Archive for February, 2007

The Tomb of Jesus?

February 27, 2007

I’m sure that by now many of you have heard the hype about a documentary set to air this Sunday about the discovery of the tomb of Jesus and his family outside of Jerusalem. Actually, this particular archaeological discovery was made in 1980, and the archaeologist who discovered it believes the upcoming documentary is a fraud.

Here is the best article I have seen to get oriented to the claims being made. It also contains pretty devestating critiques of those claims.

Michael Spencer is compiling links to just about any good article that comes out.

Bottom line: I’m not losing sleep over this, but it will give me some good sermon material.


Al Gore: Man of La Mancha

February 26, 2007

Last night Vice President Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth won an Oscar for best documentary. I did not actually see him accept the award, but I did see the Melissa Etheridge song performance followed by Mr. Gore’s appearance on stage with Leo Dicaprio (which, by the way, I thought was quite funny in that Mr. Gore pretended to begin an announcement that he was running for President but then got cut off by the music; in spite of the dull, robotic way he came off in the 2000 campaign, I think Al Gore does have a pretty good sense of humor).

Mr. Gore’s effort to turn the tide of global climate change seems a bit quixotic to me. There are still too many unanswered questions for me to take this global warming threat seriously:

– Given the fact that precision in temperature measurements is unique to recent history, why should we assume that this, first of all, really is a problem?

– On a related note, why should we assume that the earth’s present climate is ideal and should remain constant?

– Has climate change never occurred in the history of the world before? If it has, why are we so concerned about it now?

– Why should we assume that human activity is ultimately responsible for global warming?

– Why should we assume that human activity can stop the trend of global warming?

– To what degree could greenhouse gases come from naturally occurring phenomena?

– Why don’t we believe in the ability of living beings to adapt to environmental changes?

– What will be the economic ramifications of a radical environmental policy? For example, my own state of Kentucky has the lowest energy costs in the nation due to our coal industry. If the federal government mandated a reduction in the use of coal and an increase in the use of alternative sources of energy, how would Kentucky’s poorest people be able to pay their heating bills every winter? Proposing radical steps that will certainly result in human suffering must be justified by conclusive evidence that much more human suffering would result were the action not to be taken. There is no conclusive evidence here.

– Finally, as I watched the Hollywood crowd applaud Mr. Gore and the whole movement he represents, this question came to mind: IF human activity causes global warming, then how much more do Hollywood celebrities contribute to it than the average American? How much more energy do they use to heat their mansions? How much fuel do they burn flying all over the world on private jets? They want us to ride bicycles to work, but what are they willing to do to change their lifestyles? Mind you, I am not saying this because I resent their wealth. They have worked hard to reach the pinnacle of their profession, and many people are willing to pay to see them do what they do. I don’t resent the free market. I do, however, resent hypocrisy.

I don’t doubt that Vice President Gore sincerely believes in this threat, and that he is seeking to use his position as a former VP and quasi-celebrity to make a difference for good in this world. I don’t question his motives. I do, however, question the presuppositions that in all likelihood ground his position on this issue:

1. Human civilization is, for the most part, bad for the earth (in contradiction to Genesis 1:26-28).
2. Americans are the worst offenders of all.
3. The ultimate solution to this problem lies in the hands of big governments.

I disagree with all three. I don’t say this because I don’t support any environmental issues. I do. I believe we have made wonderful advances in recent decades to deal with things like air and water pollution. I think it is great when churches, schools, and local organizations adopt sections of a highway to keep the area around it clean. I don’t litter. I love national parks and wildlife refuges. I do not own an SUV and probably never will simply because I like to save money on gas. When they become more marketable, I will probably look into buying a hybrid, again because I like to save money. I agree with President Bush’s call for us to reduce our dependence on foreign oil because that is in our nation’s best interest.

But I think this global warming threat has been wildly exaggerated by overzealous people who take as their starting point incorrect ideas about humanity and the environment. They are living in a fantasy world. They claim to be charging at giants, but all I see are windmills.

Summing up on Baptism

February 24, 2007

Here is a quick reference to the baptism posts, in case you are interested:

Ali’s post from a long time ago

My post endorsing the new book by Schreiner and Wright

My first post in response to Steven’s question

My second post in response to Luke and Ali’s response to my response to Steven’s question

Ali’s responses to my second post in response to Luke and Ali’s response to my response to Steven’s question:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Whew! Good conversation, guys. Thanks for it.

The General and the Particular

February 23, 2007

Recently I have been pondering how many deep, philosophical issues are bound up with the issues of naming, categorizing, and generalizing. What is it that makes so many different, individual, particular objects identifiable by the same name: “tree”? How can so many things with such wide diversities partake of the same essence (which we will call “treeness”)? What is the essence of treeness? At what point can one draw a line and say, “This qualifies as a tree, and this does not”?

Scientists specialize in this sort of thing, of course, but who is to say that their classifications reflect an objective reality? For instance, modern scientists classify whales as mammals and not as fish. Therefore, when we read in the book of Jonah about a big fish swallowing the wayward prophet, modern readers sometimes tend to assume that it could not have been a whale because whales are not fish, and the Bible explicitly says “big fish.” But to make that assumption is to miss the fact that the writer of Jonah had no conception of scientific categorizations, which in this case appear somewhat arbitrary. Why should we categorize animals on the basis of physiology (as modern scientists do) instead of on the basis of appearance (as the ancients did)? If we take the latter approach to categorization, a whale certainly is a fish because it looks like one. The main point here is that while scientists do have methods of categorization, one can always question whether their methods in any particular case are the best.

So let’s come back to the essence of treeness. What is a tree? Is it a living organism with roots, a trunk, branches, and leaves? Of course, not all trees have leaves, so we can identify leaves as an accidental, not an essential, property of treeness. What happens if you cut all of the branches off of a tree? Is it still a tree? I would think so, but we are now approaching the question of at what point an object loses its essence as it undergoes change. If you put a tree through a wood-chipper, it is pretty evident that it is no longer a tree. The essence of treeness has been lost for that particular conglomeration of matter, but this does not help to decide what is the minimal essence of treeness. All we know from this example is that a tree is not little bits of wood.

Plato believed that the varying particulars in our world are unified by eternal forms that exist in another world. For instance, in a spiritual realm there exists a perfect tree, the very form of treeness, the object from which all other trees derive their essence. No tree in our world perfectly reflects this form of the tree, but everything that qualifies as a tree reflects it to some degree. Trees can be classified as such because they all partake of the essence of treeness, which exists as an objective reality in another world.

Aristotle disagreed with his teacher Plato and argued that the universal forms do not exist in another world but rather exist in the objects themselves. The form of tree exists not in a spiritual realm but in every particular tree. A great chunk of the history of philosophy has been simply a footnote to the different ways of interpreting the world laid out by these two men.

I see postmodern philosophy as a rejection of all attempts to categorize or generalize. I do not claim to have much familiarity with Nietzsche (although I do know how to spell his name), but it seems to me that his atheism took him to the logical conclusion that the categories of this world that we take for granted are simply arbitrary. There are no universals, only particulars. Universals would require some objective, authoritative standard. Some authoritative arbiter would have to tell us, “This qualifies as a tree, and this doesn’t.” Since God does not exist, neither do the objective realities that we supposed enabled us to interpret this world.

We are reaping the fruit of postmodern philosophy in our society today. Boundaries have been crossed. Categories we once took for granted have been obliterated. We are told by some that the basic human distinction between male and female is nothing but a social construct, not an objective reality. Therefore, virtually any perversion of human sexuality is now acceptable: cross-dressing, transexualism, homosexuality, the masculinization of women and the feminization of men. But the male-female distinction is the design of the Creator (Gen 1:26-28; 2:7, 18-25). It is not arbitrary. One cannot be human except one be male OR (not “and”) female.

And that is finally where I go to resolve the problem of the general and the particular. This is God’s world, and he has ordered it according to his own wisdom, an order that he has made us able to comprehend at least to some degree. This is why I believe philosophy must always include some level of pure common sense. I don’t mean that I subscribe wholeheartedly to Scottish Common Sense Realism, but the basic idea makes sense: if God has created this world and has created us with the mental equipment to understand it to some degree, then we have the right to trust what we understand by reason and intuition to be plainly evident (under the authority of Scripture, of course; I admit, there are exceptions to this, but God has made those things evident in Scripture). To say that the male-female distinction is not an objective reality but a social construct smacks of complete detachment from reality. We know from nature that men and women are just different, and that some people belong to one group and the rest of the population belongs to the other. To rebel against the order of creation, the universals that encompass the particulars of God’s world, is to deny that what God has made is good.

The Moral Dimension of Theology, Part 2

February 19, 2007

I argued in part 1 that human beings are morally obligated to believe what is true (in particular, to have a correct theology) and reject what is false. The intellect is a profoundly moral part of the human person, and propositions to which we give our assent have profound moral implications for us.

I make this argument because of the widespread idea that ethics is primarily about behavior, disconnected from any definite theological or metaphysical framework. Kant is primarily responsible for this split, which relegated religion to what Francis Schaeffer called the “upper story,” detached from real life. For most people in this post-Kantian world, it doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you are sincere and don’t harm anyone else. I believe this is an incorrect understanding of both theology and ethics.

For starters, this popular idea cannot account for the moral imperative it seeks to enforce. On what basis should we not harm anyone else? Is it on the basis of God’s existence, his authority over us, and the value he has placed on each human being? If so, then we have entered into the realm of theology to justify the ethical imperative implicit in the supposedly atheological approach to ethics. But what if one holds to a different theology? What if one grows up in a family full of Muslim extremists and believes, based on the command of Allah to kill infidels, that his ethical imperative is to strap a bomb to his chest, walk into a crowded market, and detonate it? The moral imperative “don’t harm others” does not make sense in that kind of theological framework.

But what would we have the Muslim extremist do? Adhere sincerely to his beliefs and yet refrain from killing anyone? That would be a contradiction. A Muslim extremist cannot sincerely be a Muslim extremist and not kill someone else. Therefore, in order to justify the moral imperative “don’t harm others,” we must automatically rule out certain theological frameworks from the start, because they, if sincerely held, will inevitably lead to a violation of this ethical imperative. Muslim extremists are not welcome here, thank you. Either convert to another view (most likely moderate Islam) or be excluded from the utopia of liberalism.

This example should make it abundantly clear that ethics cannot be divorced from one’s underlying beliefs. Beliefs will translate into ethics, thereby falsifying the modern liberal myth that the particulars of religion do not matter so long as we all adhere to a common ethical core. For a Muslim extremist to live according to the Western ethical values we hold dear would be to violate his own ethical principles, and therefore he can either (1) convert to another religious framework, (2) be a hypocrite (i.e., insincere adherent to his religion), or (3) act in accordance with his beliefs and murder people.

But so far I have only argued that different theologies lead to different ethical behaviors. I have not yet made the case (in this post) that to believe a faulty theology is itself an ethical failure. But surely the conclusion is not too much of a stretch, especially when the proper nature of theology is understood. Kevin Vanhoozer has recently argued in his book The Drama of Doctrine that doctrine must be understood as a directive enterprise. In other words, inherent in the task of theology itself is the practical, sapiential directive that sound doctrine provides. In the dramatic metaphor, the Bible is the script, and doctrines are the marginal notes written in to help us understand how it is to be performed. Therefore, if doctrine is by its very nature directive, then it is illegitimate for us to drive a wedge between the ethical value of belief and practice, since belief gives rise to practice. If one man hires another man to murder someone, both are implicated in the crime, not just the one who actually carried out the act. If doctrine directs us to act in certain ways, then belief of doctrine is implicated in the ethical outcome of our actions.

But what about a more difficult example? Muslim extremists are one thing, but Jehovah’s Witnesses are very different. They reject the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and bodily resurrection, but is it fair to argue that they are guilty for holding false beliefs, especially since they, as adherents to a Christian heresy, hold ethical values very similar to orthodox Christians? I believe they are guilty, for at least two reasons. First, their beliefs rob God of glory by demoting the person of Christ and destroying the gospel message. If Christ is not God, then he cannot save us, because only God can save. Second, their beliefs translate into the ethical imperative of aggressive proselytizing, which leads many others into their error. Now, I have no problem with proselytizing (how could I, since Jesus commanded it?); my problem is with spreading error through proselytizing. By spreading their false gospel, Jehovah’s Witnesses lead many away from the truth about God, Christ, and the gospel, and for this they are accountable, no matter how sincere they are.

I want to take a couple of paragraphs now to respond to some questions from the last post. Ali wrote, “The only way I can see moral culpability for the act of not believing or believing falsely in and of itself is if there is enough evidence for the person to have come to the right conclusion.” I agree with this statement, although I would add the caveat that we may be morally culpable for failing to notice or properly interpret the evidence in front of us, or if we are simply too lazy to investigate it. Scripture often describes unbelievers as blind and deceived, but the image is clearly not meant to get them off the hook!

Luke Smith asked about what I mean by “belief” in this discussion, and I want to make clear that I am defining “belief” here as assent to a proposition. I realize that this is not the way Scripture customarily describes belief, but my purpose is not to do biblical theology but to offer a philosophical-theological reflection. I believe that assenting to true propositions is a moral imperative. Luke S. further argued that this makes faith into a work. I disagree, because clearly in Scripture people are held morally accountable for rejecting the gospel, and yet we would not argue from this that accepting the gospel is a meritorious work. I think we need to distinguish between concepts of merit and ethical imperative. One can be under an ethical imperative to do something (i.e., accept the gospel) without that something constituting a meritorious work.

To My Fellow Pastors

February 17, 2007

I have officiated four funerals in my life. Last Saturday, for the first time, I preached a funeral for a man to whom I had been a pastor. He was an elderly man who had listened to my sermons, had sought me out for counsel, had received me as a guest in his home, had held on to my hand as I prayed for him in the hospital.

After the sermon I led the casket everywhere it went. I led the casket down the aisle to the back of the church where guests filed out to view the body. I stood at the head of the casket as they did so. I led the casket to the hearse. I rode with the casket to the cemetery. From the hearse, I led the casket again to its final resting place. I stood at the head of the casket, read Scripture, prayed, and concluded the service by placing a flower on top of the casket.

I don’t know how or when the tradition of the minister leading the casket originated, but as I later reflected on what I had done, I felt that the image that we seek to convey by such a tradition is that a pastor is one who serves as a guide in life and death. He leads the casket in order to symbolize his role as one who shows sinners the way to life beyond the grave. So I began to ask myself these questions:

Did this man hear the truth from me?
Did I rightly proclaim to him the gospel of Jesus Christ?
Did I do everything in my power to help him prepare for eternity?
Am I a guide who can be trusted in life and death?
What about others in my congregation? What about when they die?
Am I a faithful steward over those whom God has entrusted to me?

Brothers, pastoral leadership is largely about preparing people for death. Don’t ever take that lightly. Eternity hangs in the balance. Preach Christ faithfully, diligently, persistently. Pray for your people. Love them and care for them until you commend their bodies to the ground and their souls to God.

I am thankful that Saturday I preached a message of hope for a brother in Christ who had died. I have full confidence that he died trusting in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life. But, sadly, I highly doubt that the same is true for all members of my church (in which case they should not be members, but you know how that goes). Will I be a faithful guide for them? Death is a sobering reality. May we think on it often, for we often need to be sobered.

The Moral Dimension of Theology

February 8, 2007

If you came here earlier today expecting my scheduled Wednesday post, I apologize that it was not there for you. Today a member of my church passed away, so my schedule has been irregular. I hope you don’t mind that I am posting this a few hours late.

My thesis is this:

Human beings are morally obligated to believe what is true and disbelieve what is false. Therefore, one who believes something that is false, no matter how sincere he may be or how ethical a person he may be otherwise, is guilty of an ethical failure.

I believe this thesis explains a lot. Christians have traditionally believed that salvation is found only in Jesus Christ (I think it is unfortunate that I have to use the adverb “traditionally” in that sentence, but that is the way things are going these days). But this leads to an empirical problem. How can so-called “virtuous pagans”–moral people who do not accept Jesus Christ as Savior–be justly excluded from salvation? It does not sound right for us to think that people who are good by human standards are judged guilty before God. And yet, the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and the truth of salvation by grace alone through faith alone requires us to believe that many “good” people will spend eternity in Hell. This is an existential problem that has led many to deny one or more of the following truths: (1) The uniqueness of Jesus Christ, (2) The necessity of faith in Christ for salvation, (3) Salvation by grace alone, and not by works (4) The reality of God’s wrath, (5) The reality of Hell. I don’t pretend that my thesis offered above solves all of the questions related to these issues, but I do think it sheds light on them.

If my thesis is correct, then the incorrect theology of moral non-Christians is itself a moral failure. Hypothetically speaking, let’s say there are two men who live identical lives, with the only difference being that Man A believes in the Trinity and Man B does not (this is a highly artificial example, I admit, because of course one’s belief or disbelief in the Trinity would have further ramifications on the way one lives; but let’s just use it for argument’s sake). Man B has more guilt before God because he has failed to accept what is true about God. The intellect is a profoundly moral aspect of our being.

What does this mean for moral people who do not accept biblical Christian doctrine? It means that they are rebelling against God. Their failure to accept the truth and their corresponding acceptance of falsehood puts them under God’s wrath no matter how kind they are to their neighbors.

What does this mean for someone like me, who does accept biblical Christian doctrine as true? It means that I must continually seek to bring every part of my theology under the authority of Scripture. And given the fact that I am in a position to influence others through teaching and preaching, I must be extra diligent about making sure I am biblical in all things. James 3:1 says that teachers will be held to a higher standard of judgment. Again, my thesis explains why this is so: what we believe about God (and what we influence others to believe about him) is more than just an intellectual game; it is a profoundly ethical issue. In a sense, what I am saying is that from one perspective, theology is a subset of ethics (although the converse is also true; from another angle, ethics is a subset of theology). Theological questions are not just about curiosity; they are about knowing truth about God and his world, and what one knows or does not know is a matter of moral accountability.

Baptism by Immersion, Part 2

February 3, 2007

This is a long post. I’m up late typing, and I just found myself going on for a while. I hope you find it helpful.

Luke and Ali raised some good points below in my first post about baptism by immersion. My purpose in this post is to respond to their points, beginning with Ali’s more biblically oriented claims and then moving on to Luke’s practically oriented question (and then I must return to Ali’s practical question about two guys in the desert).

Ali writes, “. . . pouring is the most likely mode of water baptism [in the New Testament]. This is because anywhere in the Bible (OT and NT) where anything called baptism is actually described, it involves either pouring or sprinkling. Importantly, this includes the baptism in the Holy Spirit in Acts where the Spirit is poured out onto the people (Acts 2:17).”

I do not agree with this claim. To investigate this issue, we must consider the lexical data for the Greek words bapto and baptizo. These are related terms, the latter being an intensive or frequentative form of the former. Furthermore, there is evidence that speakers of Koine Greek considered them basically equivalent. This evidence is from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament produced around the same time period as the New Testament, though a little earlier; hereafter it will be abbreviated LXX). The LXX consistently translates the Hebrew word tabal with bapto (see Exod 12:22; Lev 4:6, 17; 9:9; 14:6, 16, 51; Num 19:18; Deut 33:24; Josh 3:15; Ruth 2:14; 1 Sam 14:27; Job 9:31). Every time they are used, both words mean “to dip,” “to immerse,” or “to plunge.” Most of the examples cited here refer to dipping hyssop in blood, or dipping the priest’s finger in the blood of a sacrifice, etc. But then there is 2 Kings 5:14 (LXX calls it “4 Kings 5:14”): “So he [Naaman] went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child and he was clean.” The word translated “dipped” here is the Hebrew word tabal, so we would expect the usual LXX translation bapto. Instead, we have baptizo. This is at least one example where baptizo and bapto are shown to have basically the same meaning. Even more important, it is an actual description of a “baptism” occuring by immersion, thereby falsifying Ali’s claim.

I would further reiterate my claims made in the previous post about the numerous clues in the New Testament accounts of baptism that point to immersion as the mode. We know that baptism required much water (John 3:23), far more than was available in the chariot of a man traveling through a desert (Acts 8:36), and that it took place while both subjects were standing in a large body of water. We know this because of reports that John baptized in the Jordan River (Matt 3:6; Mark 1:5), that Jesus came to the Jordan to be baptized by John (Matt 3:13; Mark 1:9), that Philip and the Ethiopian went down into and came out of the water (Acts 8:38-39), and that Jesus came up out of the water at his baptism (Matt 3:16–I mentioned in my previous post that this could refer to him walking back up to the bank, but I think the most natural reading of text suggests him coming up after being immersed in the water). At the very least, these clues eliminate sprinkling as the mode as well as pouring that does not take place while both the baptizer and the baptized are standing in a body of water. This does not logically rule out affusion while standing in water, but why would there be a need to stand in water to have it poured over you? The only mode of baptism that absolutely demands wading into a body of water, as baptisms in the New Testament are consistently described, is immersion.

(By the way, Ali argues in his post that the narrative of the Philippian jailer doesn’t read like he took Paul and Silas to a body of water where he was baptized. I disagree. Notice the emphasis that I add to Acts 16:32-34: “(32)And they [Paul and Silas] spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house. (33)And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household. (34) And he brought them into his house and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, having believed in God with his whole household.” They were in the house in verse 32, and they were brought back into the house in verse 34. What happened in between? The jailer took them to wash their wounds, which was presumably the same place where he was baptized. Luke does not tell us where that was, but it is safe to assume that it had to be a large body of water if it was necessary to leave the house, since we can assume that at least some water would have been available in the house for everyday use, presumably enough to wash wounds. Even slight hints like this point to immersion as the mode.)

But I have not addressed Ali’s two strongest arguments: (1) the use of baptizo (and the related noun form) to refer to “washings” in Scripture in such texts as Mark 7:4 and Luke 11:38 and (2) the actual description of baptism in the Holy Spirit as the Holy Spirit’s outpouring. Let’s take these in order:

With regard to (1), we must recognize that words can have a wide range of meanings, especially as these meanings develop over time. It is widely agreed that baptizo in Classical Greek means “immerse.” That is the basic meaning of the word. But does not the act of immersion in water also accomplish the purpose of washing? It is easy to see, then, how the word baptizo could slide over to the meaning “wash,” at least in some contexts, whether that word “wash” in context actually refers to immersion in water or not. I think of how people from the South (USA, I mean, not southern hemisphere, Ali!) often refer to all soft drinks as “Coke.” “You wanna Coke?” “Sure.” “What kind?” “Dr. Pepper.” It is no stretch to imagine such a conversation taking place in East Texas. What has happened? The word “Coke,” a particular brand name of soft drink, has been stretched to encompass a whole category of soft drinks, even those that are not properly referred to as “Coke.” What does this mean for the subject at hand? It means that the meaning of baptizo has been stretched to encompass non-immersion washings as well as immersion-washings (all immersions in water are washings, and this is why baptism is connected to cleansing in the NT). But we must judge every use of the term in context. There is no warrant for interpreting the uses of baptizo that are connected to John’s baptism and Christian baptism in the NT as mere “washings.” Numerous clues in the text point to immersion as the mode (which is a form of washing, but it is more than washing).

With regard to (2), we must also recognize how words often develop figurative meanings. Let me provide an example using our English word “immerse.” If I say, “I am going to immerse myself in my books,” I am obviously using figurative language. I am not going to submerge my body underneath my books; I am going to expend a great deal of energy in focused study. The word “immerse” has developed a figurative meaning that will accomodate such an idea. But it would be illegitimate to take that example and then project that meaning of “immerse” back onto the basic meaning of the word itself. The basic meaning of “immerse” is still the same: “submerge.”

“Baptism in the Holy Spirit” is a figurative use of language, as is “the pouring out of the Holy Spirit.” I agree that Spirit baptism is connected to Pentecost, and that Pentecost is described as the day when the Spirit was poured out on all flesh (Acts 1:5; 2:17/Joel 2:28). But it is illegitimate to project the meaning “pour” onto the word “baptism” as a result. Both terms are being used figuratively. The Spirit was not literally “poured” onto the disciples. In fact, the event described does not even speak of the visible presence of the Spirit falling down from above. Acts 2:1-3 describes a rushing wind filling the whole house and tongues of fire that suddenly appeared and rested on the believers.

Another example of the figurative use of “baptize/baptism” is Jesus’ saying in Mark 10:38-39 (cf. Luke 12:50), where he speaks of his upcoming “baptism” in reference to his death. The event of the crucifixion involved neither a literal pouring nor a literal immersion, but the idea of being completely submerged under suffering to the point of death seems to be the clear connection that is responsible for the use of the word “baptize” in this context. Furthermore, if Jesus’ actual baptism by John was intended to prefigure his death (as is commonly agreed among New Testament scholars), then how else could Jesus symbolize death and resurrection except by immersion?

What is the common link between these two figurative uses of “baptize/baptism” (Spirit baptism and Jesus’ crucifixion as a baptism)? I think it is the idea of immersion. The disciples were completely covered by the presence of the Spirit, and Jesus was completely submerged under the wrath of God to the point of death. Therefore, I conclude that the “baptism in the Spirit” that occurred at Pentecost has particular reference to the disciples being completely covered by his presence (clothed, if you will, and I do not agree that pouring better signifies this than immersion; immersion covers the whole body, but pouring does not). The “pouring out” of the Spirit has no bearing on the ritual of water baptism. The point, however, is that we are dealing here with a figurative use of language, and it would be illegitimate to link one figurative use of language (“baptism in the Spirit”) with another (“pouring out of the Spirit”) and then project the meaning back on to the ritual of water baptism.

Now, you may call me on the fact that I made an argument from figurative language in Romans 6:1-7 by linking baptism to the death and resurrection of Christ. But there is a difference: Romans 6:1-7 actually addresses water baptism, whereas Acts 1:5 and 2:17 do not. In fact, Acts 1:5 explicitly contrasts baptism in water with baptism in the Spirit. Returning to Romans 6:1-7, what about the argument that Jesus was buried above ground? I have two responses. First, even though he was buried in a tomb, Jesus was still laid down horizontally in an enclosed space, which is what baptism signifies. Second, Tom Schreiner argues (in case you don’t buy what I just argued) that baptism signifies death because sumbersion under water is an act capable of actually killing someone, but pouring water over someone’s head does not have such a capability. When Jesus was crucified, he was submerged under the wrath of God, and the act of baptism signifies our union with him in his death and resurrection. I think there is theological significance in Dr. Schreiner’s argument, but I am content to argue that being “buried” (1 Cor 15:4) is very similar whether one is buried under dirt or under a hollowed out rock.

In summary, we must take our cues on water baptism primarily from texts that actually describe water baptism, not figurative uses of the terms “baptize” and “baptism.” I have already made lengthy arguments that the clues in the texts that refer to the ritual itself heavily favor immersion, and theological arguments connected to water baptism in Romans 6:1-7 and Colossians 2:12 actually demand immersion.

Luke asked the question, “Aaron, when your church takes the communion, do you use bread and wine like the early church did?” Assuming for the sake of argument that my position on the biblical teaching is correct, does it then demand that we practice immersion as it was practiced in the New Testament church? After all, most Baptist churches today do not use fermented wine in the observance of the Lord’s Supper (I am speaking of Baptist churches in America), and this includes my own congregation. If we are flexible on this issue, why not allow flexibility on the issue of the mode of baptism?

There is a difference between these two issues. Communion with non-fermented grape juice is still observed by the act of eating and drinking. The difference is not the act itself but rather the substance used in the act. The Lord’s Supper in the New Testament involved fermented wine (However, go back and read both the Gospel accounts and Paul’s account of the Last Supper in 1 Corinthians 11; none of them mention wine. They use the words “fruit of the vine” and “cup,” but never wine. Of course, I completely agree that wine was used, but the accounts themselves do not put emphasis on the fermentation.) The question we must ask is this: is there a theological significance to the fermentation, or could the act be performed just as well using unfermented “fruit of the vine”? I have heard arguments for the theological significance of fermentation, but I don’t believe they are convincing. The fruit of the vine symbolizes the shed blood of Christ, and there is no reason that grape juice cannot serve this function just as well as wine can. Furthermore, if we are going to insist on having fermented wine, we would then have to ask how much alcohol content would be required. In the ancient world, wine was much more diluted than it is today. Fermentation enabled preservation in a day when there was no refrigeration (I sound like Jesse Jackson). But now that we have refrigeration, the primary purpose of fermentation has become obsolete. We do not have to ensure that there is a one-to-one correspondence between the specific substances used to make the bread and the drink that we use for the Lord’s Supper. We only have to ensure that they are similar enough to communicate the same truth and symbolize the same realities.

The mode of baptism is a different issue, because the mode itself carries theological meaning. I have argued that death and resurrection with Christ is at least one theological concept communicated in baptism. This cannot be communicated apart from immersion. Immersion, pouring, and (to a lesser degree) sprinkling all communicate the idea of cleansing, which is also associated with baptism, but only immersion communicates the ideas of death and resurrection.

Ali has argued that because the New Testament does not specify a mode of baptism, it is going beyond Scripture to require baptism by immersion. My response is that while he is correct that the NT nowhere says, “To baptize, fully submerge someone under water,” surely Christ and the Apostles had a particular concept in mind when they spoke of “baptism.” There must be some limits on the acceptability or unacceptability of certain modes. For example, squirting a water gun in someone’s face does not qualify as baptism. The question is, on what basis do we draw parameters around practices that qualify as baptism? The basis must be Scripture itself, not historic church practices. While Presbyterians speak of “baptism” in reference to a ritual of sprinkling water on an infant, I don’t believe Christ or the Apostles would recognize such a ritual as falling under the definition of “baptism.” So, even though the New Testament does not specifically define baptism as immersion only, we cannot necessarily conclude that it advocates flexibility with regard to the question of mode. My arguments here presented have made a case that when the New Testament authors wrote of water baptism, they always had in mind a ritual that involved immersion in water. To modify that ritual and then attach the label “baptism” to it is, therefore, illegitimate.

Now to Ali’s last question: two men are stranded in a desert and do not expect to survive. One of them becomes a Christian is baptized by sprinkling or pouring because he is providentially hindered (by lack of water) from being immersed. Unexpectedly, they find their way back to civilization. Would I insist that this man be baptized by immersion in order to join my church, thereby invalidating his previous baptism?

Wow! That’s quite an imagination you have, Ali! Perhaps this example exposes a weakness in my “providential hindrance” doctrine and should therefore lead me to make no exceptions at all, ever. I have heard one professor here at the seminary argue that we should never, under any circumstances, baptize by any other mode than immersion. If a person is providentially hindered from baptism by immersion, we should simply recognize this providential hindrance for what it is and commend that person to the grace of God. The thief on the cross next to Jesus was never baptized, but he did enter Paradise with Jesus. Maybe this professor is right. I am by no means completely settled on my opinion about exceptions for providential hindrance.

Nevertheless, to answer your question, I would insist that the person be baptized by immersion. Would this invalidate his previous baptism? Perhaps. But maybe a better way to look at it would be as a completion of his previous baptism. He previously took a step of obedience as best he could given the circumstances. By God’s grace, he has been brought to a situation where he can now give full obedience to the command of Christ, unhindered by circumstances. I think this highly unlikely, unusual, probably-has-never-happened-in-the-history-of-the-world situation would demand such a unique course of action.