Over the weekend I read a number of commentators on Romans 6, a couple of which were set reading for a seminar that I attended this morning. The two commentators that were on our set reading were Philip Esler and James Dunn, both of whom I have significant disagreements with. My chief disagreements have to do with the way in which they approach the question of Baptism.
Dunn asks what the phrase ‘baptized into Christ’ would have meant for Paul’s readers. He goes on to interact with two chief possibilities. The first possibility
…is that they would have recalled their own baptism, understanding it as an act that united them with Christ. This would be all the more likely if they were familiar with the initiation rites of the mystery cults, which, so it used to be firmly maintained, were thought to achieve a mystical identification with the cult god through some re-enactment of his or her fate.
Dunn proceeds to dismiss this possibility, arguing that washings were generally preparatory to the initiation rites in the mystery cults, rather than the initiation itself. He also believes that the idea of ‘mystical identification between the initiate and the cult god’ was probably not as widespread as many presume. He writes:—
The one claim of such cults which would have been widely known was the bare evangelistic assertion that without being initiated into their mysteries there could be no hope of life or light in the future world. But it must remain doubtful whether Paul would have wished his converts to understand Christian initiation as providing that sort of guarantee, not least because he has already polemicized against just such a misunderstanding in the case of the rite of initiation into Judaism (2:25-29; cf. 1 Cor 10:1-13).
Having rejected this possibility, Dunn goes on to argue for what he terms the ‘other chief possibility’, that Paul ‘is here taking up a metaphorical usage already familiar in Christian tradition.’ Dunn traces the use of this metaphor from John the Baptist, who used it to speak of the one who would baptize in the Spirit and fire, to Jesus, who adapted it to refer to His own death. Later on the same metaphor is used of Pentecost and other ‘initiatory experiences of the Spirit’, for instance Paul’s use of the language of baptism in 1 Corinthians 12:13. Paul, then, uses the language of baptism as a metaphor to speak of the original experience of conversion: ‘As Paul clearly implies elsewhere, the initiating experience of the Spirit was usually very vivid, an event often deeply moving and profoundly transforming, which the young Christians would have no difficulty in recalling.’
The other interesting aspect of Dunn’s account of Romans 6 is the manner in which he tends to accent our identifying ourselves with Christ rather than our being identified with Christ in a manner that does not necessarily presuppose any action on our part. As the identification that he focuses on is a self-identification, it is as incomplete as faith itself. As we grow in faith our identification with Christ will increase.
Philip Esler’s commentary (Conflict and Identity in Romans: The Social Setting of Paul’s Letter) studies the origin and the practice of Baptism in the early ‘Christ-movement’ and explores the question of Baptism and social identity, before he treats the particular position of the apostle Paul. He explores the significance of Baptism in the light of ‘rituals of initiation’ in general.
Esler argues that ‘in the first generation or so of the Christ-movement baptism was also the occasion on which the believer received the Holy Spirit.’ He sees baptism by the Spirit and water baptism as distinct, but closely related, events as part of a ‘“conversion-initiation” complex’. Water baptism is ‘the expression of faith to which God gives the Spirit.’ He argued that the reception of the Spirit following Baptism was manifested in a ‘variety of ecstatic states … and phenomena, including trances, visions, auditions, prophecy, and glossolalia, that often produced feelings of peace and even euphoria.’ Esler compares this with contemporary experiences of ‘charismatic phenomena’. Against those who are sceptical of claims that baptism was accompanied with ‘possession by the Spirit’ he argues that ‘the emotionally charged atmosphere of baptism, with fellow Christ-followers present to assist the newly baptized members achieve spiritual possession, in the manner known from Goodman’s investigation in modern charismatic congregations, would have meant that most did receive the Spirit.’
Within Esler’s account there is far more of an emphasis placed upon the significance of Baptism in and for the community. Faith is not a merely private thing. Access to God is received via entry into the community. Esler adduces Hippolytus’ account of the community of the early Church in Rome gathering for the baptisms of each new member as proof of this. Esler also accents the experience of Baptism and its presumed psychological effect on the baptizand. Paul saw Baptism as the time in which the Spirit of God was received: ‘Thus baptism was an overwhelming encounter with God and Christ, an encounter charged with visionary experiences of light and manifested in an eruption of glossolalia and other ecstatic phenomena.’
I find the approaches taken by Esler and Dunn unsatisfactory for a number of reasons. One of the things that frustrates me about many NT commentators is that often they seem to be more prepared to discover a background for NT practices in the surrounding pagan culture of the first century or (caricaturing slightly) in the observations of some anthropologist concerning the initiation rituals of some obscure Polynesian tribe than they are to give serious weight to the idea that NT rites may have developed out of OT rites and have been understood in terms of existing Scriptural categories.
The idea of Baptism into Christ, at first glance, does seem to be a bit foreign to the thought world of the OT and to have more in common with the world of the mystery religions. However, I believe that there are a number of different ways in which such a concept might not be so alien to the conceptual categories of the OT as we are first inclined to believe.
N.T. Wright and others have spoken at length of the incorporative meaning of the title ‘Christ’, arguing that such a meaning is endemic to the understanding of kingship in ancient Israel. The term ‘Christ’ does not refer just to Jesus as an individual, but to the people of the Messiah as a whole (e.g. 1 Corinthians 12:12; Galatians 3:16). Wright deals specifically with Romans 6 in the third chapter of The Climax of the Covenant, claiming that “Romans 6.3 clearly refers to entry, through baptism, into the people of God; here Χριστός is basically shorthand for ‘the people of the Messiah’.” The background for union with Christ through Baptism is not the mystical identification with cultic gods brought about by the initiation rituals of the mystery religions, but the idea of entry into the concrete historical community of the Messiah. It should also be observed that ‘Baptism into Christ’ may just be another way of speaking of Baptism in Christ’s name.
It might also be worth asking to what extent Paul saw a parallel between the baptism into Moses that he speaks of in 1 Corinthians 10 and Baptism into Christ. What OT data would he draw upon in arguing that the Red Sea crossing was baptismal and created a union between Moses and the children of Israel, for example? The following are a few tentative thoughts and suggestions. First, the idea that the Red Sea crossing would have been perceived as ‘baptismal’, even within an OT context, could be argued from certain parallels that the baptismal priestly ordination rite of Exodus 40 has with the narrative of the crossing (many of these parallels can be seen in the later crossing of the Jordan as well). The Red Sea would then be seen as part of God’s setting apart of Israel as a nation of priests (Exodus 19:6). There might be a suggestion of priestly ordination within the Song of Moses, with the reference to bringing the children of Israel into God’s Sanctuary (Exodus 15:17).
Some might argue that these parallels might be reinforced with the correspondence between the instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle’s laver of cleansing and the third day of creation (which James Jordan once argued for; I would be surprised if he still does), as a connection between the third day of creation and being brought up out of the Red Sea is hinted at in Isaiah 63:11. However, I would question this interpretation, as the Tabernacle’s laver of cleansing and the Bronze Sea in the Temple seem to represent the firmament waters above, rather than the waters of the deep below, which is why the waters are raised off from the ground.
In Isaiah 63:11 there is almost certainly an allusion to the third day of creation and it is interesting to observe that the verse does not speak of being brought through the Sea, but of being brought up out of the sea (the language of 1 Corinthians 10 draws our attention to slightly different aspects of the symbolism). The Red Sea crossing was about being brought out of the Gentile, pre-formation (in Genesis 1), sea and formed into a new land.
Christian Baptism involves a twofold movement — being taken up out of the waters below and passing through the second day firmament waters above. John the Baptist’s baptism was always insufficient, as it could only accomplish the first part of this movement. It is Christ who brings the second stage of Baptism into action, baptizing us with the Holy Spirit — the living water from above — so that we have access to the heavenly sanctuary (Hebrews 10:19-22). Incidentally, this is why affusion with living water from above captures the biblical symbolism of Christian Baptism in a way that complete submersion doesn’t. Christian Baptism both brings us up from the death sea of Sin and sanctifies us with heavenly water for priestly access to the heavenly temple.
Second, we could question exactly what sort of relationship the Red Sea crossing was perceived to have created between Moses and Israel, that Paul could speak of baptism into Moses. In Isaiah 63:11, the reference to Israel being brought up out of the sea is interesting when we consider the meaning of Moses’ own name. Moses’ name was given to him because he was ‘drawn out of the water’ (Exodus 2:10). Moses was delivered from Pharaoh through water. He was delivered from slavery before any of the other Israelites were, being taken up out of the reeds (as the Israelites would later be taken up out of the Sea of Reeds) in an account that alludes to the earlier flood narrative of Genesis. Moses recapitulates Noah’s rescue through the flood and precapitulates the later Exodus.
Moses experienced a sort of ‘precapitulation’ of the salvation that God would accomplish through him. He was the one who went ahead of the people of God and sums them up in himself. We see the same of Christ. Many of the events in Christ’s life are both recapitulations of Israel’s earlier history and precapitulations of the ‘New Exodus’ that He would accomplish and His people would share in.
The Red Sea crossing also establishes a union between Moses and the Israelites on a number of other levels. Prior to the Red Sea crossing the Israelites are still slaves and their masters are pursuing them. In the Red Sea their masters are destroyed and they are set free. Having been set free from slavery to Pharaoh they can come under the headship of Moses in a way that they couldn’t before. The shepherd Moses becomes the shepherd of Israel (Isaiah 63:11). He was not brought up out of the Red Sea as one individual among many, but in a way distinct from others, as the shepherd of the sheep (Messianic language and similar to Christ, notice the allusion to Isaiah 63:11 in Hebrews 13:20, for instance).
The bond between Moses and Israel is also powerfully affected by the crossing as it leads the Israelites to believe in Moses (Exodus 14:31). God performs the miraculous crossing through the agency of Moses. The strength of the bond between Moses and the Israelites formed by his bringing them up out of Egypt can be seen when YHWH, in speaking to Moses, refers to the Israelites as ‘thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt’ (Exodus 32:7). The crossing formed Israel into a new solidarity, freed from the former solidarity of slavery, under the rule of Moses.
Taking all of this OT background into account, I don’t believe that a parallel between Baptism into Christ and baptism into Moses is as far-fetched as some might suggest. ‘In Christ’ we do enjoy a mystical union with Christ, but the significance of this union can generally be articulated in robustly biblical categories, even though it far transcends the things that those categories were originally employed to refer to. Being in Christ is very different from being ‘in David’ or ‘in Moses’, but the concept of being in Christ is best understood as a surprising development and transformation of these OT concepts, rather than as a pagan accretion to the theology of the apostle Paul. There is absolutely no need to appeal to ideas within the world of paganism in order to make sense of such concepts.
Whilst Dunn rejects the idea of understanding Baptism into Christ in terms of the mystery cults, the fact that he does not seem to give much attention to the possibility of the concept of union with Christ through (water) Baptism arising within a strongly Jewish milieu, without borrowing from Hellenistic cults, is telling. It is as such points that I feel the difference between my approach to the NT and that of many NT scholars most keenly. I approach the NT with the presupposition that NT practices can be understood in terms of OT practices and symbolism and that there is no need to appeal to a pagan background. Such an approach is very different from that taken by many NT scholars, who seem to presume that the OT is of limited use in explaining the NT.
Dunn’s ‘other chief possibility’, which he argues in favour of, is one that I find quite unconvincing. The evidence for the idea that the ‘baptism’ referred to in Romans 6 is merely a metaphor for conversion seems to be tenuous, to say the least. The problem, once again, seems to be a failure to do justice to the continuities between the OT and the NT.
Dunn reads Paul to contrast an OT religion of outward, physical rites with a NT religion of faith. This contrast is a common one in Protestant circles and is based on a serious misreading of the NT (and often also the OT, for that matter). This misreading leads to a great problem reconciling faith with the sacraments. For many the sacraments become reduced to mere ordinances to be performed as functions of faith, rather than gifts of divine grace and presence. Many of Peter Leithart’s criticisms of Dunn’s reading of the references to Baptism in Galatians 3:27 as metaphorical apply equally well here (Leithart’s entire ‘Baptism is Baptism’ series is well worth reading — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6).
Whilst we would be wrong to deny that the language of Baptism occasionally carries a more metaphorical sense in the NT, this metaphor is not as free-floating as Dunn seems to make it. In fact, I wonder whether ‘metaphor’ is a very helpful term for us to be using at all. Christ does not merely use baptism as a convenient metaphor for His death. Christ’s death isn’t just comparable to a baptism; it is a baptism.
It all comes down to how we define Baptism. If we read the Scriptures typologically, Baptism is primarily to be defined in terms of the wealth of OT typology that speaks of transitions made through water, for example. Jesus’ reference to His death as His baptism is firmly grounded in OT typology. Reading in terms of typology, we do not have literal baptisms on the one hand and metaphorical baptisms on the other. Rather, we have a number of different types of baptisms, some of which are water rituals and others which involve a broader application of the typology apart from a water ritual. These baptisms are bound together by their shared typology.
In terms of the scriptural typology of Baptism it makes a lot of sense for Romans 6 to be referring to water baptism. The idea of a change in one’s relationship with God being brought about by means of a movement through water has a wealth of biblical support for it. We only face problems when we start to work with a definition of Baptism that cuts it loose from scriptural typology and a theology that denigrates physical rites and polarizes symbol and reality. Once we start to think of Baptism in terms of ‘literal’ and ‘metaphorical’ we will begin to think of Spirit and water Baptism as two quite different sorts of things, which are as separate as oil and water.
If we think in terms of typology, the two can be seen to be closely interrelated. Spirit Baptism has primary reference to Pentecost and the individual Christian receives the Spirit through water Baptism into the new community formed by the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). The contrast between Spirit and water Baptism is not the contrast between spiritual ‘reality’ and physical ‘picture’. Nor is the contrast a contrast between an efficacious Baptism by the Spirit and a water baptism that was powerless to change anything. John the Baptist’s point in contrasting his baptism with the Baptism of the Holy Spirit performed by Christ is that his baptism was not able to give the new covenant life of the Holy Spirit. However, John’s baptism was not without efficacy; it promised nothing less than divine forgiveness.
The contrast that we see between water and Spirit Baptism in places in the NT is the contrast created by two different redemptive historical eras, a contrast that is gradually removed as the post-Pentecost era is established. After Pentecost, apart from a few exceptional cases (recorded precisely as exceptional cases), Baptism with the Holy Spirit and water Baptism were one and the same event. As I pointed out earlier, the contrast between Holy Spirit and water Baptism might also be the contrast between Baptism as being taken out of the waters below and Baptism as being brought out of the waters below and passing through the waters above. The Baptism of the Spirit is a Baptism that is poured out from above. Now that the Church is the New Temple in Christ, the One who has passed through the heavens, Baptism does not merely take us out of the sea of exile, but brings us into the heavenly Temple itself.
Some will argue that determining the meaning of NT rites by their relationship to OT rites produces an excessive continuity between the two testaments. I dispute this claim. I believe that such an approach will be far more likely to give us deep insight into the meaning of Christian Baptism than the sociological and anthropological approaches adopted by many NT scholars. The great weakness of such approaches is that, whilst they can say things about the role of initiation rites in general or in the ancient Hellenistic context, they seldom tell us much about the meaning of Christian Baptism in particular. What is it about Christian Baptism that gives it its peculiar significance and makes it more than just a generic water initiation rite?
What is the primary context within which we will best understand Christian Baptism? Studies of generic initiation rites may produce some parallels with the practice of Christian Baptism, but the relationship that Christian Baptism bears with a ritual washing performed by some tribe in the Amazonian rainforest is far too weak to draw much significance from any differences that might exist between the rites. Such studies can alert us to the continuities between various initiation rituals and to the generic significance that initiation rites have, but they really cannot achieve much beyond this. They can highlight the significance of some details, but in general they tend to level out initiation rituals too much.
However, when we study Christian Baptism in its proper context of biblical typology and the many forms of pre-Pentecost baptisms the continuities between Christian Baptism and earlier baptisms will actually be of less significance than the differences. The differences between Christian Baptism and some ritual washing performed by a tribe in the Amazonian rainforest may be great, but they cannot teach us much as they belong to radical different social and cultural contexts. When we study Christian Baptism within its proper social and cultural context, against the background of pre-Pentecost baptisms, differences are suddenly of great significance as they occur within the same symbolic and linguistic economy.
Peter Leithart has argued that NT rites should be understood as ‘conjugations’ of OT rites. NT and OT rites ultimately have the same ‘verbal root’ — Christ — and share the same fundamental typological structure. However, NT rites differ from OT rites as a new conjugation of the shared typological root. The significance of NT rites is thus chiefly to be found in the differences between them and OT rites. Consequently, the claim that understanding NT rites against the background of OT rites levels things out too much is quite unjustified.
Esler’s account of Christian Baptism is quite spectacular. It also seems quite speculative and alien to many of the Scriptural accounts of Baptism. Christian Baptism is certainly an amazing event. As Jeff Meyers’ has observed, if we saw what really happens in Baptism we would be dazzled. We would witness opened heavens, theophanies and all sorts of other wonders. However, to our eyes Scriptural Baptism is simple and unadorned and does not have the spectacle of many of the later forms that it assumed within the Church, forms which seem seriously to distort Esler’s reading of the NT text itself.
I do not believe that the idea that Christian Baptism is normally accompanied by ecstatic experiences and demonstrations of charismatic phenomena has much scriptural foundation. There are some accounts of such baptisms, but they occur within a context that should guard us against the idea that they represent the norm for all Christian Baptisms. Whilst I am not a strict cessationist I believe that there are good biblical reasons to question whether Paul expected each Baptism to be followed by speaking in tongues, visions and similar charismatic phenomena for it to be regarded as a genuine reception of the Spirit.
The initial reception of the Spirit at Pentecost and the events that are closely related to it in the book of Acts involve spectacular manifestations of the Spirit’s presence. Whilst I believe that we would be unjustified to altogether rule out such manifestations in the contemporary contexts in which we find ourselves, we should also recognize that, Scripturally, such manifestations are generally associated with the initial foundation of a covenant order and disappear after a few decades, or only occur once at the very beginning.
The gifts of the Spirit are for the establishment of the Church. There are some gifts that exist like scaffolding for the initial forming of the Church. There are other gifts that exist for the furnishing of Church and daily service of the Church. The ‘scaffolding gifts’ are generally more spectacular, but are not needed after a while. The more quotidian gifts then become more prominent. We should not be surprised to see miracles, healings, prophetic insight and the like later on in a particular covenant era, but they will be considerably rarer. The gradual diminishing of such gifts as prophecy, tongues and healing in the history of the early Church should not shock us. It is not an indication of apostasy. It is just a sign that the establishment of the Church has pretty much taken place. Faith, hope and love have to do with the structural integrity of the Church; they will persist as the scaffolding of other gifts is removed.
Let me give an example. In Exodus 31:1ff. we see that YHWH fills Bezalel with the Holy Spirit for constructing the Tabernacle. Bezalel has the Spirit-given gift of embroidery, for example, which is of great importance for the construction of the Tabernacle. Such a Spiritual gift, however, is not a normal Spiritual gift, but is given in a particular historical circumstance and for a particular limited purpose.
The event of Pentecost was not just one spectacular event among many in the early Church’s life. It was the start of a new covenant order. The spectacular signs that accompanied it would not be expected to be part of the regular life of the Church from that point onwards (although they certainly were for a number of years during the period of the Church’s establishment). The early Church knew their Scriptures too well to suppose that the character of its life immediately following Pentecost would persist into the long term future.
Even when we look at the examples of Christian Baptism within the book of Acts and elsewhere, it is hard to see how many of them fit Esler’s description. Whilst performing Christian Baptism in the context of a gathered meeting of the Church might be the ideal way to do things, there are many examples of Baptism in Scripture that were performed quite differently. Christian Baptism does not seem to necessitate the presence of the gathered Christian community. Early Christian Baptism as recorded in the NT also seems to occur apart from lengthy catechetical preparation and does not seem to involve candidates stripping naked and other such practices that Esler refers to.
Both Esler and Dunn focus on the ‘Baptism’ of Romans 6 primarily in terms of a memorable experience. Esler in particular gives great attention to the psychological effect of Baptism. The significance of Baptism is largely known through the strength of the experiences that surround it. Esler hypes up early Christian Baptism in a way that grants a lot of significance to details of the rite that are never mentioned in Scripture and far less significance to the details that the Scripture does give us.
Within Dunn’s account the identification with Christ formed by the ‘Baptism’ of Romans 6 is far weaker than it seems to be in Paul’s mind. For Dunn the identification is primarily a self-identification and has less of the strength of an objective fact. Esler’s concentration on the baptizand’s subjective sense of Baptism also obscures the idea of Baptism as a rite that is primarily there to do something to us, rather than as a rite designed to give rise to a subjective experience.
It seems to me that Paul appeals to Baptism, not as a subjective experience of conversion, nor even as a physical rite that brings about a new state of affairs through a powerful experience, but as a rite that genuinely did something to us, whether or not it was accompanied by an experience. Paul’s point is that Baptism made us new people. Whilst Baptism might well be a powerful experience for us, it is not the experience that makes us new people. Baptism is like adoption in this respect. Adoption makes me a new person and brings me into new relationships, whatever I feel about it. Adoption may be a profound and powerful experience of deliverance and love or the adopted child might not remember the time of their adoption. Either way the significance of adoption remains. This is the way that Paul appeals to Baptism, I believe. Baptism changed me, whether I felt it or not or appreciated it or not. I now have to reckon that change to be true and live in terms of it.