When we begin thinking about Baptism, some preliminary questions are helpful. Starting where we are, we ask
What is Baptism?
Some answers which arose out of the class discussion include:
Sacrament or Ordinance?
A major difference between various
denominations is bound up in this question.
If it is a
then it is believed by some that God is very active in what goes on. If Baptism is a sacrament, it communicates a grace from God and (to a greater or lesser degree) transforms the baptized. It is necessary in some way for this transformation to 'activate' or become operative for a certain level of grace to appear.
If it is an
then (it is believed by some) that God and grace are not operative in the action. Instead, an ordinance is undertaken as a witness or a testimony - something one does to profess one's faith.
We might think of it this way: a sacrament is an action taken before the world that transforms someone inside (perhaps regardless of belief), and an ordinance is an action that is motivated from the inside that someone takes to show the world a belief. This difference is one we will explore throughout this semester.
Death, Burial, Resurrection
- Baptism is often seen as a repetition or a participation in the redeeming death and resurrection of Christ. Various demoninations will emphasize differing aspects of this, and those differences are also part of what we will explore this semester.
- Paul says that in Christ the 'old humanity' is dead and the 'new humanity' is reborn. This echoes Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus about being 'born again.'
Baptism is a washing
- a washing from sins, a cleansing of past wrongs and transgressions. A way of 'wiping the slate clean'. This is a very prevalent notion among Christian believers, and it connects Baptism in key ways to another doctrine,
Baptism is initiation
- It is the way, traditionally, that new members are 'included' in the Christian community. It 'gets you in the club,' but there are still questions which linger around this notion. Is it necessary for salvation? What is the relation of Baptism to the gifting or influence of the Holy Spirit?
Some believe Baptism does nothing
- In this radical position (which reminds us of Ulrich Zwingli from the 16th century), the claim is that Baptism does nothing at all - it is simply a 'remembrance' that changes nothing about the person baptized or the community at large. More moderate versions of this position are in the 'ordinance' side of beliefs about baptism.
This is just the beginning of the conversation.
Over the course of the semester, we will examine each of these positions and many more. In the course we will place a primary emphasis on learning to discuss these aspects of Baptism
What is the relation of Baptism to the Holy Spirit?
Already in this questions there are the beginnings of a theological discussion. There are many ways that it might be answered, for example:
Baptism is the result of the action of the Holy Spirit (we get saved, then dunked)
Baptism is not complete until we are sealed by the Spirit (we are dunked, then saved)
Baptism 'activates' the Holy Spirit (that was latent before - we are dunked and saved at the same time)
Baptism is the beginning of a process of sanctification that is driven by the Spirit
...and these are but a few possible answers. From each of these answers, though, one can see the need to account for
Each answer raises a host of further questions which relate to the living of our faith. Questions which relate to providence, God's sovereignty, sanctification, etc...
Biblical origins of Baptism
Some key texts for Baptism are (starting with the Synoptic Gospels):
Matthew 3:13 - 17
- Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."
- In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; F8 with you I am well pleased."
- Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
As it can be seen, there are some definite similarities in these accounts, as well as some important and key differences. Working from these texts, it appears that the Holy Spirit and baptism relate in a certain way to the life of Jesus (which might lend support to the notions of
- that is, it appears from these texts that the Spirit descends upon Jesus or is 'activated' at the baptism. Alternately, since both the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit seem to be present, it also can lend power to arguments for the doctrine of the Trinity. Both of these options are taken up within the arguments of the early church (100 - 500 CE)
Compare these texts, as well, to the account in the Gospel of John:
John 3:22 - 25, 4:1 - 3
- After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized (John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison). Now a discussion about purification arose between John's disciples and a Jew. They came to John and said to him, "Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him."... Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, "Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John" (although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized) he left Judea and started back to Galilee.
There is some question in this text as to whether Jesus is baptized at all, or whether he has simply set up a rival baptismal practice to that of John's (who recognized him as an equal and even a superior).
Baptism and Jewish Ritual Cleansing
It has often been argued that John the Baptizer's baptism practice is a version of ritual washing among the Israelites. Close readings of the histories of both practices, however, show that this is not in fact the case. The ritual washing associated with temple worship was a repeated event. Even the washing that is reputed to have been performed upon converts to Israelite religion is dissimilar to Joh's baptizing. John's baptism was in preparation for the 'coming judgement' that he proclaimed - an apolcalytic appearance of the Messiah in the world. John baptized in the Jordan, a river considered ritually unclean by the priests. In all, John's baptism has as much or more to do with the experience of the Exodus from Egypt (crossing Jordan into the Promised Land from the Wilderness) than it does with Israelite baptismal practices.