Monday, September 2, 2013

The Water that Divides (4 November 2012)

Accompanying Presentation (opens in a new window)


A Presbyterian pastor and a Baptist pastor were arguing about the mode of baptism. The Baptist insisted it should be by immersion only. So the Presbyterian asked, “So if the person is wet to the knees it does not matter?” “Certainly not!” said the Baptist. “Surely if the person is wet to the waist it is enough?” “No way, Jose!” said the Baptist. “What about if he gets in to his neck?” “Not enough,” said the Baptist. “How about to his forehead?” “Nope! All of him should go under,” explained the Baptist getting quite annoyed at this waste of time. “So you are saying that until all of the person’s hair is wet it does not count?” “Finally, you’re getting the point!” exclaimed the Baptist. “So that’s why,” explained the Presbyterian, “we only pour the water on the person’s hair!” 

Today and next Sunday I have the unenviable task of speaking on two of the most divisive doctrines of the Christian faith - the two baptisms! Did I say two despite Ephesians 4.4-6 where we read, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all”? Keep this at the back of your mind while we try to understand what water baptism and baptism in the Holy Spirit are about over the next two weeks. 

Let me ask you a question. In the image on the screen, what is happening? Crossing of the Red Sea? I think not! Not if you read 1 Corinthians 10.1-2, where Paul says, “For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” 

Ok, tell me what’s happening here. What? Jesus praying at Gethsemane? I think not! Not if you read Luke 12.50, where Jesus tells his disciples, “But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed!” 

We begin with these two instances of scripture because it seems that when we Christians speak about baptism we have a tendency to become blind to the entirety of scripture. My exposure at Fuller Theological Seminary, however, unveiled my own blindness and showed me a world of interpretations. I don’t necessarily agree with all of them. But what I realized are some assumptions I wish for us to have as we proceed. 

First, people are in general sincere. Just because someone does not agree with you, does not mean that they are intentionally deceptive or that they are under the sway of evil forces or that they are in the clutch of un-confessed sin or that they must be eliminated at all costs. Disagreement simply means that you and the other person are sincere about the same thing in different ways. 

Second, my faith experience is vital to the vibrancy of my faith. But my faith experience is not the plumb line for measuring the faith of another person. Just because I have experienced something does not mean that every other believer should have experienced the same thing. Rather, each of us has experiences in accordance with what God is doing in our lives. God does not deal with you and with me in the same ways. 

When I was at Fuller, for the course on Systematic Theology I decided to write a paper on baptism. Specifically, I set out to understand whether or not infant baptism was valid. Having worshipped at a Baptist church for a few years, I fully expected to conclude that it was not. I was not ready for the string of ironies that I would face. Let me only mention two. 

First, among supporters of infant baptism, the prevalent view of baptism is that it is a sacrament. That is, something concrete and very real happens during baptism in the spiritual realm. Those who oppose infant baptism would largely hold the view that baptism is a testimony of one’s faith and that nothing concrete happens in the spiritual realm. Now people who hold a sacramental view of religious rites almost inevitably are more rigid about the way in which the rite is conducted, while those who do not hold a sacramental view tend to be more lenient. Hence, it is ironical that those who affirm infant baptism accept sprinkling and pouring as modes of baptism while those who reject infant baptism tend to insist on immersion. 

Second, those who affirm infant baptism tend to be from the so called ‘high church’ traditions which have strict liturgical forms, most of which hardly mention the grace of God. On the other hand, those who reject infant baptism tend to be from the so called ‘low church’ traditions which have more contemporary liturgies in which there are many mentions of the grace of God. So it is ironical that in the former traditions God’s grace extends even to the families of believers while in the latter traditions it is restricted to individuals. 

These ironies lead us to conclude that our positions, our beliefs about baptism, are not water tight. Pun intended. There are inconsistencies. There are irregularities. Yet people have been killed over the issue of baptism. In the wake of the Protestant Reformation towering figures among those who supported infant baptism and those who opposed it, instigated violence against those who disagreed with them. Some supporters of infant baptism put to death those who rejected it. And some opponents of infant baptism put to death those who supported it. 

So let us proceed to understand both these positions. Both positions begin with the fact that nowhere in the New Testament is there a clear occasion in which a child or infant was baptized. But the conclusions reached are different. A supporter of infant baptism would say, “There is no prohibition against it” while an opponent would say, “There is no command supporting it.” 

A supporter of infant baptism would say, “We are saved by God’s grace. And God’s grace acts in our lives first when we are utterly helpless, just like an infant. And so infant baptism, which depicts this helplessness, is recommended.” But an opponent would say, “We are saved by God’s grace. But through faith! An infant cannot express faith. And so infant baptism should not be practised.” 

A supporter of infant baptism would say, “The Old Covenant included infants when they were circumcised. The New Covenant cannot be less gracious. That is why women are included. Why then should we exclude infants?” But an opponent would say, “The New Covenant is different from the Old Covenant. It is more gracious because it includes women and Gentiles.” 

You see? The same fact, when viewed through the lenses of lack of prohibition or lack of command leads to different conclusions. Focusing either on God’s initiative or on our response changes the outcome. Stressing continuity or discontinuity between the Old and New Covenants changes the position one will take. 

None of the conflicts over baptism are over the text of scripture. It is the same scriptures that both camps read and love. And it is the same scriptures that both camps aim to properly interpret. However, unfortunately, people in both camps accuse those in the other of not being ‘biblical’ and of adhering to the traditions of humans. But this is a naive position and one that we should avoid at all costs. After all, just because an accusation is made, does not mean that it is valid. Otherwise, perhaps the atheists are right when they claim that miracles are simply an example of how bogus religious experience is! 

So we return to the silence of the New Testament. And in addition to the silence mentioned earlier, there is another. To recap, the first silence is the lack of any reference to the baptism of a child or infant in the New Testament. But there is another silence. There is no mention of the baptism of a child who grew up in a Christian home. We are not told what to do about these individuals. 

Let me draw a parallel. When God instituted circumcision as a sign of the covenant, Abraham was quite old. Ishmael was a teenager. And other males in Abraham’s house were also old. This was the first generation of covenant beneficiaries. And to a person they were not infants or children. Isaac is the first person whose birth is recorded as having happened after the institution of the covenant. And he was circumcised as an infant. 

The New Testament documents were written within a few decades of the founding of the Church. They record instructions to the first generation of those who benefited from the covenant in Jesus. There is no mention of a child. Everyone who is named was an adult at the time. What happens now to the second generation? 

Those who support infant baptism would say that the subsequent generations of Christians should be treated in the same way as subsequent generations of Israelites were treated. Their children should be baptized. And frankly, in light of the fact that there is no admonishment against it, it is hard to press the issue that infant baptism is incorrect. 

But does not the New Testament link belief and baptism? Yes it does! No question about it. And does it not link the baptism of a person with his or her own faith? Here we cannot simply answer in the affirmative. Acts 16.13-15 indicates that Lydia’s household was baptized. But we are not told that anyone apart from her actually believed the gospel. 

If the silence about the baptism of children is to be given importance then we must give this silence importance as well. It seems here that adults were baptized based on the faith of one person! The New Testament record is not as cut and dry as we would like it to be. 

Further, we must pay closer attention to the contexts in which the New Testament documents were written. My tenth standard board exams were done through the ICSE. The ICSE requires students to study a play by Shakespeare. 

And at the exams students are faced with questions like who said such and such a thing to whom and when and where and in what context and to what effect. To be honest, I hated it. But the discipline is important. It is crucial to understanding most of the important speeches, for example, Mark Anthony’s famous speech that begins “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” If you do not have Brutus and the others present at the speech it makes no sense. 

If this is true about Shakespeare, how much more true is it about scripture? The New Testament is written to first generation beneficiaries of Jesus’ work. They were adults at the time of writing. And for adults there is no disagreement among Christians. A person who as an adult begins enjoying the blessings that flow from Jesus must first believe and then be baptized. 

The question is about people who grow up in a Christian home. The New Testament has nothing to say about them! We are neither commanded to baptize them as infants nor prohibited from doing so. More to the point we are neither commanded to baptize them as adults nor prohibited from doing so. And it is precisely this utter silence on the matter that allows the differing conclusions. Both sides are being ‘biblical.’ 

However, each side begins with different presuppositions that lead them to different conclusions. And much as we would like it, the bible does not tell us which conclusion is better or right. There is no passage that tells us how to weigh regarding the continuity and discontinuity between the two covenants. However, if you read documents from either side you would get the impression that the two views are markedly different, that there is no common ground between the two, that the view supported by the author is ‘biblical’ while the other view is a rejection of ‘biblical truth.’ 

But the two views are actually much similar than proponents of either view would have us believe. Remember in all of this that we are trying to determine what should be the approach of the church to children born to Christian parents. 

Among traditions that reject infant baptism the common practice is that the infant is dedicated before he or she is a few months old. Then at some later date, when the child has grown and has been instructed in and can understand the basic elements of the faith, he or she decides to get baptized after proclaiming his or her faith. At Christalaya we are probably most familiar and comfortable with this model. 

So we ask ourselves, “What happens among traditions that support infant baptism?” In these churches, the infant is baptized – obviously not by immersion – before he or she is a few months old. Then at some later date, when the child has grown and has been instructed in and can understand the basic elements of the faith, he or she confirms the baptism after proclaiming his or her faith. 

Let us look at this pictorially. If you look at the slide it is evident that the real dispute is about when and how the water becomes part of the process. Should it be poured on an infant, to be followed by a public confirmation a few years later or should it be withheld until a person makes a public profession of faith, to be followed by immersion? 

Both traditions have a two step process for children born in Christian homes. Such children, following Deuteronomy 6, must be instructed in the faith. They should be brought into the sphere within which they can enjoy the blessings that God’s people enjoy. And then at a later date, when they are old enough they should be given the opportunity of publicly professing their agreement with the faith of their parents. This slide shows exactly how both traditions accomplish both steps. 

We might have laughed at the joke with which I began – the one about the two pastors. But there is so much truth in it. None of us really believes that the baptismal water themselves accomplish anything. Yet, we Christians have become and been so rigid about the water itself. Which is more important? The commitment of parents and the congregation to nurture a baby in the faith or the water poured on the baby’s head? Which is more important? The profession of faith of a boy or girl who grew up in the church or the water into which he or she is immersed? 

In fact, if we take our cue from 1 Corinthians 10.1-2 and Mark 10.38 we can see that baptism is not about the water. Rather, baptism is the burning of bridges. The Israelites turned their back on Egypt and burnt that bridge when they crossed the Red Sea. At Gethsemane, Jesus turned his back on the possibility of avoiding the cross by saying, “Not my will, but yours.” 

In the same way, baptism is burning the bridges that would keep a person away from Jesus. In infant baptism or dedication, the parents commit to doing this for the child as he or she grows. In confirmation or believer’s baptism, the now mature person commits to doing the same with the help of God’s Spirit and his people. 

By viewing baptism as a burning of bridges we can allow our Christian brothers and sisters some leeway. We can stop the ‘my way or the highway approach’ we have often had with regard to baptism. We can recognize that baptism, far from being something that happens at one moment in time, is actually just a depiction of the entire Christian life. And then the water that now divides us can actually unite us as we accept it to depict a constant turning away from the forces of evil, a relentless burning of bridges that would keep us from the one in whose name we are baptized – the Lord Jesus. 

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