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Volume 17, Issue 4: Liturgia

Baptism is Baptism, V

Peter Leithart

"For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ" (Galatians 3:27).

James D. G. Dunn, retired professor of New Testament at Durham, claims to be part of a small minority of commentators who do not believe Paul was referring to water baptism in Galatians 3:27. So let's start with him.
In his 1970 book, Baptism in the Holy Spirit, Dunn suggests that the phrase "baptized into" is a "metaphor drawn from the rite of baptism" that describes "the entry of the believer into the spiritual relationship of the Christian with Christ" or the "spiritual transformation which makes one a Christian." Paul's reference to "clothing" is metaphorical, and therefore "baptized" must also be metaphorical—as if Paul could not write both literally and metaphorically in one sentence. Further, Dunn says, Galatians as a whole deals with the contrast between a "relationship with God . . . through the law and which is entered by an outward, physical rite" and the new covenant relationship "through the Spirit of Christ and which is entered by the act of believing." Since Paul has spent so much of the letter polemicizing against finding identity through the physical rite, he could hardly be expected to return to a different physical rite here. Paul does not challenge the Jews by saying, "Your rites are ineffective, but ours are effective," but instead points "to the cross and resurrection, to faith and the Spirit." Anyone who focuses on the baptismal rite itself is like a child who "remembers the illustration but pays too little heed to the moral drawn from it."
To that I am tempted to repeat something I heard somewhere: Become like a little child.
But perhaps a counter-argument or two is necessary. For starters, Paul did not see the shift from the Old to New as a simple shift from external to internal. He reminded the Galatians, after all, that they received the Spirit through "hearing with faith" (3:2), that is, through the physical act of preaching. He teaches that Christ has been slaughtered as a Passover Lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7), but he immediately follows with an exhortation to keep a new covenant feast (5:8). The new Israel as much as the old celebrates an actual Passover feast, with physical food and physical eating and drinking. Further, the phrase "baptized into Christ" may be a shortened version of the phrase "baptize in the name" (Acts 2:38; 8:16; 10:48; 19:5; 1 Corinthians 1:13, 15). If there is an allusion to the baptismal formula here, Paul is talking about the rite of water baptism.
More importantly, it's essential to see how baptism fits into Paul's argument in Galatians. Paul's letter is not primarily about individual soteriology, but about the union of Jews and Gentiles in the one new man, Jesus the Christ, and the coming of a new creation through His death and resurrection. Paul gets to the heart of his rebuke in 3:1-5: The issue is whether the Spirit comes through the "works of the law"or through hearing the gospel with faith. If the Spirit initially came to those who believed the gospel, then they must be "perfected" in the same manner, and refuse the temptation to return to the "fleshly" ordinances of the Law (3:3).
Paul then launches into a review of redemptive history, showing that the Law was nestled within the promise, and, by bringing Israel under a curse, was the paradoxical means for bringing the Spirit to those who share the faith of Abraham (3:6-14). What was the purpose of the Law, then? Paul says here that it was given as a temporary "paedagogue" that kept Israel in custody until "faith" came (3:19, 23-24). In Galatians, the good news is that the promise to Abraham has been fulfilled, the pre-evangel that "all the nations shall be blessed in you" (3:8). Faith has come, and the Jews and Gentiles who believe in Jesus are no longer under a tutor, nor under the "elementary principles" that governed the world in its infancy (4:1-7).
This is the context for Paul's claims in 3:26-29. All those who share the faith of Abraham are "sons of God" (v. 26), that is, true Israelites (cf. Exodus 4:23). Whether they are of Jewish or Gentile origin, whether they are of slave or free class, whether they are male or female, they are all heirs of the inheritance promised to Abraham, the promise of the Spirit (vv. 28-29). The context for verse 27 is thus all about the formation of a new community of Abraham's seed. Baptism into Christ and being clothed with Christ is thus all about incorporation into membership in this new body, the body that is "one in Christ Jesus" (v. 28) the community of those who "are Christ's" (v. 29). Galatians has to do with the re-mapping of Israel and the Church that occurs in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is talking about the formation of a new historical body.
That new body is strikingly different from the old. In the Old Covenant system, only members of the covenant people were circumcised, and even God-fearing Gentiles remain uncircumcised. Circumcision distinguished between Jew and Gentile, and also between male and female. In the New Covenant, baptism is applied indiscriminately to all who believe—whether Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. Baptism thus symbolizes and enacts the union of Jew and Gentile in the church, ritually marking all the baptized as sons of Abraham.
A reference to the rite of baptism fits the logic of Paul's argument. Surely, there is nothing in Galatians 3 that requires us to understand "baptized" metaphorically. Once again, "baptism" means baptism.

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