Acts of Baptism

This post originally appeared at Conciliar Post.

As anyone even somewhat familiar with Christianity knows, various Christian denominations have different, specific approaches to baptism—that all important rite involving water and the Holy Spirit.

Depending on its theological commitments, a church may expect the person being baptized to be an adult (or, at least old enough to make a conscious decision to be baptized), to be fully immersed in water (rather than sprinkled or poured upon), to be triple immersed (rather than once), to have undergone rigorous catechesis prior to baptism, to manifest miraculous spiritual gifts (before or after), or to fulfill any number of other practices. It really depends on the church. I once spoke to someone who seemed to believe that the only true way to be baptized was to be triple immersed while wearing a white gown in the cool running water of the river near their church.

In principle, Christians taking Jesus’ command to baptize seriously should be celebrated; in practice, however, our obsession with making sure that everyone is baptized our way—the right way—poses some problems.

Some Problems with Right Way Obsession

In the first place, there is the problem of rebaptism. Many people enter a new church having already been baptized. Or at least, under the impression that they were already baptized. That is, until someone convinces them their previous baptism was invalid and they should be baptized the right way. While there are probably some circumstances where a serious discussion about rebaptism may be permissible, making rebaptism commonplace seems to oppose the very unity that the Apostle Paul calls the Church to in Ephesians 4:1-6.

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. [Emphasis added]

Second, a focus on making sure that everyone has been baptized the right way potentially corrupts what baptism is. Romans 6:1-4 closely identifies the effects of baptism with the salvific work of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Orthodox Christians of all denominations confess that salvation comes through this work of Jesus and is granted to humanity by God’s grace. To then turn around and assume, as certain denominations do, that baptism must be undertaken in a highly specific manner undercuts that message of grace. It’s like saying, “Yes, Jesus graciously offers you life, but only if you do the right (baptismal) works to get there.”

Finally, a focus on making sure everyone has been baptized the right way tends to be utterly confusing for congregants. This is particularly true for those who are new to faith, on the fringes of belief, or in the process of changing churches. In some contexts, the emphasis on being baptized the right way can even lead people to question their relationship with God—or to doubt someone else’s relationship with God. Beyond the differences in how different denominations baptize, such confusion can lead people to question the value of baptism itself.

Right Way versus Big Tent

Although nothing apart from the Second Coming is likely to get Christians on the same page when it comes to baptismal practice, I think there is an approach to baptism that is scriptural and can help cut through some of the problems fostered by a right way approach to baptism. I call this perspective the big tent approach to Christian baptism.

The big tent approach to baptism recognizes the internal diversity of baptismal practices recorded within scripture and recognizes as valid differing contemporary baptismal practices when they conform to the diversity of these scriptural models. This approach fits best in a big tent approach to Christianity more generally; but it is also tenable in ecclesiastical contexts that work with the diversity of contemporary Christian instruction and practice.1 Indeed, many denominations already practice this kind of big tent thinking when it comes to baptism.

Acts of Baptism

The book of Acts serves as the best example of the big tent approach. Luke records about ten distinct narratives of baptism in Acts2 and, although there are clear theological parameters governing these baptisms, no two are precisely alike. Consider that:

  • Some baptisms occur “in the name of Jesus Christ” (8.5-13; 10.44-48; 19.1-5), others appear to be “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (8.36-38), and still others are silent on the matter of “in whom” people are baptized.
  • At least one baptism narrative is preceded by repentance of sin (2.37-41), another seems to make confession of faith central (8.36-38), another baptismal narrative is preceded by speaking tongues (10.44-48), and still others focus on the importance of belief (8.5-13; 16.13-15; 16.27-34).
  • Some water baptisms precede the baptism of the Holy Spirit (19.1-5), other times the Holy Spirit is poured out before water (9.17-19; 10.44-48), and many times water baptism is not explicitly connected to the baptism of the Spirit.
  • Finally, some passages record individual baptisms (8.36-38) while others use household language (10.44-48; 16.13-15; 16.27-34; 18.5-8) that, if nothing else, set the stage for infant baptism.

Clearly Acts records significant diversity of baptismal practice in the early church. Why then are contemporary Christians so committed to picking-and-choosing a handful of these examples (or other New Testament references to baptism) and interpreting them as the right way to baptize? A big tent approach better reflects the diversity of practice within the New Testament itself—as well as Christ’s prayer for unity among His followers.

Conclusion

The New Testament consistently portrays baptism as an essential3 part of what it means to follow Jesus—as a matter of obedience to the command of Jesus (Matt. 28.18-20), as a sign of entrance into God’s new covenantal family (Gal. 3.27; Col. 2.12; 1 Cor. 12.13), and as a seemingly salvific act of God’s grace (1 Pet. 3.21; see also Mark 16.16). What the New Testament does not portray as essential is the precise method of baptism; to the contrary, a variety of specific practices seem to be affirmed. Accordingly, Christians should baptize new believers in a manner consistent with New Testament models and recognize as valid baptisms by other Christians that fit these big tent parameters.

God’s work through baptism is a gracious gift, one we should continue to celebrate, practice, and reflect upon. In the spirit of Christian unity, however, we should adopt a big tent approach to recognizing the validity of baptism at the hands of others. For scripture itself suggests that we make our acts of baptism a little less about us and a little more about the God who is at work in His people.


Notes

1 For instance, the increasingly common practice by many denominations to recognize the seminary degrees, communion practices, or theological perspectives of other denominations.

2 Depending on how you subdivide narratives.

3 Here, of course, we must draw the distinction between essential and required. If we take Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross seriously, then we cannot expect that no one who has not been baptized belongs to the family of God. Still, exceptional theology should not undermine normative theology. Accordingly, it’s appropriate to confirm the long-standing practice that every person who is able who follows Jesus should be baptized.

How to Approach Difficult Bible Passages

As a teacher, I am regularly asked about Bible passages and the theology they convey. Sometimes the questions are straightforward; other times, not so much. Some time back, for example, as I was innocently trying to lead our community group through Romans 8:18-30, I was asked how to interpret verses 29-30 in light of that not-at-all-discussed-among-Christians topic of Predestination and Freewill. It happens.

The vast majority of the time, I am more than happy to dig into a text and explain what I think and why. Having been privileged to study under some brilliant Biblical scholars (and having read many more), I am all too eager to hold forth on the Scriptures, and I genuinely hope that my discussion helps those listening. However, in the past several years I have discovered a more fruitful approach to addressing these questions: walking through Bible passages with people and training them how to read and interpret wisely. Continue reading

On Baptism (Part I)

In this two-part article, I offer some reflections on baptism, beginning in this post with the Bible and history and wrapping up with some musings on covenant and sacrament in the next.

Baptism in the Acts of the Apostles

Last summer I led a Bible study on the Acts of the Apostles. While I had prior experience reading and studying Acts, nothing quite engages you with a biblical book like having to teach it to a group of people. One of the themes in Acts that we regularly encountered was the issue of baptism: how does Luke explain this Christ-instituted rite associated with the Way? Without delving too much into all the particulars of baptism in the early church, the varieties of baptism that Acts presents as valid stood out in our study. In contrast to many contemporary Christian doctrinal statements on how baptism ought to occur in a specific way at a particular time, Acts describes some basic parameters for baptism—the need for baptism in water in the name of God and the efficacious influence of the Holy Spirit (the so-called “baptism of water” and “baptism of the Spirit”)—and then seems to allow for what contemporary Christians think of as different forms of baptism. Continue reading

The Day That Jesus Died

When students are first introduced to the historical, as opposed to a devotional, study of the Bible, one of the first things they are forced to grapple with is that the biblical text, whether Old Testament or New Testament, is chock full of discrepancies, many of them irreconcilable…. In some cases seemingly trivial points of difference can actually have an enormous significance for the interpretation of a book or the reconstruction of the history of ancient Israel or the life of the historical Jesus.”—Bart D. Ehrman1

Bart D. Ehrman

As this statement from contemporary (and popular) New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman indicates, there those who study Christianity—its scriptures and history—who argue that the canonical gospels2 do not present a historically accurate account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Around Easter every year, scholars and journalists of this perspective often pen pieces on the ”Why the Resurrection Story is a Myth” or ”Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?” In more nuanced versions of these discussions, the credibility of early Christian accounts of Christ’s passion and resurrection is called into question, even on facts as seemingly mundane as the day on which Jesus was crucified.3 Such is the position of Ehrman, who argues that the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and Gospel of John portray Jesus as being killed on two different days, thus revealing their historical inaccuracy and untruthfulness.4 As is my Good Friday custom, in this post I examine this claim and explain why the canonical gospels indicate that Jesus died on the same day: Good Friday. Continue reading

Book Review: Urban Legends of the New Testament (Croteau)

Urban Legends of the New Testament (Croteau)In an age of easily-accessible information, misinformation abounds. In a world with more books, peer-reviewed articles, and professionals dedicated to understandings the intricacies of the past, present, and future of the universe, many people (perhaps even most people) are shockingly uninformed. While this paradox of unknowing plagues almost every field of human interaction and learning, it is especially acute within large portions of the Christian Church. To the detriment of their faith and witness, Christians of all types know strikingly little about the Bible and history of their Church. Not surprisingly, then, Christianity has developed its own set of urban legends, those stories which are commonly circulated as common knowledge despite their inaccuracy. To dispel some of these myths, David A. Croteau has penned Urban Legends of the New Testament: 40 Common Misconceptions (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2015), a clear and straightforward work which begins the process of clarifying and explaining away some of the most common misrepresentations of the New Testament. Continue reading

Did God Command Genocide? (Part II)

This post is part of an ongoing series examining whether or not God commanded Israel to commit genocide in the conquest of the Promised Land.

How Do We Read the Bible? : The Importance of Context

Context is EverythingMany Protestant Christians talk about reading the Bible “literally.” But I often don’t understand exactly what that means. Webster’s defines “literally” as “in a literal manner or sense; exactly.” When applied to the interpretation of a written text, this type of reading would seem to indicate that you take the text at its simple face value. But there are many portions of the Bible that even those advocating a “literal” reading of the Bible do not suggest should be interpreted woodenly. Consider, for example, the parables of Jesus. Is it possible that the Parable of the Sower or the Good Samaritan were actual events that Jesus was merely repeating for his followers? Possibly. But most people who have read or heard these stories have understood them as parables–stories that Jesus told to make a point and teach a truth–and not as historical narrative. But parables are not the only parts of scripture that should caution our desire to read the Bible “literally.” The Wisdom literature of the Old Testament (the central portion of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes) and the Psalms are two additional chunks of Christian scripture that most people are hesitant to interpret “literally.” Continue reading

Reflections on Eschatology

This post originally appeared as part of a Round Table discussion at Conciliar Post.

end-world-survival-guide-staying-alive-during-zombie-apocalypse.w654“How and when will the world end?” My answers to this query are short and (likely) less nuanced than others might like. The world (at least, the world as we know it) will end through the paradigm altering, cosmos bending, history fulfilling, and cataclysmic event of the Lord Jesus returning. His return will usher in renewed reality. Things that are not as they should be now will be made right. Christ’s words in Revelation 21:5 will be fulfilled: “Behold, I make all things new.” What this looks like in more detail, we are not told (more on that in a moment). As for when this will occur, “concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matthew 24:36). To speculate concerning when Christ will return is folly, an empty prophecy undermined by the words of I AM. There is no checklist of socio-political events that need to occur before Jesus is able to return. God is not waiting on humanity to force the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple or create a one-world order or anything else. At any moment “the Lord himself will descend with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God” (I Thessalonians 4:16). Continue reading

Textual Plurality and Biblical Interpretation

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Ephrem the Syrian and early Syrian Christianity.

BibleThis article reflects upon considerations of textual plurality and biblical interpretation as found in Lucas Van Rompay’s “The Christian Syriac Tradition of Interpretation”, James Kugel’s Traditions of the Bible, and the pseudepigraphal Jubilees. In each of these works there are concerns with how biblical texts were to be understood and how communities argued these texts should be properly interpreted, though this is relatively unsurprising in an era preceding any sort of formal scriptural canon. By my reading of these perspectives, there were at least two motivations in tension with each other during this period: inexact textual plurality and the desire for exact biblical interpretation. Continue reading

What Day Did Jesus Die?

This post also  appears this morning at Conciliar Post.

When students are first introduced to the historical, as opposed to a devotional, study of the Bible, one of the first things they are forced to grapple with is that the biblical text, whether Old Testament or New Testament, is chock full of discrepancies, many of them irreconcilable…. In some cases seemingly trivial points of difference can actually have an enormous significance for the interpretation of a book or the reconstruction of the history of ancient Israel or the life of the historical Jesus.”—Bart D. Ehrman1

16018664585_580b37bc3a_oAs this statement from contemporary (and popular) New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman indicates, there those who study Christianity—its scriptures and history—who argue that the canonical gospels2 do not present a historically accurate account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Around Easter every year, scholars and journalists of this perspective often pen pieces on the ”Why the Resurrection Story is a Myth” or ”Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?” In more nuanced versions of these discussions, the credibility of early Christian accounts of Christ’s passion and resurrection is called into question, even on facts as seemingly mundane as the day on which Jesus was crucified.3 Such is the position of Ehrman, who argues that the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and Gospel of John portray Jesus as being killed on two different days, thus revealing their historical inaccuracy and untruthfulness.4 In this post, I will examine this claim and explain why the canonical gospels indicate that Jesus died on the same day, what has been historically called Good Friday. Continue reading

Book Review: Forgotten Gospel (Bryan)

Forgotten GospelFor nearly two thousand years, the Gospel has stood at the center of the Christian faith. This is especially true for a certain segment of American Evangelical Christianity, which remains committed not only to the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ, but also to the careful definition of the meaning and implications of the term “gospel.” It is this conversation that Matthew Bryan engages in Forgotten Gospel: The Original Message of a Conquering King (Selmer, TN: Greatest Stories Ever Told, 2014). Continue reading