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Volume 17, Issue 2: Liturgia

Baptism is Baptism, III

Peter Leithart

1 Corinthians 12:13 is commonly seen as a reference to the experience of baptism by the Spirit, rather than water baptism. No wonder. The text explicitly states that the Spirit is the agent (or the medium) by (or in) which we are baptized: "by [or "in"] one Spirit we were all baptized into one body." Craig Blomberg points out that there are seven uses of the phrase "baptize with/in the Spirit" in the New Testament (in addition to 1 Cor. 12, there's Mt. 3:11; Mk. 1:8; Lk. 3:16; Jn. 1:33; Acts 1:5; 11:16), and these passages actually contrast water baptism with the baptism of the Spirit. In Paul's usage, Blomberg says, the phrase refers to "an initiation experience that immerses a person into the realm of the Spirit." This Spirit-baptism "must not be confused with water-baptism."

Calvin is guilty of just this "confusion," however: "Paul of course [emphasis added] is speaking about the baptism of believers, which is efficacious through the grace of the Spirit. For to many people baptism is merely a formality, a symbol without any effect; but believers actually do receive the reality with the sacrament." Thus, "as far as God is concerned, it always holds true that baptism is an ingrafting into the body of Christ, because everything that God shows forth to us in baptism, he is prepared to carry out, so long as we, on our part, are capable of it." Paul has in view the "essence of baptism," which is "to incorporate us into the body of Christ," and this is the essence of baptism, Calvin argues, whether or not everyone who receives the sacrament is actually joined to Christ. Paul's point in mentioning the Spirit is simply to emphasize that "this is not effected by the outward symbol." It is rather the "work of the Holy Spirit."
So, who's confused, Calvin or Blomberg? Does "baptism" in 1 Corinthians 13 mean water baptism? There are good reasons to think so, and to accept Calvin's "of course."
First, baptism is mentioned several times in 1 Corinthians prior to chapter 13, and those uses are linked in various ways with 12:13. In 1:13-17, there is no doubt that Paul is speaking of the rite of baptism. Paul points to water baptism as a sign of the unity of the Corinthians in Christ, and this provides an important link with 12:13, where he teaches that baptism forms one body that is not divided by ethnic-religious or social boundaries. Paul also mentions baptism in his typological interpretation of the Exodus in 1 Corinthians 10:2, where he speaks of baptism "in the cloud and in the sea." The reference to a baptismal experience in water makes it clear that he is thinking about water-baptism, and the connections between 10:2 and 12:13 are tantalizing:
Baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea (10:2).
Baptized into one body [of Christ] in/by the Spirit (12:13).
Further, the last clause of 12:13 echoes 10:4:
All drank the same spiritual drink (10:4).
All made to drink of one Spirit (12:13).
12:13 deliberately reaches back to the clearly sacramental references at the beginning of chapter 10.
Third, what about those passages that use "baptism in the Spirit" with reference to something Jesus would do, in contrast to the water baptism of John? Particularly in Acts 1:5, this phrase refers to the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost. At that same event, however, Peter announces that anyone who wants to share in the baptism of the Spirit from Jesus must "repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38). Through this rite, the Spirit incorporates the baptized into the company of the disciples of Jesus, which is the body of Christ.
Finally, the clearest evidence that Paul is talking about water baptism is that he is talking throughout 1 Corinthians 12 about the visible church. Each member of the body has a "manifestation of the Spirit for the common good" (v. 7), the common good of the visible, historical community of the church. No member of the body can lord it over others, since all are necessary to the proper functioning of the body (vv. 14-21). This body is distinct from other social bodies in that the "least honorable" members receive more abundant honor (vv. 22-24). All members are to have "the same care for one another," and suffer and rejoice together (vv. 25-26). The body that Paul talks about has apostles, prophets, and teachers ruling and guiding it (vv. 28-29). This is not a description of the invisible church, but of the visible. Therefore, the baptism that Paul speaks of is also a visible baptism.
At least the Reformed theologians who compiled the proof texts to the Westminster Confession thought so, since they used 1 Corinthians 12:13 as a proof text for the claim that baptism is given "for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible church" (28.1).

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