Thursday, April 1, 2010

April Foolishness

In the spirit of the apostle Paul, on this April Fools' Day "I wish that you would bear with me in a little foolishness" (2 Corinthians 11:1).

It has been a while since I have returned to my thread on hermeneutics. Perhaps this is wise, because each time I enunciated a principle of Bible interpretation, it was like peeling away a layer of an onion. There were bound to be tears. As each layer of human conceit is peeled away, as we move closer to the heart of the question of how to be sure of the Holy Spirit's intended meaning, I was bound to offend the sensitive palates of certain connoisseurs. In short, you're more likely to lose friends than gain them when you draw clear distinctions between truth and error, and lots of them. But like the fool that I am (and, I daresay, Paul was), I intend to go on losing friends and making enemies.

Today's exercise in hermeneutics also revives one of my pet topics: the doctrine of Baptism. And to fully demonstrate how foolish I can be, I'm going to take on Leon Morris, author of the New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel According to John. Morris is a highly respected, if not revered, Bible exegete. His scholarly work is both painstakingly detailed and vast in extent. How dare I challenge him? I dare because I am a fool carried away by passion. And I can't help being stirred to passion when I see a wise man such as Leon Morris make a grotesquely asinine statement such as the following. In discussing several possible interpretations of John 3:5 ("Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God"), Morris writes:
"Water" may refer to Christian baptism. The strong argument in favor of this view is that baptism may well have been the natural association that the term would arouse among Christians at the time the Gospel was published. John would scarcely have been unmindful of this. The weak point is that Nicodemus could not possibly have perceived an allusion to an as yet non-existent sacrament.
Wow. What a fine piece of rationalization! Even as biased as he is against accepting any interpretation that lends credence to the sacramental power of Baptism (and I could give other examples), Morris is forced to admit that the original audience of John's Gospel would have understood this as a reference to Baptism. The reason, of course, is that the gospels were originally catechetical books, tools for instructing new disciples in the faith -- especially as regards the sacramental works of God. With ears to hear and eyes to see, one can readily see that the four gospels are absolutely loaded with insights relating to the sacraments of Eucharist, Absolution, and Baptism, and to the vocation of preaching the Gospel. A less honest exegete than Morris (and I can give examples of that too) would rationalize away every example that bears witness to this, but Morris at least grants that, to the first-century audience to whom John wrote, the most natural interpretation of John 3:5 would have pointed to Baptism. Yet at the same time, he says that Christ could hardly have meant that when He originally spoke the words of John 3:5; after all, Baptism was then "an as yet non-existent sacrament"!

Dr. Morris, if you're out there, please accept this April Fools' Day pulling of your nose in the spirit of wit and jollity with which it is intended. For now that I think it over, I find my anger giving way to merry laughter. Who wouldn't laugh at such a joke? For after all your sober and careful work, you still managed to trip over a piece of child's play. On what basis, sir, do you infer that Baptism was a nonexistent sacrament when Jesus spoke to Nicodemus in John 3? Perhaps you have been humbled by a silly misconception that Christian Baptism was not instituted until moments before Christ went up into heaven (Matthew 28:19)? To be sure, that verse is the classic "proof text" indicating that Christ instituted Baptism as a perpetual ordinance for His church. To be sure, that verse furnishes us with the Trinitarian name in which we baptize. But does this necessarily rule out the disciples' knowing this formula before then? Where is your evidence that there was no such sacrament as Baptism until that point?

Your mistake, Dr. Morris, is not merely that you are arguing from the silence of Scripture. Your mistake is that you have rejected the positive testimony of Scripture. Even leaving aside the question whether John the Baptist's baptism qualifies as Christian Baptism - a question that Acts 19:3-5 leaves in doubt - John's baptism invariably formed a part of the early church's proclamation of Christ (Acts 1:5, 22; 10:37; 11:16; 13:24; 19:4). There is also Acts 18:25, where the validity of Apollos' Christian preaching (based solely on the baptism of John) is not questioned; he only needed to brush up a bit on his doctrine! Then there's Jesus question to the Jewish elders: "Was the baptism of John from heaven, or from men?" (Matthew 21:25; Mark 1:4; Luke 20:4). Though the correct answer is never explicitly given, the context strongly favors "from heaven." Still, if backed into a corner by a literalistic Evangelical exegete, I would have to concede that whether John's baptism was the full deal remains an open question...

On the other hand, John 3:22 testifies that, after finishing his discussion with Nicodemus, Jesus spent time baptizing with His disciples in Judea. Why should we think this was a different Baptism from what He entrusted to His disciples in Matthew 28:19? John 4:1-2 further tells us that Jesus' ministry of Baptism had put that of John in the shade, though admittedly it was not Jesus but His disciples who did the actual baptizing. Why should we assume the disciples did this without authorization until Matthew 28:19? And if they did it with authorization, then on what basis do we assume that the command to baptize in Matthew 28 instituted anything new?

Let's back up even further. All four gospels - in Matthew 3, Mark 1, Luke 3, and John 1 - describe Jesus' baptism by John in the river Jordan. That seems awfully significant. There aren't four parallel gospel accounts of many things apart from Jesus' death and resurrection. Off the top of my head the only other thing I can think of is the feeding of the 5,000 - which, of course, CAN'T have anything to do with the Lord's Supper! If I had to look for a specific origin point for Christian Baptism, Jesus' Baptism would stand out as by far the most likely candidate. This is the interpretation Martin Luther puts on it in His baptismal hymn "To Jordan came the Christ our Lord," and in the "Flood Prayer" from his Baptismal Booklet. And it isn't an easy interpretation to dismiss, once you start considering it.

Consider it! When it was time to begin His ministry, Jesus came to John and submitted Himself to a Baptism of repentance. John objected that he himself should rather be cleansed by Jesus, but Jesus insisted "in order to fulfill all righteousness." As He went up from the water, the Holy Spirit descended as a dove and the heavenly Father spoke out of the thundering sky, identifying Jesus as His Son in whom He delighted. What is Matthew 28:19's formula for Trinitarian Baptism but the application of this event, of the distinctive participation of each person of the Trinity in Jesus' Baptism, to the Baptism of every Christian until the end of time?

So, by being baptized Jesus entered upon His atoning work. The Sinless One repented on behalf of sinners. The Holy One made what was then merely a washing of water accompanied by preaching into a sanctifying and cleansing "washing of water with the word" (Ephesians 5:26), a washing away of sins (Acts 22:16), a washing of sanctification and justification in God's Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:11), a washing of rebirth and renewal unto eternal life (Titus 3:5-7), a rebirth in water and the Spirit (John 3:5), a sprinkling of the body with pure water that also cleanses the conscience from evil (Hebrews 10:22), an incorporation into Jesus' atoning blood (1 John 5:6-8) and into his death, burial, and resurrection that sets us free from bondage to sin (Romans 6:4-7; Colossians 2:11-12), and a flood that, together with faith (Mark 16:16), saves us by drowning sin within us, just as the Genesis flood saved Noah's family from a corrupt world (1 Peter 3:20-21). All this can be said about Baptism because, on the testimony of no lesser witnesses than God the Father and the Holy Spirit, the Son was bathed in its waters for us. All this can be said about Baptism because the same Triune God pledges His name on the power of Baptism to make disciples of all the heathen (Matthew 28:19) -- a task He undertook immediately after His Baptism, and did not postpone until the day of His ascension.

And so, Dr. Morris, in all seriousness, before you say that Jesus could not possibly have meant Baptism in John 3:5 because it didn't exist yet, you had better conclude with the words: "April Fool!" Otherwise, someone else might start throwing the word "fool" around, and heaven knows that would be foolish!

1 comment:

Robbie F. said...

Morris goes on, in practically his next breath, to enunciate another equally silly argument against the Baptismal interpretation of John 3: namely, that even though the early church would have most likely understood Jesus' words as referring to Baptism, Nicodemus would not--and Jesus, Morris says, was always at pains to be clearly understood by whomever he was speaking to.

This flies in the face of Jesus' own explanation of why he taught in parables (i.e., "that hearing they may not understand," etc.), & the fact noted numerous times in the Gospels that people did NOT understand at the time what Jesus was saying.