Thursday, February 7, 2013

How to Truly Non-Discriminate


Mr. Daniel Baker wrote an excellent post about the significance of baptism some months ago at the same time I was writing a paper on the universal nature of the sacrament of baptism. I’ve re-written it for this blog, and cleared away a lot of the scholar-talk and most of the Greek-talk.
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I was asked some time ago by an atheist why Christians baptize children and the developmentally disabled and recent converts to Christianity. Surely, these people cannot understand what the preacher is saying or truly believe all the theology of the Christian Church. Are they believers after baptism anyways?

A legalistic outlook on the sacraments views them as magical incantations that have instant effect because certain words were said and certain things were done—as though there is an instruction manual that says, “Do this, it will work,” believing that simply by the work worked a reward is guaranteed. The sacraments in Lutheran understanding are miracles whose working we cannot explain: “I believe – trusting them as gospel,” a gospel most surely meant for all people (Luke 14:24 & Luke 24:47).

There is much that can be said about baptism, particularly of infants. In the Lutheran Confessions, AP: IX, as well as a large section of the Large Catechism on Holy Baptism, is almost entirely dedicated to infant baptism. Much that is said about infant baptism is true of the example peoples above—for instance, LC VI.53:
Baptism is valid, even though faith be wanting. For my faith does not make Baptism, but receives it. Now, Baptism does not become invalid even though it be wrongly received or employed; since it is not bound (as stated) to our faith, but to the Word.
St. Luke, who gave his account of Christ's ascension, certainly knew this sacrament of the admittance of believers into the church and certainly knew of Christ's command to go and do so in the world. St. Luke’s two volumes—the Gospel according to Luke and The Acts of the Apostles—place special emphasis on this nondiscriminatory nature of Christian baptism.

Baptism has roots in the Waters of Purification of Old Testament rites that required immersion or application of water due to ritual impurity. In addition, “Proselytes (gentile converts to Judaism) had to undergo immersion … which is probably the antecedent to Christian baptism.”1 St. Paul himself washed as a minor sanctification rite in Jerusalem during the “Days of the Purification”—a ceremonial washing when a vow was accomplished,(Acts 21:24-26) as well as Jesus' family when he was a youth—a cleansing from ceremonial impurity.(Luke 2:22) “Jesus' parents are law-abiding Jews. They show up at the temple to perform sacrifices associated with the wife's purification after birth.”2 New Testament baptism surely would have had special significance to Jewish Christians, with a rich history of purifying by application of water. But these things are only ritual washing with water, not Christian baptism.

The cleansing which this New Testament “washing” effects is qualitatively different from the formal ceremonial “cleansing” at which other baptismal rites had aimed. This is implicit in verses of Hebrews 10, where the author points out the difference between the institutional priesthood of the old covenant and the universal priesthood of all believers in Christ. What is explicit, on the other hand, is Ananias' words to Paul (before conversion) in Damascus: “And now, why delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins by calling on His name.” (Acts 22:16) Lutheran commentator R.C.H. Lenski strongly asserts that this was not a symbolic ceremony. “What lay heavy on [Paul's] conscience was the guilt of his enormous sin of persecuting the Messiah himself (v. 7). Baptism with its water sanctified by the Word was to wash away all this guilt, all these sins.”3

These previous examples of washing and of early Christian baptism are both, so far, on Jews. St. Luke sees fit to mention a non-Jew's conversion and subsequent baptism in Acts 8—the Ethiopian eunuch. “Since he is reading Isaiah from the Old Testament, he is most likely an adherent of Judaism, probably a Diaspora God-fearer. He would be limited to the Court of the Gentiles at the temple or perhaps just to a synagogue.”4 He was on his return journey from worshiping in Jerusalem when Philip, sent by an angel, walked beside him, heard him reading aloud and asked him “Do you understand what you are reading?”(Acts 8:30) The eunuch is eager to learn and bids Philip join him to explain the Isaiah verses he reads. Upon coming across water, the eunuch remarks “Look, there’s water! What would keep me from being baptized?”(Acts 8:36) The answer to his rhetorical question may have been that, since he was a eunuch, “he was defective and defiled according to traditional Jewish law, forever banned from the covenant community.”6 But still, Philip is willing to baptize him—so all-encompassing is the Christian baptism. 

Interestingly, verse 37 is omitted from many early manuscripts, including Codex Vaticanus—one of the most reliable Greek texts of the New Testament. “And Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart you may.’ And he replied, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’” That was all that Philip needed to baptize the eunuch and thus admit him into Christ's church. Influential New Testament Scholar Bruce Metzger says there is no good reason why this material should have been omitted if it was originally in the text of Acts, especially since it managed to find its way into the Textus Receptus (The accepted set of biblical manuscripts used by KJV and others).7 Lenski says concerning verse 37's omission that “the objection is textual only, and remarks such as that ‘the words sound like some pedantic preacher asking his convert for a final, formal confession’ reflect only on him who makes them.”8 Though the omitted verse presents a historical reflection of adult Christian baptisms, there are distasteful pietistic undertones present. It is a fallacy to think that one can be a believer with only part of the heart. Such questions as “do you believe with all your heart?” are not necessary, since the Holy Spirit never inefficaciously, partially converts unbelievers, nor partially keeps them in the one true faith. An excellent example of this is the father of a demon-possessed son in Mark 9, who cried out to Jesus in faith: “I do believe! Help my unbelief.”

Luke records in detail some recipients of baptism in his biblical accounts. When Philip was in Samaria, there was a sorcerer named Simon, attracting the attention and admiration of the people with his sorceries. Luke writes “but when they believed Philip, as he preached the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, both men and women were baptized.” (Acts 8:12) Not only is the sex of these converts noteworthy, but also so is the fact that these were Samaritans—a people often shunned by the Jews.

The account of Pentecost that Luke records in Acts 2 is the only mass baptism described in the canonical Bible. Peter exhorts the crowd in Jerusalem: “Repent,” Peter said to them, “and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38) Lenski remarks how the phrase “each of you” especially “makes repentance and Baptism personal in the highest degree. Salvation deals with each individual … no matter what his condition or position may be.”9 So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about 3,000 people were added to them. (Acts 2:41) Literally it says about three thousand souls (ψυχαὶ). Luke is careful about his word choice here. In Acts 4:4, when he wishes to refer to men alone, he uses the word ἀνδρές. In Acts 7:14, when he wishes to refer to both sexes and all ages of Old-Testament Jacob's relatives (which most certainly included children),10 he uses ψυχαὶ. One can be sure that those 3000 that the apostles baptized on Pentecost was more diverse than a crowd of Jewish males.

St. Luke has a recurring pattern when family baptisms occur. He uses a construction similar to “then he and his entire household were baptized.” Dr. Paul Borgman, specialist in biblical narrative, counts eleven occurrences of this construction in Luke and twenty-five in Acts.11 Perhaps the most famous is the account of the jailer in Philippi recorded in Acts 16.

While Paul and Silas were in the Philippian prison, a miraculous earthquake occurs, undoing all the chains and opening all the doors. Once the jailer awakes and notices all the doors opened, he draws his sword to kill himself. But Paul called out in a loud voice, “Don’t harm yourself, because all of us are here!” (Acts 16:28) The earthquake has presented the jailer with irrefutable evidence that God is at work with Paul's group,12 and the jailer escorted them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved,” still trembling from what he perceives may be a wrathful god's actions against him. So they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” One New Testament commentator C.K. Barrett believes “it would be difficult to maintain that the word [οἶκος (household)] here includes infants, since not only were οἱ αὐτοῦ ἅπαντες [all the ones of him] baptized (v.33), all heard the word of the Lord spoken by Paul and Silas (v.32) and as a result the whole household rejoiced.”13 But Lutheran Theologian Joachim Jeremias writes concerning this passage:
In no single case does the New Testament—alas!—tell us more precisely of whom the 'houses' embracing the Christian faith were composed; nor in any single case can children be excluded from belonging to the house. In no instance is it possible to limit with [Kurt] Aland the idea of the oikos [household] in any New Testament passage to its adult members, because, as we shall see, there is no evidence of this restrictive use of oikos either in secular Greek or in biblical Greek or the writings of Hellenistic Judaism.14
Further evidence of ministry and baptism of infants comes from the early church father Irenaeus (alive until ~202 AD) , who writes in Against Heresies:15
Namely, all men [Jesus] came to save through himself: all men I say, who through him are born again to God: Infants, and the very young, and boys, and youths, and aged men. Therefore he came through every age, he became an infant for infants, sanctifying infants; he came in a child for children, sanctifying those who have this age, being at the same time made to them an example of piety, and righteousness, and subjugation; he came in a youth for youths, becoming an example to youths, sanctifying them for the Lord.
“Baptism is what it is irrespective of its recipient. A gold piece treated as worthless is no less a gold piece.”16 Not only does Luke emphasize the wide-spread application of ritual washing, but he also expresses universality of Christian baptism in accounts of the Ethiopian eunuch, Philip's baptizings in Samaria, mass baptism at Pentecost, baptisms of a whole family such as that of the jailer at Philippi, even as far as probable infant baptism. On account of St. Luke’s writings, one can be certain about the validity of Christian baptism of every sex, race, and age.


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My name is Benjamin Rusch, and I am currently a senior at Martin Luther College who plans on attending Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary this coming school year.




1 David Noel Freedman, ed. Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2000. p.1369.
2 Darrell L. Bock. IVP New Testament Commentary Series: Luke. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press. 1994. p.342
3 Lenski. Acts 22:16, p.906-907. (Emphasis in original)
4 Darrell L. Bock. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Acts. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic: 2007. p.342
5 Greek has a peculiar emphasis: “Do you really (Ἆρά γε) understand what you are reading?”
6 Freedman, ed. Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. p.433
7 Bruce Metzger. A Textual Commentary on the New Testament. New York: United Bible Societies. 1971. p.359-60.
8 Lenski. Acts 8:37, p.340.
9 Lenski. Acts 2:38. p.105
10 See Genesis 45:9-10
Return quickly to my father and say to him, ‘This is what your son Joseph says: “God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me without delay.
You can settle in the land of Goshen and be near me—you, your children, and grandchildren, your sheep, cattle, and all you have.
11 Paul Borgman. The Way according to Luke: Hearing the Whole Story of Luke-Acts. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: 2006. p.381
12 Darrell L. Bock. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Acts. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic. 2007. p.541
13 C. K. Barrett. International Critical Commentary: Acts: Volume 2: 15-28. New York: T&T Clark LTD. 2004. p.797-8
14 Joachim Jeremias. The Origins of Infant Baptism: A further study in reply to Kurt Aland. Trans. Dorothea M. Barton. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers. 2004. p.16. Emphasis added.
15 St. Irenaeus, Adv. Haeres II.22.4 
(Translation own) http://www.textexcavation.com/documents/images/ah2p044.jpg 
16 Lenski. Acts 8:12. p.317


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