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Volume 16, Issue 3: Liturgia

Baptism is Baptism, Part 1

Peter J. Leithart

How can we both affirm what the Bible affirms about baptism, without hesitation, embarrassment, or bad conscience, while also avoiding the errors that have plagued the church for centuries? How can we affirm a strong view of baptism without implying that all the baptized are saved and without implying that the water is a magic potion? I propose that we answer those questions in terms of three axioms:

1. When the New Testament writers use the word
"baptism," they mean the water rite we call baptism.
2. When the New Testament writers call the church the "body of Christ," they mean that the church is the body of Christ.
3. Apostasy is possible.
Though these may seem truisms or even tautologies, they are not, or at least they are not considered as tautologies by many Christians. So, they must be argued for.
Let's tackle the first axiom first: baptism means baptism. This claim is questioned on at least two grounds. First, many believe that it is impossible for water to do what the NT says baptism does. But this is, as I pointed out in an earlier article, often little more than an assumption brought to the text rather than a conclusion derived from it. It is equivalent to saying that John's teaching that "The Word became flesh" doesn't mean "God became man" because we know that it is impossible for God to become man.
Further, we need to remember that when the word baptism refers to the water ritual, the writer is talking about baptism and not merely water. The word baptism in this sense is not even equivalent to the action of pouring water or dunking in water. We cannot reduce a wink to a blink, or a wave of the hand to a nervous twitch of the arm, or an execution by lethal injection to a murder. A wink is not a variation on a blink; it is simply a different action. A Nazi salute is a different act than brushing away a dragonfly. Hanging is not necessarily a murder, though in both cases a person ends up dead. These actions are different because of the intentions and authorization of the actors. So also, baptism involves a particular use of water, a use authorized and commanded by Jesus Christ, and baptism is always done in connection with the Word. Therefore, the question is never "Can water do this?" but always "Can baptism do this?"
Second, some have pointed out that the Greek words for baptize and baptism (the nouns baptisma and baptismos and the verb baptizo) have a broader meaning in Greek texts and even in the NT itself. Therefore, the word does not fundamentally or necessarily mean water ritual. In the most elaborate study of the uses of baptizo, James W. Dale explains that in its original usage the word referred to physical immersion in a fluid. Yet, this was far from its only meaning. As Dale puts it, "Whatever is capable of thoroughly changing the character, state, or condition of any object, is capable of baptizing that object; and by such change of character, state, or condition, does, in fact, baptize it."
Within the NT, this expanded usage is apparent in Jesus' description of His death as a "baptism" (Mark 10:38-9; Luke 12:50), and in the description of the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost as a "baptism" (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33; Acts 1:5). In both cases, Dale would argue, the word refers to an event that exerts an overwhelming influence so great as to change the condition of the person who experiences the baptism.
Given this expanded usage, can we ever decide when the NT writers use baptism to refer to the water initiation of the church and when they use it in another sense?
There are many passages where one doubts that baptize and baptism refer to a water ritual, either John's baptism (Matthew 3:7; Mark 11:30; Luke 7:29; Acts 1:22; 10:37; 18:25) or Christian baptism (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38, 41; 8:12). In other passages, the words are used in contexts where some water typology is clearly in view. When Paul speaks of a "baptism" in the "sea" during the Exodus (1 Corinthians 10:2), he is thinking of the sea as the medium in which Israel was baptized. Similarly, Peter draws a typological connection between the flood and baptism (1 Peter 3:18-22). It is hard to imagine that Paul and Peter would use the words baptize or baptism in these contexts without intending readers to think of the watery crossing or the flood of their own baptism into Jesus.
Even without bringing other passages into play, these two passages suffice to show that the NT teaches a strong view of the effect and power of baptism. Peter, after all, speaks of water baptism as a saving event, even as Noah and his family were brought safely through the water of the flood. Likewise, Paul claims that passing through the water baptism of the Exodus united Israel with her covenant head ("into Moses"), and we know from Exodus 14 that this event delivered Israel from Pharaoh and Egyptian power. In an important sense, we don't need to prove that other passages that use the word baptism refer to the water rite. We have plenty to go on in these two passages.
Still, it is worth asking about those passages where baptism is used without explicit reference to water. Are they references to the ritual of water baptism? How can we know one way or the other? That question will be the subject of the next essay.

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