Friday, March 8, 2013

Being Honest About the Text (Part 1)

I've been thinking back over the principles of Biblical interpretation ("hermeneutics" for short) discussed earlier on this thread. Perhaps coincidentally, or perhaps not, my latest thoughts have been prompted by yet another debate with a Protestant denier of infant baptism, who argued along similar lines with the Versailles, Missouri, "Christian" pastor I used back here as an example of twisting Scripture. First (in Part 1), the story of my little debate with a couple who asked to be removed from the mailing list of the "heretical" magazine I then worked for—one whose latest issue spot-lighted the Lutheran teaching on baptism. Then (in Part 2), the thoughts on biblical hermeneutics that grew out of that debate.

The story began when my office received a subscription card bearing the name and address of a married couple whom I shall call Mark & Dru Blank (which is not even remotely similar to their real names). Ordinarily, we interpreted this type of communication as a request to start sending them a subscription to our magazine, and to bill them for it. A short while later, the Blanks sent me an email claiming, "We did not order this heretical magazine nor request it. Someone else ordered it and gave our name and address... Please cancel this invoice immediately as we have no intention of paying it." (Based on a phone later conversation with Dru, I gather that the couple suspected one of their Lutheran friends of making a botched attempt to send them a gift subscription, or at least a complimentary copy of our latest issue, in the hope of luring them back into the Lutheran fellowship they had lately departed.)

In my initial reply, I simply told the Blanks that I had canceled their subscription. I could not, however, resist asking them: "Out of curiosity, what led you to consider the magazine heretical?" After thanking me for my prompt handling of their request, Mark & Dru replied to my question:
We consider the magazine heretical because it applies the power of salvation to something other than Jesus' atoning sacrifice on the cross and resurrection: baptism. Baptism has no such power and is not a requirement for salvation, only repentance and faith are required as Paul tells us he preached in Acts 20:21 and Hebrews 6:1.

Infant baptism is found nowhere in the Bible. The magazine made a big production out of telling the reader to be a good Berean yet there was not one scripture reference presented that supported a practice of infant baptism or the power of salvation in works (baptism). Instead there were straw men arguments and scripture references for Original Sin which, contrary to what the magazines stated, non-Lutheran reformed Protestants do believe in.

This is deceitful and heretical information you are sending around and it needs to be repented of. One cannot trust in baptism to be saved, only in the finished work of Jesus Christ. That is His grace towards us and that is what the Bible teaches.
I replied to these charges in a Bible-based defense of some length. The Blanks replied back, responding point-by-point to my defense of baptismal regeneration etc. Before I noticed that they ended their last response with a request to let the matter lie, I sent them a further reply with my counter-counter-arguments embedded among their counter-arguments. To reproduce all of this back-and-forth in its original format would be confusing and tedious. Instead, and admittedly at the risk of giving an inaccurate impression of what was said, I will try to re-cast the debate as an oral conversation. Feel free to imagine us lounging in a cozy corner of a Panera Bread Co., bezarfed cups of Bolivian roast coffee and a picked-over plate of cranberry scones between us. I'm the one wearing an out-at-the-elbows sports jacket, a black clerical shirt turning gray around the collar, and a goatee decorated with cranberry-scone crumbs. They're the couple dressed in business-casual attire, accessorized by "9 months clean" rings from Recovering Lutherans Anonymous. Here, more or less, is our conversation. All of our exact words are there; only, some of the furniture has been rearranged for clarity, and a couple of Bible references have been fleshed out into full-length quotes. I have added horizonal rules to divide the points of the argument up, because this dialog format can make it tricky to appreciate which point is being discussed.

Fish: Lutheranism teaches that the power of Baptism is nothing else than the power of Christ's atoning sacrifice applied to each of us individually, according to God's express command and promise. Romans 6, especially the first 7 verses, explains this (to give one striking example):
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin.
Blank: When Paul says in Romans 6 that we are baptized into Christ's death, he is referring to the baptism of the Holy Spirit which is unseen.

Fish: How do you know this? Is this not an assumption based on ideas imposed on Scripture from the outside?

Fish: Colossians 2:10ff. also discuss this in very striking language:
In [Christ] you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.
Blank: Colossians 2:10-12 does not refer to water but to regeneration of the heart.

Fish: Did you not see the words “in baptism” in verse 12?

Blank: We become dead to sin through God's regeneration of our hearts—the Adamic nature dies and we become new creatures in Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit, not the act of going into water. It states it is a "circumcision made without hands." That is not baptism.

Fish: Paul calls it “made without hands” because it is God’s work. The washing is visible but the circumcision of the heart, which God carries out in and through the washing, is invisible—his work, not ours.

Fish: To say that Baptism does not have saving power fails to account for 1 Peter 3:21, which says: "Baptism now saves you."

Blank: 1 Peter 3:21 makes my point when we look at the whole verse and not just the portion you quoted. Peter states clearly that he is NOT referring to the outward ceremony of washing with water because that has no power, it simply cleans the flesh. He is referring to the inward baptism of the Holy Spirit. He stated that so no one would do what you did and misinterpret what he was saying.

Fish: Actually I studied not just the one verse, but the whole paragraph in Peter’s epistle. What he’s saying is that Baptism is the “antitype” of which the Flood was the type. In other words, just as the waters that drowned the sinful world also saved Noah & his family by bearing the ark upon them, so also Baptism saves us—i.e. by drowning the old Adam and washing away sin.

Fish: To say that Baptism is not necessary for salvation (leaving aside the question of how "absolutely necessary" it is) ignores Mark 16:16, "He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved." It also ignores what Jesus says to Nicodemus in John 3, especially verses 3 and 5, where He describes Baptism as being "born again [or from above] of water and the Spirit."

Blank: You also selectively quoted Mark 16:16. The following verse says that he who does not believe will be damned—baptism is not mentioned in the second half. The lost are damned for unbelief not for not being baptized which puts baptism in its right place. As for the section you quoted, it also cannot be saying that outward baptism saves because in Acts 8:13 Simon Magus believed and was baptized and yet was not saved.

Fish: The fact that baptism isn’t mentioned in the 2nd half doesn’t negate what it says in the first half. Jesus doesn’t say that not being baptized is a cause of damnation. But he puts believing & being baptized together. Lutherans have never argued that everyone who is baptized necessarily believes or even that everyone who isn’t baptized is necessarily damned. But the fact remains that Jesus puts baptism together with faith as the means to salvation.

Blank: John 3:3-5 same thing. Since 1 Peter 3:21 has already established that the outward washing of water is not what saves we know that Jesus is not speaking of outward baptism...

Fish: 1 Peter 3:21 established no such thing. That’s an idea you imposed on it. Peter’s qualifying statement that it isn’t the washing of dirt from the flesh does not negate his main point, that Baptism now saves you. Still less does it wipe out Jesus’ remark that one is saved by being born again by Baptism (water + the Spirit).

Blank: ...Similar to what God said in Ezekiel 36:24-27 and 1 John 1:9. He wasn't going to rain sprinkles down onto Israel , He was going to cleanse them with His Word and His Spirit. Scripture interprets scripture.

Fish: “Scripture interprets Scripture” only applies to relevant passages. You can make the Bible seem to teach anything if, for example, quoting any obscure passage that doesn’t mention Baptism can wipe out the plain sense of what Jesus said specifically about Baptism. If you’re going to let Scripture interpret Scripture concerning any given article of faith, you have to hold the passage(s) where the article of faith is/are most clearly revealed *above* passages that don’t directly deal with it. In short, a passage discussing Baptism has more weight when discussing the doctrine of Baptism than a passage that doesn’t discuss Baptism.

Fish: To say that Baptism has no regenerating power flies in the face of Titus 3:4-8, which speaks of it as the "washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit." To say that Baptism has no sanctifying power ignores Ephesians 5:26, in which Christ is said to sanctify the Church "by the washing of water with the word"—a highly significant description of what Baptism is.

Blank: I don't see outward baptism mentioned here, just regeneration.

Fish: Did you not see the word “washing”?

Blank: The same regeneration that is mentioned in Ezekiel 36:24-27. It's a renewal of the heart (Psalm 51:10), producing a new nature.

Fish: God brings that renewal & rebirth about, and he does it through a washing. Letting Scripture interpret Scripture (John 3)…That washing would evidently be Baptism.

Blank: Ephesians 5:26 same thing. Washing of water BY THE WORD. God's Word cleanses us, not water. Jesus is the Word.

Fish: Did you not perceive that the word “water” is in that sentence? The water and the Word (Matthew 28:19) together make it Baptism. Your approach to interpreting too many of these verses seems to be simply to ignore what it says about baptism/water/washing. I don’t see you explaining why those words are included in the sentence. I believe the obvious explanation is that the Holy Spirit meant us to notice them.

Fish: To say that Baptism does not forgive sins or give the Holy Spirit ignores what Peter said in answer to the Jews' question "What shall we do?" in Acts 2:38: "Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."

Blank: The important part of this verse is "in the name of Jesus Christ," not "be baptized".

Fish: That sounds pretty arbitrary to me.

Blank: Again, scripture interprets scripture. Ephesians 1:7, Colossians 1:14, Colossians 1:20, and Ephesians 2:13 make it clear that forgiveness of sins comes through the blood of Jesus and His grace, not baptism.

Fish: And yet Peter said what he said. And not only Peter but also John (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3) puts Baptism in the same breath as forgiveness. To omit that word from the sentence is to do violence to the holy text.

Blank: "Be baptized" is a command to publicly show what has already been done inwardly by the Holy Spirit.

Fish: Says who? Where is that written?

Fish: To say that “infant Baptism” is found nowhere in the Bible makes the (I think very weak) assumption that if Jesus meant for infants to be baptized, he should have added “INCLUDING INFANTS” to the words “all nations” in Matthew 28:19. It also ignores the fact that in Acts 2:39, after Peter tells the Jews that they will receive forgiveness and the Holy Spirit through Baptism, he immediately adds: “For the promise is for you and your children.” To say nothing of the accounts of entire households being baptized in Acts 16:15, 33; 18:8; 1 Corinthians 1:16; and Jesus’ clear instruction that very little children are to be brought to him (Mark 10:13-15), for if anyone would come into His kingdom, it must be in the same way as the littlest child.

Blank: Yes, if infant baptism really is what you say it is then it would be stated very clearly, specifically and repeatedly throughout the NT. This is not the case. God is not vague and would not leave something that is allegedly so important to assumption.

Fish: That simply doesn’t hold water in light of Matthew 13:13 (Jesus: "Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand"). It’s an assumption foreign & contrary to Scripture, but one that I have seen dragged in time after time as an excuse to pooh-pooh something Jesus clearly said, on the grounds that He would never say anything we couldn’t understand. Read the gospels. The apostles were constantly misunderstanding things & catching on only later.

Blank: In the case of Acts 2:39, what promise is to "you and your children and to those who are afar off even as many as the Lord our God shall call"? The promise that if they repent and are baptized they shall receive forgiveness of sins. We've already seen in Mark 16:16 that it's the unbelief that damns a man, not the neglect of baptism.

Fish: But in both verses, Baptism is clearly involved in how God saves the man.

Blank: How shall the Lord "call" an infant? How can an infant repent? That is also part of this verse.

Fish: However he does it, it is evidently the same way he calls & saves everyone else—since the promise, which includes baptism, applies to the children as well. I don’t see how you can get around what Peter says here.

Blank: How do you know that those "entire households" had infants in them? You don't.

Fish: How do you know they don’t? Same problem. Why do you assume that the burden of proof is on the side of infant baptism? If an exception was made for infants, wouldn’t Scripture mention it?

Blank: It is your assumption and not one to hang an entire doctrine on.

Fish: My point is, I’m not the one hanging a doctrine on it. Your assumption that infants aren’t included because no specific mention is made of an infant being baptized is no more fit to hang a doctrine on. No one in recorded church history gave a second thought to baptizing infants until sometime during the Reformation period. And really, this new “doctrine” strikes me more as a denial than an article of faith.

Blank: Why you would quote Mark 10:13-15 is baffling to me. This, if anything, works against your argument. What does Jesus do with those little children in Mark 10:16? Did He rush them to the water and pour it over them? No. He took them in His arms, put His hands on them and blessed them. No baptism there.

Fish: (1) He says “bring the children to Me.” Does he say, “but not Baptism”? No. Does he say anything about waiting until they’re ready? No. (2) He says anyone who enters His kingdom must do so in the same way as a child. Does he make an exception regarding when or whether Baptism is to take place? No. Does he suggest that children are in anyway disabled as to how and to what extent they can receive Him? On the contrary. They are held up as the pattern to which the rest of us need to conform.

Blank: Seems like if infant baptism were so important Jesus would have done it or commanded them to do it. He didn't. Mark 10:15 says "whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall not enter it." "Like" a child, not when they are a child or obviously no one who was baptized in the NT would be saved because they were all adults.

Fish: This objection is ridiculous. Even granting your distinction between “like” a child and “when a child,” if we need to be “like” a child, then certainly a child meets the qualifications.

Blank: So what are children "like"?

Fish: Here begins an example of “reading into” the text.

Blank: They are trusting and do not question or doubt. They readily believe Mom and Dad when Mom and Dad say they are going to get ice cream after their piano lessons. And that is how we should believe the gospel. What you are trying to extract out of this scripture is simply not there.

Fish: I submit that you just described what you yourself are doing. Jesus doesn’t explain what he means by “like a little child.” It’s absurd to get dogmatic about what you think that means when all you have to stand on is human speculation. What is totally clear, however, is that Jesus invites children to be included & regards them, not only as no different from anyone else to be saved, but as the very pattern for all who are being saved.

Fish: It is also interesting that Paul (in the Colossians passage cited above) cites circumcision as a biblical metaphor for Baptism. Nobody in OT or NT times ever questioned the validity of the circumcision of an 8-day-old boy. And so, if Baptism is comparable to circumcision, its validity even for infants can be safely assumed. One would have to find positive evidence that infant Baptism was NOT permitted before the argument that “infant Baptism is found nowhere in the Bible” would carry any weight.

Blank: Romans 2:29 explains what kind of "circumcision" is needed for the believer. Circumcision of the heart, a supernatural work and not the outward work of baptism.

Fish: We teach that God actually does this supernatural work in and through the outward sign of Baptism. I have already demonstrated why I think that is a Scriptural teaching. [Here I omitted to point out that the Romans reference doesn't explain why Paul, in Colossians 2:11-12, works his way from circumcision to baptism.]

Blank: To say that since the Bible does not explicitly denounce infant baptism therefore it is a doctrine of salvation is not only a huge leap but a logical fallacy.

Fish: Beware. This goes both ways. I would submit that it is more dangerous to assume that infant Baptism is invalid without any word from God to that effect (thus depriving infants of the blessings and benefits of Baptism for no good reason) than to trust the promise given by God, which is unconditional & certain to be true.

Blank: You admit that repentance and faith are granted by God. They are a supernatural work that produces salvation. Baptism is not a supernatural work of God.

Fish: Yes it is. You can only maintain otherwise by willfully deceiving yourself & refusing to believe the testimony of Scripture, such as the passages I have already pointed out.

Blank: [Baptism] is a work we do with our own hands, a work that follows salvation, and does not proceed it.

Fish: God always works through means. When He combines His promise of what He will do with a command to do something like Baptism, we must take Him at His Word. See 2 Kings 5 for an illustrative example, especially verse 13. [This is where Naaman the leper, departing angrily after hearing Elisha's advice on how to be cleansed, is brought up short by his servants saying: “My father, had the prophet told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?”]

Blank: Like all good works it happens because of salvation, not as a part of salvation. In order for me to state that infant baptism is nowhere in the Bible, I would have to have read the entire Bible. Which I have, many times.

Fish: The denial of infant Baptism is also nowhere in the Bible, as you should have noticed at some point while reading the Bible many times. But evidently, reading it is not the same as accepting what it says.

Fish: As Lutherans we don’t like to speak about what is or isn’t “required for salvation.” We bring nothing to salvation. God gives us all, including repentance (Acts 5:31; 11:18; 2 Timothy 2:25) and faith (Mark 9:24; Romans 10:17; Ephesians 2:8). Baptism, the message preached and taught, the Lord’s Supper, and the forgiveness of sins are God’s means of planting faith in us (James 1:21; 1 Peter 1:23). Baptism, absolution, and the Supper are different forms of the same Gospel in which Christ crucified for our sins is at the center.

Blank: James 1:21 says nothing about water but about the process of sanctification, killing sin in our lives, repentance, none of which an infant can do. James 1:25 makes this clearer.

Fish: I didn’t say James 1:21 mentioned water. I made reference to it to point out that faith is a seed that God plants in our hearts. Jesus makes a similar point in his parable of the sower & John 1:11-13 states it even more aggressively. Saving faith is the gift of God.

Blank: Ditto with 1 Peter 1:23. 1 Peter 1:22 states that we have purified our souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit—again not something an infant can do and does not involve water.

Fish: Again, you seem to think 1 Peter 1:22 wipes verse 23 out of existence. It doesn’t. The point I have been feebly trying to make since my paragraph about Mark 10:15 is that we are all as helpless as infants—and conversely, infants are no more helpless than we adults are. Baptism isn’t about what we do but what God does in us & for us. This goes right along with Romans 5, where Paul describes what Christ did for us “while we were still helpless” (verse 6), while we were yet sinners (verse 8), while we were His enemies (verse 10). Or in Colossians 2:13, where Paul says, “You were dead” (see also Ephesians 2:1, 5). God does not wait for the dead to raise themselves. Like Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus, He calls us forth & creates life where that very moment there was nothing but death. As long as you hold onto the idea that salvation is based on anything you do, you cannot understand God’s grace.

Blank: We cannot purify our souls with water—as Peter clearly stated in 1 Peter 3:21. Obedience comes from a purified heart through the Holy Spirit, not the work of baptism.

Fish: What was most clear in 1 Peter 3:21 were the words “Baptism now saves you.” That’s your subject & predicate. Everything else in that sentence is by way of being an adverb. I won’t quibble much about the adverbs for now, as long as you admit that in spite of what you say here, God nevertheless promises to save us through Baptism.

Fish: We “trust in our baptism” exactly in the sense that it is God’s miracle and sign, filled with God’s promises, in which we can trust with certainty even when all human assurances fail. It has nothing to do with believing in our works. It has everything to do with being certain that God’s Word is active and powerful, that He keeps His promises and does not lie, that when He says something is so it is most certainly so. Baptism is not a Law that we must keep as a requirement for salvation. It is the Gospel by which God declares His promise to us, creates faith in us, and saves us.

Blank: I respectfully disagree. You see what you want to see in scripture but let's see what it actually says. You are confusing the act of baptism with what it signifies. It is an outward sign of what has already occurred inwardly and therefore the baptism with water has no power. It merely is a sign of what the Holy Spirit has already done inwardly.

Fish: Where is this written? Jesus calls it rebirth in water & the Spirit. Paul calls it a washing of regeneration, a washing in water and the word. Show me where Scripture teaches the idea that it is only “an outward sign of what has already occurred inwardly.” I see it teaching only the opposite where Baptism is concerned.

Fish: What you are calling heretical is, in fact, exactly what the Scriptures teach about Baptism. Lutherans approach these biblical promises with simple faith, setting aside the type of human thinking that ignores what God’s Word says when that seems to conflict with reason.

Blank: Nope. This does, however, remind me of a passage in the magazine that stated that we must set aside reason in order to believe what was stated about the Bible. This is simply not true. God has given us the ability to be logical and to reason and calls us to do it. Samuel reasoned with Israel in 1 Samuel 12:7. The Lord commanded it in Isaiah 1:18. It is commended in Hebrews 5:14. Paul exhorted Timothy to study the scriptures and show himself approved. This is how we grow and learn to rightly divide the Word of God. Simply child-like faith is how we enter the kingdom at which time we are babes. But like real babes we must grow, study the Word and apply it in our lives using our God given and now Holy Spirit enlightened logic and reasoning. We must be able to give an answer to all who ask about the hope we have (1 Peter 3:15). Nothing in God's word conflicts with Holy Spirit enlightened reason. It only conflicts with the darkened reasoning of the unregenerate, carnal mind.

Fish: I have no quibble with anything you say in this paragraph, except the word “Nope.” But I think what our writer is getting at when he says you must set aside your reason is that the content of Biblical revelation cannot be fully grasped by reason. Moreover, no one can be quite certain that his reason is entirely regenerate, since our whole human nature has been corrupted by sin & that sinner remains in us, along with the justified believer, until our resurrection from the dead. “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).

I don't think much needs to be added to this debate. I might have added a thesis to the effect, "To say that Baptism is not the Holy Spirit's means to make us fellow members of the body of Christ is to discount 1 Corinthians 12:13, where Paul writes: 'By one Spirit we were all baptized into one body...and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.'" I might also have looked for some pretext on which to trot out Galatians 3:27 and Ephesians 4:5. But frankly, I could see early on that this was a case where no "preponderance of evidence" or soundness of rational argument would penetrate the veil through which my interlocutors read the Bible. I had done what I could, which is to proclaim the mighty Word of God, which has in it the power to change hearts and to save. And so, let us hasten onward to Part 2, where we look at the hermeneutical concerns that the above debate raised in my mind.

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