Saturday, January 27, 2007

(Some Not-So-Random) Thoughts on Baptism

After my first year of college (was it that long ago?), I spent the summer trying to sell Bible study books in a poor county in North Carolina. I located a church related to the Stone-Campbell Movement within ten miles of the small town where I was working. The first Sunday there, the preacher (a graduate of one of our loyal Bible Colleges) was beginning a sermon series on the book of Acts. I was thrilled, because as anyone that knows anything about Ozark Christian (Bible) College knows, the study of the book of Acts is a staple of the freshman curriculum. I knew the book of Acts very well, and I was looking forward to hearing about two and a half months worth of sermons from it!

The first Sunday I was there, the Scripture text read for the sermon was from Acts 1. I really can't remember which verses were read (I've slept on a number of different continents since then.) What I do remember about the sermon, though, was that it had nothing to do with the text that was read. He may as well have closed his Bible, because he preached on baptism. I can't find baptism in Acts 1. The second Sunday the text was from Acts 2. Unlike the first week, even after all these years, I can remember exactly which verses from Acts 2 he read (he picked the correct ones, given the dominant thought of the sermon to follow.) The second sermon I heard was strangely similar to the one the week before, but, at least I couldn't complain that it was disconnected from the meaning of the text he had read. During ten weeks of that summer, I heard sermons allegedly taken from selected texts of the first ten chapters of the book of Acts. However, in a real sense, I heard the exact same sermon each week. The sermon (should I call it a harangue instead of a sermon?) each and every week was on baptism. And the ironic thing (as far as I could tell) was that probably 94.8% of the sermon listeners were immersed believers in Jesus.

I filed that experience away. When I returned to college, I became involved in weekend ministry. My sophomore year I served as a youth minister to a church in Oklahoma. Beginning the summer between my sophomore year and through the rest of my five years of undergraduate education, I was the preaching minister of a rural church about an hour north of Joplin. The point of this paragraph is that from the time of my sojourn in North Carolina, through the end of my undergraduate education, I was involved in the weekly preparation and delivery of Bible lessons and sermons.

Now, I must confess to a particular character defect. I recognize it as a defect, and yet, I enjoy this particular defect so much, that I persist in it, even to this day. By way of rationalization, maybe I could excuse myself by blaming heredity for this defect, since I also saw same defect in my father. To what defect do I now confess? Frequently I will state an untruth, trusting that the combination of verbal and non-verbal communication will provide the listener with enough information to deduce that what I really mean to communicate is the exact opposite from the commonly accepted meaning of the words spoken. I trust that the hearer is of sufficient intelligence to be able to decode what I really mean to communicate, disregarding the literary or rhetorical meaning of the words themselves. Among student preachers, it is common for one student preacher to ask another student preacher what he is going to preach on the following Sunday. I remember my good friend, Ralph Shead, would ask me weekly, "David, what are you going to preach on this Sunday?" In my memory of such situations, I gave him the same answer each week: "Baptism!" Ralph was, is and probably always will be unique (I really have never met anyone quite like him), but I always trusted that he was sufficiently intelligent enough to understand that I was exhibiting this confessed character defect. In reality, I may have preached on baptism once or twice during my three and a half year student ministry, but most times, I did not.

At an even earlier time in my life, I used to enjoy arguing with Baptists about the essential nature of Christian baptism. Though I presented excellent arguments, I cannot tell you that anyone with whom I engaged in such debates changed their mind on the subject. At the time I thought I was a pretty nice guy, but nobody would have used the term irenic to describe me.

We were recruited to go to the mission field by my current faculty colleague, Chris DeWelt, who had taken a hiatus from his undergraduate studies, and had spent a couple years in Chile. He told us (and he doesn't possess my above confessed character defect) that people in Chile were open to the Gospel, and were just waiting for someone to teach them God's word. We found that to be true and taught that when a person expresses faith in Christ, he should be baptized. We didn't argue with Baptists (in reality, we didn't really find that many of them) or anyone else about the meaning of the Greek preposition εἰς in Acts 2:38.We just pointed people to Jesus, and those who came to faith in Jesus were baptized.

I must tell you why I decided to begin this essay at this particular time. The subject has been popping up quite a bit this week:
  • Last Sunday, the senior minister at the church I attend broached the subject, and admitted that he probably should preach on the subject of baptism more frequently than what he does. It was in the text (Col. 2:12), and he addressed some of the issues that critics outside of our fellowship of churches generally bring up.
  • Tuesday, Dr. Robert Kurka (Lincoln Christian Seminary) taught in our Perspectives course. Through him I learned of a brand new book on the subject, published by Broadman & Holman, Believer's Baptism: The Covenant Sign of the New Age in Christ. The book includes a chapter on the understanding of baptism from the perspective of the Stone-Campbell movement. Though written by somebody from outside the Stone-Campbell movement, Dr. Kurka said that it is a fair treatment. Our bookstore received one advanced copy, which will go into our library. I asked ththe bookstore to order me a copy as well.
  • On Thursday our (last-minute-substitute) chapel preacher, Kenny Boles, mentioned the essential nature of baptism as part of the plan of salvation. He was preaching about Elijah, who "was not afraid to proclaim what God required." He mentioned that many preachers from our churches no longer preach (or believe?) that baptism is a part of salvation. Elijah was not afraid to proclaim what God required. Neither should we.
  • Later on Thursday, I received several e-mails from my daughter, who was exchanging e-mails with a colleague about the issue of baptism. She wanted me to explain to her the differences between what we believe and what the Baptist church believes.
To answer her e-mail, I spent some time looking at the subject. The labor of attempting to answer my daughter's questions prompted me in the decision to write this short essay.

Since then I have learned of another book, scheduled to be released next month: Understanding Baptism: Four Views (Zondervan, 2007). The Stone-Campbell chapter was written by John Castelein of Lincoln Christian Seminary. These works will certainly be valuable for continued reflection.

One of my favorite recent journal articles on the subject was written by Robert Stein, Senior Professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. In the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, Vol. 2 (Spring 1998), Stein wrote an article (pp. 6-17) titled "Baptism and Becoming a Christian in the New Testament." When I first read it, I could not believe that it was written by a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. It sounded a lot like early 20th century Stone-Campbell authors.

The crux of the matter is this. When analyzing accounts of conversions in the book of Acts, baptism is always present. When Philip was expounding the meaning of Isaiah 53 to the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8), they passed a body of water. The eunuch noted the water and asked what prevented him from being baptized (v. 36). Philip did not tell him that baptism wasn't necessary, that he should merely believe and repeat the sinner's prayer. The content of his message to the African was "the good news about Jesus" (v. 35), which included (obviously) the need to be baptized. A favorite proof-text for faith only is Acts 16:31—"Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, and your house." But the context there indicates that Philippian jailer was baptized the same hour of the night.

Once Alexander Campbell came to his position on the meaning and mode of baptism, he considered whether to extend Christian fellowship to the "pious unimmersed." From the perspective of the Scriptures, such a term is oxymoronic. The Bible does not even consider the possibility of a Christian who has not been baptized.

People locked in a "faith only" camp claim that those of us who believe that baptism is part of God's plan of salvation must adhere to a doctrine of baptismal regeneration. They correctly claim that one is saved through faith, not works (Eph. 2:8-9). Amen. I am saved through faith, no by any of my works. I AM saved by works though, not by my own work, but by the work of Christ. I am not saved because I "got myself baptized". The Greek word in Acts 22:16 is an aorist middle imperative (βάπτισαι). The only thing I did was believe and submit to God. In my submission I was lowered to a watery grave replete with spiritual significance. I died to my old life, and was raised to a new life in Christ (Rom. 6:1-4). I was not saved by my work, but I was saved by my faith in the work of Christ.

Several years back, College Press published a couple of excellent resources:
Baptism: A Biblical Study (1989)
Baptism and the Remission of Sins (1990)
The first, authored by Jack Cottrell, is a study of twelve different New Testament texts that teach on baptism. If one lays aside previously held presuppositions about baptism, and studies what the New Testament teaches on the subject, I believe that it would be impossible to persist in the idea that there is no connection between baptism and salvation. The second, edited by David Fletcher, includes a chapter by Cottrell, in which he gives some interesting quotes by Martin Luther (p. 33) about the nature of the work of baptism:
• "Yes, it is true that our works are of no use for salvation. Baptism, however, is not our work but God’s.” [Luther, “The Large Catechism,” IV:35; p. 441]
• “Although it is performed by men’s hands, it is nevertheless truly God’s own act.” [Ibid, IV:10; p. 437]

Cottrell did his Ph.D dissertation (Princeton University) on the work of Huldreich Zwingli, and places upon Zwingli the blame for the commonly held idea that baptism is merely a sign or seal of salvation previously received. Another variation on that idea is that baptism is "an outward expression of an inward reality." Cottrell's work shows that such an interpretation began, not with Scripture, but with Zwingli. That position, however, became the prevalent position for much of Protestantism. He summarizes this in the conclusion (p. 166) to his book, Baptism: A Biblical Study:
[t]he “other” view of baptism, the one that prevails in most of Protestantism now, is really not very old in comparison with the one presented here as the Biblical view. The understanding of baptism as the time when God bestows salvation was the nearly unanimous view in Christendom for nearly fifteen hundred years. It was a consensus shared by the early church fathers, Catholic theology in the Middle Ages, and Martin Luther. The “other” view, the one that now prevails, was the creation of Huldreich Zwingli in the decade of the 1520’s. It was adopted by his followers, including John Calvin; and mainly through the latter’s influence was spread throughout the bulk of Protestantism. Thus the “sign and seal” concept of baptism is the newcomer, not the usurper. We should have no qualms about abandoning a view whose roots go back no further than Zwingli. We should rejoice in the prospect of embracing a view that is rooted in the New Testament itself and which enjoyed a millennium and a half of unshaken dominance until the usurper arose.

It is highly ironic that while some of our leaders are moving away from our historic position on baptism, scholars within the Southern Baptist Convention are moving toward it. I've begun reading Christopher J. H. Wright's new book, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible's Grand Narrative, IVP Academic, 2006. One of his themes is that the Great Commission is rooted in all of Scripture, in fact, that it is the key to unlocking the "Grand Narrative." I understand and agree with that. Let us not forget, however, that the traditionally accepted account of the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20), calls for us to go, to teach, to baptize, and to teach. May those who come behind us find us faithful!

God's blessings to you all!



Dave Smith said...

Agreed and appreciated. I have noted that in seeking to distance ourselves from what many believe to be the sterotypical Christian Church--concerned more about whether someone has been dunked than things like genuine belief, repentance, and relationship with the Lord--many have gone to the other extreme and shy away from the discussion, lest we be branded as narrow-minded or offensive.

An even-handed approach to the subject--much like you have shared--is always required ... not apologetic for what God has directed, but understanding that baptism is not the end-all, but rather simply a part of God's designed plan for the redemption of mankind.

In addition, it is timely as I finish up a sermon series this week with a message on our practice of immersion and how we handle sharing that with others.

Thanks for the insights!

fernando said...

David, leo tu comentario y me im presiona como que hubiera solo un bautismo, la Biblia menciona varios tipos, deduzco que quieres dar enfasis al bautismo por inmersion en contraste con otros no biblicos. Me entiendes man?


o1mnikent said...

Hi David,

I thought you might be interested in an electronic edition of Cottrell's book on baptism in the College Press Biblical Studies Collection, now on the Logos Bible Software Pre-Pub page.

David G. Fish said...

Thanks, Kent (I think!),

I was unaware of this. I pre-ordered it. We have used Wilbur Fields' OT History as a text for years. It will be nice to have it in electronic format. I already own the two commentary/handbooks by James Smith.