Are We All Wet?

Posted: December 8, 2011 in Theology
Tags: , , , , , ,
A minister prepares to baptize a believer.

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Over the centuries much has been made about baptism. Arguments have been fashioned around the mode, the meaning, and the effects. In fact I would argue that so much energy has been spent on the details of the practice that there has been insufficient time to theologically reflect upon both the specific connotations and the wider implications of this core practice. In a paper I once wrote, I argued that once baptism ceased being a radical practice (from an Anabaptist perspective) for which one would risk one’s own life, then it lost some of its influence (formative that is) over the community. Over time I have come to believe that baptism as a practice for the believing community is more than simply an act of obedience. Even if the earliest Brethren spent considerable time emphasizing the human aspect (through obedience), I am convinced that there is more that takes place in this practice. In fact I have softened my previous thoughts on the diminishing value of baptism for the community to say that this practice more than shapes the hermeneutical lens of the community in a way so that it sees itself as a contrast community. In the very act of obedience by submitting to be baptized the initiate essentially practices relinquishment, which in posturing oneself as such affirms the desire to cooperate with the inner working of God’s Spirit and the trajectory of God’s kingdom.

What I have just posed is a theological movement from understanding the practice of baptism as an ordinance to something more. If it were not for the wider connotations of sacramental language (especially those surrounding the issue of sacerdotalism and the politics of membership in the institutional church) I would employ it here. Reflecting on Augustine one may ask if baptism is an outward expression of an inward grace? My problem with this is that there is an underlying dualism in this expression. As well-meaning as it may be, I think that Augustine’s Neo-Platonism is not helpful in this case. If we are to resist the tendency of separating the physical from the spiritual holding to a holistic understanding of not only what it means to be human but also the ways in which we perceive our surrounding reality, then baptism is more than the physical expression of a spiritual reality. Baptism is a spiritually efficacious practice which has real ontological and epistemological implications upon the human being as a whole. It’s not that Augustine is wrong in this, but that in delineating between an inner and outer dichotomy (or spiritual and physical) we tend to assume that it is an “either/or” choice. I suppose the point here is to raise the question of whether there is a real ontological change that takes place. There are some traditions (while I may disagree with them) that believe that in the act of baptism the person is saved. While I surely will not go this far, I do think that something more occurs in baptism than simply getting wet. A practical effect of baptism (at least in the Anabaptist community) is the entrance into the believing community. For Brethren this includes the speaking and receiving of vows by both the initiate and the congregation. While teaching I have often likened this part of the practice with the event of marriage. Scripture leads us to believe that marriage has ontological effects upon the persons involved. If this is so then why would it not especially be in the case of baptism? Contrariwise to Conrad Beissel, one cannot be unbaptized in the same way that one cannot undue being wed as much as we may try through divorce (Mark 10:9).

What I am not saying in this is that baptism saves anyone. My clear statement of faith is that salvation is through the risen son of God, Jesus, the messiah. And yet I am saying that baptism has a real effect upon the initiate and congregation. Even as the person is professing faith in Jesus, sharing a testimony of that faith, being immersed in the water and received by the believing community something changes in that person. At the foundational level, the initiate’s identity is forever changed as that personal narrative is woven into God’s metanarrative of life. My intuition tells me that there is an even more profound ontological event which occurs. It is this that I have been pondering and would like to think about further. I would be curious to hear some others’ short reflections about this as well.

  1. May I ask a simple question please (or maybe a couple but one main one)? You stated that you are not saying that baptism saves anyone. What would be wrong with saying that? I’m not talking about saying that the water itself does the saving but the act to which we are commanded to obey?

    Obeying the command of Jesus does not merit salvation any more than one having faith itself does. Baptism is a work of God and not a work of man (Colossians 2:11-13). Sadly it is more often than not confused for being the opposite.

    Here’s my main question: The apostle Peter said “baptism saves” in 1 Peter 3:21 so why can’t we say what Peter did and leave it at that?

    I certainly agree with you that there is much, much more to baptism than just gettting wet.


    • Andrew says:

      Eugene, thanks for the comment (question). First, let me just say that I do appreciate the reminder of 1 Peter. Obviously my comments betrayed some of my own theological assumptions. However, what I am trying to get at in this article is that meaning, purpose, and nature of baptism is not as simple as we tend to want to make it. Surely you would agree that scripture has far more to say about baptism and salvation than the two passages you cited. My desire is to reflect deeper upon the efficacious nature of baptism. Even if one is to end up with the premise of baptismal regeneration (which I am personally not convinced of), the question then would be as to what this means from an ontological and relational perspective. How is the person really affected by the practice of baptism? The purpose is to move beyond the traditional doctrinal debates. So I am pushing for a deeper theological reflection.

  2. […] Are We All Wet? ( […]

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