alastair.adversaria » The Sacraments

On the Mode of Baptism

Mosaic, Neoniano Baptistery, Ravenna

The proper mode of Baptism is an issue that is much debated in the Church. While I don’t believe that most of these debates have any bearing on the validity of the sacrament, this does not mean that the debates are unimportant. Unlike many, I am not sure that etymology can help us that much in answering this question. I am not at all convinced by the Baptist arguments that full submersion is necessarily in view wherever the term ‘baptism’ is used. The ‘baptisms’ of the OT (cf. Hebrews 9:10) were not usually by full submersion, but were generally by partial dipping, pouring, sprinkling and bathing, etc. Generally a ‘baptism’ is a washing, without clearly stipulating the precise mode. Just as I can completely bathe my body in water without submersing my whole body in water, so the full body washings of the OT seldom if ever entail the submersion of the whole body.

In his book, The Priesthood of the Plebs, Peter Leithart has argued that the priestly baptism of Exodus 40:12-15 provides background that the NT draws upon when speaking about Christian Baptism (e.g. Luke 3:21-23; Galatians 3:27; Hebrews 10:19-22). However, this Baptism was clearly not by submersion, being performed at the ‘door of the tabernacle of meeting’ (Exodus 40:12). There was no water to go down into there, but there was the water of the raised bronze laver which would presumably have been sprinkled or poured on them for their initiation rite and would have been used to wash their hands and feet with thereafter (Exodus 30:17-21; 40:30-32). This provides possible background for John 13:10 — God bathes us in Baptism, and after Baptism He only needs to wash our feet and hands.

I believe that, when the NT speaks about Baptism, it does generally have a full body washing in view (Hebrews 10:22), rather than just a few drops of water on the forehead. Thus far I stand with the Baptists. However, it is not immediately clear that this full body washing was necessarily one of full body submersion, nor do I believe that full body washing precludes sprinkling. I am convinced that when the Bible speaks about ’sprinkling’ it refers to a far more liberal administration of water than a couple of drops: Scriptural ’sprinkling’ is more like a raining down of water from above, wetting the whole body. Nebuchadnezzar was ‘wet (bapto LXX) with the dew of heaven’ and the baptizand should be wet with the water of Baptism in much the same way. Sprinkling is a very biblical mode of Baptism, but it really should be a very liberal sprinkling to maintain the biblical symbolism. Water is poured over the head of the baptizand in much the same way as the clouds pour out the blessing of rain. The heavens are opened and the whole body is drenched with the baptismal rains.

On a number of occasions in the NT (e.g. Acts 10:47; 16:33) it seems most likely that water was brought to the baptizand and poured over him, rather than the baptizand being brought to a body of water deep enough to submerge himself in. When the NT clearly speaks of a mode of washing in connection with Baptism, it is of the Spirit’s being ‘poured out’ onto the Church on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1:5; 2:17-18, 33; 10:44-45). In Titus 3:5-6 we see a connection between our washing of regeneration (i.e. Baptism) and the ‘pouring out’ of the Spirit.

If the point of a ‘baptism’ is merely the cleansing of the whole body with water then there are a number of different modes by which such a result could be achieved — pouring, liberal sprinkling, full submersion, the manual application of water to the body with a flannel, etc. Full submersion is probably not actually the most natural way in which to cleanse the whole body. When I wash my whole body, I usually do it by standing under a shower, which liberally sprinkles my whole body with water. On other occasions I might partially submerge myself in a bath and pour water over the upper half of my body and my head. When I do completely submerge my body in water it is not usually for the purpose of washing.

However, many Baptists (and some others) argue that the point of Baptism is not merely whole body washing, but whole body submersion. In support of their understanding they usually appeal to the meaning of the verb baptizo, which fails, to my mind, to prove their position. They also often fail to do justice to the symbolic connection between Baptism and the reception of the Spirit, and the fact that the gift of the Spirit is almost everywhere spoken of in terms of the modes of sprinkling or pouring (Isaiah 44:3; Ezekiel 36:25; 39:29; Joel 2:28-29; Zechariah 12:10; Acts 2:33; 10:44-45; Titus 3:5-6).

The appeal to the imagery of burial with Christ in Romans 6:3-6, upon which many Baptist arguments for the proper mode of Baptism rest is also problematic. Christ was laid in a tomb; He was not lowered into a grave. Besides, submerging the body in water does not look remotely like the act of laying a body on a slab in a tomb (or lowering a body into a tomb for that matter). If this imagery is fundamental to Baptism then it is surprising that water Baptism is the rite that Christ instituted, rather than some variety of symbolic burial rite. Some argue that full submersion is Baptism ‘in the likeness of [Christ's] death’ (Romans 6:5). The problem with all such arguments is that they draw attention to the visual mode of Baptism, where the focus of the text of Romans 6 is elsewhere: on the union with Christ in His death that Baptism effects. The point of verse 5 is that if we have been united to the form of — ‘conformed to’ — Christ’s death, we can also expect to be united to the the form of — ‘conformed to’ — His resurrection (cf. Philippians 3:10-11). The point throughout is not that Baptism looks like burial, but that it really effects a union with Christ in His death.

When thinking about the proper mode of Baptism I think that most approaches leave much to be desired. Little attention is given to the rich biblical theology that should inform our doctrine of Baptism. If we are to begin to understand the meaning of and appropriate practice of Baptism we really have to do better than founding our arguments upon some rather wooden treatments of etymology and some tenuous readings of certain biblical prooftexts. Lest my Baptist readers think that I am trying to get at them, I will say in their favour that they have made an attempt to think seriously about the appropriate mode of Baptism, which is exactly what we ought to do. Furthermore, many Baptist approaches have a lot more biblical weight to them (as we shall soon see). The same cannot be said of most paedobaptists, for whom arguments about the mode of Baptism have more to do with maintaining the status quo, rather than with taking seriously the importance of biblical symbolism. At least Baptists do not treat the symbolism of the rite with such casual indifference.

There are two dimensions to the water symbolism in Baptism, corresponding to the two symbolic bodies of water in Genesis 1: the waters below and the waters above, the chaotic waters of the abyss and the heavenly waters. The waters below can represent death (e.g. Psalm 18:4-5; 42:7; 69:1-2, 14-15; Isaiah 43:2; Jonah 2), the Gentile nations, etc. In Genesis 1 God brings up the land out from the sea and, in much the same way, God brings up his people out from the (Red) Sea (Isaiah 63:11; cf. Hebrews 13:20).

The world is framed and formed by bodies of water (2 Peter 3:5). When the world is destroyed it returns to its basic state of undivided chaotic waters (Genesis 7; 2 Peter 3:6; cf. Genesis 1:2). We see the same imagery being appealed to when the Gentile nations (the seas) completely flood the land of Israel.

New worlds are formed by the division of waters, by deliverance through waters, etc. Examples of such world-forming events include the initial division of the two bodies of water in Genesis 1:6-8 and the bringing of the dry land up from the sea in 1:9-10, the deliverance of Noah through the waters of the Great Flood (1 Peter 3:20-21), the deliverance of Moses through the waters of the Nile, the bringing of Israel through the Red Sea and the Jordan, and John the Baptist’s baptism in the Jordan. To be brought through or out of the waters is to be rescued through or from death.

It seems to me that it is the ‘coming out of’ or being ‘brought through’ the water that is the most significant aspect of our relationship to the waters below. Pharaoh and the evil men in the time of Noah all went under the water, but only the righteous were brought ‘through’ or ‘out of’ the water. Both the Ark and the Red Sea Crossing are types of NT Baptism (1 Corinthians 10:1-2; 1 Peter 3:20-21). The righteous pass through the waters (Psalm 66:6) without being ultimately overwhelmed.

This is the important dimension of the symbolism that Baptists and others retain with their practice of full submersion. In full submersion we undergo a watery trial, going down into the symbolic realm of death, a realm from which we are then brought out in ‘resurrection’, sharing in the ‘baptism’ that Christ underwent in His death (Luke 12:50). In bringing Gentiles out of the waters God is also creating something new, ‘calling those things which do not exist as though they did’, overcoming the formlessness and emptiness of the world by establishing a new kingdom.

However, full submersionists can easily miss the other dimension of the symbolism that the NT draws our attention to. The other dimension of the symbolism is that God brings us through the firmament and into his heavenly realm. The waters from above are the waters of blessing. As these waters rain down upon us — or we pass through them — we have access to God’s very presence (Hebrews 10:19-22). The baptismal rain of the Spirit is the dimension of the symbolism that many paedobaptist churches have maintained. Post-Pentecost, this dimension of the symbolism is very important.

So there are two movements: we come up out of the water and the Spirit comes down upon us. We see this in Christ’s Baptism: He comes out of the water and the Spirit descends on Him like a dove. The connection between this and the account of Genesis 8:1-12 is significant, especially considering the fact that the NT connects the ark and Baptism in 1 Peter 3:20-21. The dove of the Spirit descends upon that which has come out of the water. Perhaps the same thing is in view in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2 — there is a ‘bringing through’ or ‘bringing out of’ (Moses pre-capitulates the experience of Israel in Exodus 14 in Exodus 2:10) and then a coming ‘under’ the cloud (which represents the Spirit). Isaiah 63:11 also manifests this pattern to some extent.

The waters above are the waters of blessing. They are the waters of the cloud with the rainbow of God’s promise to bless and never to utterly destroy (Genesis 9:11-17). They are the waters of the cloud that lead the people of God to the Promised Land (Exodus 13:21-22; cf. Romans 8:14). They are the healing waters that rain down in blessing on the people of God (see Joel 2:23, which is connected with the promise of the Spirit in Joel 2:27-28, a passage alluded to in Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts 2). They are the waters of the cloud through which we ascend to sit with Christ at God’s right hand (Ephesians 2:6; cf. Acts 1:9). They are the waters of the Spirit that descend upon the Church on the Day of Pentecost.

Ideally, Baptism should retain both dimensions of this symbolism. Eastern Orthodox Baptism (which follows a pattern not too dissimilar to that of Exodus 40) does it by having chrismation as part of the baptismal rite, following triple immersion in the divine name (the rite is thus called ‘Baptism’ by synecdoche, much as the Eucharist can be referred to as the ‘breaking of bread’). The symbolism could also be retained in other ways, for instance by having full or partial submersion coupled with the pouring or sprinkling of water from above.

Whatever mode we adopt, the point is that Baptism brings us through the realm of condemnation and death and washes us with the healing rain of the Spirit. In the waters of Baptism an old creation dies. The old Pharaoh is drowned and our flesh, once ravaged by the leprosy of sin, is cleansed as we become like newborn children (cf. 2 Kings 5:14). The old world perishes and we become new creations, created out of the waters, standing in the waters below and receiving the waters from above. We are those who have been brought through the waters into the Promised Land, under the cloud of God’s guidance, promise and blessing. As Marilynne Robinson observed, ‘water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables and doing the wash.’ It is in the event of Baptism that this truth is seen most clearly.

On Delayed Baptism

This post was sabotaged…

Wine in Communion Redux

Almost three years ago now, I posted on the subject of the importance of using alcoholic wine in the celebration of the Eucharist. I argued that the use of grape juice was a serious departure from the scriptural teaching regarding the sacrament. Posts are generally forgotten about within a few days at most and are never read again. For some strange reason, however, there are times when old posts are revived and enjoy a second fifteen minutes of fame. Over the last few days a few people have asked me questions about my post on wine in communion. For this reason, I thought that it might be helpful to write a brief post responding to some of the questions that have been raised in response to my original post on the subject.

You take the use of particular elements far too seriously. What would you do, for example, in the case of a person with gluten intolerance?

There are occasions when it is perfectly appropriate to make exceptions. The problem comes when people use such valid exceptions to undermine or negate the rule. For example, the fact that some people might be physically incapable of kneeling does not excuse the rest of us from doing so.

What about people with allergies to wine or former alcoholics?

In the case of allergies to wine, it is worth pointing out that the allergy is generally to something other than the alcohol. In such instances I would suggest that it is probably best to serve an alcoholic, rather than a non-alcoholic, substitute. In the case of recovering alcoholics, much depends on the particular case. The vast majority of arguments against the use of wine in communion on account of alcoholism are utterly without foundation. Most former alcoholics can drink wine in communion without any problem. Even if a church chooses to provide a non-alcoholic substitute they should do so for that individual alone. Everyone else should be served alcoholic wine.

Those with scruples about the use of wine should not be catered for. If they won’t accept wine, then they will just have to go without. People with unscriptural scruples should not be encouraged in their errors. Unless there are strong individual reasons why a substitute is necessary, no choice should be offered. Those who unbiblical scruples should certainly not be permitted to hold the rest of the church hostage to their uninformed consciences. Besides, it really is not for the servant to decide what is served at his Master’s table.

The Scriptures are quite undogmatic about the type of bread that we use for the celebration of the Eucharist; doesn’t this suggest that we shouldn’t be that dogmatic about the use of wine?

The Scripture may be undogmatic about the type of bread that is used (although some would dispute that claim), but it makes clear that it must be bread. Likewise, we have considerable freedom in our choice of wine. We can celebrate according to the biblical pattern using red or white wine, sweet or dry wine, regular or fortified wine. It really is up to us. However, we are taught by Scripture to use wine, rather than anything else.

White wine?!

Why not? In a number of traditions, white wine has often been used for the celebration of the Eucharist. This is certainly not a novel or entirely unusual practice. The symbolism of the element does not rest primarily on the colour of the wine that is used. Many believe that the whole symbolism of the wine rests upon its being dark or reddish in colour, making it look like blood. On this basis they can justify replacing the wine with other dark or reddish liquids. I have attended churches where Ribena has been used in the celebration of the Supper. However, in Scripture the significance of the use of wine rests on details such as its being the fruit of the vine and being alcoholic.

Red wine is probably slightly to be preferred over white wine on account of its colour. However, this detail really is an adiaphoron. One benefit of using white wine would be that it would have the effect of shocking us out of unhelpful ways of viewing the sacrament. It is not there to be looked at, but to be drunk. The wine is not there to be a ‘picture’ of Christ’s blood; it is Christ’s blood.

Christ may have employed wine in His institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. However, He also almost certainly used unleavened bread. Why make an issue about wine and not about the use of unleavened bread?

First, the type of leaven used in the ancient world was different from our yeast. Unless we use sourdough, our bread is technically unleavened.

Second, the Eucharist is not merely the fulfilment of the Passover ceremony, nor, in the NT, is it merely based on the Last Supper. Oscar Cullmann has argued, for example, that the Eucharist was seen by many within the earliest Church as some sort of continuation of the post-resurrection meals and was not merely based on the Last Supper.

Third, the use of leavened or unleavened bread has been a matter of heated debate in the past in Church history, principally between the Eastern and Western Church in the eleventh century. The Eastern Church used leavened bread, while the Western Church tended to use unleavened.

Fourth, leaven is not neutral in symbolism. The Scripture speaks of purging out old leaven to celebrate the feast, drawing on the pattern of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Exodus 12:15-20; cf. 1 Corinthians 5:6-8). On account of this and the negative symbolic sense that leaven tends to have within the NT (Matthew 16:6, 11-12; Luke 12:1; Galatians 5:9), many have insisted that the Supper must be celebrated without it.

However, leaven is not purely a symbol of evil. At the Feast of Pentecost new leaven was used (Leviticus 23:17). Old leaven is cut off; new leaven is introduced. Jesus uses leaven as a positive image in one of His parables of the kingdom (Luke 13:20-21). Leaven symbolizes the hidden spread of the kingdom of God and its message. At Pentecost the new leaven of the Spirit was introduced. We are to cut off the old leaven of malice and wickedness and introduce the new leaven of the Spirit. The use of leavened bread highlights one dimension of biblical imagery, the use of unleavened another. There may be good reasons for using leavened bread on one occasion and using unleavened on another.

The use of leaven is an adiaphoron for good theological reasons. Such reasons are not present in the case of wine.

Your argument from scriptural symbolism notwithstanding, the Scriptures that God have given us nowhere explicitly teach that alcoholic wine must be used. In light of this, how can you say that the use of grape juice — which is clearly the ‘fruit of the vine’ — is against God’s instructions?

God has not just given us the Scriptures; He has also given us intelligence. God does not insult the intelligence that He has given to us by spelling out explicitly that which is clear to any careful reader.

As James Jordan has remarked, a good servant is attentive to the slightest gesture of his master. Only a bad servant needs to have explicit commands in order to do his master’s bidding. Only an evil servant seeks loopholes in the explicit commands of his master in order to avoid doing that which he knows deep down is his master’s will. If we truly are good servants we will immediately pick up on the fact that God wants alcoholic wine on his table and will act accordingly.

Should a common cup be used? Should individual cups be avoided?

I don’t think that the Scripture presents us with as clear an argument for the use of a common cup as many believe. I suggest that this is another adiaphoron. I am not even sure that there was a common cup at the Last Supper (Matt?). There were a series of cups of wine drunk as part of the Passover celebration and it is possible that, rather than passing one cup around, the ‘cup’ referred to the particular serving of wine that they were about to drink as part of the celebration. The ‘cup’ would perhaps function like the way that a toast does in our celebrations. Each individual would have an individual cup. Passing around individual cups and drinking at the same time might therefore be closer to the original celebration.

What do you think about the practice of intinction?

The biblical pattern for the Eucharistic rite is really quite simple. Intinction is a practice that breaks with this biblical pattern. Intinction is also more unhygienic than the use of the common cup, a practice that many express health concerns about. The fact that high church Christians often follow this practice means nothing. High church Christians frequently get liturgy wrong and are not the pattern that we should be following.

What size should portions be?

Again this is an adiaphoron. However, I think that portions should ideally be a lot more substantial than they are in most churches. We are eating a meal. A larger hunk, rather than a miniscule morsel of bread would be nice. Also a larger glass of wine would help us to recognize that the Eucharist is not primarily about ideas, but about joy and celebration in the kingdom of God.

In your post you claimed that wine is a drink that is dangerous and that it takes maturity to partake in such a celebratory meal. How does this impact the arguments for paedocommunion?

Wine is dangerous and must be handled with maturity. This is a significant dimension of the symbolism. The Table of the Lord is a place of wisdom and not the table of fools (Proverbs 9:1-6). Young children are trained in wisdom by being taught to treat wine appropriately at the table of wisdom. The supervision of older and wiser persons ensures that young children do not learn to drink as fools drink. The wisdom and maturity that the table speaks of is not an individualistic matter, but something that is true of the congregation as a whole.

I am currently in a church that only serves grape juice. I am deeply troubled by this practice. What should I do?

Important as these things are, we need to beware of causing unnecessary division over them. God is gracious and does not judge us as harshly as we tend to judge each other. I can understand why this would be a difficult and sensitive issue for a pastor of a church to work through or a member of a church to live with. Even if you want to reform the church’s practice, you don’t want the sort of reform that tarries for no one. Reform needs to be taken slowly, in order to avoid unnecessarily alienating people. Reform is important and, if we are obedient we should be working towards it. However, there is a sort of unloving and impatient reform that actually causes great damage, despite its noble intentions. God gives us time to grow out of old practices and does not force us to change completely overnight (witness the significant overlap of the old and new covenants, for instance).

There are occasions when a strong line needs to be taken. Those who want the church to capitulate to their unscriptural scruples should not be pandered to. Although we must be patient and gracious in reform, we must also be persistent. We may reach a point where some people must be resisted, even if this results in their leaving for another church.

The reform that I primarily have in mind here is a gradually phasing out of the use of grape juice. In a church that resists the use of wine altogether, the issue may need to be addressed more forcefully. It is one thing to resist the use of wine for yourself. It is quite another to resist its being served to others.

The biblical teaching on the use of wine in communion fills my heart with a joy that I feel a deep-seated need to express. Can you recommend a good way for me to go about doing this?

Certainly. This would be a good place to start.

Space, Time and Sacraments

Wright’s Calvin College lectures are now online.

A Critic of my Understanding of Liturgical Exegesis

Lee, from Two-Edged Sword, posts a critique of my understanding of liturgy and the ontology of Scripture, as articulated in the following posts — ‘How Gutenberg Took the Bible From Us’ and ‘James Jordan, N.T. Wright, and Double Resurrection’. Lee also refers to my ‘Eating and Drinking in John 6′ post and the following discussion as a good example of differences that arise from my approach to Scripture.

His post is representative of a few of the negative responses that I have had to my thoughts on the character of Scripture. I am not sure how exactly to go about responding to such a post as there are a number of serious misunderstandings of my position within it.

For the record, I firmly believe that every Christian who can read should have at least one Bible in their home, preferrably a number of different versions, ideally a number of texts in the original languages. I would also encourage Christians to spend time reading biblical commentaries and to learn how to use Bible helps. I am convinced that reading the Bible at least once daily is good practice for the Christian and that lack of interest in reading the Bible for oneself is more often than not a sign of weak spiritual health.

None of this contradicts my fundamental point, which was that the primary form of the Scriptures is not what we call ‘the Bible’. The chief way in which the people of God are to encounter the Scriptures is in their performance within the context of the Church and its liturgy. It is undoubtedly a privilege to be able to read the text of our Bibles, but we must not presume that God gave the Church the Scriptures as ‘the Bible’. The Scriptures that God gave His people were not principally designed to be read privately as a book. Private Bible reading is a valid engagement with Scripture, but it should never be the form of engagement with Scripture that takes priority in our lives. Engagement with Scripture in the context of the Church’s life, liturgy and lectionary must always come first.

The Scriptures are addressed to the people of God. Whilst the Scriptures address each of us personally, they do not address us as detached individuals, abstracted from the body of which we are members. The Scriptures were certainly given in written form, but they were not given in the form of the modern Bible. They were not bound together in one volume, nor were they given for private ownership. The Scriptures were not even given so that everyone could read them. The chief way that the people of God are called to engage with the Scriptures is by hearing the Scriptures read aloud and expounded, rather than by reading it for themselves. There is a difference. Reading for ourselves is good, but the emphasis must remain on the hearing of the Word, something that occurs in the context of the assembly of the Church.

Furthermore, we must recognize that there are many parts of the Scriptures that were given principally as what I have in the past referred to as ’stage directions’. The book of Leviticus, for example, is mostly concerned with stage directions. Whilst the book was to be read aloud and studied, it was more like a recipe book than a story. The meaning of Leviticus is not first and foremost to be found in the study of the text itself, but in the extra-textual rituals that it establishes.

I have used this fact to argue that relatively minor portions of Scripture, which may seem relatively insignificant to us, given the fact that so little words are devoted to them, may actually be far more significant than many lengthy passages. There are those who argue that our emphasis upon particular truths should correspond with the amount of attention that they are given within the Bible, ‘attention’ here referring to the number of words expended on the subject in the biblical text. I have come to regard such a position as deeply flawed.

A good example of the differences created by different ways of approaching the Scriptures can be seen in attitudes to the Eucharist, for example. If we engage with the Scriptures chiefly in the form of biblical text to be studied and read we will recognize that very few verses are devoted to the subject of the Eucharist. We might draw from this that the Eucharist is a relatively secondary truth of the Christian faith and that the great focus upon the subject is an unwelcome byproduct of certain false turns in the Church’s history. On the other hand, if we engage with the Scriptures primarily as a text to be embodied in the life, liturgy and lectionary of the Church, the Eucharist will be seen to be far more important.

The Eucharist is given to the Church to be done, rather than chiefly to be meditated on. It is a simple rite and few words are needed to institute its proper practice. However, given that the Eucharist is to form a regular and central role in the Church’s liturgy it has a greater significance for our Christian faith than truths to which dozens of chapters of Scripture are devoted. We interpret the Scriptures through the lenses given to us by the Eucharist. We see allusions to the Eucharist throughout the Scriptures. In so doing we are not exalting the Eucharist above its proper station, but are engaging with the Scriptures as more than mere text.

To what shall I compare the Scriptures? It is like some texts that a great king wrote and entrusted to his servants, in preparation for a great feast. Amongst the texts there were the scores for the musicians at the feast, the recipes for the cooks, the instructions for those preparing and decorating the banqueting hall and table, the poems to be read by the poets, the tales to be told by the storytellers, the speeches to be given by the speechmakers, and the invitations to be sent to the guests.

Once we have appreciated the complex and multifaceted character of the Scriptures we will read them quite differently. Neglected books like Leviticus will receive far more attention. The sacrificial rituals and annual feasts of Leviticus would have profoundly shaped the way that Israelites would have read the whole of the Scriptures. It would also have powerfully moulded the authors of Scripture and we should read their writings recognizing the degree to which the practices of Leviticus formed the fabric of their lives. The same can be said of those who do not read the NT as belonging to the context of the celebration of the Eucharist.

Lee argues that I am setting the stage for sacerdotalism, that I am teaching that there is no way to encounter Christ apart from the priest. In response to this claim I want to make clear that when I talk about engaging with the Scriptures primarily in the form of their performance within the Church and its liturgy I do not refer to the ‘Church’ as a mere institutional hierarchy, but as a community with a shared life and practice. There is no ordinary way to encounter Christ apart from His Church. It is through the operations of the body that the Head makes Himself known. However, the body is not just composed of members of a clerical hierarchy.

Outside of the context of the Church the Scriptures are not ordinarily a means of grace. Those who interpret the Scriptures apart from the Church often end up falling into gross error. Countless cults started life with people seeking to understand the Scriptures apart from the Church. We are only equipped to understand the Scriptures as we life within the context of the Church. To the Christian who faithfully participates in the life of the Church (which is nothing other than the life of the Holy Spirit) the Scriptures are a means of blessing. They read their Bibles as members of the Church, not as people abstracted from the Church.

As regards the Church’s ‘dispensing’ of salvation, the Church does nothing of the kind. The Church does not ‘dispense’ salvation; it is rather the form that God’s salvation takes. Tim Gallant puts this far better than I could:

And that is why it is the wrong question to ask whether “the Church saves.” That’s kind of like asking whether having lots of money brings wealth. No, the Church does not save. Jesus saves. And His salvation comes in the shape of the Church. Being the dwelling-place of God - that is salvation. Being built together as a community of love - that is salvation. Being a member of the Body of Christ - that is salvation.

The Church does not save. The Church is salvation, because the Church is God’s goal in Jesus Christ.

Lee goes on to argue that I am undermining Sola Scriptura. I strongly dispute this claim. My problem is not with the Scripture. Far from it! My concern is for the Scriptures to play a far fuller role in the Church’s life than they do in much contemporary evangelicalism. My problem is with the way in which the Scriptures have been reduced from what they once were into the privately-owned, mass-produced Bible of the modern Church. The simplistic opposition that Lee posits between Scripture and liturgy is a good example of this.

Lee writes:

I do have a few objections to Alastair’s view. The first is Acts 17:10-13. The Bereans appear to do just the opposite of what Alastair advocates. They go to the service, listen attentively and then read the service through the light of the Scripture, not the Scripture through the light of the liturgy/service. And the Spirit calls them ‘more noble’ for doing so. II Timothy 2:15 seems to counter his understanding as well. ‘Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.’ This sound much more like the grammatical parsing and rational thinking through the Word that Alastair seems to eschew rather than the ‘inhabiting’ the word through the liturgy advocated in the posts.

Both of these points miss the point. I really don’t see why I should have a problem with either of these passages. Some brief remarks on the Bereans might help here. Paul calls forth the OT as witness to the truth of his gospel (cf. Acts 17:2-3). The Bereans are fair and carefully examine this witness, unlike those from Thessalonica, who presumably just dismissed the testimony that Paul brought forward. All the evidence points towards this examination of the Scriptures taking a very different shape from what most ‘Bereans’ do today. The examination was a public examination of the OT Scriptures in the context of the synagogue, not a private reading of the Bible outside of the context of the people of God. Those who were leading the examination of the OT Scriptures were most likely synagogue leaders (although there were likely a number of others present). This was not a private Bible study. Most people who use this passage to justify their practice today misuse it.

The Berean’s study of the Scripture took place in the broader context of the liturgy and the sacrifices and worship practices of Israel. These were lenses that they would bring to their reading of the text. Whether these discussions took place within the immediate context of the synagogue’s liturgy is besides the point. Lee seems to read the passage to suggest that Paul was leading a synagogue service and that the Bereans then went to examine the liturgy of the service from the Scriptures. There is nothing wrong with examining liturgy from the Scriptures — the text illuminates the liturgy and the liturgy illuminates the text — but it strikes me as a strange reading of the passage in question. There is no reason to believe that Paul was presenting the Bereans with some new liturgy. He brought a new teaching, which the Bereans fairly and publicly cross-examined.

What about II Timothy 2:15? Once again I don’t see what the issue is here. Paul is teaching that a minister of the gospel should be concerned to gain all the skills necessary for him to perform his task of ensuring that the Church acts according to the authority of God, exercised in the Scriptures, effectively. It is important to recognize that Timothy is not primarily being addressed as a private person here. Rather he is being addressed as one who must lead a church in its engagement with the Scriptures. He is the one who has the greatest responsbility in this area. He must guide the flock as a faithful shepherd. He must ensure that quarrels about words do not take over (v.14) and that the dangerous teachings of men like Hymenaeus and Philetus do not spread (vv.16-17).

Lee claims that ‘rightly dividing the word of truth’ sounds ‘much more like the grammatical parsing and rational thinking through the Word that Alastair seems to eschew rather than the ‘inhabiting’ the word through the liturgy advocated in the posts.’ Once again, let me clear up misunderstanding. There is no problem with grammatical historical exegesis and other similar approaches to Scripture in principle. I am convinced that they have an important role to play and that pastors in particular should be skilled in such areas. However, my point is that grammatical historical exegesis is not the primary way in which we are to engage with the Scripture. Grammatical historical exegesis is a gift that serves far greater forms of engagement with the Scripture that occur within the life of the Church. I have no problem with grammatical historical exegesis; my problem is with merely grammatical historical exegesis — exegetical approaches that bypass typological, liturgical and creative forms of Scripture reading.

What about ‘rightly dividing the word of truth’? Is this really a reference to grammatical parsing? I think that N.T. Wright’s reading in his For Everyone commentary is an example of a more likely reading (and one that he is certainly not alone in arguing for), although I believe that he is stretching it if he believes that Paul had the illustration that he uses in mind:

In particular, he wants preachers and teachers to ‘carve out a straight path for the word of truth’. Some translations say things like ‘rightly dividing the word’, and it’s possible Paul means something like that (in other words, ‘being able to show how the sentences work, what each part means, and how they all relate to each other’). But it’s more likely that the picture he has in mind is of a pioneer hacking out a path through the jungle so that people can walk safely through. Part of the job of the teacher is to do what Paul himself is doing in this passage: to see where there are brambles, creepers and dead trees blocking the path where the word should be following to people’s hearts and minds, and to shift them out of the way.

Lee’s next point, that the Scriptures were originally written down and were only incorporated into liturgies later, is still besides the point. It could be pointed out that most of the stories narrated in the NT Scriptures (on which Lee seems to be focusing his point) would probably already have been shared within churches before the gospel accounts were written. The story of Christ already affected the life and liturgy of the Church before the inspired gospel accounts were written. The gospel accounts incorporate elements that had already been incorporated in the life and liturgy of the Church and most likely drew upon the existing liturgy of the Church as a source to some degree (e.g. the words of institution of the Eucharist, the Lord’s Prayer). The NT texts would also be read out of the context provided by the Church’s celebration of the Eucharist and practice of Christian Baptism.

I do not believe that we need to argue that the NT documents were written as liturgical documents. The fact is that, if they are Scripture, they are liturgical documents. The text is not an entity that has an autonomous existence. For Scripture to be Scripture is for it to have a particular relationship to the Church as an interpretative community, to be part of the Church’s liturgy, life and lectionary.

Lee goes on to write: ‘Let us not forget that we see the Bible existing as we have it now quite early on. Athanasius in the 4th century gives a list of the books that stand in our bible, meaning that churches and people were collecting the inspired books into one canon by that time.’ Once again, he seems to be seriously missing my point. Gathering a list of scriptures that belong to the Church’s canon is very different to having what we call a ‘Bible’ (Lee seems to have missed much of the point of my Gutenberg post).

Lee seems to have a very limited understanding of what I mean by ‘liturgy’. By ‘liturgy’ I refer to the form of public worship. This ‘form’ need not be written down, nor need it be fixed. ‘Liturgy’ includes such things as the readings in worship, the Church calendar, the prayers and the celebration of the sacraments. I am arguing that the liturgy, defined in such a manner, and contextualized by the broader life and fellowship of the Church, is the primary context in which the Scriptures were given to be encountered.

In the course of making some of his final criticisms, Lee makes this point:

The idea that the Lord’s Supper was anything more than a symbolic spiritual representation was rejected by the church at least through 9th century. Yet, it changed and the bread became the body and John 6 was used a proof text. Christians before the 10th century would have understood John 6 in a completely different way than those after.

There are a number of places in the Church Fathers where John 6 is read as a reference to the Eucharist. Furthermore, the idea that they didn’t see the Eucharist as ‘anything more than a symbolic spiritual representation’ is simply without foundation. I would love to see Lee try to prove this case. It seems to me that his confusion may arise from the fact that the Church Fathers did not oppose symbol to reality as moderns do.

Rambling comments on Dunn and Esler on Baptism in Romans 6

Over the weekend I read a number of commentators on Romans 6, a couple of which were set reading for a seminar that I attended this morning. The two commentators that were on our set reading were Philip Esler and James Dunn, both of whom I have significant disagreements with. My chief disagreements have to do with the way in which they approach the question of Baptism.

Dunn asks what the phrase ‘baptized into Christ’ would have meant for Paul’s readers. He goes on to interact with two chief possibilities. The first possibility

…is that they would have recalled their own baptism, understanding it as an act that united them with Christ. This would be all the more likely if they were familiar with the initiation rites of the mystery cults, which, so it used to be firmly maintained, were thought to achieve a mystical identification with the cult god through some re-enactment of his or her fate.

Dunn proceeds to dismiss this possibility, arguing that washings were generally preparatory to the initiation rites in the mystery cults, rather than the initiation itself. He also believes that the idea of ‘mystical identification between the initiate and the cult god’ was probably not as widespread as many presume. He writes:—

The one claim of such cults which would have been widely known was the bare evangelistic assertion that without being initiated into their mysteries there could be no hope of life or light in the future world. But it must remain doubtful whether Paul would have wished his converts to understand Christian initiation as providing that sort of guarantee, not least because he has already polemicized against just such a misunderstanding in the case of the rite of initiation into Judaism (2:25-29; cf. 1 Cor 10:1-13).

Having rejected this possibility, Dunn goes on to argue for what he terms the ‘other chief possibility’, that Paul ‘is here taking up a metaphorical usage already familiar in Christian tradition.’ Dunn traces the use of this metaphor from John the Baptist, who used it to speak of the one who would baptize in the Spirit and fire, to Jesus, who adapted it to refer to His own death. Later on the same metaphor is used of Pentecost and other ‘initiatory experiences of the Spirit’, for instance Paul’s use of the language of baptism in 1 Corinthians 12:13. Paul, then, uses the language of baptism as a metaphor to speak of the original experience of conversion: ‘As Paul clearly implies elsewhere, the initiating experience of the Spirit was usually very vivid, an event often deeply moving and profoundly transforming, which the young Christians would have no difficulty in recalling.’

The other interesting aspect of Dunn’s account of Romans 6 is the manner in which he tends to accent our identifying ourselves with Christ rather than our being identified with Christ in a manner that does not necessarily presuppose any action on our part. As the identification that he focuses on is a self-identification, it is as incomplete as faith itself. As we grow in faith our identification with Christ will increase.

Philip Esler’s commentary (Conflict and Identity in Romans: The Social Setting of Paul’s Letter) studies the origin and the practice of Baptism in the early ‘Christ-movement’ and explores the question of Baptism and social identity, before he treats the particular position of the apostle Paul. He explores the significance of Baptism in the light of ‘rituals of initiation’ in general.

Esler argues that ‘in the first generation or so of the Christ-movement baptism was also the occasion on which the believer received the Holy Spirit.’ He sees baptism by the Spirit and water baptism as distinct, but closely related, events as part of a ‘“conversion-initiation” complex’. Water baptism is ‘the expression of faith to which God gives the Spirit.’ He argued that the reception of the Spirit following Baptism was manifested in a ‘variety of ecstatic states … and phenomena, including trances, visions, auditions, prophecy, and glossolalia, that often produced feelings of peace and even euphoria.’ Esler compares this with contemporary experiences of ‘charismatic phenomena’. Against those who are sceptical of claims that baptism was accompanied with ‘possession by the Spirit’ he argues that ‘the emotionally charged atmosphere of baptism, with fellow Christ-followers present to assist the newly baptized members achieve spiritual possession, in the manner known from Goodman’s investigation in modern charismatic congregations, would have meant that most did receive the Spirit.’

Within Esler’s account there is far more of an emphasis placed upon the significance of Baptism in and for the community. Faith is not a merely private thing. Access to God is received via entry into the community. Esler adduces Hippolytus’ account of the community of the early Church in Rome gathering for the baptisms of each new member as proof of this. Esler also accents the experience of Baptism and its presumed psychological effect on the baptizand. Paul saw Baptism as the time in which the Spirit of God was received: ‘Thus baptism was an overwhelming encounter with God and Christ, an encounter charged with visionary experiences of light and manifested in an eruption of glossolalia and other ecstatic phenomena.’

I find the approaches taken by Esler and Dunn unsatisfactory for a number of reasons. One of the things that frustrates me about many NT commentators is that often they seem to be more prepared to discover a background for NT practices in the surrounding pagan culture of the first century or (caricaturing slightly) in the observations of some anthropologist concerning the initiation rituals of some obscure Polynesian tribe than they are to give serious weight to the idea that NT rites may have developed out of OT rites and have been understood in terms of existing Scriptural categories.

The idea of Baptism into Christ, at first glance, does seem to be a bit foreign to the thought world of the OT and to have more in common with the world of the mystery religions. However, I believe that there are a number of different ways in which such a concept might not be so alien to the conceptual categories of the OT as we are first inclined to believe.

N.T. Wright and others have spoken at length of the incorporative meaning of the title ‘Christ’, arguing that such a meaning is endemic to the understanding of kingship in ancient Israel. The term ‘Christ’ does not refer just to Jesus as an individual, but to the people of the Messiah as a whole (e.g. 1 Corinthians 12:12; Galatians 3:16). Wright deals specifically with Romans 6 in the third chapter of The Climax of the Covenant, claiming that “Romans 6.3 clearly refers to entry, through baptism, into the people of God; here Χριστός is basically shorthand for ‘the people of the Messiah’.” The background for union with Christ through Baptism is not the mystical identification with cultic gods brought about by the initiation rituals of the mystery religions, but the idea of entry into the concrete historical community of the Messiah. It should also be observed that ‘Baptism into Christ’ may just be another way of speaking of Baptism in Christ’s name.

It might also be worth asking to what extent Paul saw a parallel between the baptism into Moses that he speaks of in 1 Corinthians 10 and Baptism into Christ. What OT data would he draw upon in arguing that the Red Sea crossing was baptismal and created a union between Moses and the children of Israel, for example? The following are a few tentative thoughts and suggestions. First, the idea that the Red Sea crossing would have been perceived as ‘baptismal’, even within an OT context, could be argued from certain parallels that the baptismal priestly ordination rite of Exodus 40 has with the narrative of the crossing (many of these parallels can be seen in the later crossing of the Jordan as well). The Red Sea would then be seen as part of God’s setting apart of Israel as a nation of priests (Exodus 19:6). There might be a suggestion of priestly ordination within the Song of Moses, with the reference to bringing the children of Israel into God’s Sanctuary (Exodus 15:17).

Some might argue that these parallels might be reinforced with the correspondence between the instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle’s laver of cleansing and the third day of creation (which James Jordan once argued for; I would be surprised if he still does), as a connection between the third day of creation and being brought up out of the Red Sea is hinted at in Isaiah 63:11. However, I would question this interpretation, as the Tabernacle’s laver of cleansing and the Bronze Sea in the Temple seem to represent the firmament waters above, rather than the waters of the deep below, which is why the waters are raised off from the ground.

In Isaiah 63:11 there is almost certainly an allusion to the third day of creation and it is interesting to observe that the verse does not speak of being brought through the Sea, but of being brought up out of the sea (the language of 1 Corinthians 10 draws our attention to slightly different aspects of the symbolism). The Red Sea crossing was about being brought out of the Gentile, pre-formation (in Genesis 1), sea and formed into a new land.

Christian Baptism involves a twofold movement — being taken up out of the waters below and passing through the second day firmament waters above. John the Baptist’s baptism was always insufficient, as it could only accomplish the first part of this movement. It is Christ who brings the second stage of Baptism into action, baptizing us with the Holy Spirit — the living water from above — so that we have access to the heavenly sanctuary (Hebrews 10:19-22). Incidentally, this is why affusion with living water from above captures the biblical symbolism of Christian Baptism in a way that complete submersion doesn’t. Christian Baptism both brings us up from the death sea of Sin and sanctifies us with heavenly water for priestly access to the heavenly temple.

Second, we could question exactly what sort of relationship the Red Sea crossing was perceived to have created between Moses and Israel, that Paul could speak of baptism into Moses. In Isaiah 63:11, the reference to Israel being brought up out of the sea is interesting when we consider the meaning of Moses’ own name. Moses’ name was given to him because he was ‘drawn out of the water’ (Exodus 2:10). Moses was delivered from Pharaoh through water. He was delivered from slavery before any of the other Israelites were, being taken up out of the reeds (as the Israelites would later be taken up out of the Sea of Reeds) in an account that alludes to the earlier flood narrative of Genesis. Moses recapitulates Noah’s rescue through the flood and precapitulates the later Exodus.

Moses experienced a sort of ‘precapitulation’ of the salvation that God would accomplish through him. He was the one who went ahead of the people of God and sums them up in himself. We see the same of Christ. Many of the events in Christ’s life are both recapitulations of Israel’s earlier history and precapitulations of the ‘New Exodus’ that He would accomplish and His people would share in.

The Red Sea crossing also establishes a union between Moses and the Israelites on a number of other levels. Prior to the Red Sea crossing the Israelites are still slaves and their masters are pursuing them. In the Red Sea their masters are destroyed and they are set free. Having been set free from slavery to Pharaoh they can come under the headship of Moses in a way that they couldn’t before. The shepherd Moses becomes the shepherd of Israel (Isaiah 63:11). He was not brought up out of the Red Sea as one individual among many, but in a way distinct from others, as the shepherd of the sheep (Messianic language and similar to Christ, notice the allusion to Isaiah 63:11 in Hebrews 13:20, for instance).

The bond between Moses and Israel is also powerfully affected by the crossing as it leads the Israelites to believe in Moses (Exodus 14:31). God performs the miraculous crossing through the agency of Moses. The strength of the bond between Moses and the Israelites formed by his bringing them up out of Egypt can be seen when YHWH, in speaking to Moses, refers to the Israelites as ‘thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt’ (Exodus 32:7). The crossing formed Israel into a new solidarity, freed from the former solidarity of slavery, under the rule of Moses.

Taking all of this OT background into account, I don’t believe that a parallel between Baptism into Christ and baptism into Moses is as far-fetched as some might suggest. ‘In Christ’ we do enjoy a mystical union with Christ, but the significance of this union can generally be articulated in robustly biblical categories, even though it far transcends the things that those categories were originally employed to refer to. Being in Christ is very different from being ‘in David’ or ‘in Moses’, but the concept of being in Christ is best understood as a surprising development and transformation of these OT concepts, rather than as a pagan accretion to the theology of the apostle Paul. There is absolutely no need to appeal to ideas within the world of paganism in order to make sense of such concepts.

Whilst Dunn rejects the idea of understanding Baptism into Christ in terms of the mystery cults, the fact that he does not seem to give much attention to the possibility of the concept of union with Christ through (water) Baptism arising within a strongly Jewish milieu, without borrowing from Hellenistic cults, is telling. It is as such points that I feel the difference between my approach to the NT and that of many NT scholars most keenly. I approach the NT with the presupposition that NT practices can be understood in terms of OT practices and symbolism and that there is no need to appeal to a pagan background. Such an approach is very different from that taken by many NT scholars, who seem to presume that the OT is of limited use in explaining the NT.

Dunn’s ‘other chief possibility’, which he argues in favour of, is one that I find quite unconvincing. The evidence for the idea that the ‘baptism’ referred to in Romans 6 is merely a metaphor for conversion seems to be tenuous, to say the least. The problem, once again, seems to be a failure to do justice to the continuities between the OT and the NT.

Dunn reads Paul to contrast an OT religion of outward, physical rites with a NT religion of faith. This contrast is a common one in Protestant circles and is based on a serious misreading of the NT (and often also the OT, for that matter). This misreading leads to a great problem reconciling faith with the sacraments. For many the sacraments become reduced to mere ordinances to be performed as functions of faith, rather than gifts of divine grace and presence. Many of Peter Leithart’s criticisms of Dunn’s reading of the references to Baptism in Galatians 3:27 as metaphorical apply equally well here (Leithart’s entire ‘Baptism is Baptism’ series is well worth reading — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6).

Whilst we would be wrong to deny that the language of Baptism occasionally carries a more metaphorical sense in the NT, this metaphor is not as free-floating as Dunn seems to make it. In fact, I wonder whether ‘metaphor’ is a very helpful term for us to be using at all. Christ does not merely use baptism as a convenient metaphor for His death. Christ’s death isn’t just comparable to a baptism; it is a baptism.

It all comes down to how we define Baptism. If we read the Scriptures typologically, Baptism is primarily to be defined in terms of the wealth of OT typology that speaks of transitions made through water, for example. Jesus’ reference to His death as His baptism is firmly grounded in OT typology. Reading in terms of typology, we do not have literal baptisms on the one hand and metaphorical baptisms on the other. Rather, we have a number of different types of baptisms, some of which are water rituals and others which involve a broader application of the typology apart from a water ritual. These baptisms are bound together by their shared typology.

In terms of the scriptural typology of Baptism it makes a lot of sense for Romans 6 to be referring to water baptism. The idea of a change in one’s relationship with God being brought about by means of a movement through water has a wealth of biblical support for it. We only face problems when we start to work with a definition of Baptism that cuts it loose from scriptural typology and a theology that denigrates physical rites and polarizes symbol and reality. Once we start to think of Baptism in terms of ‘literal’ and ‘metaphorical’ we will begin to think of Spirit and water Baptism as two quite different sorts of things, which are as separate as oil and water.

If we think in terms of typology, the two can be seen to be closely interrelated. Spirit Baptism has primary reference to Pentecost and the individual Christian receives the Spirit through water Baptism into the new community formed by the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). The contrast between Spirit and water Baptism is not the contrast between spiritual ‘reality’ and physical ‘picture’. Nor is the contrast a contrast between an efficacious Baptism by the Spirit and a water baptism that was powerless to change anything. John the Baptist’s point in contrasting his baptism with the Baptism of the Holy Spirit performed by Christ is that his baptism was not able to give the new covenant life of the Holy Spirit. However, John’s baptism was not without efficacy; it promised nothing less than divine forgiveness.

The contrast that we see between water and Spirit Baptism in places in the NT is the contrast created by two different redemptive historical eras, a contrast that is gradually removed as the post-Pentecost era is established. After Pentecost, apart from a few exceptional cases (recorded precisely as exceptional cases), Baptism with the Holy Spirit and water Baptism were one and the same event. As I pointed out earlier, the contrast between Holy Spirit and water Baptism might also be the contrast between Baptism as being taken out of the waters below and Baptism as being brought out of the waters below and passing through the waters above. The Baptism of the Spirit is a Baptism that is poured out from above. Now that the Church is the New Temple in Christ, the One who has passed through the heavens, Baptism does not merely take us out of the sea of exile, but brings us into the heavenly Temple itself.

Some will argue that determining the meaning of NT rites by their relationship to OT rites produces an excessive continuity between the two testaments. I dispute this claim. I believe that such an approach will be far more likely to give us deep insight into the meaning of Christian Baptism than the sociological and anthropological approaches adopted by many NT scholars. The great weakness of such approaches is that, whilst they can say things about the role of initiation rites in general or in the ancient Hellenistic context, they seldom tell us much about the meaning of Christian Baptism in particular. What is it about Christian Baptism that gives it its peculiar significance and makes it more than just a generic water initiation rite?

What is the primary context within which we will best understand Christian Baptism? Studies of generic initiation rites may produce some parallels with the practice of Christian Baptism, but the relationship that Christian Baptism bears with a ritual washing performed by some tribe in the Amazonian rainforest is far too weak to draw much significance from any differences that might exist between the rites. Such studies can alert us to the continuities between various initiation rituals and to the generic significance that initiation rites have, but they really cannot achieve much beyond this. They can highlight the significance of some details, but in general they tend to level out initiation rituals too much.

However, when we study Christian Baptism in its proper context of biblical typology and the many forms of pre-Pentecost baptisms the continuities between Christian Baptism and earlier baptisms will actually be of less significance than the differences. The differences between Christian Baptism and some ritual washing performed by a tribe in the Amazonian rainforest may be great, but they cannot teach us much as they belong to radical different social and cultural contexts. When we study Christian Baptism within its proper social and cultural context, against the background of pre-Pentecost baptisms, differences are suddenly of great significance as they occur within the same symbolic and linguistic economy.

Peter Leithart has argued that NT rites should be understood as ‘conjugations’ of OT rites. NT and OT rites ultimately have the same ‘verbal root’ — Christ — and share the same fundamental typological structure. However, NT rites differ from OT rites as a new conjugation of the shared typological root. The significance of NT rites is thus chiefly to be found in the differences between them and OT rites. Consequently, the claim that understanding NT rites against the background of OT rites levels things out too much is quite unjustified.

Esler’s account of Christian Baptism is quite spectacular. It also seems quite speculative and alien to many of the Scriptural accounts of Baptism. Christian Baptism is certainly an amazing event. As Jeff Meyers’ has observed, if we saw what really happens in Baptism we would be dazzled. We would witness opened heavens, theophanies and all sorts of other wonders. However, to our eyes Scriptural Baptism is simple and unadorned and does not have the spectacle of many of the later forms that it assumed within the Church, forms which seem seriously to distort Esler’s reading of the NT text itself.

I do not believe that the idea that Christian Baptism is normally accompanied by ecstatic experiences and demonstrations of charismatic phenomena has much scriptural foundation. There are some accounts of such baptisms, but they occur within a context that should guard us against the idea that they represent the norm for all Christian Baptisms. Whilst I am not a strict cessationist I believe that there are good biblical reasons to question whether Paul expected each Baptism to be followed by speaking in tongues, visions and similar charismatic phenomena for it to be regarded as a genuine reception of the Spirit.

The initial reception of the Spirit at Pentecost and the events that are closely related to it in the book of Acts involve spectacular manifestations of the Spirit’s presence. Whilst I believe that we would be unjustified to altogether rule out such manifestations in the contemporary contexts in which we find ourselves, we should also recognize that, Scripturally, such manifestations are generally associated with the initial foundation of a covenant order and disappear after a few decades, or only occur once at the very beginning.

The gifts of the Spirit are for the establishment of the Church. There are some gifts that exist like scaffolding for the initial forming of the Church. There are other gifts that exist for the furnishing of Church and daily service of the Church. The ‘scaffolding gifts’ are generally more spectacular, but are not needed after a while. The more quotidian gifts then become more prominent. We should not be surprised to see miracles, healings, prophetic insight and the like later on in a particular covenant era, but they will be considerably rarer. The gradual diminishing of such gifts as prophecy, tongues and healing in the history of the early Church should not shock us. It is not an indication of apostasy. It is just a sign that the establishment of the Church has pretty much taken place. Faith, hope and love have to do with the structural integrity of the Church; they will persist as the scaffolding of other gifts is removed.

Let me give an example. In Exodus 31:1ff. we see that YHWH fills Bezalel with the Holy Spirit for constructing the Tabernacle. Bezalel has the Spirit-given gift of embroidery, for example, which is of great importance for the construction of the Tabernacle. Such a Spiritual gift, however, is not a normal Spiritual gift, but is given in a particular historical circumstance and for a particular limited purpose.

The event of Pentecost was not just one spectacular event among many in the early Church’s life. It was the start of a new covenant order. The spectacular signs that accompanied it would not be expected to be part of the regular life of the Church from that point onwards (although they certainly were for a number of years during the period of the Church’s establishment). The early Church knew their Scriptures too well to suppose that the character of its life immediately following Pentecost would persist into the long term future.

Even when we look at the examples of Christian Baptism within the book of Acts and elsewhere, it is hard to see how many of them fit Esler’s description. Whilst performing Christian Baptism in the context of a gathered meeting of the Church might be the ideal way to do things, there are many examples of Baptism in Scripture that were performed quite differently. Christian Baptism does not seem to necessitate the presence of the gathered Christian community. Early Christian Baptism as recorded in the NT also seems to occur apart from lengthy catechetical preparation and does not seem to involve candidates stripping naked and other such practices that Esler refers to.

Both Esler and Dunn focus on the ‘Baptism’ of Romans 6 primarily in terms of a memorable experience. Esler in particular gives great attention to the psychological effect of Baptism. The significance of Baptism is largely known through the strength of the experiences that surround it. Esler hypes up early Christian Baptism in a way that grants a lot of significance to details of the rite that are never mentioned in Scripture and far less significance to the details that the Scripture does give us.

Within Dunn’s account the identification with Christ formed by the ‘Baptism’ of Romans 6 is far weaker than it seems to be in Paul’s mind. For Dunn the identification is primarily a self-identification and has less of the strength of an objective fact. Esler’s concentration on the baptizand’s subjective sense of Baptism also obscures the idea of Baptism as a rite that is primarily there to do something to us, rather than as a rite designed to give rise to a subjective experience.

It seems to me that Paul appeals to Baptism, not as a subjective experience of conversion, nor even as a physical rite that brings about a new state of affairs through a powerful experience, but as a rite that genuinely did something to us, whether or not it was accompanied by an experience. Paul’s point is that Baptism made us new people. Whilst Baptism might well be a powerful experience for us, it is not the experience that makes us new people. Baptism is like adoption in this respect. Adoption makes me a new person and brings me into new relationships, whatever I feel about it. Adoption may be a profound and powerful experience of deliverance and love or the adopted child might not remember the time of their adoption. Either way the significance of adoption remains. This is the way that Paul appeals to Baptism, I believe. Baptism changed me, whether I felt it or not or appreciated it or not. I now have to reckon that change to be true and live in terms of it.

Children, the Word and the Church

Uriesou Brito links to a brief article from Alexander Schmemann on his new blog. The following is a brief quote from Schmemann’s article:—

As a general rule, children like attending Church, and this instinctive attraction to and interest in Church services is the foundation on which we must build our religious education. When parents worry that children will get tired because services are long and are sorry for them, they usually subconsciously express their concern not for their children but for themselves. Children penetrate more easily than do adults into the world of ritual, of liturgical symbolism. They feel and appreciate the atmosphere of our Church services. The experience of Holiness, the sense of encounter with Someone Who is beyond daily life, that mysterium tremendum that is at the root of all religion and is the core of our services is more accessible to our children than it is to us. “Except ye become as little children,” these words apply to the receptivity, the open-mindedness, the naturalness, which we lose when we grow out of childhood. How many men have devoted their lives to the service of God and consecrated themselves to the Church because from childhood they have kept their love for the house of worship and the joy of liturgical experience! Therefore, the first duty of parents and educators is to “suffer little children and forbid them not” (Matt. 19:14) to attend Church. It is in Church before every place else that children must hear the word of God. In a classroom the word is difficult to understand, it remains abstract, but in church it is in its own element. In childhood we have the capacity to understand, not intellectually, but with our whole being, that there is no greater joy on earth than to be in Church, to participate in Church services, to breathe the fragrance of the Kingdom of Heaven, which is “the joy and peace of the Holy Spirit.”

Of course, all of this presupposes the rich liturgy of Orthodox worship. The claim that the worship of the Church is the place where the Word of God is in ‘its own element’ is simple yet profound. The common idea that our encounter with the Word of God is primarily about reading the text of the Bible, enclosed between two covers, falls far short of the reality of Christian engagement with Scripture for so many reasons.

The story of the Scriptures is a story of progressive incarnation. When the Word becomes flesh He does not merely take a body created out nothing, but a body that has been being prepared for Him since the beginning of creation. He does not merely come as a generic individual human being, but as one who takes the flesh of Israel as has own. The Word does not merely take a biological and Adamic body to Himself, but, as the Messiah, He takes a particular body politic also. This body politic had been formed by the spoken Word of God in successive stages, something that Douglas Knight helpfully compares to the gradual assembling of computer circuitry. The rituals and ceremonies of the OT Law, the worship of the psalms, the structures of the Tabernacle and the Temple: all of these are ways in which God prepares a body for His Son.

The Scriptures create a world through story, symbol, ritual and worship, a world that the people of God are called to live out of. God’s world does not come all at once, but is gradually moulded and developed over time. The Word of God in Scripture is a world-creating Word, no less than the Word of God in Genesis 1. Unfortunately, if our encounter with the Word of God is limited to reading a book the idea that the Scripture creates a world (indeed, is a world) seems a bit far-fetched.

Within the new covenant there is a movement beyond inscription of the Word to incarnation of the Word, not just in Christ, but in the Church, which lives out of Christ’s humanity. This should decisively shape our understanding of the relationship between the Scripture and the ethical life of the Christian community. In the various OT prophecies of the new covenant, great emphasis is put on the fact that the Law of God will now be written on the heart, and not merely on tablets of stone. The initially ‘external’ Law will gradually be consumed into the life of the community until there is no remainder.

In the old covenant the people of God had the tablets of stone at their heart. The new covenant people of God are reconstituted around the risen Christ—the Heart of Flesh. At Pentecost, with the gift of the Spirit, the Church grows out of the resurrected humanity of the Word, as the totus Christus. The telos of Scripture is such incarnation, making us participants in the life of Christ. The Word now indwells us in a living form, by the Spirit. In the OT the Word of God formed the world that the people of God inhabited; in the NT the Word of God is the world that the people of God embody in Christ.

The fact that the transformed community—the totus Christus—is the telos of the text determines our hermeneutical posture. The text can only be properly understood when it is related to this telos. True interpretation of the text both presupposes and results in moral transformation. There is no division between hermeneutics and ethics. The renewed community helps us to read the text properly and the text reads us into the renewed community. The Scriptures can only be properly understood from within the community of faith, in the context of their public performance; outside of the community of faith the text has a veil over it.

This is one of the reasons why the proper context of Scripture reading and study is the life of the Church. Far too much Protestant worship is even less ‘incarnational’ than OT worship. When we read the Scripture we are giving voice to the life that we embody in Christ. The world and the Word that creates and gives voice to that world are mutually interpretative. Reading the Bible apart from the context of the Church is like reading a book describing an alien world. No matter how wise and learned you are, you will know less of this world than a simple child who has lived in this world for a few years (this illustration originates with T.F. Torrance, if I remember correctly), even if they have no idea of the science of their world.

As people reject the sacramental life and community of discipleship of the Church the Scriptures will become darkened to them, a fog of obscure teachings. This is one of the reasons why I continually stress the importance of encountering the Scriptures, not primarily as ‘the Bible’, but as the texts which form the life of the Church through their performance in the liturgy, sacrament and proclamation and as the Word that we embody in Christ.

Let me give just one small example of how this connection between the Church as world and the Scriptures as the Word of that world can empower the proclamation of the Word to a young child. I still remember from my childhood occasionally attending the local Church of Ireland around Christmas time. The thing that really spoke to me was the Church calendar and Advent in particular. I had heard the story of Christmas many times before, but in the worship of Advent and the various readings running up to Christmas I began to live in the story. I began to hear the story as a story of hope, remembrance and anticipation, a story in which I was personally involved. I was feeling hope and anticipation; I was not merely reading about hope and anticipation. The Christmas story opened up to me as never before. I reread the story from within, as it were. Reading from within: this is what Christian encounter with the Scriptures is all about.

Ruminations on Two Posts from Peter Leithart

Over the last few days Peter Leithart has posted two posts that have really resonated with issues that I have been thinking about of late. The following are some extensive thoughts sparked off by Leithart’s own comments. (more…)

Limbo in Limbo

The BBC reports:

Catholic experts are expected to advise Pope Benedict XVI that the traditional state of limbo - somewhere between heaven and hell - should be abolished.

This statement does read a bit strangely, almost making it sound as if limbo is a real place that the papacy created many years back and have finally decided to empty of its occupants, having no further use for the realm. Of course, limbo is nothing of the kind. It is just a speculative and unbiblical notion and we should be encouraged that Pope is possibly going to decisively reject it. Let’s hope that purgatory is next on the list.

So what might the rejection of limbo for unbaptized children mean for the Roman Catholic practice of infant Baptism? Hopefully it will encourage a popular movement towards a more biblical understanding of the place of infant Baptism. Kurt Stasiak, a Roman Catholic theologian, puts the issue well:

Our discussion here emphasizes that the primary motive for baptizing our infants should not be our fear of what might be denied them should they die unbaptized but, rather, our hope of whom through baptism they will become. Through baptism the sons and daughters of our flesh become sons and daughters of God and are brought into new life in Christ and his Church. We baptize our children because we hope that as the grace of their baptism unfolds, they will mature as adult sons and daughters of God, ever-learning how to walk according to the Spirit.

Baptism overcomes the power of original sin. The connection between infant baptism and original sin, however, is not theological speculation as to how God can receive an unbaptized infant. It is, rather, the challenge of how the Christian community can receive the infant in such a way so that he will learn from the beginning the community’s ways and means of overcoming the effects of original sin that linger stubbornly in the lives of all. Baptism is the pledge and promise that infants are delivered from original sin—not by slow trickles of water, but by the flood of grace which rushes forth as they are transformed and brought into the family of God and the Church. Infant baptism does not mean the child is “home free” because limbo is no longer a possibility. It means the child is brought into a home—into a Christian environment—in which the Word of God is proclaimed from the beginning. Children learn how to be part of the family by being part of the family. Infant baptism proclaims how an infant is to live and be formed. If there is a limbo that needs to be addressed in our baptismal catechesis, it is not a hypothetical limbo between earth and heaven but, rather, the spiritual limbo that still exists in quite tangible form in far too many homes today.

In his superb treatment of the subject of infant Baptism in his book Return to Grace, Stasiak observes that many Christians leave infants in a form of suspense, waiting for the time when they can come to a more explicit form of faith. The impression given is that God views the infant more as a potential adult and believer, rather than as one to be brought into His family and to be valued for what they already are as infants (I have dealt with some of these issues in an older post). Stasiak writes:

The “point” of infant baptism—it is the point of adoption, of taking the initiative on behalf of another—is that neither God, nor Church, nor parents, keep the child “in limbo” until some future time when the child is able or willing to respond to the love already present and presented. Parents love their infants because of who they are now, not because of who they might eventually become. And if the precautions many parents today take even as the child is being “knit together in the mother’s womb” is any indication, they love their child “before now”: before the child from their flesh becomes their child in the world.

John on Infant Communion

John of Confessing Evangelical writes on the subject of infant communion from a Lutheran perspective.

Wright and Infant Baptism

I have been asked on more than one occasion how Wright can hold to his high view of Baptism. What seems to make his view even less tolerable in many people’s eyes is the fact that he is strongly in favour of the practice of infant Baptism. In conversation with some people yesterday the suggestion was made that one can reject Wright’s position on infant Baptism and infant faith and retain the rest of his thought more or less intact. I am not so sure.

Whilst it is undoubtedly true that Wright only mentions the practice of infant Baptism on a couple of occasions in his writings and may not even have given the issue any focused study, I believe that infant Baptism is strongly implied by a number of different aspects of his thought. A denial of infant Baptism will always risk compromising Wright’s theological project on a number of levels. Whilst I am not suggesting that there is nothing that a convinced Baptist could consistently take from Wright’s project — far from it — I am concerned that Wright’s paedobaptist position is seen by many to be an Anglican appendage. It is not; it is closely related to much of what he has said about Jesus and Paul, even if he has not traced these implications himself in his writings. We should always be wary of identifying appendages in the thought of smart theologians. Generally they are just following theological instincts that we have just not become attuned to.

Within this post I want to briefly list some of the ways in which Wright’s theology might be seen to imply the existence of infant faith and the legitimacy of infant Baptism.

1. His definition of faith. Within Wright’s theology one sees an attempt to broaden our definition of faith. The Protestant tradition has all too easily fallen prey to definitions of faith that work in terms of a dichotomy between inner feeling and outer ritual or between sincerity and outward conformity. Modernism has also affected our definition of faith in a number of other ways. Modernism has sharp dichotomies between internal and external, private and public, individual and communal and religious and political. Christian faith comes to be defined as something that is internal, private, individual and religious as opposed to something external, public, communal and political.

Within the context of modernity it is the concept of the autonomous individual, who is the source of his own values and identity, which holds sway. Faith is understood in the light of this. Baptist thought is very modern in its philosophical impulses. The problem is that Paul did not share our dichotomies. As Wright has often observed, Paul’s gospel obliterates our tidy modern political/religious dichotomy.

Wright broadens the definition of faith. He moves beyond the faith as internal disposition versus works as external action approach. He moves our definition of faith more in the direction of faithfulness, loyalty, fealty and allegiance. One’s loyalties are often public, political and external realities. Infants are not immune from loyalties. Infants are born into settings where strong bonds of loyalty exist. Infants are implicated in the loyalties of their parents.

Evangelicals tend to operate in terms of a private heart faith that demands a greater degree of knowledge and rules out infants. However, loyalty is more of a public reality that needs to become integrated with heart loyalty as one matures over time. It seems to me that the first century Christian would have regarded the modern evangelical understanding of faith as very narrow. It does not include outward faithfulness, allegiance in a more political sense, it rules out the faith of infants and the faith of those who have a loyalty to Christ or to the Church with little or any knowledge to back it up (the sort of faith that most Christians prior to the Reformation had). Clearly the later form of faith is far from ideal, the faith of infants immature, and outward faithfulness and a more political allegiance often insufficient, but that does not mean that they are never genuine forms of faith, even of saving faith.

I don’t see why genuine Christian faith need involve a ‘personal relationship with Jesus Christ’. We can relate to people through others and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that God does just that. God regards the children of believers as ‘holy’ (i.e. set apart for divine use, not merely ‘clean’) and the children of unbelievers as ‘unclean’. God is a ‘family friend’, as it were. No infant is neutral.

We can also relate to Christ through His people. Saul persecuted Christ by persecuting His people. In Matthew 25 we see people declared righteous as they show a form of Christian faith by the way that they treat Christ’s people. They relate to Christ in His people, even though they do not know it. I believe that there are many who will be declared righteous on the last day, who knew little about Christ, but were loyal to His Church. The Nicene Creed, one of the basic declarations of Christian faith, has the Church itself as an object of faith, along with the Holy Trinity. Evangelicals, who focus on faith in Christ as distinct from His Church, do not do this enough justice. The infant relates to Christ through its Christian parent, which it relies upon for everything.

I see no reason to presume any knowledge on the part of the Christian infant in order to claim that they have a form of genuine faith. When Paul calls for allegiance to the world’s new Lord, Jesus the Messiah, he is not looking for a faith that is any less of a public reality than that which a new emperor would demand. Only when we have accepted the modernist religion/politics, public/private divide and placed Christian faith firmly on the private religion side of the equation will we have problems with the concept of household Baptism, for example. If the gospel really is as political as Wright is arguing household Baptism is the most natural thing in the world.

The important question that we must ask about infants is the object of their faith. It would be thoroughly inappropriate to baptize a newborn infant whose faith was not in Christ. However, there is no doubt that a child born into a faithful Christian family has genuine Christian faith. This faith may end up proving temporary, but it is still a real form of faith and the infant should not be held back from Baptism.

2. Opposition to gathered church mentality. Wright’s opposition to the gathered church mentality is another issue here. Baptists generally focus on the sort of faith that is mature, visible and obvious. Such faith is to be encouraged, but it is not the only form of faith. The rigorism of Baptist ecclesiology leads to the exclusion of many genuine believers. People like Wright are more prepared to recognize faith where it is found — even when ignorant, immature or compromised — and try to bring it to maturity and purer expression. Rigorism makes the Church into a closed sect, whereas the welcome of Jesus was far wider. In Wright’s mind establishing leaders in the Church that can exercise the authority of Scripture with power is far more important than a rigorism concerning the Church’s membership.

3. Challenging Caesar. Wright holds to a high ecclesiology. He believes that the Church is like the colony of a new empire. Baptists think in terms of a voluntaristic Church. They presume that a ‘voluntaristic’ Church is synonymous with a ‘faithful’ Church. However, Caesar isn’t really challenged by a ‘voluntaristic’ Church. A ‘voluntaristic’ Church is a sect, not a new society.

Oliver O’Donovan, an old friend of Wright, expresses this point very well in criticizing John Howard Yoder:

Finally, does the concept of the church as a voluntary society not commend itself chiefly because it fits late-modern expectations of how civil society will be organized? Is Yoder, in the name of non-conformity, not championing a great conformism, lining the church up with the sports clubs, friendly societies, colleges, symphony subscription-guilds, political parties and so on, just to prove that the church offers late-modern order no serious threat? [The Desire of the Nations, p.223f.]

It seems to me that Wright’s claims about the political character of the Church as a colony of Christ really stand in direct opposition to Baptist ecclesiology. Even the more communitarian understandings of Anabaptism fall short of Wright’s vision. The idea of the Church as a colony has a far thicker sense in Wright’s work than it ever can in the context of a Baptist ecclesiology.

4. Connection between circumcision and Baptism. This is a connection that Wright makes on a number of occasions in his works. Wright has also suggested that this is one of the arguments that he would use to support the practice of infant Baptism. Circumcision was a seal of the righteousness of faith, but yet it was perfectly appropriate to give it to infants, who were not considered as detached individuals, but as persons implicated in the faith of their parents.

5. Christ’s reconstitution of Israel and humanity. Wright strongly argues that Jesus sought to reconstitute Israel around Himself. The Church is formed through the waters of Baptism. A reconstitution of Israel and a new humanity that excludes infants is a mockery. Wright stresses the ‘peopleness’ of the Church. The Church is an outward and visible family solidarity analogous to Israel. Baptism strips off old solidarities and places us within a new one and changes our sets of allegiances. Baptism forms a new society. We are baptized into one new body. Baptism is like birth into the community of Christ’s faith where we gain a new family; it is not just an expression of our individual faith.

Baptists tend to downplay the significance of Israel in our understanding of the Church. There is a sharp discontinuity between the type of society that Israel was and the type of society that the Church is. Such a sharp discontinuity is very hard to maintain once one has accepted Wright’s reading of Jesus’ ministry. The Church is a reconstitution of Israel around the Messiah, not a different type of society altogether. Baptists can only really speak of the ‘Israelness’ of the Church at a highly metaphorical level.

6. Christ’s Ministry. Following on from the point above, it is worth noticing that Wright points out that miracles occur in the context of faith and also that they are part of the means whereby God reconstitutes His people. Two facts are interesting here: (1) on a number of occasions Jesus heals people on the account of the faith of their parents or masters (e.g. Mark 5:22ff.; Luke 9:38ff.; John 4:47ff.); (2) Children are often the beneficiaries of Christ’s healing (e.g. Mark 7:25ff.). This suggests that the reconstitution of the people of God around Christ is one that includes children and also that they are in some sense included in the faith of their parents.

It is also interesting that Jesus repeatedly speaks of children as the paradigm case of those who receive the kingdom. When we recognize that Jesus was reforming Israel around Himself, His blessing of infants, for example, becomes even more significant (it is worth observing how loaded the concept of blessing is in the gospel; it is no light thing). If we read the gospels through the framework presented by Wright such incidents cannot but be seen as significant.

Eating and Drinking in John 6

This quote from Peter Leithart

is a good response to the arguments of James White.

Some commentators claim that John 6 cannot be talking about the Lord’s Supper because the verbs (in vv. 52-59) are aorist. This is very implausible to me. John recorded a discourse of Jesus in which he speaks of eating flesh, drinking blood - both resonant with Eucharistic associations, and he wrote this discourse to churches that commemorated Jesus with a meal of Jesus’ flesh and blood. And yet, we know that John didn’t intend to talk about the Eucharist because of the verb tense! If John didn’t intend his readers to think of the Eucharist, he’s chosen a singularly odd way to do his business. It almost seems like a trick: Everything in the chapter SOUNDS like Eucharist, but John leaves us the subtle clue of the verb tense to let us know it’s not. A wider point about grammatical-historical exegesis: This is an example of grammar trumping the text; the verb tense controls what the passage means, rather than the whole passage controlling what the passage means. This is not the way we normally use language; when we use rich and resonant imagery, we expect our readers to notice it, and not to focus on verb tenses and not to let the verb tenses control (or cancel out) the imagery. (This is not to say that the verb tenses of Scripture are irrelevant or unimportant. They are, as is every jot and tittle. But there is not reason to make the verb tenses controlling.)

I am increasingly persuaded that those who focus on reading the Bible solely through the lenses provided by grammatical-historical exegesis habitually miss the point of many biblical passages. Reading the Bible through the lenses provided by the worship and life of the Church (not to the exclusion of grammatical-historical exegesis) gives us a very different message. The evocative language of Scripture demands to be read with something other than the emaciated imagination of the scientific exegete. The consciousness that has been drenched in the rich symbolism of the liturgy will be attuned to such things; the consciousness that see symbols merely as secondary appendages to the clear literal message of the text will not. It will fail to appreciate the weight of allusions that constitute most of the text’s message.

The weave of most of the passages in Scripture is formed primarily of the threads furnished by the liturgically-trained memory. To the mind of the exegete that is not steeped in the narratives of Scripture and the worship of the Church the Scripture will always begin to take on a threadbare appearance. This is not the fault of the Scriptures. It is the fault of the unimaginative reader who has to have everything spelt out for him.

Leithart has argued that many Protestants can’t write because they don’t have a robust sacramental theology. One could equally argue that they can’t read for the same reason (as James Jordan points out in his article ‘Apologia on Reading the Bible’). The Scriptures and the sacramental life of the Church are mutually interpretative. Abandon one and you will gradually lose the other.

@ 10:49 pm | 24 Comments

Biblical Mode of Participation in Supper Safer than Intinction

So says this article [HT: I don't remember where I was linked from. If it was you, thank you.].

Christian Faith and the Ecological Crisis

Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks

The fact that humankind is facing an ecological crisis of unprecedented proportions is becoming increasingly harder to deny. Groans of a creation in pain are heard from virtually every direction. Steven Bouma-Prediger catalogues some of the dimensions of our ecological crisis: ‘exploding population growth, hunger and malnutrition, loss of biodiversity, deforestation, water scarcity and impurity, land degradation, waste production, energy misuse, air pollution and acid rain, global climate change.’ (more…)

Baptism 101

Baptism of Jesus Christ by Leonardo Da Vinci (incidentally, this is by far my preferred mode of baptism — baptism by affusion whilst standing in water)

A couple of weeks ago I gave a brief presentation on the subject of Baptism in the link group in my halls. Given the fact that the question of Baptism has recently been an issue for intense discussion on the Boar’s Head Tavern (one of my favourite websites) I thought that I might as well post my thoughts on the subject. The vast majority of the following is not directly pertinent to the debate in hand, but you never know, someone might find it helpful. There is really hardly anything in the following that hasn’t been said many times before; it is extremely basic. You have been warned. (more…)

Two Good Posts

Joel and Dennis are absolutely right, as usual.

On the question of the Real Presence, I feel a duty to conform my language on the subject to that of the Church Fathers and to the weight of the Church’s tradition. I would rather do this than play linguistic hopscotch, trying to avoid stepping on the toes of Reformed people who have abandoned the teaching of the Church on this issue and seeking to wring as high a doctrine of the Supper as I can out of unwilling confessional documents. The Reformed doctrine of the Supper is insipid. By the time that you are able to make any affirmation on the presence of Christ in the Supper in Reformed circles your statements have to be so diluted by qualifications and clarifications as to be relatively meaningless.

I strongly affirm that in the Supper the Body and Blood of our Lord are truly present and that we eat and drink them. Everyone who rejects this has departed from the Scriptures and the Christian tradition. I do not make this claim as an unwilling concession to the larger Christian tradition. It is not a doctrine that I have come to only through careful study to ascertain whether the Reformed faith will permit me to hold such a position. This is just plain vanilla Christian faith and does not need to be justified by the Reformed confessional documents. To the degree that the Reformed confessional documents mute, obscure, omit or deny this doctrine, it is they that stand in need of justification, not the larger tradition.

@ 5:24 pm | 8 Comments

Tim Gallant on Worship

Some very interesting thoughts here.

‘Luther the Non-Protestant’

Leithart has a very interesting post here. It doesn’t say anything that most of us didn’t already know, but it does say it very well.



On the Mode of Baptism

Mosaic, Neoniano Baptistery, Ravenna

The proper mode of Baptism is an issue that is much debated in the Church. While I don’t believe that most of these debates have any bearing on the validity of the sacrament, this does not mean that the debates are unimportant. Unlike many, I am not sure that etymology can help us that much in answering this question. I am not at all convinced by the Baptist arguments that full submersion is necessarily in view wherever the term ‘baptism’ is used. The ‘baptisms’ of the OT (cf. Hebrews 9:10) were not usually by full submersion, but were generally by partial dipping, pouring, sprinkling and bathing, etc. Generally a ‘baptism’ is a washing, without clearly stipulating the precise mode. Just as I can completely bathe my body in water without submersing my whole body in water, so the full body washings of the OT seldom if ever entail the submersion of the whole body.

In his book, The Priesthood of the Plebs, Peter Leithart has argued that the priestly baptism of Exodus 40:12-15 provides background that the NT draws upon when speaking about Christian Baptism (e.g. Luke 3:21-23; Galatians 3:27; Hebrews 10:19-22). However, this Baptism was clearly not by submersion, being performed at the ‘door of the tabernacle of meeting’ (Exodus 40:12). There was no water to go down into there, but there was the water of the raised bronze laver which would presumably have been sprinkled or poured on them for their initiation rite and would have been used to wash their hands and feet with thereafter (Exodus 30:17-21; 40:30-32). This provides possible background for John 13:10 — God bathes us in Baptism, and after Baptism He only needs to wash our feet and hands.

I believe that, when the NT speaks about Baptism, it does generally have a full body washing in view (Hebrews 10:22), rather than just a few drops of water on the forehead. Thus far I stand with the Baptists. However, it is not immediately clear that this full body washing was necessarily one of full body submersion, nor do I believe that full body washing precludes sprinkling. I am convinced that when the Bible speaks about ’sprinkling’ it refers to a far more liberal administration of water than a couple of drops: Scriptural ’sprinkling’ is more like a raining down of water from above, wetting the whole body. Nebuchadnezzar was ‘wet (bapto LXX) with the dew of heaven’ and the baptizand should be wet with the water of Baptism in much the same way. Sprinkling is a very biblical mode of Baptism, but it really should be a very liberal sprinkling to maintain the biblical symbolism. Water is poured over the head of the baptizand in much the same way as the clouds pour out the blessing of rain. The heavens are opened and the whole body is drenched with the baptismal rains.

On a number of occasions in the NT (e.g. Acts 10:47; 16:33) it seems most likely that water was brought to the baptizand and poured over him, rather than the baptizand being brought to a body of water deep enough to submerge himself in. When the NT clearly speaks of a mode of washing in connection with Baptism, it is of the Spirit’s being ‘poured out’ onto the Church on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1:5; 2:17-18, 33; 10:44-45). In Titus 3:5-6 we see a connection between our washing of regeneration (i.e. Baptism) and the ‘pouring out’ of the Spirit.

If the point of a ‘baptism’ is merely the cleansing of the whole body with water then there are a number of different modes by which such a result could be achieved — pouring, liberal sprinkling, full submersion, the manual application of water to the body with a flannel, etc. Full submersion is probably not actually the most natural way in which to cleanse the whole body. When I wash my whole body, I usually do it by standing under a shower, which liberally sprinkles my whole body with water. On other occasions I might partially submerge myself in a bath and pour water over the upper half of my body and my head. When I do completely submerge my body in water it is not usually for the purpose of washing.

However, many Baptists (and some others) argue that the point of Baptism is not merely whole body washing, but whole body submersion. In support of their understanding they usually appeal to the meaning of the verb baptizo, which fails, to my mind, to prove their position. They also often fail to do justice to the symbolic connection between Baptism and the reception of the Spirit, and the fact that the gift of the Spirit is almost everywhere spoken of in terms of the modes of sprinkling or pouring (Isaiah 44:3; Ezekiel 36:25; 39:29; Joel 2:28-29; Zechariah 12:10; Acts 2:33; 10:44-45; Titus 3:5-6).

The appeal to the imagery of burial with Christ in Romans 6:3-6, upon which many Baptist arguments for the proper mode of Baptism rest is also problematic. Christ was laid in a tomb; He was not lowered into a grave. Besides, submerging the body in water does not look remotely like the act of laying a body on a slab in a tomb (or lowering a body into a tomb for that matter). If this imagery is fundamental to Baptism then it is surprising that water Baptism is the rite that Christ instituted, rather than some variety of symbolic burial rite. Some argue that full submersion is Baptism ‘in the likeness of [Christ's] death’ (Romans 6:5). The problem with all such arguments is that they draw attention to the visual mode of Baptism, where the focus of the text of Romans 6 is elsewhere: on the union with Christ in His death that Baptism effects. The point of verse 5 is that if we have been united to the form of — ‘conformed to’ — Christ’s death, we can also expect to be united to the the form of — ‘conformed to’ — His resurrection (cf. Philippians 3:10-11). The point throughout is not that Baptism looks like burial, but that it really effects a union with Christ in His death.

When thinking about the proper mode of Baptism I think that most approaches leave much to be desired. Little attention is given to the rich biblical theology that should inform our doctrine of Baptism. If we are to begin to understand the meaning of and appropriate practice of Baptism we really have to do better than founding our arguments upon some rather wooden treatments of etymology and some tenuous readings of certain biblical prooftexts. Lest my Baptist readers think that I am trying to get at them, I will say in their favour that they have made an attempt to think seriously about the appropriate mode of Baptism, which is exactly what we ought to do. Furthermore, many Baptist approaches have a lot more biblical weight to them (as we shall soon see). The same cannot be said of most paedobaptists, for whom arguments about the mode of Baptism have more to do with maintaining the status quo, rather than with taking seriously the importance of biblical symbolism. At least Baptists do not treat the symbolism of the rite with such casual indifference.

There are two dimensions to the water symbolism in Baptism, corresponding to the two symbolic bodies of water in Genesis 1: the waters below and the waters above, the chaotic waters of the abyss and the heavenly waters. The waters below can represent death (e.g. Psalm 18:4-5; 42:7; 69:1-2, 14-15; Isaiah 43:2; Jonah 2), the Gentile nations, etc. In Genesis 1 God brings up the land out from the sea and, in much the same way, God brings up his people out from the (Red) Sea (Isaiah 63:11; cf. Hebrews 13:20).

The world is framed and formed by bodies of water (2 Peter 3:5). When the world is destroyed it returns to its basic state of undivided chaotic waters (Genesis 7; 2 Peter 3:6; cf. Genesis 1:2). We see the same imagery being appealed to when the Gentile nations (the seas) completely flood the land of Israel.

New worlds are formed by the division of waters, by deliverance through waters, etc. Examples of such world-forming events include the initial division of the two bodies of water in Genesis 1:6-8 and the bringing of the dry land up from the sea in 1:9-10, the deliverance of Noah through the waters of the Great Flood (1 Peter 3:20-21), the deliverance of Moses through the waters of the Nile, the bringing of Israel through the Red Sea and the Jordan, and John the Baptist’s baptism in the Jordan. To be brought through or out of the waters is to be rescued through or from death.

It seems to me that it is the ‘coming out of’ or being ‘brought through’ the water that is the most significant aspect of our relationship to the waters below. Pharaoh and the evil men in the time of Noah all went under the water, but only the righteous were brought ‘through’ or ‘out of’ the water. Both the Ark and the Red Sea Crossing are types of NT Baptism (1 Corinthians 10:1-2; 1 Peter 3:20-21). The righteous pass through the waters (Psalm 66:6) without being ultimately overwhelmed.

This is the important dimension of the symbolism that Baptists and others retain with their practice of full submersion. In full submersion we undergo a watery trial, going down into the symbolic realm of death, a realm from which we are then brought out in ‘resurrection’, sharing in the ‘baptism’ that Christ underwent in His death (Luke 12:50). In bringing Gentiles out of the waters God is also creating something new, ‘calling those things which do not exist as though they did’, overcoming the formlessness and emptiness of the world by establishing a new kingdom.

However, full submersionists can easily miss the other dimension of the symbolism that the NT draws our attention to. The other dimension of the symbolism is that God brings us through the firmament and into his heavenly realm. The waters from above are the waters of blessing. As these waters rain down upon us — or we pass through them — we have access to God’s very presence (Hebrews 10:19-22). The baptismal rain of the Spirit is the dimension of the symbolism that many paedobaptist churches have maintained. Post-Pentecost, this dimension of the symbolism is very important.

So there are two movements: we come up out of the water and the Spirit comes down upon us. We see this in Christ’s Baptism: He comes out of the water and the Spirit descends on Him like a dove. The connection between this and the account of Genesis 8:1-12 is significant, especially considering the fact that the NT connects the ark and Baptism in 1 Peter 3:20-21. The dove of the Spirit descends upon that which has come out of the water. Perhaps the same thing is in view in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2 — there is a ‘bringing through’ or ‘bringing out of’ (Moses pre-capitulates the experience of Israel in Exodus 14 in Exodus 2:10) and then a coming ‘under’ the cloud (which represents the Spirit). Isaiah 63:11 also manifests this pattern to some extent.

The waters above are the waters of blessing. They are the waters of the cloud with the rainbow of God’s promise to bless and never to utterly destroy (Genesis 9:11-17). They are the waters of the cloud that lead the people of God to the Promised Land (Exodus 13:21-22; cf. Romans 8:14). They are the healing waters that rain down in blessing on the people of God (see Joel 2:23, which is connected with the promise of the Spirit in Joel 2:27-28, a passage alluded to in Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts 2). They are the waters of the cloud through which we ascend to sit with Christ at God’s right hand (Ephesians 2:6; cf. Acts 1:9). They are the waters of the Spirit that descend upon the Church on the Day of Pentecost.

Ideally, Baptism should retain both dimensions of this symbolism. Eastern Orthodox Baptism (which follows a pattern not too dissimilar to that of Exodus 40) does it by having chrismation as part of the baptismal rite, following triple immersion in the divine name (the rite is thus called ‘Baptism’ by synecdoche, much as the Eucharist can be referred to as the ‘breaking of bread’). The symbolism could also be retained in other ways, for instance by having full or partial submersion coupled with the pouring or sprinkling of water from above.

Whatever mode we adopt, the point is that Baptism brings us through the realm of condemnation and death and washes us with the healing rain of the Spirit. In the waters of Baptism an old creation dies. The old Pharaoh is drowned and our flesh, once ravaged by the leprosy of sin, is cleansed as we become like newborn children (cf. 2 Kings 5:14). The old world perishes and we become new creations, created out of the waters, standing in the waters below and receiving the waters from above. We are those who have been brought through the waters into the Promised Land, under the cloud of God’s guidance, promise and blessing. As Marilynne Robinson observed, ‘water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables and doing the wash.’ It is in the event of Baptism that this truth is seen most clearly.

On Delayed Baptism

This post was sabotaged…

Wine in Communion Redux

Almost three years ago now, I posted on the subject of the importance of using alcoholic wine in the celebration of the Eucharist. I argued that the use of grape juice was a serious departure from the scriptural teaching regarding the sacrament. Posts are generally forgotten about within a few days at most and are never read again. For some strange reason, however, there are times when old posts are revived and enjoy a second fifteen minutes of fame. Over the last few days a few people have asked me questions about my post on wine in communion. For this reason, I thought that it might be helpful to write a brief post responding to some of the questions that have been raised in response to my original post on the subject.

You take the use of particular elements far too seriously. What would you do, for example, in the case of a person with gluten intolerance?

There are occasions when it is perfectly appropriate to make exceptions. The problem comes when people use such valid exceptions to undermine or negate the rule. For example, the fact that some people might be physically incapable of kneeling does not excuse the rest of us from doing so.

What about people with allergies to wine or former alcoholics?

In the case of allergies to wine, it is worth pointing out that the allergy is generally to something other than the alcohol. In such instances I would suggest that it is probably best to serve an alcoholic, rather than a non-alcoholic, substitute. In the case of recovering alcoholics, much depends on the particular case. The vast majority of arguments against the use of wine in communion on account of alcoholism are utterly without foundation. Most former alcoholics can drink wine in communion without any problem. Even if a church chooses to provide a non-alcoholic substitute they should do so for that individual alone. Everyone else should be served alcoholic wine.

Those with scruples about the use of wine should not be catered for. If they won’t accept wine, then they will just have to go without. People with unscriptural scruples should not be encouraged in their errors. Unless there are strong individual reasons why a substitute is necessary, no choice should be offered. Those who unbiblical scruples should certainly not be permitted to hold the rest of the church hostage to their uninformed consciences. Besides, it really is not for the servant to decide what is served at his Master’s table.

The Scriptures are quite undogmatic about the type of bread that we use for the celebration of the Eucharist; doesn’t this suggest that we shouldn’t be that dogmatic about the use of wine?

The Scripture may be undogmatic about the type of bread that is used (although some would dispute that claim), but it makes clear that it must be bread. Likewise, we have considerable freedom in our choice of wine. We can celebrate according to the biblical pattern using red or white wine, sweet or dry wine, regular or fortified wine. It really is up to us. However, we are taught by Scripture to use wine, rather than anything else.

White wine?!

Why not? In a number of traditions, white wine has often been used for the celebration of the Eucharist. This is certainly not a novel or entirely unusual practice. The symbolism of the element does not rest primarily on the colour of the wine that is used. Many believe that the whole symbolism of the wine rests upon its being dark or reddish in colour, making it look like blood. On this basis they can justify replacing the wine with other dark or reddish liquids. I have attended churches where Ribena has been used in the celebration of the Supper. However, in Scripture the significance of the use of wine rests on details such as its being the fruit of the vine and being alcoholic.

Red wine is probably slightly to be preferred over white wine on account of its colour. However, this detail really is an adiaphoron. One benefit of using white wine would be that it would have the effect of shocking us out of unhelpful ways of viewing the sacrament. It is not there to be looked at, but to be drunk. The wine is not there to be a ‘picture’ of Christ’s blood; it is Christ’s blood.

Christ may have employed wine in His institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. However, He also almost certainly used unleavened bread. Why make an issue about wine and not about the use of unleavened bread?

First, the type of leaven used in the ancient world was different from our yeast. Unless we use sourdough, our bread is technically unleavened.

Second, the Eucharist is not merely the fulfilment of the Passover ceremony, nor, in the NT, is it merely based on the Last Supper. Oscar Cullmann has argued, for example, that the Eucharist was seen by many within the earliest Church as some sort of continuation of the post-resurrection meals and was not merely based on the Last Supper.

Third, the use of leavened or unleavened bread has been a matter of heated debate in the past in Church history, principally between the Eastern and Western Church in the eleventh century. The Eastern Church used leavened bread, while the Western Church tended to use unleavened.

Fourth, leaven is not neutral in symbolism. The Scripture speaks of purging out old leaven to celebrate the feast, drawing on the pattern of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Exodus 12:15-20; cf. 1 Corinthians 5:6-8). On account of this and the negative symbolic sense that leaven tends to have within the NT (Matthew 16:6, 11-12; Luke 12:1; Galatians 5:9), many have insisted that the Supper must be celebrated without it.

However, leaven is not purely a symbol of evil. At the Feast of Pentecost new leaven was used (Leviticus 23:17). Old leaven is cut off; new leaven is introduced. Jesus uses leaven as a positive image in one of His parables of the kingdom (Luke 13:20-21). Leaven symbolizes the hidden spread of the kingdom of God and its message. At Pentecost the new leaven of the Spirit was introduced. We are to cut off the old leaven of malice and wickedness and introduce the new leaven of the Spirit. The use of leavened bread highlights one dimension of biblical imagery, the use of unleavened another. There may be good reasons for using leavened bread on one occasion and using unleavened on another.

The use of leaven is an adiaphoron for good theological reasons. Such reasons are not present in the case of wine.

Your argument from scriptural symbolism notwithstanding, the Scriptures that God have given us nowhere explicitly teach that alcoholic wine must be used. In light of this, how can you say that the use of grape juice — which is clearly the ‘fruit of the vine’ — is against God’s instructions?

God has not just given us the Scriptures; He has also given us intelligence. God does not insult the intelligence that He has given to us by spelling out explicitly that which is clear to any careful reader.

As James Jordan has remarked, a good servant is attentive to the slightest gesture of his master. Only a bad servant needs to have explicit commands in order to do his master’s bidding. Only an evil servant seeks loopholes in the explicit commands of his master in order to avoid doing that which he knows deep down is his master’s will. If we truly are good servants we will immediately pick up on the fact that God wants alcoholic wine on his table and will act accordingly.

Should a common cup be used? Should individual cups be avoided?

I don’t think that the Scripture presents us with as clear an argument for the use of a common cup as many believe. I suggest that this is another adiaphoron. I am not even sure that there was a common cup at the Last Supper (Matt?). There were a series of cups of wine drunk as part of the Passover celebration and it is possible that, rather than passing one cup around, the ‘cup’ referred to the particular serving of wine that they were about to drink as part of the celebration. The ‘cup’ would perhaps function like the way that a toast does in our celebrations. Each individual would have an individual cup. Passing around individual cups and drinking at the same time might therefore be closer to the original celebration.

What do you think about the practice of intinction?

The biblical pattern for the Eucharistic rite is really quite simple. Intinction is a practice that breaks with this biblical pattern. Intinction is also more unhygienic than the use of the common cup, a practice that many express health concerns about. The fact that high church Christians often follow this practice means nothing. High church Christians frequently get liturgy wrong and are not the pattern that we should be following.

What size should portions be?

Again this is an adiaphoron. However, I think that portions should ideally be a lot more substantial than they are in most churches. We are eating a meal. A larger hunk, rather than a miniscule morsel of bread would be nice. Also a larger glass of wine would help us to recognize that the Eucharist is not primarily about ideas, but about joy and celebration in the kingdom of God.

In your post you claimed that wine is a drink that is dangerous and that it takes maturity to partake in such a celebratory meal. How does this impact the arguments for paedocommunion?

Wine is dangerous and must be handled with maturity. This is a significant dimension of the symbolism. The Table of the Lord is a place of wisdom and not the table of fools (Proverbs 9:1-6). Young children are trained in wisdom by being taught to treat wine appropriately at the table of wisdom. The supervision of older and wiser persons ensures that young children do not learn to drink as fools drink. The wisdom and maturity that the table speaks of is not an individualistic matter, but something that is true of the congregation as a whole.

I am currently in a church that only serves grape juice. I am deeply troubled by this practice. What should I do?

Important as these things are, we need to beware of causing unnecessary division over them. God is gracious and does not judge us as harshly as we tend to judge each other. I can understand why this would be a difficult and sensitive issue for a pastor of a church to work through or a member of a church to live with. Even if you want to reform the church’s practice, you don’t want the sort of reform that tarries for no one. Reform needs to be taken slowly, in order to avoid unnecessarily alienating people. Reform is important and, if we are obedient we should be working towards it. However, there is a sort of unloving and impatient reform that actually causes great damage, despite its noble intentions. God gives us time to grow out of old practices and does not force us to change completely overnight (witness the significant overlap of the old and new covenants, for instance).

There are occasions when a strong line needs to be taken. Those who want the church to capitulate to their unscriptural scruples should not be pandered to. Although we must be patient and gracious in reform, we must also be persistent. We may reach a point where some people must be resisted, even if this results in their leaving for another church.

The reform that I primarily have in mind here is a gradually phasing out of the use of grape juice. In a church that resists the use of wine altogether, the issue may need to be addressed more forcefully. It is one thing to resist the use of wine for yourself. It is quite another to resist its being served to others.

The biblical teaching on the use of wine in communion fills my heart with a joy that I feel a deep-seated need to express. Can you recommend a good way for me to go about doing this?

Certainly. This would be a good place to start.

Space, Time and Sacraments

Wright’s Calvin College lectures are now online.

A Critic of my Understanding of Liturgical Exegesis

Lee, from Two-Edged Sword, posts a critique of my understanding of liturgy and the ontology of Scripture, as articulated in the following posts — ‘How Gutenberg Took the Bible From Us’ and ‘James Jordan, N.T. Wright, and Double Resurrection’. Lee also refers to my ‘Eating and Drinking in John 6′ post and the following discussion as a good example of differences that arise from my approach to Scripture.

His post is representative of a few of the negative responses that I have had to my thoughts on the character of Scripture. I am not sure how exactly to go about responding to such a post as there are a number of serious misunderstandings of my position within it.

For the record, I firmly believe that every Christian who can read should have at least one Bible in their home, preferrably a number of different versions, ideally a number of texts in the original languages. I would also encourage Christians to spend time reading biblical commentaries and to learn how to use Bible helps. I am convinced that reading the Bible at least once daily is good practice for the Christian and that lack of interest in reading the Bible for oneself is more often than not a sign of weak spiritual health.

None of this contradicts my fundamental point, which was that the primary form of the Scriptures is not what we call ‘the Bible’. The chief way in which the people of God are to encounter the Scriptures is in their performance within the context of the Church and its liturgy. It is undoubtedly a privilege to be able to read the text of our Bibles, but we must not presume that God gave the Church the Scriptures as ‘the Bible’. The Scriptures that God gave His people were not principally designed to be read privately as a book. Private Bible reading is a valid engagement with Scripture, but it should never be the form of engagement with Scripture that takes priority in our lives. Engagement with Scripture in the context of the Church’s life, liturgy and lectionary must always come first.

The Scriptures are addressed to the people of God. Whilst the Scriptures address each of us personally, they do not address us as detached individuals, abstracted from the body of which we are members. The Scriptures were certainly given in written form, but they were not given in the form of the modern Bible. They were not bound together in one volume, nor were they given for private ownership. The Scriptures were not even given so that everyone could read them. The chief way that the people of God are called to engage with the Scriptures is by hearing the Scriptures read aloud and expounded, rather than by reading it for themselves. There is a difference. Reading for ourselves is good, but the emphasis must remain on the hearing of the Word, something that occurs in the context of the assembly of the Church.

Furthermore, we must recognize that there are many parts of the Scriptures that were given principally as what I have in the past referred to as ’stage directions’. The book of Leviticus, for example, is mostly concerned with stage directions. Whilst the book was to be read aloud and studied, it was more like a recipe book than a story. The meaning of Leviticus is not first and foremost to be found in the study of the text itself, but in the extra-textual rituals that it establishes.

I have used this fact to argue that relatively minor portions of Scripture, which may seem relatively insignificant to us, given the fact that so little words are devoted to them, may actually be far more significant than many lengthy passages. There are those who argue that our emphasis upon particular truths should correspond with the amount of attention that they are given within the Bible, ‘attention’ here referring to the number of words expended on the subject in the biblical text. I have come to regard such a position as deeply flawed.

A good example of the differences created by different ways of approaching the Scriptures can be seen in attitudes to the Eucharist, for example. If we engage with the Scriptures chiefly in the form of biblical text to be studied and read we will recognize that very few verses are devoted to the subject of the Eucharist. We might draw from this that the Eucharist is a relatively secondary truth of the Christian faith and that the great focus upon the subject is an unwelcome byproduct of certain false turns in the Church’s history. On the other hand, if we engage with the Scriptures primarily as a text to be embodied in the life, liturgy and lectionary of the Church, the Eucharist will be seen to be far more important.

The Eucharist is given to the Church to be done, rather than chiefly to be meditated on. It is a simple rite and few words are needed to institute its proper practice. However, given that the Eucharist is to form a regular and central role in the Church’s liturgy it has a greater significance for our Christian faith than truths to which dozens of chapters of Scripture are devoted. We interpret the Scriptures through the lenses given to us by the Eucharist. We see allusions to the Eucharist throughout the Scriptures. In so doing we are not exalting the Eucharist above its proper station, but are engaging with the Scriptures as more than mere text.

To what shall I compare the Scriptures? It is like some texts that a great king wrote and entrusted to his servants, in preparation for a great feast. Amongst the texts there were the scores for the musicians at the feast, the recipes for the cooks, the instructions for those preparing and decorating the banqueting hall and table, the poems to be read by the poets, the tales to be told by the storytellers, the speeches to be given by the speechmakers, and the invitations to be sent to the guests.

Once we have appreciated the complex and multifaceted character of the Scriptures we will read them quite differently. Neglected books like Leviticus will receive far more attention. The sacrificial rituals and annual feasts of Leviticus would have profoundly shaped the way that Israelites would have read the whole of the Scriptures. It would also have powerfully moulded the authors of Scripture and we should read their writings recognizing the degree to which the practices of Leviticus formed the fabric of their lives. The same can be said of those who do not read the NT as belonging to the context of the celebration of the Eucharist.

Lee argues that I am setting the stage for sacerdotalism, that I am teaching that there is no way to encounter Christ apart from the priest. In response to this claim I want to make clear that when I talk about engaging with the Scriptures primarily in the form of their performance within the Church and its liturgy I do not refer to the ‘Church’ as a mere institutional hierarchy, but as a community with a shared life and practice. There is no ordinary way to encounter Christ apart from His Church. It is through the operations of the body that the Head makes Himself known. However, the body is not just composed of members of a clerical hierarchy.

Outside of the context of the Church the Scriptures are not ordinarily a means of grace. Those who interpret the Scriptures apart from the Church often end up falling into gross error. Countless cults started life with people seeking to understand the Scriptures apart from the Church. We are only equipped to understand the Scriptures as we life within the context of the Church. To the Christian who faithfully participates in the life of the Church (which is nothing other than the life of the Holy Spirit) the Scriptures are a means of blessing. They read their Bibles as members of the Church, not as people abstracted from the Church.

As regards the Church’s ‘dispensing’ of salvation, the Church does nothing of the kind. The Church does not ‘dispense’ salvation; it is rather the form that God’s salvation takes. Tim Gallant puts this far better than I could:

And that is why it is the wrong question to ask whether “the Church saves.” That’s kind of like asking whether having lots of money brings wealth. No, the Church does not save. Jesus saves. And His salvation comes in the shape of the Church. Being the dwelling-place of God - that is salvation. Being built together as a community of love - that is salvation. Being a member of the Body of Christ - that is salvation.

The Church does not save. The Church is salvation, because the Church is God’s goal in Jesus Christ.

Lee goes on to argue that I am undermining Sola Scriptura. I strongly dispute this claim. My problem is not with the Scripture. Far from it! My concern is for the Scriptures to play a far fuller role in the Church’s life than they do in much contemporary evangelicalism. My problem is with the way in which the Scriptures have been reduced from what they once were into the privately-owned, mass-produced Bible of the modern Church. The simplistic opposition that Lee posits between Scripture and liturgy is a good example of this.

Lee writes:

I do have a few objections to Alastair’s view. The first is Acts 17:10-13. The Bereans appear to do just the opposite of what Alastair advocates. They go to the service, listen attentively and then read the service through the light of the Scripture, not the Scripture through the light of the liturgy/service. And the Spirit calls them ‘more noble’ for doing so. II Timothy 2:15 seems to counter his understanding as well. ‘Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.’ This sound much more like the grammatical parsing and rational thinking through the Word that Alastair seems to eschew rather than the ‘inhabiting’ the word through the liturgy advocated in the posts.

Both of these points miss the point. I really don’t see why I should have a problem with either of these passages. Some brief remarks on the Bereans might help here. Paul calls forth the OT as witness to the truth of his gospel (cf. Acts 17:2-3). The Bereans are fair and carefully examine this witness, unlike those from Thessalonica, who presumably just dismissed the testimony that Paul brought forward. All the evidence points towards this examination of the Scriptures taking a very different shape from what most ‘Bereans’ do today. The examination was a public examination of the OT Scriptures in the context of the synagogue, not a private reading of the Bible outside of the context of the people of God. Those who were leading the examination of the OT Scriptures were most likely synagogue leaders (although there were likely a number of others present). This was not a private Bible study. Most people who use this passage to justify their practice today misuse it.

The Berean’s study of the Scripture took place in the broader context of the liturgy and the sacrifices and worship practices of Israel. These were lenses that they would bring to their reading of the text. Whether these discussions took place within the immediate context of the synagogue’s liturgy is besides the point. Lee seems to read the passage to suggest that Paul was leading a synagogue service and that the Bereans then went to examine the liturgy of the service from the Scriptures. There is nothing wrong with examining liturgy from the Scriptures — the text illuminates the liturgy and the liturgy illuminates the text — but it strikes me as a strange reading of the passage in question. There is no reason to believe that Paul was presenting the Bereans with some new liturgy. He brought a new teaching, which the Bereans fairly and publicly cross-examined.

What about II Timothy 2:15? Once again I don’t see what the issue is here. Paul is teaching that a minister of the gospel should be concerned to gain all the skills necessary for him to perform his task of ensuring that the Church acts according to the authority of God, exercised in the Scriptures, effectively. It is important to recognize that Timothy is not primarily being addressed as a private person here. Rather he is being addressed as one who must lead a church in its engagement with the Scriptures. He is the one who has the greatest responsbility in this area. He must guide the flock as a faithful shepherd. He must ensure that quarrels about words do not take over (v.14) and that the dangerous teachings of men like Hymenaeus and Philetus do not spread (vv.16-17).

Lee claims that ‘rightly dividing the word of truth’ sounds ‘much more like the grammatical parsing and rational thinking through the Word that Alastair seems to eschew rather than the ‘inhabiting’ the word through the liturgy advocated in the posts.’ Once again, let me clear up misunderstanding. There is no problem with grammatical historical exegesis and other similar approaches to Scripture in principle. I am convinced that they have an important role to play and that pastors in particular should be skilled in such areas. However, my point is that grammatical historical exegesis is not the primary way in which we are to engage with the Scripture. Grammatical historical exegesis is a gift that serves far greater forms of engagement with the Scripture that occur within the life of the Church. I have no problem with grammatical historical exegesis; my problem is with merely grammatical historical exegesis — exegetical approaches that bypass typological, liturgical and creative forms of Scripture reading.

What about ‘rightly dividing the word of truth’? Is this really a reference to grammatical parsing? I think that N.T. Wright’s reading in his For Everyone commentary is an example of a more likely reading (and one that he is certainly not alone in arguing for), although I believe that he is stretching it if he believes that Paul had the illustration that he uses in mind:

In particular, he wants preachers and teachers to ‘carve out a straight path for the word of truth’. Some translations say things like ‘rightly dividing the word’, and it’s possible Paul means something like that (in other words, ‘being able to show how the sentences work, what each part means, and how they all relate to each other’). But it’s more likely that the picture he has in mind is of a pioneer hacking out a path through the jungle so that people can walk safely through. Part of the job of the teacher is to do what Paul himself is doing in this passage: to see where there are brambles, creepers and dead trees blocking the path where the word should be following to people’s hearts and minds, and to shift them out of the way.

Lee’s next point, that the Scriptures were originally written down and were only incorporated into liturgies later, is still besides the point. It could be pointed out that most of the stories narrated in the NT Scriptures (on which Lee seems to be focusing his point) would probably already have been shared within churches before the gospel accounts were written. The story of Christ already affected the life and liturgy of the Church before the inspired gospel accounts were written. The gospel accounts incorporate elements that had already been incorporated in the life and liturgy of the Church and most likely drew upon the existing liturgy of the Church as a source to some degree (e.g. the words of institution of the Eucharist, the Lord’s Prayer). The NT texts would also be read out of the context provided by the Church’s celebration of the Eucharist and practice of Christian Baptism.

I do not believe that we need to argue that the NT documents were written as liturgical documents. The fact is that, if they are Scripture, they are liturgical documents. The text is not an entity that has an autonomous existence. For Scripture to be Scripture is for it to have a particular relationship to the Church as an interpretative community, to be part of the Church’s liturgy, life and lectionary.

Lee goes on to write: ‘Let us not forget that we see the Bible existing as we have it now quite early on. Athanasius in the 4th century gives a list of the books that stand in our bible, meaning that churches and people were collecting the inspired books into one canon by that time.’ Once again, he seems to be seriously missing my point. Gathering a list of scriptures that belong to the Church’s canon is very different to having what we call a ‘Bible’ (Lee seems to have missed much of the point of my Gutenberg post).

Lee seems to have a very limited understanding of what I mean by ‘liturgy’. By ‘liturgy’ I refer to the form of public worship. This ‘form’ need not be written down, nor need it be fixed. ‘Liturgy’ includes such things as the readings in worship, the Church calendar, the prayers and the celebration of the sacraments. I am arguing that the liturgy, defined in such a manner, and contextualized by the broader life and fellowship of the Church, is the primary context in which the Scriptures were given to be encountered.

In the course of making some of his final criticisms, Lee makes this point:

The idea that the Lord’s Supper was anything more than a symbolic spiritual representation was rejected by the church at least through 9th century. Yet, it changed and the bread became the body and John 6 was used a proof text. Christians before the 10th century would have understood John 6 in a completely different way than those after.

There are a number of places in the Church Fathers where John 6 is read as a reference to the Eucharist. Furthermore, the idea that they didn’t see the Eucharist as ‘anything more than a symbolic spiritual representation’ is simply without foundation. I would love to see Lee try to prove this case. It seems to me that his confusion may arise from the fact that the Church Fathers did not oppose symbol to reality as moderns do.

Rambling comments on Dunn and Esler on Baptism in Romans 6

Over the weekend I read a number of commentators on Romans 6, a couple of which were set reading for a seminar that I attended this morning. The two commentators that were on our set reading were Philip Esler and James Dunn, both of whom I have significant disagreements with. My chief disagreements have to do with the way in which they approach the question of Baptism.

Dunn asks what the phrase ‘baptized into Christ’ would have meant for Paul’s readers. He goes on to interact with two chief possibilities. The first possibility

…is that they would have recalled their own baptism, understanding it as an act that united them with Christ. This would be all the more likely if they were familiar with the initiation rites of the mystery cults, which, so it used to be firmly maintained, were thought to achieve a mystical identification with the cult god through some re-enactment of his or her fate.

Dunn proceeds to dismiss this possibility, arguing that washings were generally preparatory to the initiation rites in the mystery cults, rather than the initiation itself. He also believes that the idea of ‘mystical identification between the initiate and the cult god’ was probably not as widespread as many presume. He writes:—

The one claim of such cults which would have been widely known was the bare evangelistic assertion that without being initiated into their mysteries there could be no hope of life or light in the future world. But it must remain doubtful whether Paul would have wished his converts to understand Christian initiation as providing that sort of guarantee, not least because he has already polemicized against just such a misunderstanding in the case of the rite of initiation into Judaism (2:25-29; cf. 1 Cor 10:1-13).

Having rejected this possibility, Dunn goes on to argue for what he terms the ‘other chief possibility’, that Paul ‘is here taking up a metaphorical usage already familiar in Christian tradition.’ Dunn traces the use of this metaphor from John the Baptist, who used it to speak of the one who would baptize in the Spirit and fire, to Jesus, who adapted it to refer to His own death. Later on the same metaphor is used of Pentecost and other ‘initiatory experiences of the Spirit’, for instance Paul’s use of the language of baptism in 1 Corinthians 12:13. Paul, then, uses the language of baptism as a metaphor to speak of the original experience of conversion: ‘As Paul clearly implies elsewhere, the initiating experience of the Spirit was usually very vivid, an event often deeply moving and profoundly transforming, which the young Christians would have no difficulty in recalling.’

The other interesting aspect of Dunn’s account of Romans 6 is the manner in which he tends to accent our identifying ourselves with Christ rather than our being identified with Christ in a manner that does not necessarily presuppose any action on our part. As the identification that he focuses on is a self-identification, it is as incomplete as faith itself. As we grow in faith our identification with Christ will increase.

Philip Esler’s commentary (Conflict and Identity in Romans: The Social Setting of Paul’s Letter) studies the origin and the practice of Baptism in the early ‘Christ-movement’ and explores the question of Baptism and social identity, before he treats the particular position of the apostle Paul. He explores the significance of Baptism in the light of ‘rituals of initiation’ in general.

Esler argues that ‘in the first generation or so of the Christ-movement baptism was also the occasion on which the believer received the Holy Spirit.’ He sees baptism by the Spirit and water baptism as distinct, but closely related, events as part of a ‘“conversion-initiation” complex’. Water baptism is ‘the expression of faith to which God gives the Spirit.’ He argued that the reception of the Spirit following Baptism was manifested in a ‘variety of ecstatic states … and phenomena, including trances, visions, auditions, prophecy, and glossolalia, that often produced feelings of peace and even euphoria.’ Esler compares this with contemporary experiences of ‘charismatic phenomena’. Against those who are sceptical of claims that baptism was accompanied with ‘possession by the Spirit’ he argues that ‘the emotionally charged atmosphere of baptism, with fellow Christ-followers present to assist the newly baptized members achieve spiritual possession, in the manner known from Goodman’s investigation in modern charismatic congregations, would have meant that most did receive the Spirit.’

Within Esler’s account there is far more of an emphasis placed upon the significance of Baptism in and for the community. Faith is not a merely private thing. Access to God is received via entry into the community. Esler adduces Hippolytus’ account of the community of the early Church in Rome gathering for the baptisms of each new member as proof of this. Esler also accents the experience of Baptism and its presumed psychological effect on the baptizand. Paul saw Baptism as the time in which the Spirit of God was received: ‘Thus baptism was an overwhelming encounter with God and Christ, an encounter charged with visionary experiences of light and manifested in an eruption of glossolalia and other ecstatic phenomena.’

I find the approaches taken by Esler and Dunn unsatisfactory for a number of reasons. One of the things that frustrates me about many NT commentators is that often they seem to be more prepared to discover a background for NT practices in the surrounding pagan culture of the first century or (caricaturing slightly) in the observations of some anthropologist concerning the initiation rituals of some obscure Polynesian tribe than they are to give serious weight to the idea that NT rites may have developed out of OT rites and have been understood in terms of existing Scriptural categories.

The idea of Baptism into Christ, at first glance, does seem to be a bit foreign to the thought world of the OT and to have more in common with the world of the mystery religions. However, I believe that there are a number of different ways in which such a concept might not be so alien to the conceptual categories of the OT as we are first inclined to believe.

N.T. Wright and others have spoken at length of the incorporative meaning of the title ‘Christ’, arguing that such a meaning is endemic to the understanding of kingship in ancient Israel. The term ‘Christ’ does not refer just to Jesus as an individual, but to the people of the Messiah as a whole (e.g. 1 Corinthians 12:12; Galatians 3:16). Wright deals specifically with Romans 6 in the third chapter of The Climax of the Covenant, claiming that “Romans 6.3 clearly refers to entry, through baptism, into the people of God; here Χριστός is basically shorthand for ‘the people of the Messiah’.” The background for union with Christ through Baptism is not the mystical identification with cultic gods brought about by the initiation rituals of the mystery religions, but the idea of entry into the concrete historical community of the Messiah. It should also be observed that ‘Baptism into Christ’ may just be another way of speaking of Baptism in Christ’s name.

It might also be worth asking to what extent Paul saw a parallel between the baptism into Moses that he speaks of in 1 Corinthians 10 and Baptism into Christ. What OT data would he draw upon in arguing that the Red Sea crossing was baptismal and created a union between Moses and the children of Israel, for example? The following are a few tentative thoughts and suggestions. First, the idea that the Red Sea crossing would have been perceived as ‘baptismal’, even within an OT context, could be argued from certain parallels that the baptismal priestly ordination rite of Exodus 40 has with the narrative of the crossing (many of these parallels can be seen in the later crossing of the Jordan as well). The Red Sea would then be seen as part of God’s setting apart of Israel as a nation of priests (Exodus 19:6). There might be a suggestion of priestly ordination within the Song of Moses, with the reference to bringing the children of Israel into God’s Sanctuary (Exodus 15:17).

Some might argue that these parallels might be reinforced with the correspondence between the instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle’s laver of cleansing and the third day of creation (which James Jordan once argued for; I would be surprised if he still does), as a connection between the third day of creation and being brought up out of the Red Sea is hinted at in Isaiah 63:11. However, I would question this interpretation, as the Tabernacle’s laver of cleansing and the Bronze Sea in the Temple seem to represent the firmament waters above, rather than the waters of the deep below, which is why the waters are raised off from the ground.

In Isaiah 63:11 there is almost certainly an allusion to the third day of creation and it is interesting to observe that the verse does not speak of being brought through the Sea, but of being brought up out of the sea (the language of 1 Corinthians 10 draws our attention to slightly different aspects of the symbolism). The Red Sea crossing was about being brought out of the Gentile, pre-formation (in Genesis 1), sea and formed into a new land.

Christian Baptism involves a twofold movement — being taken up out of the waters below and passing through the second day firmament waters above. John the Baptist’s baptism was always insufficient, as it could only accomplish the first part of this movement. It is Christ who brings the second stage of Baptism into action, baptizing us with the Holy Spirit — the living water from above — so that we have access to the heavenly sanctuary (Hebrews 10:19-22). Incidentally, this is why affusion with living water from above captures the biblical symbolism of Christian Baptism in a way that complete submersion doesn’t. Christian Baptism both brings us up from the death sea of Sin and sanctifies us with heavenly water for priestly access to the heavenly temple.

Second, we could question exactly what sort of relationship the Red Sea crossing was perceived to have created between Moses and Israel, that Paul could speak of baptism into Moses. In Isaiah 63:11, the reference to Israel being brought up out of the sea is interesting when we consider the meaning of Moses’ own name. Moses’ name was given to him because he was ‘drawn out of the water’ (Exodus 2:10). Moses was delivered from Pharaoh through water. He was delivered from slavery before any of the other Israelites were, being taken up out of the reeds (as the Israelites would later be taken up out of the Sea of Reeds) in an account that alludes to the earlier flood narrative of Genesis. Moses recapitulates Noah’s rescue through the flood and precapitulates the later Exodus.

Moses experienced a sort of ‘precapitulation’ of the salvation that God would accomplish through him. He was the one who went ahead of the people of God and sums them up in himself. We see the same of Christ. Many of the events in Christ’s life are both recapitulations of Israel’s earlier history and precapitulations of the ‘New Exodus’ that He would accomplish and His people would share in.

The Red Sea crossing also establishes a union between Moses and the Israelites on a number of other levels. Prior to the Red Sea crossing the Israelites are still slaves and their masters are pursuing them. In the Red Sea their masters are destroyed and they are set free. Having been set free from slavery to Pharaoh they can come under the headship of Moses in a way that they couldn’t before. The shepherd Moses becomes the shepherd of Israel (Isaiah 63:11). He was not brought up out of the Red Sea as one individual among many, but in a way distinct from others, as the shepherd of the sheep (Messianic language and similar to Christ, notice the allusion to Isaiah 63:11 in Hebrews 13:20, for instance).

The bond between Moses and Israel is also powerfully affected by the crossing as it leads the Israelites to believe in Moses (Exodus 14:31). God performs the miraculous crossing through the agency of Moses. The strength of the bond between Moses and the Israelites formed by his bringing them up out of Egypt can be seen when YHWH, in speaking to Moses, refers to the Israelites as ‘thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt’ (Exodus 32:7). The crossing formed Israel into a new solidarity, freed from the former solidarity of slavery, under the rule of Moses.

Taking all of this OT background into account, I don’t believe that a parallel between Baptism into Christ and baptism into Moses is as far-fetched as some might suggest. ‘In Christ’ we do enjoy a mystical union with Christ, but the significance of this union can generally be articulated in robustly biblical categories, even though it far transcends the things that those categories were originally employed to refer to. Being in Christ is very different from being ‘in David’ or ‘in Moses’, but the concept of being in Christ is best understood as a surprising development and transformation of these OT concepts, rather than as a pagan accretion to the theology of the apostle Paul. There is absolutely no need to appeal to ideas within the world of paganism in order to make sense of such concepts.

Whilst Dunn rejects the idea of understanding Baptism into Christ in terms of the mystery cults, the fact that he does not seem to give much attention to the possibility of the concept of union with Christ through (water) Baptism arising within a strongly Jewish milieu, without borrowing from Hellenistic cults, is telling. It is as such points that I feel the difference between my approach to the NT and that of many NT scholars most keenly. I approach the NT with the presupposition that NT practices can be understood in terms of OT practices and symbolism and that there is no need to appeal to a pagan background. Such an approach is very different from that taken by many NT scholars, who seem to presume that the OT is of limited use in explaining the NT.

Dunn’s ‘other chief possibility’, which he argues in favour of, is one that I find quite unconvincing. The evidence for the idea that the ‘baptism’ referred to in Romans 6 is merely a metaphor for conversion seems to be tenuous, to say the least. The problem, once again, seems to be a failure to do justice to the continuities between the OT and the NT.

Dunn reads Paul to contrast an OT religion of outward, physical rites with a NT religion of faith. This contrast is a common one in Protestant circles and is based on a serious misreading of the NT (and often also the OT, for that matter). This misreading leads to a great problem reconciling faith with the sacraments. For many the sacraments become reduced to mere ordinances to be performed as functions of faith, rather than gifts of divine grace and presence. Many of Peter Leithart’s criticisms of Dunn’s reading of the references to Baptism in Galatians 3:27 as metaphorical apply equally well here (Leithart’s entire ‘Baptism is Baptism’ series is well worth reading — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6).

Whilst we would be wrong to deny that the language of Baptism occasionally carries a more metaphorical sense in the NT, this metaphor is not as free-floating as Dunn seems to make it. In fact, I wonder whether ‘metaphor’ is a very helpful term for us to be using at all. Christ does not merely use baptism as a convenient metaphor for His death. Christ’s death isn’t just comparable to a baptism; it is a baptism.

It all comes down to how we define Baptism. If we read the Scriptures typologically, Baptism is primarily to be defined in terms of the wealth of OT typology that speaks of transitions made through water, for example. Jesus’ reference to His death as His baptism is firmly grounded in OT typology. Reading in terms of typology, we do not have literal baptisms on the one hand and metaphorical baptisms on the other. Rather, we have a number of different types of baptisms, some of which are water rituals and others which involve a broader application of the typology apart from a water ritual. These baptisms are bound together by their shared typology.

In terms of the scriptural typology of Baptism it makes a lot of sense for Romans 6 to be referring to water baptism. The idea of a change in one’s relationship with God being brought about by means of a movement through water has a wealth of biblical support for it. We only face problems when we start to work with a definition of Baptism that cuts it loose from scriptural typology and a theology that denigrates physical rites and polarizes symbol and reality. Once we start to think of Baptism in terms of ‘literal’ and ‘metaphorical’ we will begin to think of Spirit and water Baptism as two quite different sorts of things, which are as separate as oil and water.

If we think in terms of typology, the two can be seen to be closely interrelated. Spirit Baptism has primary reference to Pentecost and the individual Christian receives the Spirit through water Baptism into the new community formed by the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). The contrast between Spirit and water Baptism is not the contrast between spiritual ‘reality’ and physical ‘picture’. Nor is the contrast a contrast between an efficacious Baptism by the Spirit and a water baptism that was powerless to change anything. John the Baptist’s point in contrasting his baptism with the Baptism of the Holy Spirit performed by Christ is that his baptism was not able to give the new covenant life of the Holy Spirit. However, John’s baptism was not without efficacy; it promised nothing less than divine forgiveness.

The contrast that we see between water and Spirit Baptism in places in the NT is the contrast created by two different redemptive historical eras, a contrast that is gradually removed as the post-Pentecost era is established. After Pentecost, apart from a few exceptional cases (recorded precisely as exceptional cases), Baptism with the Holy Spirit and water Baptism were one and the same event. As I pointed out earlier, the contrast between Holy Spirit and water Baptism might also be the contrast between Baptism as being taken out of the waters below and Baptism as being brought out of the waters below and passing through the waters above. The Baptism of the Spirit is a Baptism that is poured out from above. Now that the Church is the New Temple in Christ, the One who has passed through the heavens, Baptism does not merely take us out of the sea of exile, but brings us into the heavenly Temple itself.

Some will argue that determining the meaning of NT rites by their relationship to OT rites produces an excessive continuity between the two testaments. I dispute this claim. I believe that such an approach will be far more likely to give us deep insight into the meaning of Christian Baptism than the sociological and anthropological approaches adopted by many NT scholars. The great weakness of such approaches is that, whilst they can say things about the role of initiation rites in general or in the ancient Hellenistic context, they seldom tell us much about the meaning of Christian Baptism in particular. What is it about Christian Baptism that gives it its peculiar significance and makes it more than just a generic water initiation rite?

What is the primary context within which we will best understand Christian Baptism? Studies of generic initiation rites may produce some parallels with the practice of Christian Baptism, but the relationship that Christian Baptism bears with a ritual washing performed by some tribe in the Amazonian rainforest is far too weak to draw much significance from any differences that might exist between the rites. Such studies can alert us to the continuities between various initiation rituals and to the generic significance that initiation rites have, but they really cannot achieve much beyond this. They can highlight the significance of some details, but in general they tend to level out initiation rituals too much.

However, when we study Christian Baptism in its proper context of biblical typology and the many forms of pre-Pentecost baptisms the continuities between Christian Baptism and earlier baptisms will actually be of less significance than the differences. The differences between Christian Baptism and some ritual washing performed by a tribe in the Amazonian rainforest may be great, but they cannot teach us much as they belong to radical different social and cultural contexts. When we study Christian Baptism within its proper social and cultural context, against the background of pre-Pentecost baptisms, differences are suddenly of great significance as they occur within the same symbolic and linguistic economy.

Peter Leithart has argued that NT rites should be understood as ‘conjugations’ of OT rites. NT and OT rites ultimately have the same ‘verbal root’ — Christ — and share the same fundamental typological structure. However, NT rites differ from OT rites as a new conjugation of the shared typological root. The significance of NT rites is thus chiefly to be found in the differences between them and OT rites. Consequently, the claim that understanding NT rites against the background of OT rites levels things out too much is quite unjustified.

Esler’s account of Christian Baptism is quite spectacular. It also seems quite speculative and alien to many of the Scriptural accounts of Baptism. Christian Baptism is certainly an amazing event. As Jeff Meyers’ has observed, if we saw what really happens in Baptism we would be dazzled. We would witness opened heavens, theophanies and all sorts of other wonders. However, to our eyes Scriptural Baptism is simple and unadorned and does not have the spectacle of many of the later forms that it assumed within the Church, forms which seem seriously to distort Esler’s reading of the NT text itself.

I do not believe that the idea that Christian Baptism is normally accompanied by ecstatic experiences and demonstrations of charismatic phenomena has much scriptural foundation. There are some accounts of such baptisms, but they occur within a context that should guard us against the idea that they represent the norm for all Christian Baptisms. Whilst I am not a strict cessationist I believe that there are good biblical reasons to question whether Paul expected each Baptism to be followed by speaking in tongues, visions and similar charismatic phenomena for it to be regarded as a genuine reception of the Spirit.

The initial reception of the Spirit at Pentecost and the events that are closely related to it in the book of Acts involve spectacular manifestations of the Spirit’s presence. Whilst I believe that we would be unjustified to altogether rule out such manifestations in the contemporary contexts in which we find ourselves, we should also recognize that, Scripturally, such manifestations are generally associated with the initial foundation of a covenant order and disappear after a few decades, or only occur once at the very beginning.

The gifts of the Spirit are for the establishment of the Church. There are some gifts that exist like scaffolding for the initial forming of the Church. There are other gifts that exist for the furnishing of Church and daily service of the Church. The ‘scaffolding gifts’ are generally more spectacular, but are not needed after a while. The more quotidian gifts then become more prominent. We should not be surprised to see miracles, healings, prophetic insight and the like later on in a particular covenant era, but they will be considerably rarer. The gradual diminishing of such gifts as prophecy, tongues and healing in the history of the early Church should not shock us. It is not an indication of apostasy. It is just a sign that the establishment of the Church has pretty much taken place. Faith, hope and love have to do with the structural integrity of the Church; they will persist as the scaffolding of other gifts is removed.

Let me give an example. In Exodus 31:1ff. we see that YHWH fills Bezalel with the Holy Spirit for constructing the Tabernacle. Bezalel has the Spirit-given gift of embroidery, for example, which is of great importance for the construction of the Tabernacle. Such a Spiritual gift, however, is not a normal Spiritual gift, but is given in a particular historical circumstance and for a particular limited purpose.

The event of Pentecost was not just one spectacular event among many in the early Church’s life. It was the start of a new covenant order. The spectacular signs that accompanied it would not be expected to be part of the regular life of the Church from that point onwards (although they certainly were for a number of years during the period of the Church’s establishment). The early Church knew their Scriptures too well to suppose that the character of its life immediately following Pentecost would persist into the long term future.

Even when we look at the examples of Christian Baptism within the book of Acts and elsewhere, it is hard to see how many of them fit Esler’s description. Whilst performing Christian Baptism in the context of a gathered meeting of the Church might be the ideal way to do things, there are many examples of Baptism in Scripture that were performed quite differently. Christian Baptism does not seem to necessitate the presence of the gathered Christian community. Early Christian Baptism as recorded in the NT also seems to occur apart from lengthy catechetical preparation and does not seem to involve candidates stripping naked and other such practices that Esler refers to.

Both Esler and Dunn focus on the ‘Baptism’ of Romans 6 primarily in terms of a memorable experience. Esler in particular gives great attention to the psychological effect of Baptism. The significance of Baptism is largely known through the strength of the experiences that surround it. Esler hypes up early Christian Baptism in a way that grants a lot of significance to details of the rite that are never mentioned in Scripture and far less significance to the details that the Scripture does give us.

Within Dunn’s account the identification with Christ formed by the ‘Baptism’ of Romans 6 is far weaker than it seems to be in Paul’s mind. For Dunn the identification is primarily a self-identification and has less of the strength of an objective fact. Esler’s concentration on the baptizand’s subjective sense of Baptism also obscures the idea of Baptism as a rite that is primarily there to do something to us, rather than as a rite designed to give rise to a subjective experience.

It seems to me that Paul appeals to Baptism, not as a subjective experience of conversion, nor even as a physical rite that brings about a new state of affairs through a powerful experience, but as a rite that genuinely did something to us, whether or not it was accompanied by an experience. Paul’s point is that Baptism made us new people. Whilst Baptism might well be a powerful experience for us, it is not the experience that makes us new people. Baptism is like adoption in this respect. Adoption makes me a new person and brings me into new relationships, whatever I feel about it. Adoption may be a profound and powerful experience of deliverance and love or the adopted child might not remember the time of their adoption. Either way the significance of adoption remains. This is the way that Paul appeals to Baptism, I believe. Baptism changed me, whether I felt it or not or appreciated it or not. I now have to reckon that change to be true and live in terms of it.

Children, the Word and the Church

Uriesou Brito links to a brief article from Alexander Schmemann on his new blog. The following is a brief quote from Schmemann’s article:—

As a general rule, children like attending Church, and this instinctive attraction to and interest in Church services is the foundation on which we must build our religious education. When parents worry that children will get tired because services are long and are sorry for them, they usually subconsciously express their concern not for their children but for themselves. Children penetrate more easily than do adults into the world of ritual, of liturgical symbolism. They feel and appreciate the atmosphere of our Church services. The experience of Holiness, the sense of encounter with Someone Who is beyond daily life, that mysterium tremendum that is at the root of all religion and is the core of our services is more accessible to our children than it is to us. “Except ye become as little children,” these words apply to the receptivity, the open-mindedness, the naturalness, which we lose when we grow out of childhood. How many men have devoted their lives to the service of God and consecrated themselves to the Church because from childhood they have kept their love for the house of worship and the joy of liturgical experience! Therefore, the first duty of parents and educators is to “suffer little children and forbid them not” (Matt. 19:14) to attend Church. It is in Church before every place else that children must hear the word of God. In a classroom the word is difficult to understand, it remains abstract, but in church it is in its own element. In childhood we have the capacity to understand, not intellectually, but with our whole being, that there is no greater joy on earth than to be in Church, to participate in Church services, to breathe the fragrance of the Kingdom of Heaven, which is “the joy and peace of the Holy Spirit.”

Of course, all of this presupposes the rich liturgy of Orthodox worship. The claim that the worship of the Church is the place where the Word of God is in ‘its own element’ is simple yet profound. The common idea that our encounter with the Word of God is primarily about reading the text of the Bible, enclosed between two covers, falls far short of the reality of Christian engagement with Scripture for so many reasons.

The story of the Scriptures is a story of progressive incarnation. When the Word becomes flesh He does not merely take a body created out nothing, but a body that has been being prepared for Him since the beginning of creation. He does not merely come as a generic individual human being, but as one who takes the flesh of Israel as has own. The Word does not merely take a biological and Adamic body to Himself, but, as the Messiah, He takes a particular body politic also. This body politic had been formed by the spoken Word of God in successive stages, something that Douglas Knight helpfully compares to the gradual assembling of computer circuitry. The rituals and ceremonies of the OT Law, the worship of the psalms, the structures of the Tabernacle and the Temple: all of these are ways in which God prepares a body for His Son.

The Scriptures create a world through story, symbol, ritual and worship, a world that the people of God are called to live out of. God’s world does not come all at once, but is gradually moulded and developed over time. The Word of God in Scripture is a world-creating Word, no less than the Word of God in Genesis 1. Unfortunately, if our encounter with the Word of God is limited to reading a book the idea that the Scripture creates a world (indeed, is a world) seems a bit far-fetched.

Within the new covenant there is a movement beyond inscription of the Word to incarnation of the Word, not just in Christ, but in the Church, which lives out of Christ’s humanity. This should decisively shape our understanding of the relationship between the Scripture and the ethical life of the Christian community. In the various OT prophecies of the new covenant, great emphasis is put on the fact that the Law of God will now be written on the heart, and not merely on tablets of stone. The initially ‘external’ Law will gradually be consumed into the life of the community until there is no remainder.

In the old covenant the people of God had the tablets of stone at their heart. The new covenant people of God are reconstituted around the risen Christ—the Heart of Flesh. At Pentecost, with the gift of the Spirit, the Church grows out of the resurrected humanity of the Word, as the totus Christus. The telos of Scripture is such incarnation, making us participants in the life of Christ. The Word now indwells us in a living form, by the Spirit. In the OT the Word of God formed the world that the people of God inhabited; in the NT the Word of God is the world that the people of God embody in Christ.

The fact that the transformed community—the totus Christus—is the telos of the text determines our hermeneutical posture. The text can only be properly understood when it is related to this telos. True interpretation of the text both presupposes and results in moral transformation. There is no division between hermeneutics and ethics. The renewed community helps us to read the text properly and the text reads us into the renewed community. The Scriptures can only be properly understood from within the community of faith, in the context of their public performance; outside of the community of faith the text has a veil over it.

This is one of the reasons why the proper context of Scripture reading and study is the life of the Church. Far too much Protestant worship is even less ‘incarnational’ than OT worship. When we read the Scripture we are giving voice to the life that we embody in Christ. The world and the Word that creates and gives voice to that world are mutually interpretative. Reading the Bible apart from the context of the Church is like reading a book describing an alien world. No matter how wise and learned you are, you will know less of this world than a simple child who has lived in this world for a few years (this illustration originates with T.F. Torrance, if I remember correctly), even if they have no idea of the science of their world.

As people reject the sacramental life and community of discipleship of the Church the Scriptures will become darkened to them, a fog of obscure teachings. This is one of the reasons why I continually stress the importance of encountering the Scriptures, not primarily as ‘the Bible’, but as the texts which form the life of the Church through their performance in the liturgy, sacrament and proclamation and as the Word that we embody in Christ.

Let me give just one small example of how this connection between the Church as world and the Scriptures as the Word of that world can empower the proclamation of the Word to a young child. I still remember from my childhood occasionally attending the local Church of Ireland around Christmas time. The thing that really spoke to me was the Church calendar and Advent in particular. I had heard the story of Christmas many times before, but in the worship of Advent and the various readings running up to Christmas I began to live in the story. I began to hear the story as a story of hope, remembrance and anticipation, a story in which I was personally involved. I was feeling hope and anticipation; I was not merely reading about hope and anticipation. The Christmas story opened up to me as never before. I reread the story from within, as it were. Reading from within: this is what Christian encounter with the Scriptures is all about.

Ruminations on Two Posts from Peter Leithart

Over the last few days Peter Leithart has posted two posts that have really resonated with issues that I have been thinking about of late. The following are some extensive thoughts sparked off by Leithart’s own comments. (more…)

Limbo in Limbo

The BBC reports:

Catholic experts are expected to advise Pope Benedict XVI that the traditional state of limbo - somewhere between heaven and hell - should be abolished.

This statement does read a bit strangely, almost making it sound as if limbo is a real place that the papacy created many years back and have finally decided to empty of its occupants, having no further use for the realm. Of course, limbo is nothing of the kind. It is just a speculative and unbiblical notion and we should be encouraged that Pope is possibly going to decisively reject it. Let’s hope that purgatory is next on the list.

So what might the rejection of limbo for unbaptized children mean for the Roman Catholic practice of infant Baptism? Hopefully it will encourage a popular movement towards a more biblical understanding of the place of infant Baptism. Kurt Stasiak, a Roman Catholic theologian, puts the issue well:

Our discussion here emphasizes that the primary motive for baptizing our infants should not be our fear of what might be denied them should they die unbaptized but, rather, our hope of whom through baptism they will become. Through baptism the sons and daughters of our flesh become sons and daughters of God and are brought into new life in Christ and his Church. We baptize our children because we hope that as the grace of their baptism unfolds, they will mature as adult sons and daughters of God, ever-learning how to walk according to the Spirit.

Baptism overcomes the power of original sin. The connection between infant baptism and original sin, however, is not theological speculation as to how God can receive an unbaptized infant. It is, rather, the challenge of how the Christian community can receive the infant in such a way so that he will learn from the beginning the community’s ways and means of overcoming the effects of original sin that linger stubbornly in the lives of all. Baptism is the pledge and promise that infants are delivered from original sin—not by slow trickles of water, but by the flood of grace which rushes forth as they are transformed and brought into the family of God and the Church. Infant baptism does not mean the child is “home free” because limbo is no longer a possibility. It means the child is brought into a home—into a Christian environment—in which the Word of God is proclaimed from the beginning. Children learn how to be part of the family by being part of the family. Infant baptism proclaims how an infant is to live and be formed. If there is a limbo that needs to be addressed in our baptismal catechesis, it is not a hypothetical limbo between earth and heaven but, rather, the spiritual limbo that still exists in quite tangible form in far too many homes today.

In his superb treatment of the subject of infant Baptism in his book Return to Grace, Stasiak observes that many Christians leave infants in a form of suspense, waiting for the time when they can come to a more explicit form of faith. The impression given is that God views the infant more as a potential adult and believer, rather than as one to be brought into His family and to be valued for what they already are as infants (I have dealt with some of these issues in an older post). Stasiak writes:

The “point” of infant baptism—it is the point of adoption, of taking the initiative on behalf of another—is that neither God, nor Church, nor parents, keep the child “in limbo” until some future time when the child is able or willing to respond to the love already present and presented. Parents love their infants because of who they are now, not because of who they might eventually become. And if the precautions many parents today take even as the child is being “knit together in the mother’s womb” is any indication, they love their child “before now”: before the child from their flesh becomes their child in the world.

John on Infant Communion

John of Confessing Evangelical writes on the subject of infant communion from a Lutheran perspective.

Wright and Infant Baptism

I have been asked on more than one occasion how Wright can hold to his high view of Baptism. What seems to make his view even less tolerable in many people’s eyes is the fact that he is strongly in favour of the practice of infant Baptism. In conversation with some people yesterday the suggestion was made that one can reject Wright’s position on infant Baptism and infant faith and retain the rest of his thought more or less intact. I am not so sure.

Whilst it is undoubtedly true that Wright only mentions the practice of infant Baptism on a couple of occasions in his writings and may not even have given the issue any focused study, I believe that infant Baptism is strongly implied by a number of different aspects of his thought. A denial of infant Baptism will always risk compromising Wright’s theological project on a number of levels. Whilst I am not suggesting that there is nothing that a convinced Baptist could consistently take from Wright’s project — far from it — I am concerned that Wright’s paedobaptist position is seen by many to be an Anglican appendage. It is not; it is closely related to much of what he has said about Jesus and Paul, even if he has not traced these implications himself in his writings. We should always be wary of identifying appendages in the thought of smart theologians. Generally they are just following theological instincts that we have just not become attuned to.

Within this post I want to briefly list some of the ways in which Wright’s theology might be seen to imply the existence of infant faith and the legitimacy of infant Baptism.

1. His definition of faith. Within Wright’s theology one sees an attempt to broaden our definition of faith. The Protestant tradition has all too easily fallen prey to definitions of faith that work in terms of a dichotomy between inner feeling and outer ritual or between sincerity and outward conformity. Modernism has also affected our definition of faith in a number of other ways. Modernism has sharp dichotomies between internal and external, private and public, individual and communal and religious and political. Christian faith comes to be defined as something that is internal, private, individual and religious as opposed to something external, public, communal and political.

Within the context of modernity it is the concept of the autonomous individual, who is the source of his own values and identity, which holds sway. Faith is understood in the light of this. Baptist thought is very modern in its philosophical impulses. The problem is that Paul did not share our dichotomies. As Wright has often observed, Paul’s gospel obliterates our tidy modern political/religious dichotomy.

Wright broadens the definition of faith. He moves beyond the faith as internal disposition versus works as external action approach. He moves our definition of faith more in the direction of faithfulness, loyalty, fealty and allegiance. One’s loyalties are often public, political and external realities. Infants are not immune from loyalties. Infants are born into settings where strong bonds of loyalty exist. Infants are implicated in the loyalties of their parents.

Evangelicals tend to operate in terms of a private heart faith that demands a greater degree of knowledge and rules out infants. However, loyalty is more of a public reality that needs to become integrated with heart loyalty as one matures over time. It seems to me that the first century Christian would have regarded the modern evangelical understanding of faith as very narrow. It does not include outward faithfulness, allegiance in a more political sense, it rules out the faith of infants and the faith of those who have a loyalty to Christ or to the Church with little or any knowledge to back it up (the sort of faith that most Christians prior to the Reformation had). Clearly the later form of faith is far from ideal, the faith of infants immature, and outward faithfulness and a more political allegiance often insufficient, but that does not mean that they are never genuine forms of faith, even of saving faith.

I don’t see why genuine Christian faith need involve a ‘personal relationship with Jesus Christ’. We can relate to people through others and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that God does just that. God regards the children of believers as ‘holy’ (i.e. set apart for divine use, not merely ‘clean’) and the children of unbelievers as ‘unclean’. God is a ‘family friend’, as it were. No infant is neutral.

We can also relate to Christ through His people. Saul persecuted Christ by persecuting His people. In Matthew 25 we see people declared righteous as they show a form of Christian faith by the way that they treat Christ’s people. They relate to Christ in His people, even though they do not know it. I believe that there are many who will be declared righteous on the last day, who knew little about Christ, but were loyal to His Church. The Nicene Creed, one of the basic declarations of Christian faith, has the Church itself as an object of faith, along with the Holy Trinity. Evangelicals, who focus on faith in Christ as distinct from His Church, do not do this enough justice. The infant relates to Christ through its Christian parent, which it relies upon for everything.

I see no reason to presume any knowledge on the part of the Christian infant in order to claim that they have a form of genuine faith. When Paul calls for allegiance to the world’s new Lord, Jesus the Messiah, he is not looking for a faith that is any less of a public reality than that which a new emperor would demand. Only when we have accepted the modernist religion/politics, public/private divide and placed Christian faith firmly on the private religion side of the equation will we have problems with the concept of household Baptism, for example. If the gospel really is as political as Wright is arguing household Baptism is the most natural thing in the world.

The important question that we must ask about infants is the object of their faith. It would be thoroughly inappropriate to baptize a newborn infant whose faith was not in Christ. However, there is no doubt that a child born into a faithful Christian family has genuine Christian faith. This faith may end up proving temporary, but it is still a real form of faith and the infant should not be held back from Baptism.

2. Opposition to gathered church mentality. Wright’s opposition to the gathered church mentality is another issue here. Baptists generally focus on the sort of faith that is mature, visible and obvious. Such faith is to be encouraged, but it is not the only form of faith. The rigorism of Baptist ecclesiology leads to the exclusion of many genuine believers. People like Wright are more prepared to recognize faith where it is found — even when ignorant, immature or compromised — and try to bring it to maturity and purer expression. Rigorism makes the Church into a closed sect, whereas the welcome of Jesus was far wider. In Wright’s mind establishing leaders in the Church that can exercise the authority of Scripture with power is far more important than a rigorism concerning the Church’s membership.

3. Challenging Caesar. Wright holds to a high ecclesiology. He believes that the Church is like the colony of a new empire. Baptists think in terms of a voluntaristic Church. They presume that a ‘voluntaristic’ Church is synonymous with a ‘faithful’ Church. However, Caesar isn’t really challenged by a ‘voluntaristic’ Church. A ‘voluntaristic’ Church is a sect, not a new society.

Oliver O’Donovan, an old friend of Wright, expresses this point very well in criticizing John Howard Yoder:

Finally, does the concept of the church as a voluntary society not commend itself chiefly because it fits late-modern expectations of how civil society will be organized? Is Yoder, in the name of non-conformity, not championing a great conformism, lining the church up with the sports clubs, friendly societies, colleges, symphony subscription-guilds, political parties and so on, just to prove that the church offers late-modern order no serious threat? [The Desire of the Nations, p.223f.]

It seems to me that Wright’s claims about the political character of the Church as a colony of Christ really stand in direct opposition to Baptist ecclesiology. Even the more communitarian understandings of Anabaptism fall short of Wright’s vision. The idea of the Church as a colony has a far thicker sense in Wright’s work than it ever can in the context of a Baptist ecclesiology.

4. Connection between circumcision and Baptism. This is a connection that Wright makes on a number of occasions in his works. Wright has also suggested that this is one of the arguments that he would use to support the practice of infant Baptism. Circumcision was a seal of the righteousness of faith, but yet it was perfectly appropriate to give it to infants, who were not considered as detached individuals, but as persons implicated in the faith of their parents.

5. Christ’s reconstitution of Israel and humanity. Wright strongly argues that Jesus sought to reconstitute Israel around Himself. The Church is formed through the waters of Baptism. A reconstitution of Israel and a new humanity that excludes infants is a mockery. Wright stresses the ‘peopleness’ of the Church. The Church is an outward and visible family solidarity analogous to Israel. Baptism strips off old solidarities and places us within a new one and changes our sets of allegiances. Baptism forms a new society. We are baptized into one new body. Baptism is like birth into the community of Christ’s faith where we gain a new family; it is not just an expression of our individual faith.

Baptists tend to downplay the significance of Israel in our understanding of the Church. There is a sharp discontinuity between the type of society that Israel was and the type of society that the Church is. Such a sharp discontinuity is very hard to maintain once one has accepted Wright’s reading of Jesus’ ministry. The Church is a reconstitution of Israel around the Messiah, not a different type of society altogether. Baptists can only really speak of the ‘Israelness’ of the Church at a highly metaphorical level.

6. Christ’s Ministry. Following on from the point above, it is worth noticing that Wright points out that miracles occur in the context of faith and also that they are part of the means whereby God reconstitutes His people. Two facts are interesting here: (1) on a number of occasions Jesus heals people on the account of the faith of their parents or masters (e.g. Mark 5:22ff.; Luke 9:38ff.; John 4:47ff.); (2) Children are often the beneficiaries of Christ’s healing (e.g. Mark 7:25ff.). This suggests that the reconstitution of the people of God around Christ is one that includes children and also that they are in some sense included in the faith of their parents.

It is also interesting that Jesus repeatedly speaks of children as the paradigm case of those who receive the kingdom. When we recognize that Jesus was reforming Israel around Himself, His blessing of infants, for example, becomes even more significant (it is worth observing how loaded the concept of blessing is in the gospel; it is no light thing). If we read the gospels through the framework presented by Wright such incidents cannot but be seen as significant.

Eating and Drinking in John 6

This quote from Peter Leithart is a good response to the arguments of James White.

Some commentators claim that John 6 cannot be talking about the Lord’s Supper because the verbs (in vv. 52-59) are aorist. This is very implausible to me. John recorded a discourse of Jesus in which he speaks of eating flesh, drinking blood - both resonant with Eucharistic associations, and he wrote this discourse to churches that commemorated Jesus with a meal of Jesus’ flesh and blood. And yet, we know that John didn’t intend to talk about the Eucharist because of the verb tense! If John didn’t intend his readers to think of the Eucharist, he’s chosen a singularly odd way to do his business. It almost seems like a trick: Everything in the chapter SOUNDS like Eucharist, but John leaves us the subtle clue of the verb tense to let us know it’s not. A wider point about grammatical-historical exegesis: This is an example of grammar trumping the text; the verb tense controls what the passage means, rather than the whole passage controlling what the passage means. This is not the way we normally use language; when we use rich and resonant imagery, we expect our readers to notice it, and not to focus on verb tenses and not to let the verb tenses control (or cancel out) the imagery. (This is not to say that the verb tenses of Scripture are irrelevant or unimportant. They are, as is every jot and tittle. But there is not reason to make the verb tenses controlling.)

I am increasingly persuaded that those who focus on reading the Bible solely through the lenses provided by grammatical-historical exegesis habitually miss the point of many biblical passages. Reading the Bible through the lenses provided by the worship and life of the Church (not to the exclusion of grammatical-historical exegesis) gives us a very different message. The evocative language of Scripture demands to be read with something other than the emaciated imagination of the scientific exegete. The consciousness that has been drenched in the rich symbolism of the liturgy will be attuned to such things; the consciousness that see symbols merely as secondary appendages to the clear literal message of the text will not. It will fail to appreciate the weight of allusions that constitute most of the text’s message.

The weave of most of the passages in Scripture is formed primarily of the threads furnished by the liturgically-trained memory. To the mind of the exegete that is not steeped in the narratives of Scripture and the worship of the Church the Scripture will always begin to take on a threadbare appearance. This is not the fault of the Scriptures. It is the fault of the unimaginative reader who has to have everything spelt out for him.

Leithart has argued that many Protestants can’t write because they don’t have a robust sacramental theology. One could equally argue that they can’t read for the same reason (as James Jordan points out in his article ‘Apologia on Reading the Bible’). The Scriptures and the sacramental life of the Church are mutually interpretative. Abandon one and you will gradually lose the other.

Biblical Mode of Participation in Supper Safer than Intinction

So says this article [HT: I don't remember where I was linked from. If it was you, thank you.].

Christian Faith and the Ecological Crisis

Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks

The fact that humankind is facing an ecological crisis of unprecedented proportions is becoming increasingly harder to deny. Groans of a creation in pain are heard from virtually every direction. Steven Bouma-Prediger catalogues some of the dimensions of our ecological crisis: ‘exploding population growth, hunger and malnutrition, loss of biodiversity, deforestation, water scarcity and impurity, land degradation, waste production, energy misuse, air pollution and acid rain, global climate change.’ (more…)

Baptism 101

Baptism of Jesus Christ by Leonardo Da Vinci (incidentally, this is by far my preferred mode of baptism — baptism by affusion whilst standing in water)

A couple of weeks ago I gave a brief presentation on the subject of Baptism in the link group in my halls. Given the fact that the question of Baptism has recently been an issue for intense discussion on the Boar’s Head Tavern (one of my favourite websites) I thought that I might as well post my thoughts on the subject. The vast majority of the following is not directly pertinent to the debate in hand, but you never know, someone might find it helpful. There is really hardly anything in the following that hasn’t been said many times before; it is extremely basic. You have been warned. (more…)

Two Good Posts

Joel and Dennis are absolutely right, as usual.

On the question of the Real Presence, I feel a duty to conform my language on the subject to that of the Church Fathers and to the weight of the Church’s tradition. I would rather do this than play linguistic hopscotch, trying to avoid stepping on the toes of Reformed people who have abandoned the teaching of the Church on this issue and seeking to wring as high a doctrine of the Supper as I can out of unwilling confessional documents. The Reformed doctrine of the Supper is insipid. By the time that you are able to make any affirmation on the presence of Christ in the Supper in Reformed circles your statements have to be so diluted by qualifications and clarifications as to be relatively meaningless.

I strongly affirm that in the Supper the Body and Blood of our Lord are truly present and that we eat and drink them. Everyone who rejects this has departed from the Scriptures and the Christian tradition. I do not make this claim as an unwilling concession to the larger Christian tradition. It is not a doctrine that I have come to only through careful study to ascertain whether the Reformed faith will permit me to hold such a position. This is just plain vanilla Christian faith and does not need to be justified by the Reformed confessional documents. To the degree that the Reformed confessional documents mute, obscure, omit or deny this doctrine, it is they that stand in need of justification, not the larger tradition.

Tim Gallant on Worship

Some very interesting thoughts here.

‘Luther the Non-Protestant’

Leithart has a very interesting post here. It doesn’t say anything that most of us didn’t already know, but it does say it very well.