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Volume 14, Issue 6: Liturgia

Starting Before the Beginning

Peter Leithart

With this article, I begin a series of studies on baptism, but it will be some months before I attempt to give any answers about baptism. To understand baptism, we need to start not at the beginning—with the various passages that deal with baptism, the mode and subjects of baptism, and so on—but before the beginning—with the unexamined and usually false assumptions about God, man, the world, the church, salvation, rituals, and signs that shape our theology of baptism. To illustrate: Paul wrote that Christians have all been united to Christ in His death and resurrection because they have all been baptized (Rom. 6). Many preachers cannot take Paul at his word. "Baptism" doesn't refer to the "sign" of water but to the "thing" that the water symbolizes. Paul wasn't referring to the baptismal rite itself. He wasn't telling the Romans that they were dead and risen with Christ by baptism, but by that to which baptism points.

Which raises three basic questions: First, if he didn't mean baptism, why did he say baptism? Second, how do these commentators know that Paul wasn't referring to baptism? Third, and most fundamentally, what kind of assumptions about the world drive this interpretation? Why would anyone doubt that Paul is talking about water?
The answer to the first question is usually something like this: "There is a `sacramental union' between sign and thing. They are distinct but not separable, and therefore the writers of Scripture sometimes refer to the `sign' when they are talking about the `thing.'" By this argument, however, any passage about sacraments can be turned into a passage that is not about sacraments. Does Paul say that the loaf is a "communion" with the body of Christ? Well, he doesn't mean the physical loaf, but the "thing" to which the loaf points; hence, we can read 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 and remain safely Zwinglian. Does Peter say that "baptism now saves you"? Well, of course he isn't referring to water, but to that which the washing points. "Baptism now saves you" is a colorful way of saying "Christ now saves you."
This is hopeless. By this procedure, we end up with no sacramental theology and perhaps with no sacraments.
The answer to the second question is closely bound up with the first. How do readers know that Paul was not referring to water baptism in Romans 6? The answer is: Because the biblical writers sometimes use the "sign" when referring. . . . You get the point. That is precisely the argument in John Murray's Christian Baptism, still very much the standard treatment of the subject in Reformed circles. Though Murray doesn't go so far as to say that "there is no water in Romans 6," he does say "it is not the rite of baptism that is in the foreground" because the "thing" of union with Christ is in the foreground. With a wave of his hands and a few irrelevant quotations from Paul, Murray suggests that "reference to the rite may have receded almost to the point of disappearance." This is not a cogent argument, because it is not an argument at all. It is assertion.
The answer to the third question is found in, with, and under these assertions. There are a host of rotting assumptions buried in Murray's analysis that need to be exhumed and given decent but decisive burial. One reason for denying that "baptism" in Romans 6 refers to water is a fear of attributing too much power to water. In his recent systematic theology, Robert Reymond, in the tradition of John Murray, argues that, despite speaking of sacraments as "effectual means of salvation," the Westminster Confession and Catechisms make it clear that "there is nothing in the sacraments per se that saves." Armed with this assumption, a commentator is almost forced to conclude that Paul is not talking about water. If he were, he would be attributing power to the sacrament itself. "Sacerdotalist."
Seas of ink have been poured in debating whether there is any efficacy in the sacraments "in themselves." But this debate is worthless, because both sides begin from the assumptions that 1) there is such a thing as a "sacrament in itself" and that 2) some things (though not sacraments) do have "efficacy in themselves." Both assumptions are false.
Consider: Baptismal water is a sign authorized by Christ for His church. It is never simply water, but the authorized entry rite into discipleship (Mt. 28:18-20). We cannot, dare not, think that this water is "mere water," any more than the American flag is "just a piece of cloth."
More fundamentally, whatever could it mean for sacraments to operate "by themselves"? We can only consider this possibility if we believe that the world has some degree of autonomy from God, that the creation has some power or will or force of its own. Reformed people above all should know this is folly. Is it possible for water to exist apart from the continuing work of the eternal Word of the Father, who holds all things together, including hydrogen and oxygen atoms? Not if we take Paul seriously. Does the water that washes my hair in the shower work "by itself"? God forbid! Does the bread I eat on Monday provide life "by itself"? Nothing at all, other than the Triune God Himself, has efficacy "in itself."
I'm not disputing the Reformed answer here. The fact that the question has been raised and taken seriously demonstrates the need for a root-and-branch reform of our baptismal theology. Before we can progress in providing answers about baptism, we have to repent of our questions.

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