify a particular order, and in fact the disciples themselves received the Spirit before they were baptized it would appear. But you need to remember Peter is addressing a bunch of adults here anyway. But it is telling that when Peter starts with strangers he says be baptized, repent, receive the Spirit. You are right about that.


Julie said...

I watched that same PBS special with my parents the other night. While I love Paul Simon, I think he butchered his part of "Bridge Over Troubled Waters"...Art was in top form, though! I think Paul was still in the mode from the song before that he did with the African choir!

I appreciate your thoughts on baptism and look forward to viewing the book. I also found your comment about the rain statistics in your response to Leslie. Interesting...

Hope you and the family are well!

Leslie said...

Dr. Witherington,

About the resurrection, you're definitely correct that it is about what comes after baptism. Nevertheless, I personally still see it as at least somewhat linked to baptism itself (through Romans, but especially through Colossians), but I would agree the connection to how you live afterwards is much more significant.

Regarding the Didache, I'm still not entirely sure it is a first century document, but I'll have to look into that some more. Either way, even if it is a very early document, there are certainly other early documents which would disagree with what the apostles taught. Incidentally, Eusebius mentions it, but notes it as "spurious".

In regards to the dryness of certain areas, I will admit I find that a compelling argument. Another topic for me to look into. :) Thanks for your responses.

David Johnson said...

p.s. an after-thought wrote:

"I've always wondered, coming from an infant baptism background, why Baptists, etc. make such a big deal about the age of baptism if it is 'only symbolic.'"

I cannot speak for Baptists, who may well see baptism as 'only symbolic.' However, coming from a Church of Christ background, I can tell you that there are people who make a big deal about the age of baptism precisely because they DO NOT see baptism as 'only symbolic.' We see that confession of Jesus as Lord, repentance, and baptism are all scripturally linked with forgiveness of sins and salvation itself. We do not believe in Original Sin, so we do not see any danger to children in insisting that each individual come to faith, confess, repent, and be baptized of their own cognizance. In many congregations of the Churches of Christ, you will not often hear the word 'baptize'--many simply call it immersion.

There are some side effects of this sort of thinking that are definite negatives, I pretty much still hold to it. The most common thing is that there are a lot of rebaptisms in the Churches of Christ, particularly among people aged about 18-25. It leads one to wonder if their faith is in the saving power of Christ or in their baptism or understanding of baptism.

Ben Witherington said...


I don't think it would be fair to say that the Church of Christ in general, or as a theological dogma, does not believe in original sin. Its pretty hard to escape "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" or the Psalmist's words about being conceived in a fallen condition.



Michael Gilley said...

I can speak for Baptists. I grew up one. Still attend a baptist church. The majority of Southern Baptists agree on the same doctrine though some deviate. Baptists on the most part believe that water baptism is a symbol of the death and resurrection of Christ and therefore the follower. It holds no power in and of itself. One is saved at the point of saying a prayer... (Where they got that idea I haven't a clue.) Once that's done, it's a sealed deal. No going back. Therefore, with/without baptism you're going to heaven. It's just a testimony to the church and others. The reason why baptists have made such a big deal about baptism hisorically (they don't really anymore, it's more political now) is that it was a reaction to paedo-baptists. That's what I've seen and heard growing up. I don't agree with a lot of it now but that's it.

David Johnson said...

"Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me."

You refer to Psalm 51:5, which above I excerpted from the NASB, and the passage reads almost the exact same way in the ESV (which I've heard is essentially the RSV), the NKJV, and the ASV. When the NIV came out, there was a big ruckus made in many Churches of Christ over the way it translated that verse ("Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me"), simply because many people thought that the translators had taken some license to justify their belief in the doctrine of Original Sin. (You'll notice, of course, that the NASB/ESV/NKJV/ASV translation seems to say that it was David's mother who sinned when she conceived him. And of course the first part could be said to be less clear, and we could interpret the two parts of the verse as a parallelism in which the "unclear" 1st part means the approximate same thing as the 2nd part.)

I have never heard Original Sin affirmed in a pulpit in a Church of Christ, nor did any of my professors at my Church of Christ school (graduated from Harding University) affirm such a doctrine, nor have I ever heard any member of a Stone-Campbell Church of Christ speak well of the doctrine or affirm it. I say all this to say that there has historically been a fierce resistance to the idea in Churches of Christ, and up until about 20 or 25 years ago, churches took the time to examine the issue, reject it, and articulate their reasons for rejecting it. This was part of a broad culture within Churches of Christ that was heatedly opposed to anything that seemed "Calvinist" (equating the Total Hereditary Depravity in the Calvinist TULIP with the historical doctrine of Original Sin). The old debating culture and sectarian spirit of the Churches of Christ has been dying over the last 30 or 40 years, though, and most of the younger generation in Churches of Christ, while they generally have a strong objection to Original Sin, they're not exactly sure what the doctrine means and where it comes from--and there is a lot of simple theological illiteracy and disinterest.

There is, of course, no one who would deny that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." But the argument would be that this does not imply a hereditary state. Indeed, even those who accept the NIV reading of Psalm 51:5 within the Churches of Christ will not (or at least I haven't heard them) affirm that it teaches or supports the doctrine of Original Sin. The explanation is that the passage is part of a poem, in which the sin-sick David is using hyperbole to convey the depth of his feeling of wretchedness and disgustedness with his own failing.

I'm sure there are probably a few people in the Churches of Christ that affirm the doctrine of Original Sin, and there may be a few congregations in which it is taught. But the doctrine of such people and congregations will not gain much acceptance at all, and will generally be regarded with an unfriendly eye.

Please forgive the length of this; I've merely been trying to point out that I think it would be fair to say that there's been (and continues to be) an almost dogmatic denial of Original Sin.

Jeremy Pierce said...

Total depravity historically is just the classic doctrine of original sin as understood by Augustine. Some hyper-Calvinists have taken it far beyond that in terms of denying common grace and taking there to be nothing good in humans at all, but I don't see any difference between the classic doctrine of total depravity and the classic view of original sin in Augustine, which does include the view that human beings cannot help ourselves back to salvation without a work of grace by God.

Matt said...


The temptation is to say, if the two can happen separately (as is the case in several passages in Acts) then we don't even need water baptism. The first century church certainly didn't feel that way - they were baptizing in water those who had already received the Spirit.

Another thing, if my memory is correct...those in Acts who received the Spirit prior to water baptism received the Spirit as a sign to the Christians that God had already accepted them (like Cornelius) and water baptism always followed. While I don't doubt God's ability to do that, it seems like it was necessary for a time in order to make clear God's will in those matters.

I look forward to reading the book.

Brandon said...

New reader and great post here on baptism. I am not trying to question your research or your though process on baptism as it is clearly researched and thought-out however I would point out that Jesus was baptized by immersion was he not? I am not really ready to say that sprinkling or pouring are not viewed as a sorta of baptism I would simply state that I would seek to be as close to Christ as I could be, obviously never reaching that but trying. If that is the example he set then I will follow in that type of baptism.

Now as for speaking for Baptist I can't but I can speak for myself as Baptist. I do not believe the act of baptism translates into the receiving of the Holy Spirit. I do agree with you there. I do believe it is merely a confessional to the local body, which is part of the whole body of believers, to our acceptance of the free gift of grace and the repentance that comes along with it.

Part of the reason that many of the Baptist Churches wanted people to be re-baptized is because they don't think that sprinking is a form of baptism, mainly because of the example of Jesus, thus have never made that confessional and thus unable to participate in the other sacraments such as communion. In the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 of the Southern Baptist Convention the act of "closed communion" is still stated. Thus the pickle the BF&M2000 presents on baptism. I am not in the belief that closed communion is right because who am I to say someone hasn't received Christ if they say they have. That is between them and God.

However, I don't believe you will find very many Baptist who believe that it is a requirement for salvation ie the thief on the cross example. They would say that if you aren't a thief on a cross then you should be obedient to the calls throughout the NT to the baptismal water.

I find this topic interesting and look forward to reading more of your post.

A. C. Mattern said...

It's good to hear these things, it helped clear up some of my questions and fill in some blanks that I didn't know that I had. Add one more book to my queue.

I was about to ask if we should expect a book on the Lord's Supper but I just checked Amazon, and there it was (or soon to be). Awesome, and thank you.

I was in a conversation a few weeks back about baptism, and someone pointed me in the direction of James W. Dale's rather prolific (and possibly gratuitous?) study of Judaic Baptism (4 volumes on one word!). I assume it follows suit with your findings?

Ivan said...


Think on this. In Acts 8:38b-39a scripture says: "...And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him. Now when they came up out of the water...". Now this can be read as saying that they went into the water and Philip baptized him by immersion. BUT, it can also be read as saying that they went into the water and Philip baptized him by sprinkling or pouring. The phrase 'they came up out of the water" cannot be describing the eunuch coming up from under the water, as it says they both did this. The baptizer doesn't go under the water do they? This is particularly interesting in light of the fact in describing Jesus' baptism that Matthew says "Jesus came up immediately from the water". Mark just says " and was baptized ", and Luke says "Jesus was baptized". I think a dogmatic statement that Jesus was baptized by immersion is on very weak scriptural ground. However, perhaps Dr. Witherington can speak to the correct translation and interpretation of the original Greek in these passages, as I make no claim to have any knowledge of the original Greek.

Doug said...

Thanks for this post - I look forward to getting hold of a copy of the book. Most of what I have to say is too long for a comment so I've posted some agreements and disagreements on my own blog.

Brandon said...

Thanks for responding in such a positive light to my question. The thing I have enjoyed about this post is that no one has been attacking anyone and nor was I attacking anyone or Mr. Witherington's work if you read what I wrote. This has been a serious question and response to a hot bed topic which is very rarely discussed in the light it has been discussed in this post and comments. So for you to label me as dogmatic would be a mis-representation and misunderstanding of who I am or what I wrote. Read my comment again and you will find that I did say I am not willing to say there aren't other forms of baptism. To me when you take the scriptures back to the original text I would say it was immersion. KEY word in that sentence was "I". I did say I was not willing to say that sprinking nor pouring are not baptism. So thank you for the personal attack of my research in to this topic and for not reading what I wrote.

Further more I would note that in the 3 gospels that you referenced none of them contradict each other on any of the events that they all speak to such as the baptism of Jesus. This fact is one of the ways in which we can prove the validity of the gospels. So if Matthew's writing states that Jesus was baptized by immersion and Mark and Luke fail to detail out but do reference the account and we don't believe they contradict one another why would I doubt that it was by immersion?

Finally if my statements regarding the BF&M2000 are what you are upset about i would simply state that this is the generally held statement of faith amongst Southern Baptist. I don't believe I said everyone has to believe this faith statement or everything it says. Heck I don't even agree with everything in it as I said about communion. So next time you decide to label, attack, or question someones theological footing for placing a view point or asking a valid question you might what to read what is written.

Michael Gilley said...

Hi Brandon:

Pulls in the horns brother. One Southern Baptist to another. While this blog is intended to be civil and Christian in nature, there are times when we must question one person’s comments on Scriptural grounds. This shouldn’t be taken as an offence but simply as an ongoing act to sharpen each other. For a certain statement to be labeled as dogmatic should not be taken offensively right off hand. Christ’s death and resurrection is a dogmatic element of the faith. It cannot be bent nor can it be given away. Originally, I was going to post on your message about Jesus’ baptism figuring you has simply overlooked that detail. However, I didn’t leaving Ivan to instead.

The fact is, the text does not support, nor deny, a immersion baptism of Jesus. Ivan pointed this out quite well. Geological and temperate evidence of Jesus’ day in Ancient Palestine would suggest that it would have been highly unlikely that he or anyone else was immersed. If you look for it in the text, you just won’t find it. The text says one thing and there cannot be numerous or polyvalent meanings. This is why we are blessed with scholars who can research, solve, and teach the rest to the best of their ability.

Secondly, the gospels differ. Just read them and you’ll see. This is not heresy as so many of our fellow Southern Baptists brethren would call it. Instead, it’s meant to be that way. There is a purpose behind each gospel written. Same story, told different methods with different emphases. It’s hard for our post-enlightenment minds to wrap themselves around. This is called literary criticism. Each writer had their own viewpoint. For example, the baptismal narratives of Jesus differ somewhat because they are very significant to the messages behind each gospel. For Mark, the heavens opened up and a dove hovered over the waters. This is reminiscent of the Gen creation story. Mark was retelling the creation story, only this time with an Adam that did it right. Notice after the baptism Jesus went into the desert (not garden for everything was backwards since the curse) and beasts came to him in hostility rather than to be named. This is when he was tempted with the three temptations of Adam (lust of the eyes, lust of the flesh, and the pride of life).

Just some thoughts brother and I hold a degree from a Southern Baptist Univ if you were wondering. I’m surprised there is a statement about closed communion in the BF&M 2000. All the churches I’ve seen or been a part of have practiced open communion.

2 Cents Worth said...

Dear Dr Witherington,

Sorry to digress - have you done a post on the Ebionites before?

Wikipedia featured this article today:

And I thought we could all benefit from your insights on it, especially the theme (increasingly taken up by the media) that Paul's teachings somehow deviated from the original Gospel of Jesus.

Thanks & best regards,
CJ Tan

Ivan said...


If I offended please accept my sincere apologies. However, when you start by saying "Jesus was baptised by immersion, was he not?", that sounds rather dogmatic to me. As I tried to point out, based on scripture, it is not at all certain that Jesus was baptised by immersion. Maybe he was, but the scriptural evidence is IMHO too weak to make that an article of faith. If you are willing to accept other forms of baptism, great! Now if you can only convince the rest of the Southern Baptist Convention, we'll be well on the way to Christian unity. Because this is a major stumbling block for Methodists and others who baptise by sprinkling and pouring. The Southern Baptist attitude about not accepting other modes of baptism says more than just that. It says to other denominations "you are not Christians. Our way is the only way. Take it or leave it." Reminds me a lot of the Roman Catholic attitude. As I said if that's not your attitude, great! Spread the word.
May the peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

James Pate said...

I'd like to add my voice to the comments on the Church of Christ and original sin. I have met Church of Christ people who do not believe in it. This surprised me, since the Church of Christ is a very conservative denomination, but, as someone said above, it interprets Psalm 51 to be hyperbole, and it also points to Psalms where David offered a more positive view on his origin (e.g., I am fearfully and wonderfully made).

BJ said...

As a relatively new denomination (outside the US) which emerged out of a Methodist desert into the Wesleyan stream...we took a "both/and" rather than "either/or" approach. There was a deal of pragmatism to our approach but also a genuine respect for both "traditions". What we ended up saying was:

"Baptism may be by immersion, sprinkling or pouring. Children are normally dedicated to God. Where it is the desire of clearly Christian parents, infants may be baptised, looking to the time when the child’s personal witness to their faith is confirmed."

In practice, we "rebaptise" in limited circumstances - that is to say in circumstances where we would not have baptised the child as an infant. Its not perfect but its how we've balanced our desire to respect other's traditions with a need to remain internally consistent with our own statement of faith. In a largely post Christian country, its a huge irony that some churches continue to baptise infants indiscriminately when they never really enter the community of faith (even provisionally).

Maybe that makes us pseudo-Baptists?!

I'll make a point of getting the book - I have your Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on Romans, which I am looking to wield with abandon as I embark on a Romans paper in the Baptist College I study at! I found the commentary very helpful in a recent series we preached on "The Cross".

Ed Gallagher said...

Dr. Witherington,
Actually the Didache 7.3 does not use the word "baptidzo" to "describe the practice of pouring water over someone's head." For this it uses the verb "ekcheo." I suppose this could be interpreted as a type of baptism, but the Didache does not make that explicit. I would rather interpret it as a substitution for baptism.
Secondly, with regard to the amount of water available in Judaea, would not the presence of mikva'ot provide a suitable and convenient means for immersion?

Joshua Luke Roberts said...


You said,


I don't think it would be fair to say that the Church of Christ in general, or as a theological dogma, does not believe in original sin. Its pretty hard to escape "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" or the Psalmist's words about being conceived in a fallen condition.



I cannot speak for the Church of Christ but I am aware of some churches (in particular the ancient Church of the East) that have emphasized the idea of original nature as compared to original sin. The doctrine of original nature emphasizes that as humans our original and true nature is good and that God, through Christ, helps to return us to this nature. Original sin by contrast is often associated with the Augustinian idea that as humans our true nature is one of corruption and that by an undeserved act of grace Christ recasts and remoulds this nature into something new.

So I understand it at least.

Unknown said...

Greetings from Durham UK. I'm looking forward very much to the new book on baptism, though from your summary it does sound like gentle advocacy of a paedo-baptist one who is gently on the other side may I pick up a few points as comments and questions?

First some comments to try out on you...Paedo-baptist and credo-baptists both confess 'one baptism' and none agree with 're-baptism' - we just don't agree on whether baptism of a baby is valid! So appeals to 'no re-baptism' (whilst common from the paedo-baptist side - see BEM) are really a very blunt tool.

Great to see missionary baptism being emphasied in the NT.

It seems from the blog that doctrinal issues creep in pretty quickly, don't they? David Wright's work on Augustine and baptism has convinced me that his doctrine of inherited guilt (based mainly on his misunderstanding in Latin of Romans 5.12) lead to a doctrine of baptismal regeneration which was and remained through the Reformation the main theological engine sustaining the pracice of infant baptism. This goes with a doctrine of prevenient grace which doesn't seem to be there in the NT - the NT seems more interested in the preventient word of preaching the Gospel.

Great to see 'baptism as metaphor' getting a good run out. Those of us here influenced by JDG Dunn continue to get frustrated by people ignoring the sturdy case for taking this seriously and reading all baptism language as reference to the water rite.

Here are some questions:

Is Acts 2.38 really not programmatic for Acts? Dunn thinks it is... And in the conversions in Acts isn't it the preaching that is the preventient element in each case? (From experience I know that babies don't listen well to preaching...)

Can we agree that the language in Acts of the whole of some households is paralled in language of the whole house rejoicing (15.34) and that that language should not be pressed to the argument that infants are indicated? Wittgenstein would surely bemoan our literalism, wouldn't he?

Can we also agree that 1 Cor 7.14 indicates that children of one believing parent are 'holy', whether baptised or not? Furthermore that Paul's argument does not work unless the children in view are unbaptised, since otherwise the movement in the argument from unbeleiving spouse to child is open to the obvious objection that 'the kids are different they have been baptised (unlike the unbelieving spouse)'.

In teh book, will I get some pre-NT evidence of the use of the baptidz- root to mean effusion, or only later Christian sources? This is the kind of question that is always hard to bootom when it is open to the counter-argument of a single instance. But Kittel's material seems to indicate that at the very least language of immersion is the dominant language in the pre-NT usage.

Ben, the blog is great, I've checked it often and read with great profit and often recommned it to students. If you'd like to come and preach to 150 students (and us old timers, too) when you are in the UK there is an open invitation to you to do that at Kings Durham.

With all good wishes

Mark Bonnington
Handley Moule Fellow in NT
St John's College
Durham University

eBerry said...

I liked this post. Thanks.

The Vegas Art Guy said...

Now I'm more confused than I was before. So if I was baptized as an infant (Catholic) I don't need to do the whole thing over again and neither does my daughter who we baptized at 1 (methodist)?
If you're wondering my wife grew up as a presbtyrian. lol I think we covered most of the theological basis in my household...

philip.eapen said...

Much of what I had to say has been well said by "Christian leaders."

Just one more thing. If pedo-baptists believe that infants who are baptized are a part of the covenant community, then why don't they administer the Eucharist to their "baptized" infants? Why do they wait till these children are of age?

Philip P Eapen