Definitions – Baptism

One of the most frustrating parts of my job, or ministry, is the fact that I deal primarily with words. Words, and the associated concept of language (the combination of words, grammar, tone, inflection) are a slippery thing. I grew up learning that many words have both denotation (how they are defined in an authority such as a dictionary) and a connotation (how they are actually used, which might be in a  very different sense from their denotation). It takes no great skill to know that the connotative meanings of words change every generation or so, but now even the denotative meanings of words are changing. It is getting to the point that I’m not really sure what I am talking about even when I use the words that I think I know what they mean.

Since this is a blog about all things theological, let us take a word about which probably everyone has an opinion concerning what it means: baptism. In the expansive world of Christianity there are essentially two broad understandings of baptism – one sees the word applying primarily to infants, and one sees the word applying exclusively to believers in Christ. For both groups the concept of faith is critical, for the one it is the faith of the church (and primarily the parents and god-parents), for the other it is the faith of the individual which is controlling. For the first group baptism marks the security of the individual until the point he or she can voluntarily assume an individual faith (confirmation), and is a removal of the effects of original sin; for the other it is the actual moment of the profession of individual faith, and is associated with the removal of actual sin. But beyond these stark differences between these very different understandings of baptism, there is also profound differences among those who profess to be adherents to believer’s baptism. (As I am not personally associated with a group that practices infant baptism, I will refrain from commenting on any real or perceived differences in that group.)

Some adherents of believer’s (adult) baptism hold that baptism is for the purpose of the forgiveness of sin; others believe that a person’s sins are forgiven at the moment of faith. Baptism in that case is simply a formality, a physical act that demonstrates one’s willingness to be a part of a specific church. Thus, even within the camp of “believer’s baptism” there is a huge gulf – one group believes it is absolutely necessary; the other group views it as a nice gesture, but one that is not to be considered critical. Let us proceed even further. Many within the “believer’s baptism” group hold that a candidate for baptism must be baptized at the specific moment (or as close to it as possible) that a decision to be baptized is reached; others believe that a period of preparation, or “catechism,” must be observed in order to fully prepare the candidate for the waters of baptism. This catechism can be days, weeks, months or even years in length.

The mode of baptism is fervently disputed: some will argue that baptism must be full immersion in water; some will argue that a candidate who enters a baptistery and has water poured over his or her head has been baptized; and obviously those who accept infant baptism will accept a few ounces of water gently poured over the head of the infant as proper baptism. And, not to be ignored, even the wording used in the event of baptism is debated. Must it be in the name of the “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” or will the name of Jesus suffice? Does the name of God, Jesus, of the Holy Spirit have to be mentioned at all? If the trinitarian language is used, must there be three immersions (or effusions) or is one adequate? Who is authorized to baptize? Must the ceremony be “officiated” by a priest, pastor, minister, elder or deacon? Can a female perform baptisms? What if a baptism is performed by someone who is later found to be apostate – is the legitimacy of the baptism somehow connected to the faith (and orthodoxy) of the one who performs the baptism? If so, how far back do we have to go in order to establish the legitimacy of the one doing the baptism?

All of this preceding wandering through the hermeneutical wilderness was to illustrate one simple point: asking a person whether they have been baptized is a considerable effort in futility. Only if they say “no” has there been any clarity achieved. If the answer is “yes,” then were they baptized as an infant or as a believer? Were they baptized because they had some ecstatic feeling of “oneness” with Christ, or were they baptized because they felt the crushing weight of their sin, or were they baptized in simple obedience to Christ? Were they old enough to understand the meaning of sin, or of faith in Christ? Were they immersed, or dribbled on, or just sprayed on?

As I have stated elsewhere, beyond some very basic (and I believe, scriptural) stipulations, I tread very lightly when it comes to “evaluating” or “judging” someone’s baptism. I hold that a candidate for baptism must be old enough to be considered responsible for his or her actions (and I am personally hesitant to follow the practice of baptizing pre-teens). I also understand baptism to be a full immersion (we do not just throw some dirt on someone’s forehead to “bury” them), and I expect a candidate for baptism to be able to express repentance for a real separation from God, and an adult commitment to obey and become a disciple of Christ (I don’t think anyone fully understands those concepts when they are baptized, but there must be some fundamental understanding, otherwise all we are doing is getting someone wet.) These, I aver, are the only basic requirements for baptism found in the New Testament.

It’s all very simple, and at the same time terribly complicated. After all, it all boils down to how we define baptism, right?

The “Age of Accountability” [Uncertain Inferences Series]

Logic and illogic have a certain symbiotic relationship. Often we think very carefully and long about something, and then act in such a way that is laughably illogical. Yet, when confronted with our illogical behavior, we argue that it was the most logical thing to do that we could possibly imagine.

I think of that conundrum when I ponder one of the most difficult questions a minister is ever asked – how old should a person be before he or she is baptized? I guess I should say this is only a difficult question for a minister who serves a church that rejects infant baptism. A “pedo-baptist” does not have to worry about that question – just bring the infant to the font whenever all the family can be together. But for “credo-baptists” (those who withhold baptism until there is a measure of faith), the question gets significantly more sticky.

The answer for many “credo-baptists” is, “when the person has reached the age of accountability.” That answer, I am becoming more and more convinced, is as clear as mud. It really does not solve any question, and even raises more, at least in my mind.

First, let me say that it does offer some form of assurance – we withhold baptism until a person is “accountable” for either their sins or their confession of faith. But which is it? When does a person become “accountable” for their sin? Or, when does a person really become “accountable” for their confession of faith? If we answer with a specific “age,” then it appears to me that we have answered the question for everyone, for all time and eternity. Let’s just put an age here – say, 12 or 16, or 20 or even 30. Before that age no accountability, after that age, accountability.

But that is not how we work the game. We immediately shift to the person’s (and I suggest here it is usually a young person) state of mind. So, we say age of accountability, but we invariably end up arguing level of maturity. Now here is where it really gets interesting for me.

As a culture we are in the process of raising the age of assumed maturity, while in many churches we are in the process of lowering it – even to the point of virtually erasing it. Consider the following:

  • The age of consent for consensual sex is no lower, and often above, age 16.
  • Most states require drivers to have reached their 16th birthday before unrestricted driving privileges are granted, some even older.
  • The minimum age for voting is 18. This is also the age for a person to volunteer for the armed services without parental permission.
  • The minimum age to legally purchase and consume alcohol in most jurisdictions is 21.
  • Many jurisdictions will not impose the maximum penalty for certain crimes committed by those under 18 because, and underline this, the brain of a juvenile is simply not capable of understanding the consequences of their actions.

And, yet, preachers are routinely baptizing children as young as 8 or 7 or even 6 because “they are just so mature.”

Am I the only one who doesn’t get this?

Would we allow such a “mature” child to make his or her decisions regarding sexual activity? Would we give allow such a child to vote? Would we hand them the keys to our new SUV? Would we give them a $20 bill and tell them to go buy some suds for their birthday party? Would we incarcerate a 10 year old in an adult correctional facility if they had a pound of marijuana they were attempting to sell?

The answer to any of these questions is an incredulous NO! We recognize that an 8 or 7  or 6 year old could never be expected to make such decisions – that is why they are safely protected in our homes by (at least supposedly) mature adults.

But we give a child a Bible and a chart of little arrows or a chain reference of the “gospel plan of salvation” and if they can answer a few perfunctory questions we whisk them off to the church and dunk them in the baptistry as fast as we can (we dare not allow them to die in-between the decision and the dunking!)

Is it possible to teach that we are stressing the importance of baptism when in reality we are doing everything in our power to minimize it?

One of the most difficult conversations I have had the misfortune of having is the one where an adult comes to me and tells me that they do not believe their baptism was “effective.” They were baptized, they know, but have come to recognize that the real motivation for their baptism was peer pressure (girlfriends can be really effective preachers!), parental pressure (dad really wanted to be an elder!) or my favorite – communion pressure (who doesn’t want to have crackers and grape juice at half-time!) It is an agonizing question. Six months or so earlier there was no doubt, but now the questions and the fear are palpable. If I answer, “you need to be baptized” I am invalidating what scores of people would have argued was certifiable rock solid truth – a young person was a baptized believer because he/she answered the questions correctly and said the right words. If I tell the person “no, you have no need to be baptized” I am invalidating their fears and doubts, thus calling into question the very maturity they were supposed to have demonstrated at their baptism. So, I never answer the question – I make them answer it. Almost always the person ends up saying, “In truth I was never baptized because of my faith and to acknowledge my sins, and I want to make that confession now.”

I want to add here that I believe every Christian at some point questions the reason why they were baptized. I know I have – and it troubles me. I have talked to scores of Christians who have confessed the same fear. We cannot always dwell on the peak of Mt. Assurance. My wife taught me a very solid practice to share with those I baptize – immediately go home and write a letter to yourself, detailing what, and why, and when you decided to become a Christian. Then, when these doubts surface, you can read your letter to yourself and decide anew whether the decision was one of faith – or of surrendering to some ghastly emotional blackmail. I wish I had that advice when I made the decision. At my age, it is really hard to crawl back into my struggling, adolescent mind.

Never-the-less, I have come to regard the issue of the “age of accountability” (a profoundly uncertain inference) as a red herring. There just is no such animal in the Bible. A person should be baptized when he or she can act with enough maturity that they, as well as the entire believing community, can be assured that they are aware of the seriousness of the commitment of baptism, and that there are no other illegitimate pressures being placed on their decision.

I must add here that I wish a plague of biblical proportions be inflicted on every summer Bible camp and every minister that views “camp conversions” as anything other than group hysteria. Let’s see – let’s place a bunch of hormonally driven, sleep deprived pre-teens in a remote destination and in an exceedingly artificial situation and then preach the fire of hell so hot it singes their eyebrows and see what happens. What could possibly go wrong?

Answering a few academic questions doesn’t cut it. Being able to draw a little diagram with a few arrows and some squiggly lines doesn’t cut it. Being cut to the heart because of a reality of separation from God does count.  Counting the cost of surrendering our life to Christ does count. We are not told that anyone in the New Testament was baptized for any other reason. We should not be guilty of promoting anything less.

If we teach that the baptism of an infant is without meaning, for heaven’s sake let’s stop baptizing infants!

Book Review – Perspectives on the Ending of Mark (David Alan Black, ed.)

Perspectives on the Ending of Mark : 4 Views, Edited by David Alan Black (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2008), 141 pages.

Okay, this book may be a little geeky for some, but I will not apologize one teensy little bit for it. I have had a lifetime love affair with textual criticism (well, at least since my undergraduate days), and the problem of the ending of Mark is a well-known and much-debated subject. If you are interested in such issues, this book is as easy to read and as complete as you will find – especially compressed into 141 pages.

This book is made up of five essays. In the first, Daniel B. Wallace defends the position that Mark intentionally ended his gospel at 16:8. Maurice A. Robinson defends the position that Mark 16:9-20 is the original ending to the gospel. J.K Elliott defends the position that we simply do not have the original ending to the gospel – it has been lost (at least until it is found). David Alan Black defends the position that Mark 16:9-20 was not the “original” ending to the gospel, but is Mark’s work and was added to the gospel some time after an original copy (ending at 16:8) was circulated. And finally Darrell L. Bock summarizes all the preceding essays, basically agreeing with Wallace that the gospel ended at 16:8.

From what I have read (comprehensively, although far from extensively), nothing new or earth shattering is presented in these essays. Each author summarizes his position and presents the evidence that best supports his conclusion. This is not a written “debate” per se, so there is not a significant amount of addressing the position held by others, although there is some of that sprinkled throughout the essays.

The one new theory that I learned came in Elliott’s essay. He pointed out that in the “Western” order of the copying of the gospels, Mark comes last. (The apostolic authors Matthew and John come first, Luke third). What we now know as Mark 16:9-20 was appended, not to the gospel of Mark itself, but as a summary of all of the resurrection appearances in each of the gospels. Because it came at the end of Mark (which, by the way, he believes was damaged somehow), the so-called “Long Ending” became the ending that was copied onto subsequent copies of the individual copies of the gospel of Mark. Interesting theory, for sure, but it just has too many holes in it to satisfy my curiosity, and I think Elliott offers it as an outlier option, not one that he puts a lot of stock into.

I have to say that of the first four essays, I found Black’s essay to be the most original (pardon the pun) and most entertaining. He really does make his argument come alive through his telling, although, I must admit that he does not convince me. On the one hand, his idea is just plausible (and crazy) enough to have occurred, but on the other hand, there is some really fanciful imagination in the telling of the story.

The ending of Mark is, in my opinion, the most significant of the major textual problems in the New Testament. Growing up in the Church of Christ I was routinely challenged by the decisive tone of Mark 16:16 – if you want a passage defending the practice of baptism you do not have to look much further! But, also as a child growing up in the Churches of Christ where we were told to “do as they did” and to “call Bible things by Bible names,” I was confused as to why I never heard a sermon on Mark 16:17-18, “And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (ESV) These verses are not promises made about the apostles, or those specially gifted by the apostles. These verses are specifically directed to “. . . those who believe.” So, I have always had a “love/hate” relationship with Mark 16:9-20.

I am not anywhere close to being educated in textual criticism enough to know the answer to whether Mark 16:9-20 is original or not. From my own study, it is not likely that Mark would end his gospel with the women being afraid, and there being no confirmation of the resurrection of which Jesus spoke so plainly. On the other hand, the textual evidence suggests very strongly that verses 9-20, although known at a very early stage of copying, were also questioned as to their authenticity.

As Darrell Bock points out in his concluding essay, we can be absolutely sure that there is no doctrine related to salvation taught in these verses that is not taught clearly elsewhere in the New Testament. The clear statement regarding the importance of baptism is instructive to me – but the snake handling and the poison drinking are equally troubling to me. Luckily, I have many, many other passages which instruct me about baptism, and nary a single one that tells me I have to make friends with a Cottonmouth Water Moccasin.

Bottom line – I give this five stars out of five and two thumbs up. There might be brief sections that are too technical for the average reader, but not to fear – I believe the main points the authors make are very clear. The evenness of the book is remarkable – this is a very well edited product! Go ahead, feed your inner Geek. This is definitely a good purchase.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#s 12 and 13)

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection, numbers 12 and 13, probably came from a time when I was really struggling to express how the two biblical concepts of grace and faithful response to that grace relate to each another. This relationship has posed problems for the church from its very earliest days, and I do not consider my feeble attempts at dissecting it to be the last word in the discussion. However, phrasing it the way I have has helped me understand the correlation of the two subjects. Hopefully it will help you . . . and if not maybe it will spur your thinking to create an understanding that is first of all biblical, and applicable as well.

12.  Grace always precedes covenant. This is illustrated by the covenants of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Likewise, covenant always follows grace.
13.  The practical work that flows from theology, then, must follow this pattern. We are drawn to God by his grace, but in order to thrive in a relationship with God we must be bound by God’s covenant.

The theological problem, and therefore the practical problem, that arises from this discussion relates to the elevation of either one of these two concepts above the other. For example, most evangelical theologians emphasize grace over faithful response. In fact, some will even go so far as to say that grace eliminates the need for faithful response. The thinking is thus: if God wills you to be saved, and if God’s will cannot be defeated, and if God’s grace is efficacious (and who would argue otherwise?), then you will be saved and nothing you do or do not do will change that verdict. This is Calvinism in the extreme, and is increasingly being promoted by a young and vociferous cadre of Calvinist theologians.

On the other end of the continuum are the radical Arminians, those who believe that Christians have to put a chair on top of a table, and then put a ladder on top of the chair, and then we have to climb to the top rung of the ladder, and then we have to stretch out our hand to God, and then, and only then, will he condescend to reach down and offer his grace. They do not deny grace, but grace is only extended when man has bathed himself in the sweat of climbing Jacob’s ladder.

I opine that both extremes are equally wrong, and pernicious. I believe that while grace is prior to a faithful response, it in no way precludes the necessity of a faithful response.

Without listing numerous passages (I have listed examples of grace preceding covenant, and covenant following grace above), I believe the consistent message of Scripture is that God always bestows his grace on mankind first, but that grace always contains an element of covenant, whether is it explicitly stated or not. The explicit covenants are numerous enough. God blesses first; but God always expects a faithful response.

Where “the rubber meets the road” for many people is the debate over the importance of baptism. I believe I can say with some measure of confidence that the prevailing attitude among evangelical writers and preachers is that individuals are saved when they “believe” or “accept Jesus in their hearts as their personal savior.” Some would ascribe the repetition of the “sinner’s prayer,” but even that is not a universal stipulation. Baptism, then, might be an appropriate response to one’s salvation, but is by no means necessary, and is believed by many to be a “mere” human work that does nothing other than signify the person’s willingness to become a member of a church.

Biblically speaking, nothing could be further from the truth! Baptism is NOT a human work. Baptism is always (and I repeat always) referred to as a passive act in the New Testament. Baptism is a submission to a command, that is true, but it is far more – it is a submission to a person, it is a submission to God’s act of grace demonstrated by Jesus’s death on the cross. We submit to baptism, we do not baptize (or save!) ourselves!

God’s grace is that Jesus died for our sins. God’s covenant with the believer begins with his or her submission to that death in the waters of baptism.

If you do not enter the covenant, how can you be covered by the grace?

We do not put a chair on the table, and a ladder on the chair, and reach up helplessly hoping God will somehow take notice of us. We are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8, if you are curious), but the same author stressed that the only way we can come into contact with that grace is by participation in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus through the waters of baptism (Romans 6:1-11, if you are curious).

Let us put aside Calvin and Arminius and focus on the Bible. So much rancor and division could be ended if we could all agree to ascend – by bowing lower.

Reinterpreting Scripture – An Interesting Parallel

 

While meditating on a totally unrelated subject recently, a fascinating line of thought occurred to me. There is an obvious (if one takes the time to think about it) process that is followed if and when Scripture needs to be “reinterpreted” or “reimagined” to fit a particular need. My example includes the process of introducing, and then accepting, the practice of infant baptism; and the current process of introducing, and therefore accepting, women into larger and more influential roles of leadership within the church. Notice how this plays out in innocuous, and seemingly innocent ways.

First, there is an existential crisis – a challenge to the “status quo” of accepted orthodoxy. In regard to infant baptism, it was the death of infants and children first considered too young to be candidates for baptism. What of their eternal destiny? If the door to eternal life hinged on baptism, and they died unbaptized, how could anyone be certain of their eternal rest with God? With the current question of women’s role in the church, the issue has been joined with the role that women have in secular society. Women serve with distinction in every level of life, from governmental to financial to education to public service. Why, then, deny them leadership roles in the church?

Second, the Scriptures are scoured to find and answer that permits a “reinterpretation” or a “re-imagining” of the previously held standard. Ergo, stories of entire “households” being converted and baptized are viewed as evidence that quite possibly, and even probably, children and infants were baptized because virtually every “household” includes children. Similarly, passages such as 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 and Galatians 3:27-28 are suddenly transformed not only to allow, but to mandate, a role of leadership for women in the church. These passages then become proof-texts (passages lifted from their context to prove a point that is tangential to their original meaning, at best), and passages that conflict with the “new” interpretation are dismissed if not entirely excised from the discussion.

Third, a new theology then develops from the first two steps. History is revised to emphasize aberrations from the norm, and the greater part of church history is repudiated with emotionally or theologically laden terms which amount to ad hominem attacks or straw-man arguments. This is not to argue that there were not groups in the first few centuries that baptized infants, nor that there were no groups that had women in influential roles. It is simply to argue that these fringe groups are re-cast as models of orthodoxy, and the larger practice of the church is re-cast as aberrant.

The final step is then not only logical, but inescapable. Those sympathetic to the “new orthodoxy” are described in the most glowing terms, and those who object to the “re-interpretation” or “re-imagining” are vilified. The only true Christians are those who accept infant baptism (because, who would want to send thousands of deceased infants and children to hell?) and those who accept women, or even demand that women serve, in leadership roles (woe to those barbaric, knuckle-dragging troglodytes who revel in their macho, male chauvinism!).

Christians of every age must live in tension with their cultural standards. Some of those standards may be closer to biblical teaching than others. Some may be virtually indistinguishable from biblical standards, while some may be at the opposite end of the spectrum from God’s intent. Ascending to faith through a descent through submission to God’s word demands that we examine each question and each crisis with our eyes (and intellects) wide open, and that we exercise a willingness to reject what the world dictates as something that must be accepted. Christians do not receive our worldview from the pages of the morning paper, but rather from both a broad and deep reading of the inspired Scriptures.

Be careful whose voice you listen to . . . Satan did not stop with his deceptions in the Garden of Eden. His most powerful question is still, “Did God really say . . . ?”