Friday, April 04, 2008

Circumcision, Baptism and the Church (2d)

Theological Conclusions

In essence, I think the evidence of the New Testament stands against any separation between faith, repentance and baptism. I propose the following:
  1. Baptism symbolises the death and resurrection of Christ. The water of baptism symbolises the death/judgement endured by Christ at the cross.

  2. By submitting to baptism, the believer identifies with that death and resurrection. They voluntarily submit to ‘death/judgement’, going down into the water. This involves the admission that they are sinful and that their sinful self deserves death. However, they come out of the water, just as Christ was raised from death. This involves the recognition that Christ has removed the ‘sting’ of death by enduring death/judgement on our behalf.

  3. These two ‘acts’ in the ritual of baptism are therefore equivalent to repentance and faith. The believer goes down, symbolising their recognition of sin, their recognition that they deserve death/judgement and their desire to see the sinful self killed – this is repentance. They come up, symbolising new life and the fact that death/judgement does not in fact fall on them but on Christ – this is faith.

  4. The New Testament authors therefore appear to answer the question “how do I become a Christian?” by saying “repentance and faith, normally expressed in baptism”. I say ‘normally’ because it is clear that baptism is not strictly essential to salvation where repentance and faith are nevertheless present – witness the dying thief.

  5. The New Testament therefore has no concept of an unbaptized Christian. Baptism is normally the beginning of the Christian life. However, the existence of baptized non-Christians is recognised, in the character of Simon Magus. This illustrates that baptism does not make a Christian if it is not an expression of repentance and faith.

  6. Baptism makes disciples of Jesus Christ in the most radical way. A disciple is simply a follower; baptism encourages us to think of ourselves as ‘following’ Christ even into the grave, and out the other side as new people. Having followed him thus far in baptism, we are encouraged to follow him in day to day living.

  7. Baptism does not accomplish an objective thing, but makes a prior objective accomplishment real in the life of the believer. Objectively, my salvation was won at the cross – I died in Christ at that point. Subjectively, I only appropriate that fact by faith/baptism.

  8. Notwithstanding the above, the close link between water baptism and Spirit baptism means that the Spirit accompanies our faith in Christ’s act done externally to us and begins to make it real internally, by performing that heart circumcision and writing the law on our hearts. We become righteous in Christ at once; we become righteous in our experience gradually through the Spirit’s work.


Practical Considerations

  1. It is not appropriate to baptise people who cannot express repentance and faith in their baptism. This rules out children. For them, baptism could only be a washing of dirt from the body, not an appeal to God for a clean conscience.

  2. It is appropriate to baptise any who wish to follow Christ. We should not be so concerned to avoid baptizing unbelievers that we turn people away if they are seeking baptism. If baptism is the normal expression of repentance and faith, it must be open to all who request it. Further, there must be no long delay between someone expressing a desire to follow Christ and baptism. Baptism is the normal beginning of the Christian life.

  3. Baptism is not primarily an opportunity to witness to others. Rather, it is an interaction between the person submitting to baptism and God, with the church acting as the minister of God’s grace. Therefore, nothing should be asked of the baptized but repentance and faith – they should not be required to give a long testimony etc. Indeed, the tradition of testimony-giving in Baptist churches largely assumes that conversion will always be an experience prior to baptism – this cannot be sustained from the New Testament.

  4. Children who grow up in Christian homes should not be encouraged to look for a particular moment of conversion. Rather, they should be periodically challenged as to whether they wish to follow Christ. If the answer is positive, and they are of an age to understand and trust in the symbolism of baptism, then they should be baptized.

  5. Baptism by immersion is the most appropriate symbolism for Christ’s death and resurrection; however, baptism by pouring can also stand for the judgement of God poured out on Christ, and baptism by sprinkling also conveys the idea of the application of Christ’s death to the believer. The mode of baptism is hardly important.

  6. A person baptized as an infant should not be forced to be rebaptized – indeed, the concept of rebaptism is theologically problematic, implying two deaths of Christ. If a person is capable of seeing their infant baptism as an identification with the death and resurrection of Christ and the beginning of life as a Christian, their baptism should be allowed to stand. However, if a person ‘baptized’ as a child considered their baptism to be invalid, they should be baptised – for the first time.

9 comments:

  1. Daniel Newman11:21 am

    'I think the evidence of the New Testament stands against any separation between faith, repentance and baptism.'

    Well, I guess it depends on what you mean by separation. Should those who have been baptised have faith and repentance? Yes. Does that mean that baptism, and repentance and faith can't be separated in time, with the former preceding the latter? No, I don't think it does.

    What I think we need to remember as well is the fact that application has to be understood in light of those to whom it is addressed, and we mustn't extrapolate that to groups of people beyond that who have not been addressed.

    So to those who haven't been baptised, who hear the gospel for the first time, the call to them is to repent and be baptised. Baptism symbolises union with Christ in his death and resurrection of Christ and the pouring out of the Spirit, sprinkling with Christ's blood, promises which God makes to the recipient. It is right therefore that the person who trusts God's promises and so wants to be a follower of Christ receives the sign and seal of God's promises - baptism. I agree that baptism should therefore be open to those who request it, and that there should not be a delay between expressing a desire to follow Christ and baptism. Rather than praying an ABC prayer, the person should be baptised.

    But this promise is 'for you and your children', just like God's covenant promise to Abraham, and so it is right that the children of those who have believed receive the symbol of God's promise (just like it was with Abraham), which appears to be what the New Testament church did - households were baptised when the head of the household believed. Colossians 2 equates baptism in the New Testament with circumcision in the Old. The circumcision done without hands (which circumcision once signified) is now signified by baptism. I take it on those grounds as well that the subjects of baptism should be the same as the subjects of circumcision. Without evidence to the contrary, and I don't think the passages you've considered here do provide that evidence, you cannot suddenly exclude those who were previously included.

    'It is not appropriate to baptise people who cannot express repentance and faith in their baptism. This rules out children... Children who grow up in Christian homes... should be periodically challenged as to whether they wish to follow Christ. If the answer is positive, and they are of an age to understand and trust in the symbolism of baptism, then they should be baptized.'

    I'm going to be honest here and say that there's no other way to express my response to those comments than to say that they make me feel slightly sick. Because you've just made a quality possessed by the individual, in this case a certain level of intellect, a condition for entry into the kingdom, and that undermines grace. I'm not just talking about children now, but also groups like the mentally disabled. What happened to Jesus welcoming the infants who were brought to him and blessing them? They clearly weren't of an age to understand and trust what was happening, and yet Jesus rebuked those who would have kept them away. What happened to God choosing 'what is foolish in the world to shame the wise... what is weak in the world to shame the strong... what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God'? This view gives people reason for boasting before God. 'I can be a Christian because I am of a sufficient age with a sufficient IQ.'

    We mustn't confuse child-like faith with intellectual attainment. The Psalmist could say:

    'Yet you are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts.On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother’s womb you have been my God.' - Psalm 22.9-10

    and:

    'You, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O LORD, from my youth.
    Upon you I have leaned from before my birth; you are he who took me from my mother’s womb.' - Psalm 71.5-6

    ReplyDelete
  2. "It is not appropriate to baptise people who cannot express repentance and faith in their baptism. This rules out children."

    And people with certain learning difficulties?

    "A person baptized as an infant should not be forced to be rebaptized – indeed, the concept of rebaptism is theologically problematic, implying two deaths of Christ. If a person is capable of seeing their infant baptism as an identification with the death and resurrection of Christ and the beginning of life as a Christian, their baptism should be allowed to stand. However, if a person ‘baptized’ as a child considered their baptism to be invalid, they should be baptised – for the first time."

    Which is why you told me that I 'still had my real baptism to look forward to.'?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Okay, to take your most serious point (which I take to be the last one, since it has caused sickness) first:

    I certainly do not mean to imply that those who do not have the mental capacity to exercise faith are automatically damned. That is not my view, and when I have heard that view expressed it has also caused me to feel sick to my stomach. However, I am afraid I cannot go further than an optimistic agnosticism when it comes to people who never express faith in Christ (whether because they died in infancy or because of an illness or disability). I want to take seriously God's grace and the immensity of his mercy that refuses to be bounded by my theological conceptions; but I also want to take seriously human sin, and the fact that Scripture reveals no sure way of salvation but trust in Christ. The fact remains that if to submit to be baptism is to express faith, then I cannot in good conscience baptise people who cannot express faith - even though I am hopeful for their eternal destiny.

    Please understand I take this very seriously. Also, note that I do make the distinction between intellectual understanding and child-like faith. I would not make intellectual understanding a pre-condition of baptism, except in so far as to ask: is this person willing to entrust their lives, for now and eternity, to Christ? Perhaps my talk of 'understanding the symbolism' of baptism obscures this - I would not expect every baptismal candidate to understand the atonement perfectly, only to understand just enough to trust Christ for salvation from sin.

    I hope this alleviates your sickness. I know I'm still not saying what you would want me to say, but I hope I am also not saying what you feared I was saying.

    As for 'you and your children' - I await some evidence that my exegesis of this passage is incorrect! Similarly for Colossians 2: I deny that baptism is paralleled with circumcision in that passage, or at least directly. I think flesh-circumcision is paralleled with heart-circumcision, and that baptism is brought in because that is the point at which the believer expresses faith and therefore the point at which heart-circumcision takes place.

    Note also that language like 'sign and seal of God's promises' is not Biblical, and therefore requires justification if we are going back ad fontes..!

    Enjoying the discussion, and finding it useful - keep the critique coming, but would appreciate more detailed engagement on the actual texts rather than a recourse to the 'big picture' (see the comments on 2c).

    ReplyDelete
  4. That last comment was addressed to Mr Newman - Mr Fantastic (seriously??) commented while I was writing it...

    Hopefully, Mr F, I've addressed your first point. As to your second point, when did I tell you to look forward to your real baptism? And is it possible I was being a little tongue-in-cheek?

    And who are you anyway, if it's okay to give away your secret identity? ;o)

    ReplyDelete
  5. Daniel Newman6:44 pm

    Thanks for your reply. You've alleviated my queasiness slightly, but you're still refusing to admit to membership of God's people individuals on the basis of their intellectual attainment and placing a question mark of the possibility of their salvation as a group. And even if the barrier is low, you are still in effect saying that you have to comprehend a certain amount before you can be saved.

    I think the problem is that we've obviously got different versions of Colossians in front of us. In my version (let's call it Colossians v 1.0), it says that Christians have been circumcised with the circumcision of Christ (heart-circumcision), having been buried with him in baptism. What circumcision signifies (so that Paul can call what Christ does heart circumcision) baptism signifies.

    I'd like to think I am engaging with specific texts here and not just referring to the big picture all the time. But to understand these texts aright, we must look at the Old Testament allusions and what is going on there. We can't use the importance of looking at particular passages as an excuse for ignoring their Biblical context which is the key to their interpretation.

    On the sign and seal thing, my justification is the same as the justification of Christians everywhere for the use of the word Trinity. It describes very well the Biblical reality. Baptism is a sign. It signifies something. I would point to Romans 4.11, which talks of the sign of circumcision (the OT precursor to baptism) as a seal of the righteousness Abraham had by faith while he was still uncircumcised (and of course that sign and seal was applied to all males in his household from eight days old and over). It's a seal in the sense that it is God's visible authentication of his promise to the recipient, the content of which the recipient enjoys if he has faith in the promise. I would suggest that this makes best sense of the instrumental language of baptism, not just that Paul is writing baptism when what he really means is faith, but that baptism is like a piece of paper which entitles the recipient to the gift of everlasting life, and which they actually lay hold of by faith.

    I would also want to add that God thought it was all right for all the people of Israel (including infants) to be baptised when he led them under the cloud and through the sea (1 Corinthians 10.2) and that Paul seems quite happy to use their example for the church.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Glad to have given your stomach some peace. Can I just ask, though: isn't my position just a consistent application of the principle that justification is by faith alone? And faith being faith in Christ crucified, a person must know something about Christ to exercise that faith?

    Vis a vis Colossians: you'll be delighted to know we have the same text in front of us ;o) But we have different presuppostions, leading to different interpretations. You say "Christians have been circumcised with the circumcision of Christ (heart-circumcision), having been buried with him in baptism. What circumcision signifies (so that Paul can call what Christ does heart circumcision) baptism signifies." I say: Christians have been circumcised with the circumcision of Christ (heart-circumcision), which is the thing that flesh-circumcision pointed forward to but did not achieve. Now it is really achieved through faith/baptism. So, I think baptism and circumcision signify completely different things.

    I do not take issue necessarily, BTW, with the sign and seal language, or even perhaps the concepts. I just that when the point at issue is "what does baptism mean?" we should be slow to throw around definitions, and bear in mind that our definition may already carry a good deal of theological baggage with it.

    On 1 Cor 10:2 - I think that this passage is using typology, so that the sea/cloud is a type of baptism. I don't think Paul is saying that the Israelites received the actual NT ordinance of baptism. I don't think they can have done, because they were baptised into Moses. That point won't make sense until I get on to my discussion of the church, but suffice to say I do not see the Mosaic covenant as being the same as the Abrahamic covenant which is fulfilled/realised/made present in Christ. Don't ask: I'll tell you later ;o)

    ReplyDelete
  7. Oh, and just to say, I don't think Paul uses baptism and faith as synonymous. I do think that faith is exercised in baptism - you could say, I suppose, that baptism is the way that faith gets from being a mental event only to an event in the full physical/social environment in which we live.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Could you flesh out a bit more what this means in terms of how we teach children at camps/youth ministry etc?

    Churches often have the "assume they are all Christians" view, i.e. don't constantly encourage them to pray the prayer, but rather immerse them with the gospel constantly and expect them to grow up in it.

    This contrasts with other settings I have encountered, where, still working with "church children", we are adopting a more directly evangelistic approach.

    I'm not an expert on childrens ministry, and these issues are complex, but do you accept there are broadly two ways of doing it?

    BTW I wonder sometimes whether I was converted post-baptism, i.e. post-15, but then again my testimony was mostly "I was brought up in a Christian family".

    ReplyDelete
  9. A first class post. I must come here more often!

    ReplyDelete