Posts Tagged ‘Theology’

After these first two weeks at Duke, it has become apparent that it will be impossible for me to keep folks abreast of all that I am picking up here.  Every lecture, every reading, every seminar brims with information and thought provoking analyses, such that I couldn’t possibly catalogue them all here and keep up with my studies!  Thus, I will try weekly to share one or two things that I’ve picked up.

Daniel Boyarin, Professor of Talmudic , Departments of Near Eastern Studies and Rhetoric, at University of California, Berkeley

Daniel Boyarin, Professor of Talmudic Cultures, Departments of Near Eastern Studies and Rhetoric, at University of California, Berkeley

For our first seminar on the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament with Richard Hays we read and discussed an extremely stimulating article by the Jewish scholar Daniel Boyarin of UC Berkeley, “The Gospel of the Memra: Jewish Binitarianism and the Prologue to John” (Harvard Theological Review, 94:3 [2001] 242-84).  Boyarin argues against the common assumption that the lo,goj theology of Fourth Gospel’s prologue represents an adoption of strictly Greek categories of thought and a consequent break with Jewish monotheism.  On the contrary, the  lo,goj theology found in the John 1 was actually very much at home in first century Jewish thought about God.

To support his thesis, Boyarin adduces numerous passages from Jewish writings parallel to John’s line of thought.  Take for instance the follwing passage from the Jewish philosopher Philo:

To His Word, His chief messenger, highest in age and honour, the Father of all has given the special prerogative, to stand on the border and separate the creature from the Creator.  This same Word both pleads with the immortal as suppliant for afflicted mortality and acts as ambassador of the ruler to the subject.  He glories in this prerogative and proudly describes it in these words “and I stood between the Lord and you” (Deut. v. 5), that is neither uncreated by God, nor created as you, but midway between the two extremes, a surety to both sides. (Quis rerum divinarum heres sit 205-206)

Boyarin comments on this and other passages from Philo,

Philo oscillates on the point of the ambiguity between separate existence of the Logos, God’s Son, and its total incorporation within the godhead.  If Philo is not on the road to Damascus here, he is surely on a way that leads to Nicaea and the controversies over the second person of the Trinity. (p. 251)

He moves from discussing Philo’s lo,goj theology to limning rabbinic and para-rabbinic notions of “The Memra” or “The Word” of God.  Much ancient Jewish literature ascribes actions, thoughts, intentions and relations to the Memra along with divine status while nevertheless speaking of the Memra as in some way distinct from God.  Boyarin argues that this ancient language about the Memra cannot be read as mere personifications of impersonal divine attributes.  Rather “the strongest reading of the Memra is that it is not a mere name, but an actual divine entity, or mediator.” (p. 255)  

He further argues that the Jewish Memra should be seen as at least analogous or cognate, if not as identical with, Jewish and Christian notions about the lo,goj and/or Wisdom.  In the Targumim the Memra performs many of the same functions as the lo,goj:

  • Creating: Gen 1:3: “And the Memra of H’ (Hashem, i.e., YHWH or “the Lord”) said Let there be light and there was Light by his Memra.”  In all of the follwing verses the Memra  performs the creative actions.
  • Speaking to Humans: Gen 3:8 ff: “And they heard the voice of the Memra of H’….And the Memra of H’ called out to the Man.”
  • Revealing himself: Gen 18:1: “And was revealed to him the Memra of H’.”
  • Punishing the wicked: Gen 19:24 “And the Memra of H’ rained down on Sodom and Gomorrah.”
  • Saving: Exod 17:21: “And the Memra of H’ was leading them during the day in a pillar of cloud.”
  • Redeeming: Deut 32:39: “When the Memra of H’ shall be revealed to redeem his people” (pp. 256-7)

In light of this evidence, it would seem that Johannine prologue’s references to the lo,goj are well within the bounds of what could count as first century Jewish monotheism and not the divisive Christian innovation that they are often alleged to be.

To my mind, Boyarin cements his argument when he simultaneously re-reads the prologue of John’s Gospel as a midrash on Genesis 1 and juxtaposes the strophes of the prologue with parallels from Jewish lo,goj/Wisdom/Memra theology.  For example, Wisdom, like John’s lo,goj is present with God and participates in the Creation:

 John 1:1-3 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 


Genesis 1:1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…

Wisdom 9:9With thee (i.e., God) is Wisdom…”

Prov 8:3 …then (i.e., at the Creation) I (i.e., Wisdom) was beside Him…

Similarly, when John writes “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.  He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him,” (1:10-11) he is not yet describing the Incarnation and ministry of Jesus but is rather rehearsing a common piece of Jewish lore about Wisdom.  Thus we read in 1 Enoch 42:1-2,

Wisdom could not find a place in which she could dwell; but a place was found (for her) in the heavens.  Then Wisdom went out to dwell with the children of the people, but she found no dwelling place.  So Wisdom returned to her place and she settled permanently among the angels.

 In light of these parallels, Boyarin argues, it is simply false to think that the first chapter of John’s Gospel would have offended first century Jews by positing a second person within the godhead.  Such a notion was already the common stock and trade of Jewish Wisdom theology.

Is there, then, anything distinctively Christian about John 1?  Of course, says Boyarin, but it does not come until verse 14: “And the Word (lo,goj) became flesh and dwelt among us….”


The Isenheim Crucifixion by Matthias Grünewald (1515)

The Isenheim Crucifixion by Matthias Grünewald (1515)

Overall, I find Boyarin’s arguments to be quite helpful in understanding the emergence of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.  This traditional Christian doctrine is not at all a sharp, alien, Greco-Roman departure from the Israelite and Jewish religion(s) from which Christianity initially emerged.  Rather, Trinitarian thought is quite at home within ancient Jewish conceptions of the divine.  It is, rather, precisely when Greek notions about the divine nature become normative that Trinitarian thought becomes a difficult doctrine.  This point has also been made recently by the Christian scholar Richard Bauckham in his book God Crucified (2008).

Viewed from a first century Jewish perspective, the challenging thing about Christianity is not that the lo,goj is both God and with God, is a second divine person within the godhead.  It is not that Christian ideas about the lo,goj threaten Jewish monotheism.  They don’t.  It is rather that according to John and all those who believe that his testimony is true the lo,goj became flesh and dwelt and died among us….


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paulIt is not uncommonly claimed that Paul’s thought developed over time.  The classic example of development in Paul’s theological thought is his dimming expectation of Christ’s imminent return.  As I have argued elsewhere, early on Paul believed that Christ would return within Paul’s lifetime and he advised Christians accordingly.  But by the time of his imprisonment in Rome, not too long before his execution, Paul’s expectation that he would live to see Christ’s return was flagging.  He no longer spoke confidently of himself and his correligionists as “we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord,” (1 Thess 4:15, 17, written ca. 41-43 CE) but rather began coming to terms with his imminent demise (Phil 1:21ff, written ca. 61-63 CE).  He still believed that the Lord would return soon, mind you, but no longer did he think he would live to see it (Phil 4:5).

Now, one may suspect that explaining the phenomena of Paul’s writings by recourse to his theological development is a distinctly modern approach to understanding the Apostle to the Gentiles, but, in fact, it is not.  In my last post I highlighted Paul’s scrap with Peter over Peter’s parting company with Gentiles at meals (Gal 2).  The late 2nd century apologist Tertullian (ca.160 – ca.220 CE)explained Paul’s actions as being the result of his relative immaturity as a Christian.  He writes:

Now [the Marcionites] adduce the case of Peter himself, and the others, who were pillars of the apostolate, as having been blamed by Paul for not walking uprightly, according to the truth of the gospel–that very Paul indeed, who, being yet in the mere rudiments of grace, and trembling, in short, lest he should have run or were still running in vain, then for the first time held intercourse with those who were apostles before himself. [3] Therefore because, in the eagerness of his zeal against Judaism as a neophyte, he thought that there was something to be blamed in their conduct–even the promiscuousness of their conversation–but afterwards was himself to become in his practice all things to all men, that he might gain all,–to the Jews, as a Jew, and to them that were under the law, as under the law,–you would have his censure, which was merely directed against conduct destined to become acceptable even to their accuser, suspected of prevarication against God on a point of public doctrine.[4] Touching their public doctrine, however, they had, as we have already said, joined hands in perfect concord, and had agreed also in the division of their labour in their fellowship of the gospel, as they had indeed in all other respects: “Whether it were I or they, so we preach.” (Against Marcion, Book I, Chap XX)

According to Tertullian, Paul outgrew this hot-headedness and later adopted the policy of becoming all things to all men that he might win the many, which, apparently, Tertullian took to be the policy that Peter endorsed all along.  As he writes in Book IV, Chap III of the same work, “And yet as Paul himself ‘became all things to all men,’ that he might gain all, it was possible that Peter also might have betaken himself to the same plan of practising somewhat different from what he taught.”

Harmensz van Rijn Rembrandt, "The Apostle Paul in Prison", 1627, oil on panel

Harmensz van Rijn Rembrandt, "The Apostle Paul in Prison", 1627, oil on panel

To my mind, this sort of explanation is helpful not only for making sense of Paul’s letters but also for reminding us that Paul was not the two-dimensional, ready-made Sunday-school felt-board character we often imagine him to have been but rather a flesh-and-blood human being, living and thinking in the complicated, rough-and-tumble world of the first century.  Paul was a man attempting rethink everything he had learned at his mother’s knee and at the feet of his tutor, Gamaliel, in light of the recent resurrection of a crucified man who, by Pharisaic standards, had played fast-and-loose with the Torah, and in light of the still unfolding activity of the Spirit amongst Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and freemen.  It is difficult to imagine how his thought could not undergo some change over the course of the nearly three decades in which he worked.

I, personally, am encouraged by the fact that the New Testament gives evidence of Paul’s humanity.  It is a reminder that these things actually happened and are not a bunch of made-up fairy tales, too pristine and tidy to fit in the real world.  Howeverso problematic these observations may be for our attempts at solving our contemporary theological conundrums, I prefer them to an unproblematic (and correspondingly unrealistic) picture of emergent Christianity because they indicate, to me at least, that maybe, just maybe the gospel is true.

But, of course, these observations make facile proof-texting appropriations of Paul’s letters (or of any New Testament text, for that matter) for contemporary theological purposes dubious indeed.  We must, rather, attempt by means of historical imagination to enter the world of the New Testament and sit at the feet of the Apostles as they were, listen into their debates amongst one-another and hope and pray to hear the voice of our common Master.  Then, hopefully having heard His voice, we must leave their very different world and attempt to live faithfully by what we have heard in our own.

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One of the most striking passages in Paul’s letters comes in the second chapter of Galatians.  Paul has been demonstrating his solidarity in the gospel with the Jerusalem based Apostles, Jesus’ orignal disciples and His brother, James.  While always being sure to maintain that his message and ministry is independent of theirs, Paul has been keen to underline their fundamental agreement.  But then, as there always does, there comes a “but.”

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. (Galatians 2:11-13)

Paul goes on to give Peter a stern dressing down because, he says, Peter “stood condemned.”  One wonders if Peter saw it that way.  I suspect not.  Had Peter knuckled under to Paul’s tirade, we would expect Paul to say so.  He has been

Peter and Paul at Antioch

Peter and Paul at Antioch

adamant about their fundamental agreement up until this point in the passage, but here he is content to give us only one side of the story and himself the final word and to leave it at that.  Apparently these two Apostles did not come to a meeting of minds.

We do not know exactly why Peter stopped eating with the Gentiles.  Perhaps Peter thought such a practice would be expedient in his mission to the Jews; his way of being as one under the Torah to those under the Torah.  Perhaps James’ men brought news of Jewish persecution of the churches in Jerusalem, and Peter thought it best not to push the issue until things quieted down (cp. Acts 6:11-14).  At any rate, we ought not to assume that he had no good reason at all.  We should not even facilely assume that he was clearly wrong and Paul was clearly right.

And there’s the rub.  Apparently, as they sought to make sense of their world in light of Jesus’ resurrection and the urgings of the Spirit, the Apostles could and did come down on different sides of an issue.  Galatians 2 narrates one instance, but we find these early Christian differences enshrined in the very pages of Scripture as well.

For instance, John the Seer voices his clear disapproval of those in the churches of Pergamum and Thyatira eating food sacrificed to idols: 

 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and to fornicate. (Revelation 2:14)

But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to fornicate and to eat food sacrificed to idols. (Revelation 2:20)

The fornication in view here is probably a metaphor for idolatry (cf. Rev 17; Hos; Ezek 23, etc.) to which John understands eating of food sacrificed to idols to be tantamount.

The Apostle Paul had a more nuanced and liberal view of the matter.




Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. 2 If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. 3 But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. 4 Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that an idol has no real existence, and that there is no God but one. 5 For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth- as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”- 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. 7 However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8 Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9 But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? 11 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. 12 Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. (1 Corinthians 8:1-13)

Paul sees nothing intrinsically wrong or idolatrous in eating food sacrificed to idols per se.  However, he says, not everyone sees it that way and we need to respect their tender consciences.  John the Seer comes to mind.  On Paul’s definition, the author of the Book of Revelation would qualify as a “weaker brother,” a designation that we may suppose John would have been less than pleased with.



The Four Apostles by Albrecht Dürer, 1526.  From left to right, John, Peter, Mark and Paul.

The Four Apostles by Albrecht Dürer, 1526. From left to right, John, Peter, Mark and Paul.

Similarly, whereas the Gospel of Mark (10:1-12) does not permit divorce under any circumstance, Matthew apparently sees this policy as being too strict and permits divorce on grounds of adultery (19:1-9).  Paul seems to side with Mark on the matter: Christians are not to seek divorce, even from unbelieving spouses who were likely cavorting with temple prostitutes (1 Cor 7:10-16).  Most of us sympathize more with Matthew, however.

We find that Jesus and Paul believed the end of the world and the final Judgment would arrive within a generation (e.g., Matt 24:34; Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27; Rom 13:11-12; Phil 4:5; 1 Thess 4:15, 17, etc.).  The author of 2 Peter seems less hopeful (3:8-9).  All of us, with the aid of hindsight, agree with 2 Peter over against Jesus, Paul and the Synopticists.

There’s no two ways about it.  Sometimes to side with one Biblical author one must side against another.  Things are not as simple as just “believing the Bible.”  The diversity of opinions between the Apostles and within the pages of Scripture itself forces us to pick-and-choose, to take sides, to disagree with one Biblical author or another.

It is the Bible itself, not hubris nor merely our modern sensibilities, that forces us to do so.  At the end of the day, as when God challenged Jacob at Peniel, the Bible gives us no choice but to wrestle with the Bible if we would procure its blessings.  We cannot simply assent to whatever it says.  That way does not lie open to us.  We have to try, with the aid of the Spirit, to wrest Jesus, who is the true source of our life, from the pages of Scripture; to discern the voice of the resurrected Christ amidst the diverse and at turns discordant voices of the Biblical writers.  It is for this reason that I will, at times, feel fully at liberty to prayerfully and gladly disagree with an Apostle.

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The Atheneum Portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1796

The Atheneum Portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1796

The Reverend James Abercrombie, the assistant at Christ Church in Philadelphia, once preached a rather heated sermon against the “unhappy tendency of…those in elevated stations who invariably turned their backs upon the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.”  Though Abercrombie did not name names, then President George Washington, who was in the congregation that day, took the message to be aimed directly at him and thought it “a very just reproof.”  Washington’s custom had long been to excuse himself from church when it came time to partake of the sacraments and he now realized that doing so was deeply offensive to many.  Thus, Washington resolved from then on to skip church on Sacrament Sundays altogether.  (Holmes, pp. 63-4)

So, no, Washington was not an evangelical Christian.  Though he never, like Thomas Jefferson, went so far as to take scissors to the Bible, his faith was clearly a predictable sort of Deism.  In his letters to churches, for instance, he wrote in typical Deist-speak, variously referring to “Providence,” “the Deity,” “the Grand Architect,” and the like, but never to, say, the divinity of Jesus or the Holy Spirit.

Likewise, James Madison abandoned orthodox Christianity for Deism while in his twenties and John Adams was a Unitarian bordering on Deism who denied the existence of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ.  There were, of course, sincere orthodox Christians amongst the Founding Fathers, like Patrick Henry (who, however, sharply opposed ratifying the Constitution) and Samuel Adams (who historically was much better at brewing trouble than beer).  But orthodox Christians were by no means either the most numerous nor the most prominent members of the Founders.

Quickly surveying the faiths of the Founding Fathers, one cannot help but wonder how anyone ever got the idea that America is or ever was a fundamentally Christian nation.  Perhaps it is because we tend to associate the colonials of our land with the deeply Protestant Pilgrims, in celebration of whose first harvest we glut ourselves each November.  But, of course, we forget that Jamestown, a purely commercial colony, had been established several years before the Pilgrims sought religious refuge on these shores.  We also forget that the Puritanism of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts was a witch-burning, Baptist-beating, Quaker-branding form of Christianity, far removed from the religiously tolerant spirit of the Founding Fathers.

And if we insist on the silly Sarah Palin-esque notion of there being or having been a “real America,” why should Puritan Massachusetts be the paradigm?  What of Anglican Virginia or (at least initially) Roman Catholic Maryland?  Why not the religiously neutral, riff-raff populated Georgia or Quaker Pennsylvania?  At any rate, the Founding Fathers ultimately modelled our country on Roger Williams’s scandalously religiously tolerant Rhode Island (or “Rogue’s Island” as it was popularly called) by refusing to establish any church in the Constitution and by insuring religious liberty to all in the Bill of Rights, be they Methodist, Morman, or Muslim, Sikh, Southern Baptist or Secular Humanist.  In short, the Christian Right’s rhetoric of America being a “Christian nation” is, historically speaking, just plain nonsense.  

decline and fall of christian americaAnd, fortunately, the “Christian America” folks seem to have quieted down as of late, the wind having been taken out their sails.  An emerging Christian Left has taken away their monopoly on the language of faith and values.  An heir to the late Jerry Falwell has yet to emerge.  The Bush administration policies such as waging a war of choice on Iraq, waterboarding, and imprisoning men for years without trial have become increasingly difficult to justify theologically.  And President Obama has still inexplicably not yet come out of the closet as an undercover al-Qaeda operative, a secret Muslim or the Antichrist. 

The net result seems to be that James Dobson and Focus on the Family have gotten back to focusing on the family instead of on public policy, thank God.  Hopefully in this moment of silence members of the Christian Right are doing some serious soul searching and I would like to recommend to all of us the following theses for consideration:

  1. Our Nation was born out of a political experiment of the Enlightenment and, as such, is structured by presuppositions that may or may not cohere with Christianity. 
  2. American Christians should listen to the concerns of fellow Christians elsewhere in the world (nearly all of whom opposed the invasion of Iraq). 
  3. Church and State are separate for a reason.  The same anti-establishment clause that protected the rights of Baptists and other dissenters in the 18th century protects the rights of agnostics, atheists and liberal mainline Christians in our own.
  4. American society has from its inception been pluralistic and the Founding Fathers designed our government so as to protect that pluralism.
  5. If marriage is a sacred institution, then it is not the State’s place to either define or regulate it.  Constitutionally speaking, questions about who can marry whom must be decided by faith communities for themselves.
  6. War, capital punishment, health care and poverty are as much life issues as abortion and stem cell research.
  7. In many countries, Christianity is associated with Socialism rather than neo-Conservative Republicanism.  In short, the supposed connection between the Bible and, say, the theory of “trickle-down economics” are far from clear.
  8. It is the international, transcultural, catholic Church and not the United States of America that constitutes God’s chosen people and holy nation (1 Peter 2:9), and the agendas of these two nations (in which I hold dual-citizenship!) can be and often are at cross-purposes with each other.  We all need to think long and hard about where our ultimate loyalties really lie.

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To wrap up this discussion of baptism, I return to the set of problems that sent me on this exploration in the first place: Should individual Christians be willing to compromise their baptismal preferences for the sake of fellowship with and the mission of local churches?  If so, how flexible can we legitimately be on these matters?

I have tried to show in Parts 1 and 2 of this mini-series that, in all likelihood, there was no single apostolic protocol for baptism and, if there was, it does not match any of the baptismal practices on offer within the Church today.  The most probable explanation for why our current evidence for earliest Christian baptismal practices is messy  and complicated is that the historical reality on the ground (or in the water, as it were) was messy and complicated.  InBaptismal font the apostolic period, the Church’s practice and understanding of baptism was evolving from being a Jewish ritual ablution to being a Christian sacrament.  That evolutionary process, like all such processes, probably gave birth to a multiplicity of theological and practical variations, only the “fittest” of which survived.

Now, this picture of baptism’s history seriously problematizes our tendency to want to treat our specific, preferred baptismal practices and theologies (whether we be paedo- or credo-baptists) as rigidly normative for everyone else.  Nobody, no not one, can boast of either an uncomplicated continuity nor a perfect symmatry between their baptismal practice and that of the apostolic generation.

Furthermore, to return to my evolutionary metaphor, as with species of flora and fauna, so also the ability to flourish that constitutes a tradition’s “fitness” for survival depends entirely upon the environment wherein that tradition finds itself.  Just as a species’ fitness for survival depends upon environmental conditions (e.g., climate, sustenance, mates [if needed], etc.), so, perhaps, it is with traditions like baptismal practices.  Perhaps there are environmental conditions to which churchesand individual Christians should adapt their baptismal practices.

For instance, it is (or at least used to be) recognized that the American “Bible-Belt” displays the phenomenon of so-called “cultural Christianity,” a sort of highly-popularized, lowest-common-denominator piety, typically marked out by a handful of seemingly arbitrarily selected dogmas (e.g., biblical literalism, a borderline-Docetic and thoroughly Caucasian Christology) and taboos (e.g., don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t swear, don’t date girls that do, etc.).  In such an environment, perhaps paedo-baptism could be a theological liability.  Perhaps paedo-baptism’s (supposed) proclivity for producing people who believe themselves to be proper Christians simply because a minister splashed some water over them once merely exacerbates the problems inherent in a context rife with “cultural Christianity.”  But, then again, perhaps it is not paedo-baptism per se that exacerbates the situation.

On the other hand, it is often observed that deepy engrained in American culture is a profoundly self-centered, self-motivated individualism that affects everything from how we dress to why we go to school to how we envision salvation.  This inveterate American individualism breeds narcissism both inside and outside the Church, undermines the edification of the community of the Church, the Body of Christ, and diverts resources that ought to go towards mercy, outreach and missions to instead go to endless building funds, sound-systems, and retreats.  Perhaps in this unhealthily individualistic context credo- or “believer’s” baptism, with it’s concomitant (over?) emphasis on my “testimony,” my “conversion,” my “decision,” and my new walk with the Lord, exacerbates the situation, inadvertantly diminishing the importance of the family and isolating Christians from both the living community and the historic Tradition of the Church.  But, then again, perhaps it is not credo-baptism per se that does this.

I do not presume to say which, if either, baptismal practice will best serve the circumstances wherein the Church currently finds herself.  But I would suggest that these sorts of practical, pastoral questions should probably Baptism-christplay a greater role in personal and communal deliberations on baptismal theology and practice.  However, these sorts of questions do not admit of cut-and-dried answers.  Whatever conclusions one reaches must be adhered to provisionally and humbly.  At any rate, bearing these things in mind allows Christians to maintain Paul’s prioritization of evangelism and unity over the particulars of baptism (see 1 Cor 1:10-17) and to exercise a sort of healthy ecumenical versatility as they decide where, how and with whom to worship and serve.

So to return to my initial questions: Should individual Christians be willing to compromise their baptismal preferences for the sake of fellowship with and the mission of local churches?  If so, how flexible can we legitimately be on these matters?  I’ve given my two-cents worth.  What do you think?

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To recap, in my last post I argued that earliest Christian baptism must be understood in the context of other Early Jewish washings in general and is best understood as a development of Jewish proselyte baptism in particular.  Thus, early Christians probably generally followed the normal Jewish baptismal protocol: When the head of a household converted, he and his whole household (wives, children, infants, and slaves) would all be baptized but children who were subsequently born into the household would not require the baptismal bath.  In short, neither modern-day Baptists nor modern-day paedo-baptists (e.g., Methodists, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, etc.) practice baptism precisely the way Christians did during the time of the apostles.  If that precis has left you completely disoriented and confused, read my argument in the last post before continuing with this one…or just stop reading altogether and go on about your business.

 So, picking up where we left off…

3. Thus, a sort of paedo-baptism was probably practiced from the very start of Christianity, although it likely was not the only early Christian approach to baptism nor does it exactly match the subsequent Christian practice of paedo-baptism. As I mentioned in a comment on the last post, there is perhaps some textual evidence of diversity in Christian baptismal practices in the apostolic period.  While most of the NT gives a pretty clear picture of baptism as a singular initiatory rite, in Hebrews 6:2 we find that part of the elementary word of Christ is “instruction about washings/baptisms (baptismw/n, plural!)” (compare with Heb 9:10). Some have noticed definite affinities between the focuses of Hebrews and some of the hot-topics of the Dead Sea Scrolls (angelology, Melchizedek, priestly concerns, etc.). Some have even gone as far as to suggest that the author and intended audience of Hebrews were Essene Christians! If that’s the case, perhaps we have evidence here of an early Christian community wherein members did, in fact, undergo multiple “baptisms,” as did members of the Qumran community and the Pharisees (Luke 11:38).

4. As there was probably no uniform baptismal practice, there was almost certainly no uniform theology of baptismal significance in early Christianity.  However, it needs to be noted that the NT’s language

ca. 4th-5th century, cruciform baptismal font

ca. 4th-5th century, cruciform baptismal font

concerning baptism is disconcertingly high for many Evangelical Protestants who want baptism to be a symbol and nothing more.  For Paul it is precisely in our baptism, not our initial moment of faith, that we are united to Christ in his death and resurrection (e.g., Rom 6:3-4; Gal 3:27).  Nevertheless, for Paul, baptism, in some sense, takes a back-seat to the preaching of the gospel (1 Cor 1:17).

On the other hand, we read in 1 Peter 3:21-22, “Baptism… now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ….”  Likewise, John’s reference to being “born of water and the Spirit” as a precondition of entry into the kingdom of God (3:5) is probably best understood as a reference to baptism.

I suspect that for churches that shared the Pauline belief that baptism united the believer with Christ and somehow transformed the believer’s heart (Rom 6:4, 17-18) it was only natural to connect baptism with the circumcision of the heart (Rom 2:29).  From there it is but a theological hop, skip and a jump to patterning Christian baptismal practice after the Jewish rite of circumcision and, ergo, baptizing children born to Christian parents.

That not all ancient churches would take this hop, skip and jump should be obvious.  Nevertheless, we have here the makings of an explanation for how Origen, writing in the early 3rd century, could assume paedo-baptism to be a practice passed down from the apostles and why Tertullian should feel the need to argue against the (apparently widespread) practice.  The fact that the practice was not explicitlyordained by any NT text helps to explain why in many cases the evidence from Christian children’s gravestones indicates that children were often baptized strictly in cases of emergency and why many in the 4th century, though Christians, postponed baptism until either ordination (e.g., Ambrose of Milan) or death (e.g., Gregory of Nazianzus, Constantine) seemed immanent.  The theological interconnection between the Spirit, baptism and circumcision helps explain why at least some of these baptismal procrastinators (e.g., Augustine, Gregory of Nazianzus) would go on to exhort parents to baptize their children without delay. 

My point is that paedo-baptism as it came to be practiced within the ancient and medieval church was an understandable and probably legitimate development of apostolic baptismal practices and theologies, not that it was the only legitimate development of the apostolic practices and doctrine.  In short, the messiness of the baptismal practices and theologies of the apostolic period begat the messiness of the baptismal practices and theologies of the patristic period, but, nevertheless, therein lay the seeds of what would eventually become the Church’s predominant practice: paedo-baptism.  Now, whether those seeds should have been allowed to germinate is another matter….

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The other week I was having coffee with a new-found friend from the Baptist church I have been attending recently.  Like myself, she is a closet paedo-baptist but, nevertheless, in order to join the church, she gladly submitted to undergoing “believer’s” (ana!)baptism.  For whatever reason this revelation set me to h’rumphing and shifting uneasily in my seat.  Of course, people who have been baptized as infants are frequently (re)baptized by Baptist churches.  That comes as no surprise.  What caught me off-guard, I think, was the realization that some folks who were being (re)baptized had not discounted their christening as illegitmate nor bought into the theology of credo- (or “believers'”) baptism.

As I’ve said before, The Summit is a vibrant, healthy, happening church, and so, in some ways, I suppose I should not be surprised that folks who resonate with the church’s ethos and mission but not necessarily with their baptismal theology, would submit to the latter in order to participate in the former.  And on further reflection, it seems to me that there is something profoundly right about subordinating one’s personal sacramental preferences to the interests of community and mission.

In other words, I don’t think baptismal practice is a hill to die on and for the following reasons: 1) I suspect that, historically speaking, the baptismal practices of Apostolic Christianity were most likely incongruous with the chief baptismal practices on offer today.  2) The practice and theology of baptism underwent processes of development from the time of Jesus through the Reformation and beyond, in response to various practical and theological stimuli.  3) Because of the character of baptism’s history, perhaps the most pressing questions for how churches should practice this sacrament are practical and pastoral in nature.

As for the historical questions, I have several thoughts:

1.  Early Christian Baptism probably arose out of Jewish ritual washings, the function of which was to provide ritual purity.  It is commonly believed that such washings were primarily associated with the Israelite cultus (see e.g., Ex 30:19-21; 40:12; Lev 6:27, etc.).  However, as Shaye Cohen has pointed out, the Torah’s regulations concerning ritual purity pertain not only to the Tabernacle but to the entire Israelite camp, i.e., to the entirety of Israel (Lev 13:46; Num 5:1-4).  Understood thus, the Pharisees insistence upon applying purity to the whole of Jewish existence seems not pedantic or supererogatory but altogether natural.   

Such washings were part of both initiation into and daily life in the Qumran community (see especially, The Community Rule [1 QS III.1-10]).  Washings were also part of the daily life of the Pharisees (e.g., Luke 11:38).  We know that Rabbinic Judaism practiced proselyte baptism, having Gentile proselytes be baptised as part of initiation into the people of God.  The function of such baptisms was to remove the uncleanness that Gentiles necessarily had on account of their pre-conversion diets (see Lev 11).

A mikvah bath at Herodian from ca. 1st century BCE

A mikvah bath at Herodian from ca. 1st century BCE

While, it is often dangerous to assume that practices and ideas of Rabbinic Judaism extend back into the Second Temple period, I think we are probably safe to think that proselyte baptism was commonly practiced by Jews of that time, particularly the Pharisees.  First, there is some textual evidence that this practice may extend as far back as the 2nd century BCE (namely, the Greek Version of the Testament of Levi 14:6 protests Jews using “unlawful purifications” to legitimate marriages to unclean Gentile women).  Furthermore, it is hard to imagine how Pharisees could initiate Gentiles into the Jewish community, into the “camp” without some sort of initiatory ablution (again, think Lev 11).

Thus, it is only natural to place Christian baptism on the map of Jewish ritual washings and more specifically to connect it with Jewish proselyte baptism.  But in addition to the initial plausibility of Christian Baptism arising from this matrix, there are a few other clues that seem to indicate that we’re on the right track in linking these practices.  First, the language of baptism is associated with Jewish ritual washings in a few NT texts.  For instance, Luke 11:38, “The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash (evbapti,sqh [aor. ind. pass of bapti,zw]) before dinner.”  In John 3:25-26, furthermore, it is precisely in the context of a discussion about purity that the subject of Jesus’ baptismal activity comes up. 

Second, there is an intriguing parallel between 1 Corinthians 10:1-4, where Paul says Israel was “baptised into Moses” via the Exodus and later rabbinic discussions of proselyte baptism that explain the practice by recourse to the Exodus (b Ker 9a).  Is it too much to suppose that both Paul and the Rabbis drew this point from a common background of Pharisaic baptismal theology?

2. Early Christian Baptism probably followed the patterns of Jewish proselyte baptism.  Jewish proselyte baptism was typically administered to whole households (wives, slaves, children and infants included) upon the conversion of the head of the household.  However, children who were subsequently born into these households were not baptised (e.g., b. Yeb 78a, ‘If a non-Israelite during her pregnancy becomes a proselyte, then her child does not need the baptismal bath.” etc.) because they were born into clean/pure families and had contracted no ritual impurity.  As for early Christian baptism, not only do we see the language of household baptism being used in the NT (Acts 16:30-34; 1 Cor 1:16) but we also see Paul using the language of ritual purity with respect to children born into mixed marriages (1 Cor 7:14).

However, I say “probably followed the patterns (plural) of Jewish proselyte baptism” because I suspect that there was a variety baptismal practices in early Judaism and, likely, a variety of baptismal practices in early Christianity.  I say this because the Mishnah witnesses an ongoing debate concerning baptismal practice into the Rabbinic period and also because there was diversity in baptismal practices amongst the churches of the 2nd and 3rd centuries (although, the fact remains that paedobaptism seems to have been an accepted practice across all three continents).

More coming soon…

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