Friday, November 3, 2017

Wine and Alcohol: The Argument from History

[The following was written in ~2004 by Steve Crawford for my and Steve's joint writing project which we called the "Fundamantalism Help File." The FHF never amounted to anything, but we did do some interesting research and write some interesting articles. Steve wrote the following not to encourage drinking. He himself abstained from all use of alcohol because he thought that it a wise principle. However, he vigorously objected to those who try to make the Word of God say something it does not say. And so he wrote the following. BTW, Steve passed away in 2008. He was one of my closest friends, and I still miss him dearly. We will talk again in the New Heaven and Earth.]
One of the methods that teetotalers use in arguing for the absolute abstention from alcohol is an appeal to history.  This appears to be their only recourse when confronted with Scripture texts which unmistakably place wine in a positive light, such as Ecclesiastes 9:7, “Go then, eat your bread in happiness and drink your wine with a cheerful heart, for God has already accepted your works.”

The wine in verses such as the above, teetotalers tell us, is not the same wine that we know today.  Rather, the term “wine” was used in antiquity to refer to a wide variety of drinks.  Some of them were undeniably high in alcohol content, but other “wines” were greatly diluted so that their alcohol levels were low enough that it was virtually impossible for them to be intoxicating.  Indeed, some “wine” was not wine at all but rather unfermented grape juice.

And so we see how the teetotal logic comes full circle: whenever the Scriptures speak of wine negatively, it “must” be a reference to the kind of wine having a high alcohol level.  Likewise, whenever we find texts in the Bible that refer to wine positively, it “must” be the case that such wine is of the non-intoxicating variety.  This is the essence of the teetotaler’s appeal to history.

Well, it turns out that the teetotaler is only telling half the story.  There are sufficient indications from history that the wine of antiquity, while it did come in many forms and varieties, was not all that different in its alcohol content than what we have today.  We present some of the evidence for this conclusion.  We first examine lines of evidence from the Ancient Near East, and then take a look at the customs and practices of the Greeks and Romans.
Evidence from the Ancient Near East
It is highly doubtful that any of the wine in the Ancient Near East didn’t have some significant level of alcohol in it.  This was due primarily to the way wine was made:
Those grapes which reached the baskets were taken off to the wine-press near by.  Here the excitement was even greater.  The centre of the scene was the group of men and women who jostled and splashed each other in the press-vat, as they trod the fruit with their bare feet.  The treaders gave voice to a special vintage shout which is thought to have originated in some ritual cry, but whatever religious significance it retained must have been drowned by the drinking songs which rang out in endless succession.  Whenever possible, the press was hewn out of the solid limestone rock, otherwise pits were dug in the earth and lined with stones and mortar.  The juice ran from the press-vat through a channel into another trough, which was dug deeper at a lower level.  In the hot September sun, fermentation began almost immediately and continued for about six weeks.  In smaller vineyards, the fermenting liquid was allowed to stand for this period in the wine-vat, but where the press had to be used for a considerable quantity of grapes, it was drawn off into big earthenware jars. [1]
The reason for allowing this “new wine” to sit was quite simple.  Since the ancients didn’t possess the filtration technology we have today, they had to the let wine settle while gravity naturally drew its suspended material to the bottom of the container:
The new wine was not ready for drinking for at least forty days, by which time the stalks and skins swimming in it settled down into a muddy deposit.  This sediment was known as the “lees” and an interesting passage in the book of Jeremiah suggests that the wine was separated from the lees by being poured from one jar to another: “Moab has been at ease from his youth, and he has settled on his lees, and has not been emptied from vessel to vessel … therefore his taste remains in him, and his bouquet is not changed” (48:11).  The last comment implies a warning that wine needs to be kept relatively undisturbed and that too much pouring will set up reactions and turn it into vinegar.  When the wine was sufficiently strained, it was stored either in large earthenware jars, of which the lids were sealed with pitch or wax, or in well-tied wineskins. [2]
Thus, wine in the Old Testament was allowed to ferment for a period of about six weeks.  Due to the obvious lack of temperature controls, there is every reason to suppose that during this time all (or nearly all) of the wine’s sugar was metabolized by yeast into carbon dioxide and ethyl alcohol.  Consequently, fermented wine in the Ancient Near East would’ve naturally contained the same alcohol levels seen today: approximately 12 to 14 percent by volume.

This would seem to settle the whole argument, yet there remains the question of dilution.  Evidence does indicate that, in certain Near Eastern cultures at least, wine was often diluted instead of being drunk straight from its storage container.  Here is a general overview of Assyrian and Babylonian wines where Mesopotamian habits of wine dilution are summarized: 
There were numerous varieties of wine, but it was not until the first millennium that these were given names, sometimes taken from their vineyard.  Most often, wine (karanu) is mentioned without any qualification.  When it is determined, it is chiefly “red” wine.  There are few mentions of “white” wine, but this may be because of our ignorance of the precise meaning of certain adjectives.  There is “first quality” wine and “ordinary” or “second choice” wine.  There is “light” wine, that is, “white” or “rose” or perhaps “young.”  The same adjective describes wine used for ritual offerings: in this instance it is translated as “pure,” which signifies that it is suitable for liturgical use or, quite simply, that it has not been diluted with water.
There is “new” wine and “old” wine; these latter would have been a wine allowed to age to develop its qualities -- which was also done for some beers.  There is “sweet” wine and “sweetened” wine, naturally or by the addition of honey or fruit extracts.  There is “bitter” or “sharp” wine, probably made so by the incorporation of the juice of certain plants.  There is “strong” wine, probably with a high alcohol content.  And there is “good” wine, like that destined for Mari by the king of Carchemish, or the one which, a thousand years later, Sargon's soldiers would draw by bucketsful from the reserves of the palace of Ulhu.  Are we to understand by this a wine of superior quality reserved for the royal tables or, less probably, a wine “sweetened” perhaps with honey?
The dispatches of wine from the north to the palace of Mari were often accompanied by jars of honey; but what accompanies is not necessarily complementary.  In fact, the wine was “treated” by incorporating various ingredients intended to alter its taste or density -- water, honey, or some sugary exudation, essences of aromatic types of wood.  As well as being diluted, it was also decanted, doubtless to eliminate sediment, and blended.  [3]
It was mainly on the occasion of festivals and banquets that strong drinks were taken.  The guests drank straight from the jar, with the aid of a hollow stalk.  Many monuments evoke drinking with a straw, and some representations associate it with erotic scenes; where these show the coupling of a man and woman, some people believe they can recognize the annual rite of the heiros gamos.  This “sacred marriage” between the king and a priestess taking the place of fertility goddess is well-attested in literature; it was thought to ensure general prosperity for a year.  Partaking of strong drink prepared them for lovemaking or boosted weakened energies.  Others see nothing “religious” in these representations; they are merely an image of happiness in a civilization where even the most deviant sexual act was subject to no taboo. [4]
But even though the Mesopotamians did dilute their wine, it is also clear that this did not occur in all cases.  Rather, they had a wide spectrum of drinks.  Here is how one scholar summarizes the ancient evidence after having reviewed the categories of “Drink, Beer, and Palm-wine,” “Wine,” and “Strong Drink”:
In point of fact, what with their drinks made from barley and palm-tree wine, as well as real wine, the Mesopotamians possessed a range of drink hardly less potent in its effects than those of today, though not their equal in quality. [5]
So we do have indications that other cultures did at times dilute their wines.  But this is relevant only if we can answer two questions:  (i) Did the Hebrews dilute their wines?, and if so, (ii) was the dilution to such a point that the wines were no longer realistically capable of causing intoxication?

As for the first question, some scholars do not believe there is any evidence that the Hebrews diluted their wine:
The drinking of wine was universal.  Taking it with water or luxuriously iced with snow from the mountains were later customs and even then the latter can hardly have been a part of everyday life.  The ordinary Israelite in our period [the time of the Old Testament] took his wine in its natural state or (like the Assyrians) mingled with spices and drugs to increase its “headiness.”  It is not surprising that the Old Testament contains so many warnings about drinking to excess.  The men of Israel also drank pomegranate wine and (possibly) wine made from dates.  They do not appear, however, to have been great beer-drinkers.  In this respect, they differed from their neighbors, the Philistines, whose beer-mugs with strainer spouts have been found by the hundred. [6]
But what about the “mixed wine” mentioned in the Old Testament (e.g. Proverbs 9:1-6, Proverbs 23:30, Psalm 75:8)?  Isn’t this a clear reference to wine mixed with water?  Well, in response, we have already seen how that the Mesopotamians would blend their wines together.  The same thing was happening in ancient Egypt:
Under the New Empire [the time after the Hyksos regime], as in Greek and Roman times, it was a favorite custom to mix several sorts of wine together.  The following picture shows us how they filled a large vessel by siphons with three sorts of wine; the festive decoration of the vessels indicates that this mixing is taking place at the time of a feast.” [And there follows a hieroglyphic from a Theban tomb.] [7]
Therefore, it is unwarranted to automatically assume that the “mixed wine” of the Old Testament is wine diluted with water.  It could just as well be wine mixed with other types of wine.  That it is mentioned in the context of drunkenness (Proverbs 23:30), is used to depict the potency of divine wrath (Psalm 75:8), and is the preferred beverage at an elegant feast (Proverbs 9:1-6) would seem to indicate that the best interpretation of the Bible’s “mixed wine” is that it is several wines blended together.  Even if it were water mixed with wine, it would still have to be quite capable of inducing alcoholic effects or else these verses become nonsensical.

With regards to the second question of how diluted the wines would’ve been, there is no evidence to suppose that the ancient peoples diluted their wines to the point where potential alcoholic effects disappeared.  Rather, it was precisely the alcoholic content of their wines that appealed to the people of antiquity:
A number of favorable factors made wine important to ancient peoples.  It was actually less likely to be contaminated than water, particularly in cities where public sanitation was difficult and water-borne diseases were common.  The pleasant effects of wine were early noted, and seem to be an important basis for the use of wine as a beverage.  Furthermore, the effects of wine were somewhat quicker and greater than those from beer, a beverage of lower alcohol content.  This must have been a very important factor in the pre-Christian period, since life was not pleasant for either the rich or the poor.  Winter was difficult, even in the southern regions, and the vicissitudes of life, with wars and slavery, made wine a welcome beverage, enabling people to forget their problems and ease their aches.  This is, of course, basically an effect of alcohol. [8]
More will be said on this point later, but suffice it to say that Ancient Near Eastern wine definitely had a significant alcohol content, enough for the Old Testament to repeatedly warn against drunkenness.  It is more of an assumption rather than an inference based on the available data when teetotalers claim that ancient wine was so diluted as to make it “more like water than wine.” [9]  Evidence for this is lacking, and attempts to circumvent a more natural conclusion are unsuccessful.
Evidence from the Greeks and Romans
When we turn our attention to the practices and customs of the Greeks and Romans, the picture is even clearer.  Indeed, it is puzzling to see teetotalers point to these habits as support for their modern interpretation of the Scriptures.  This is because the Greeks and Romans epitomized social and casual drinking – something which teetotalers are very much against.  So why do teetotalers appeal to Greek and Roman rituals?  As we will see, it again goes back to the fact that these ancients tended to dilute their wine.

Let us first turn our attention to the Greeks.  The customs in question come from the “symposium,” an event that would follow on the heels of a dinner or feast.  After coming together and eating their meal, the Greeks would immediately initiate the symposium where the following would occur:
The servants in attendance removed the larger tables which had been used at dinner, and brought in instead other smaller tables, which were also three-legged, but had round tops.  On these they arranged the drinking cups, bowls, and cooling vessels, plates with all kinds of dessert, and little dainties that would induce thirst.  Then wreaths were given to the guests to adorn their heads, and sometimes to put round their necks, and sweet-scented ointments were handed round.  While the guests were occupied in adorning themselves, the servants brought in the wine in large mixing bowls, generally three at the beginning of the feast, and later more, as occasion required.  The customary drink at these feasts was a mixture of wine and water.  Even at the present day southern nations seldom drink strong wine unmixed with water, and in ancient times unmixed wine was only drunk in very small quantities; at the symposium, when it was customary to drink deep and long, they had only mixed wine, sometimes taking equal parts of wine and water, and sometimes, which was even commoner, three parts of water to two parts of wine.  Generally, at the beginning of every symposium, a president, or “Symposiarch,” was appointed by lot or dice to take command for the rest of the evening, and it was his duty to determine the strength of the mixture, for this might be of various kinds, as weak as even two parts of wine to five of water, or one to three, or even one part of wine to five of water, which last was certainly a somewhat tasteless drink, and was contemptuously called “frog’s wine.”  In early times it was usual to put the water first into the mixing bowl and pour the wine upon it; afterwards the reverse proceeding took place. [10]
This researcher goes on to say that:
Every guest had to submit to the ordinances of the symposiarch; he exercised unlimited authority in the matter of drinking, unless, indeed, the arrangement had been made from the first that everyone should drink little or much, as he pleased, during that evening.  Those who disobeyed the commands of the president had to submit to some punishment, which consisted either in drinking a certain quantity, or else was directed at some personal infirmity; thus, for instance, a bald man was told to comb his hair, a stammerer to sing, a lame man to hop, etc.  This compulsion of submitting to the ordinances of the president naturally led to very deep drinking, and even the mixture of the water with the wine was insufficient defense against this practice.  It was very common to drink to one another, and propose the health of friends or popular girls.  It was customary for the drinking to circulate to the right, and this practice was also kept up for all other performances which were expected from every guest, such as the singing of songs, guessing of riddles, etc.  Though the main object of the symposium was, undoubtedly, the drinking, yet we must not compare the Greek symposia with the wild drinking bouts customary in Germany during the middle ages, which continued till the 17th century.  In consequence of the weakness of the mixture, it must have taken some time for the intoxicating effects to make themselves apparent.  Moreover, there were various kinds of amusement which caused the drinking to fall somewhat into the background, but these naturally varied a good deal according to the degree of culture and character of the guests. [11]
Thus, there is no reasonable doubt as to the nature of the wine that the Greeks drank.  Yes, it was watered-down but contrary to teetotal claims it was not diluted so much as to make it “more like water than wine.” This kind of concoction was derisively named “frog’s wine,” a not-so-subtle reference to its overly high water content.

Rather, the Greeks mixed their wine with water so as to prolong the duration of their symposia, which would last for hours.  During which time, they drank voluminously and often ended up drunk as a result.  We find other reasons as well for why the Greeks mixed water into their wine:
Greek wine, as we have said, was a rich, syrup-like fluid, and was almost invariably diluted with water.  Only the semi-civilized inhabitants of Macedon in the north took their drink neat.  Wines varied in quality, the best hailing from the islands of Lesbos, Chios, and Rhodes.  In some brands, as in modern Greece, resin was added, giving a tart flavor.  The drinking was organized according to regular rules.  A “master of the feast” was chosen by lot, and he dictated the proportion in which water and wine should be mixed -- most usually in the ratio of two to one.  The mixing was done by the slaves in a large earthenware bowl.  From this the drink was ladled into the cups -- broad shallow saucers raised on a delicate base, often of exquisite design and picked out with beautiful painted pictures.  The carouse would often last well into the night.  But the wine was, for a while at least, more apt to stimulate than to befuddle the brain; and witty talk was the rule.  [12]
So, apparently, water was also added to give the wine a smoother texture, for who would ever want to drink a syrupy concentrate?

Thus, we discover in the ancient Greek customs clear evidence against a teetotal position.  Yes, the wine was diluted but it was still quite capable of inducing alcoholic effects.  It is unwarranted to assume that the mere mention of wine dilution made it virtually impossible to get drunk from such a mixture.  The evidence is clearly against this sort of “frog’s wine.”

Besides, no teetotaler today would say that it’s acceptable to purchase and drink a modern wine if we first diluted it to the same proportions as the wines drunk in the ancient symposia.  After all, as we have noted before, there is no reason to suppose that prior to its dilution Greek wine wasn’t just as alcoholic as modern wine.  So, if we were to use the typical dilution of two parts water with one part wine, this would yield a mixture with 4% to 5% alcohol by volume – which is about as alcoholic as one of today's beers.    Teetotalers would never stand for the consumption of even this kind of drink.  Rather, we are told, people “must” remain completely abstinent.  Therefore, it is a great contradiction in one’s methods of argumentation when we appeal to, but then ultimately reject, the ancient Greek practices of mixing water with wine.

Turning to the period of the Romans, we find that little has changed with regard to their own habits of wine drinking.  They drank their wine “before, after, and between meals, as well as during; it was their coffee and tea and spirits.” [13]  And it is no surprise that the Romans copied the same customs found in the Greek symposium:
Wine blent with resin and pine pitch was preserved in amphorae [large earthenware bottles] whose necks were sealed with stoppers of cork or clay and provided with a label (pittacium) stating the vintage.  The amphorae were uncorked at the feast, and the contents poured through  a funnel strainer into the mixing-bowl (cratera) from which the drinking-bowls were filled.  Anyone who drank these heavy wines neat was considered to be abnormal and vicious, a mark for contumely.  It was in the cratera that the wine was mixed with water and either cooled with snow or in certain circumstances warmed.  The proportion of water was rarely less than a third and might be as high as four-fifths.  The commissatio that followed dinner was a sort of ceremonial drinking match in which the cups were emptied at one draught.  It was the exclusive right of the master of ceremonies to prescribe the number of cups, imposed equally on all, and the number of cyathi that should be poured into each, which might vary from one to eleven.  He also determined the style in which the ceremony should be performed: whether a round should be drunk beginning with the most distinguished person present (a summo), whether each in turn should empty his cup and pass it to his neighbor with wishes for good luck, or whether each should drink to the health of a selected guest in a number of cups corresponding to the number of letters in his tria nomina of Roman citizen.  We may well wonder how the sturdiest stomachs could stand such orgies of eating, how the steadiest heads could weather the abuses of the commissationes!  [14]
Thus, little comment needs to be made regarding Roman practices for they were clearly very similar to that of the Greeks.  What was said before could also be said here.  Needless to say, there is little support that teetotalers can find among Roman customs.

Here's a final quote from Xenophon concerning ancient perceptions of wine drinking.  Note that Xenophon ascribes the following to Socrates.  Whether Socrates actually said it or not is irrelevant.  The quote still illuminates ancient attitudes toward their own drinking:
At that Socrates broke in: “My vote, too, is given for a drink.  Truly does wine moisten the soul, lulling pain to sleep, even as mandragora drugs our senses, and waking merriment, as oil kindles fire.  Men's bodies, methinks, are in the same case as growing plants.  When God drenches these latter too abundantly, they cannot lift their heads nor catch the breeze.  But if they drink in only such moisture as they like, they grow up straight and bring forth abundance of rich fruit.  And it is the same with us.  If we fill the cup too abundantly, our limbs and our wits will both begin soon to reel, and we shall scarce be able to breathe, much less to talk sense.  But if we are bedewed with a gentle shower -- to use a Georgian metaphor -- from small glasses, we shall not be constrained to drunkenness by our wine and shall be gently led to the goal of merriment.” [15]
We find here an example of how ancient peoples commonly made the distinction between wine making us drunk and wine making us merry.  This is something that teetotalers seem to hardly ever talk about, and for good reason: the same distinction is quite often found throughout the Scriptures.  The Old Testament is replete with condemnations of drunkenness, but it also has numerous instances of offering praises for wine's merriment:
When Boaz had eaten and drunk and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain.  (Ruth 3:7)
So both of them sat down and ate and drank together, and the girl’s father said to the man, “Please be willing to spend the night, and let your heart be merry.” (Judges 19:6)
He causes the grass to grow for the cattle and vegetation for the labor of man, so that he may bring forth food from the earth, and wine which makes man’s heart glad, so that he may make his face glisten with oil, and food which sustains man's heart.  (Psalm 104:14-15)
Go, then, eat your bread in happiness and drink your wine with a cheerful heart, for God has already accepted your works.  (Ecclesiastes 9:7)
Men prepare a meal for enjoyment, and wine makes life merry, and money is the answer to everything.  (Ecclesiastes 10:19)
But even this evidence concerning the euphoric, yet non-intoxicating, effects of wine doesn’t seem to affect the absolutism of teetotalers.  For instance, one could always say something to the effect that wine's merriment has nothing to do with its alcohol and that we can derive the same sensation from, say, drinking a Pepsi.

Well, it is possible to argue this way but the problem is that we have now reached the point where our conclusion is clearly driving our interpretation, rather than vice-versa.  Taking this kind of route would mean that, rather than accepting God’s revelation in its plain and normal sense, we are stretching the various texts so that they take on an unintended (and unbelievable) meaning.

Indeed, this is the basic difficulty with the whole teetotal approach to wine and its historical backdrop.  In spite of biblical indications otherwise, teetotalers believe they have found an absolute command from God to keep away from all beverages with any alcoholic content.  This produces such a strong perception of right and wrong in their minds that they are willing to overlook, or even revise, historical evidence that contradicts their desired conclusion.  After all, as the thinking goes, it is virtually true by definition that there can be no such thing as evidence against an absolute standard of holiness and righteousness.  Consequently, teetotalers freely cite anything from history that appears to support their ideas but summarily dismiss that which doesn’t.  Such a tactic, as the thinking goes, cannot possibly be questionable when we already “know” our conclusion is absolutely correct.

In this fashion, we can see how teetotalism flows from certain presuppositions which are then forced onto the evidence.  One simply does not become a teetotaler because of clear historical precedents.  Rather, historical “precedents
are discovered because one is already convinced of teetotalism.

In summary, it is extremely artificial and arbitrary to assert that biblical praises of wine are only meant for a kind of beverage which doesn’t intoxicate.  The historical and cultural backdrop to the Scriptures just doesn’t support this.  It is a much more simple and natural interpretation that, whenever the Scriptures praise wine, it is a case of wine not being drunk to excess but being consumed enough to cause merriment.  And, whenever the Scriptures condemn wine, it is a case of wine being ingested to the point where drunkenness is the inevitable result.  The latter is not sanctioned by the Word of God but the former is, as history helps us to verify.
(1) E. W. Heaton, Everyday Life in the Old Testament (NY: Charles Scribers’ Sons, 1956), 105-106.
(2) Ibid., 106.
(3) Andre Finet, "An Ancient Vintage," Everyday Life in Ancient Mesopotamia, ed. Jean Bottero, trans. Antonia Nevill (Baltimore: John Hopkins Univ. Press, 2001), 85-86.
(4) Ibid., 88.
(5) Georges Contenau, Everyday Life in Babylon and Assyria (London: Edward Arnold, 1954), 79.
(6) Heaton, 86-87.
(7) Adolf Erman, Life in Ancient Egypt, trans. H. M. Tirard (NY: Benjamin Blom, 1894), 198-199.
(8) Maynard A. Amerine & Vernon L. Singleton, Wine: An Introduction, 2nd edition (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1977), 14.
(9) Quotation from sermon preached by a teetotal seminary professor with which we’ve had personal contact.
(10) H. Blumer, The Home Life of Ancient Greece, trans. Alice Zimmern (NY: Cooper Square Publishers, 1966), 209-210.
(11) Ibid., 213-214.
(12) C. E. Robinson, Everyday Life in Ancient Greece (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1933), 77-78.
(13) Lionel Casson, Everyday Life in Ancient Rome (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975), 25.
(14) Jerome Carcopino, Daily Life in Ancient Rome, trans. E. O. Lorimer (New Haven: Yale University Press), 269.
(15) Xenophon, “The Symposium,” Greek Social Life, ed. F. A. Wright (NY: E. P. Dutton, 1925), 114.

Content last updated on Thursday, January 15, 2004 08:44 PM

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Circumcision and Baptism—Different on the Outside, Same on the Inside

Whether or not you believe that baptism replaces circumcision, you must at least agree that they both symbolize the same thing—regeneration of the heart, cleansing from sin, and the work of the Holy Spirit.  Here's just some of the evidence:


Deut 10:16; 30:6--Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.; The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.

Jer. 4:4; 9:25--Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, circumcise your hearts, you men of Judah and people of Jerusalem, or my wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done— burn with no one to quench it.; "The days are coming," declares the LORD, "when I will punish all who are circumcised only in the flesh.

John 3:5-- Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.”

Titus 3:5-6--He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, 6whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior.

Cleansing from Sin

Ezekiel 36:25-- I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.

Acts 22:16--And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.'

Col. 2:11-12--In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.

I Peter 19-21--God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The Work of the Holy Spirit

Ezekiel 36:26-27--And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 

Mark 1:8-- I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.

John 3:5--Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 

Acts 7:51--“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you.

Romans 2:29-- Circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code.

Philippians 3:3--For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.

Titus 3:5-6--He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Why Romans 6 Does Not Teach Immersion

Nowhere in Scripture are we explicitly told that baptism represents the act of burying someone. Two passages--and only two--allow for the inference, but they do not expressly teach it: Romans 6:3-4 and Colossians 2:12. Both contain nearly the same idea, so as we examine Romans 6 we will also be addressing what is similar in Colossians 2. But before we do that, let’s briefly discuss how immersionists commonly demonstrate that baptism exclusively means immersion.

Immersionists typically present three types of proofs: the meaning of the word baptism in biblical and extrabiblical literature, the practice of baptism in history, and the use of the word alongside the idea of burial in Romans 6 and Colossians 2.

The Meaning of Baptism

Immersionists and affusionists have long argued over the meaning of the word. Immersionists usually claim that it can only mean “to dip or immerse.” They are fond of the documentable use of the word for dyeing cloths--an item is dipped or baptized into a dye-bath in order to change its color. On the other hand, the affusionists say the word references any application of a liquid, including pouring, sprinkling, and immersion. I think it is incontrovertible that the word refers to either mode in the ancient literature. It is just not supportable that the word only and always means immersion. Books galore on either side lay out the proofs for each position. Show me a book that presents the baptist evidence, and I will show you a book that presents the presbyterian evidence. As far as Scripture evidence goes, a few places like Hebrews 6 and 9 use the word to refer to Old Testament washings of various kinds. Immersionists have tried to show either that those do not apply to human baptism, or that all those baptisms were exclusively by immersion. I don’t think they have been successful, and neither do presbyterian scholars. Some baptists have granted that the word does not exclusively mean immerse but, based upon the two passages, have declared that it cannot mean anything other than immerse when applied to the sacrament.

The Practice of Baptism

Both sides appeal to how the church has practiced baptism throughout history to support their interpretation of the word. However, the evidence cannot prove that the early church practiced immersion exclusively from the start. The fact is that the church has probably practiced both immersion and affusion, in places and pockets, throughout its history. Scholars play games trying to prove which was first, but presuppositions will always prevent extrabiblical evidence from being a strong argument for one side against the other. Once again, show me a book that presents the baptist evidence, and I will show you another that presents the presbyterian evidence. Even if one side could prove chronological priority over the other, it would still not be enough to override the biblical evidence. Which practice was earlier is not the most important evidence for establishing normativity. So unfortunately the historical debate is at an impasse--both sides have won it in their own minds, even though affusion appears to have won out for most of history.

The Origins of the Practice

That being said, the baptists have a harder time explaining where the practice of immersion came from in the first place. Either it just showed up out of nowhere at the command of Christ in the New Testament, or it continued some Jewish religious practice. The most popular immersionist explanation for the sudden appearance of Christian baptism in the New Testament is that Christ repurposed the Jewish practice of immersing converts, though that has no solid grounding in the Old Testament. Archeological evidence for ancient Jewish mikvehs are sometimes trotted out to demonstrate this continuity. However this particular practice was decidedly extrabiblical. Nowhere in the Old Testament are these non-temple-cultus mikvehs prescribed. They are therefore analogous to the development of synagogues--Jewish conversion baptisms evolved intertestamentally to preserve Jewish identity and practice.

On the other hand, affusionists appeal to millennia-old evidence for the variety of baptisms found throughout the Old Testament: sprinklings, washings, immersions, and anointings with water, blood, or oil. Accordingly, Christ himself was the Messiah or the Anointed One. His actual anointing “to fulfill all righteousness” occurred at his baptism by John. Therefore, as the Messiah, we might could also call him the “Baptized One.” When he was challenged concerning his right to cleanse the temple, he asked his interrogators whether John’s baptism was from God or man. To the baptist, the question was simply a clever redirection. To the affusionist, the question was his righteous claim to having been anointed prophet, priest, and king, together with all the rights the anointing conveyed. Therefore, he had every right to cleanse the temple.

So when instituting the sacrament, Christ simply took the millennia-old, ceremonial cleansing and anointing practices of the Old Testament and applied them to Christian identity. Their essential use and symbolism remained intact from the Old Testament to the New: What was unclean has now been washed. What was old is now new. What was dead is now alive. What was stone is now flesh. What was born of the flesh is now born again of the Spirit.

The Use of Baptism with Burial

With that in mind, we turn to Romans 6:3-4. Here we will address the theological use of the word for baptism:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (ESV)
First we will admit that the language of Romans 6 (and Colossians 2) is superficially convenient for immersionists and less convenient for affusionists. Together with Colossians 2, they have been the singularly most influential passages that have established immersion as the biblical mode of baptism. They may even be the only Scriptural evidence that connects baptism with burial at all. The connection to immersion is obvious: our most common burial practices involve lowering a dead body into a hole and covering it with dirt. When that body is resurrected, it will have to move from under to above ground. It is easy to see why this fits the immersionists’ view: A convert is lowered below a water line and is then pulled back up out of the water.

The baptist perspective is admittedly a beautiful picture of the work of God through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Their accompanying liturgical use of “Buried with him in baptism, raised with him unto newness of life” is both worshipful and rich. And since the same idea of below/above the ground/water can also be pulled from Colossians 2:11-14, the immersionists’ position has definite biblical grounding that I do not begrudge. I grew up indoctrinated in the perspective. I can still see where they are coming from and rejoice that they are not just making stuff up. The language of the passage easily lends itself to an immersionist interpretation. The imagery of burial is indeed beautiful.

Unfortunately, the imagery will not withstand scrutiny. The preeminent reasons are twofold: The first is that is that the practice of burial at the time Paul wrote cannot be assumed to be like burial practices that have become most common in recent centuries and western civilizations. The second reason is that baptism is both a sign and a seal, neither of which incline toward the immersionist interpretation.

As to the first reason, civilizations have been burying people by digging holes in the ground throughout human history. But this was not always the only or even the preferred way to bury the dead, especially in Rome or Roman Palestine. Those who could afford them had family tombs. Bodies would have been laid to rest on biers or in niches along the chamber walls and allowed to decompose. After an extended period, the remains were collected into small boxes (ossuaries) and stacked elsewhere in the chamber alongside generations of relatives.So lowering bodies into holes in the ground was by no means the default conception of burial. We cannot trust that Paul’s reference to burial automatically or predominantly brought to the Roman mind the same imagery that comes to our minds. It is more likely that immersionists read our more common form of burial back into Romans 6 than that baptism in Romans 6 pictures our more common form of burial. Therefore, immersionist dogmatism is an unfortunate though understandable example of eisegesis.

This leads to the second reason that immersion imagery will not withstand scrutiny. Baptism is a sign and a seal unrelated to immersion, both of which are evidenced in Romans 6.

A Sign

A sign is vested with meaning. Therefore, baptism signifies something. What does it signify? Among other things, the work of the Holy Spirit, and particularly the work that changes the soul from one condition or state to another. We call this regeneration, conversion, being saved, or being born again, The imagery of baptism does not focus on the act or mode of burial. Rather it focuses on the work of the Holy Spirit.

In what way does baptism picture this work? Scripture consistently describes the Holy Spirit as being poured out upon, coming down upon, or filling subjects, which, by the way, perfectly fits the mode of affusion. John the Baptist explained that water baptism signified the Holy Spirit in Matthew 3:11. Not long after, Matthew records Christ’s baptism when the Holy Spirit (not coincidentally) descended and rested on him like a dove. Luke records Christ’s promise that the Holy Spirit would come down upon the disciples (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:5-8): “John Baptized you with water, but I will baptize you with the Holy Spirit . . . you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” Later the Holy Spirit rested upon the disciples in the form of fire. Peter explained this as the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy that God would “pour out my Spirit.”

In John 3, Jesus Christ explained the Holy Spirit’s essential role in being born again. His linking water and the Spirit is probably pulled from passages like Ezekiel 36:25-27:
“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”
The water of baptism therefore symbolizes the cleansing work of the Holy the Spirit that transitions from the before to the after. This divine transformation is variously pictured in Scripture: from filthiness to cleanness, from a stone heart to a heart of flesh, from an old man to a new man, from a human birth to a spiritual rebirth, from slavery to freedom, from death to resurrection. With this understanding, the richness of the various baptisms of the Old Testament now comes to light and the contiguous and expanded richness of New Testament baptism is now highlighted.

So why is the idea of burial in Romans 6 at all? Most simply, because death and burial go together conceptually. In Romans 6, the focus of what baptism signifies is not upon the mode of burial itself. Paul’s reference to burial is simply a way of saying that what is dead is really so dead that it properly belongs to the domain of the dead--to sheol, the grave--much like the otherwise extraneous use of the word “buried” in Apostle’s creed. To borrow Billy Crystal’s phrase in “The Princess Bride”--Christ was not mostly dead, he was really, truly, completely dead. Burial proves it. It was the certification of his death in everyone’s minds. Under the sun, there is no greater declaration of the completeness and finality of death than the entombment of a corpse. But on the other hand, the finality of burial in this passage highlights the miracle of the resurrection. The glory of the resurrection is thus contrasted with the horrendous and supposedly permanent state of death.

Thus, baptism in this passage focuses our attention on the divine transition from the before to the after. The death referenced here is not merely our state of death prior to resurrection (as in Ephesians 2:1-2), but the death of the state we are in prior to resurrection. Through death, the old self passed away, and through the resurrection, a new life began. No longer are we slaves to the sin principle within us, but we have been set free--for one who has died has been set free from sin. Baptism is the rich metaphor that is used to proclaim the transition. Therefore, Paul puts what baptism signifies on full display.

A Seal

But the passage does not merely rely upon baptism’s role as a sign. It also relies on its role as a seal. A seal is an authenticating stamp. Different kinds of seals have been used throughout history for the same purpose. For instance, an official document might be sealed shut with hot wax into which is pressed a signet ring that creates an impression and authenticates its sender.

In the Bible, God commanded both circumcision and baptism (in different eras) to mark out or authenticate a person as belonging to the people of God. Both signified the transformative work of the Holy Spirit, and they were both initiatory rites that authenticated the recipient’s new identification with the people of God. Just as the work of the Holy Spirit initiates our entrance into the invisible body of Christ (the invisible church), baptism initiates us into the visible body of Christ (the visible church). Baptism is therefore a seal of our new identity because it signifies our union with Christ. Baptism’s role as a sign makes it a perfect metaphor for the transformative work of the Holy Spirit (dirty/clean, stone heart/flesh heart, old man/new man, born the first time/born again, death/resurrection, enslaved/set free). Baptism’s role as a seal (an authenticating stamp of identity) makes it a perfect metaphor for our union with Christ.

This is why in verses 5-7, Paul explains exactly how he understands his own use of the word for the act of baptism:
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.
Paul uses baptism to refer to our union with Christ. Its role as both a sign and a seal make it perfect for Paul’s point: we are united with Christ. Christ died, and since we are united with Christ, we died. Christ rose from the dead, and since we have been united with Christ, we were resurrected unto newness of life. The Holy Spirit has transitioned us from the old to the new, from stone to flesh, from slavery to freedom, from filth to cleanness, from death to resurrection.

Immersionists build their case upon the meaning of the word, upon practice in history, and upon the only two passages of Scripture that happen to associate it with the idea of burial. Since interpretation of baptism exclusively as immersion and the subsequent practice of immersion throughout history are both built upon a misunderstanding of these two passages, the entire practice rises or falls upon them. As I said, I can understand why they would think those two passages demand a certain mode for baptism. But in the end, I have to disagree because of everything else the Bible teaches about baptism as a sign of the work of the Holy Spirit and a seal of our inclusion into the body of Christ.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Misguided Messianic Character of Conservative Christian Politics

Many conservative Christians believe they have a divine mandate to restore the United States of America to its Christian roots by force of law.  I believe these efforts are misguided and unbiblical.

A Christian Constitution?

The Constitution is not a Christian document in spite of what we believe the religious commitments of its authors to have been.   A simple return to strict interpretations and applications of the Constitution as the Founders intended should never be equated with Christian righteousness.  More than this, it should not be made a standard by which one judges the “Christianness” of a person, politician, or policy. Nowhere in the Bible does God endorse either our constitution or democracy as the standard by which to define a God-glorifying, "Christian" nation.   Waving an American flag or being a patriot is not tantamount to being a Christian.  If it were then the larger majority of Christians around the world and throughout history have lacked the Christian wholeness that being a U.S. citizen apparently provides. Even more, to say that Christians must “pledge allegiance” to conservative politics is to violate the Christian Faith in ways that border on idolatry.

At best, the Founders allowed for democratic rule by the majority, circumscribed by certain generic inalienable rights, regardless of the religious commitments of that majority. What this means is that the prevailing perspectives of the people, whether Christian or not, are constitutionally authorized to become the prevailing policy of the nation.  Thus the Constitution itself may very well inhibit the rechristianization that many political Christians are fighting for.  The Constitution endorses the platitude, “As the people go, so goes the nation.”

No Law Can Change the Heart

Besides the dubiousness of the mission to restore this nation to its "Christian" roots and constitution, the legislation of Christian morality is not an effective tool for accomplishing national repentance. In fact, it is a waste of political time, energy, and influence. Even if Christians could prevail in policy by democratic means, government is still incapable of preventing sin by force of law, because sinfulness is first and foremost a condition of the heart.  Since no law has ever existed that could change the heart (a fundamental tenet that many Christians appear to be ignorant of), the prohibition of sinful behaviors will neither fully prevent them nor alter the sinful heart-condition that spawned them.  On the contrary, according to Scripture such prohibitions will frequently exacerbate sin.  Therefore, governmental efforts to effect behavioral change in accord with God's Law for merely moralistic reasons are futile.

What then is a government's responsibility in the eyes of God with regard to the Law and the Gospel?

Government Must Preserve the Right to Preach the Word of God

National repentance can only be accomplished by preaching and teaching God’s law as part and parcel of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Preaching and teaching the Gospel is exclusively the domain of the Church.    Government can and should maintain the right of Christians to preach and teach.  If it does not, Christians should preach and teach anyway, for we should obey God rather than men.  But government itself is neither responsible for, nor capable of, effecting the goal of preaching and teaching.  These separate spheres of responsibility for both Church and State reflect the biblical idea of what is secularly called “the Separation of Church and State.”   According to this idea, the exclusive authority of the Church to preach and teach the Word of God is an inalienable right bestowed by the Creator.  However, it has no authority to "bring wrath upon the wrongdoer."

Government Must Protect the Innocent from Sin

On the other hand, the government is "God's servant to bring wrath upon the wrong doer," though it does not have the church's power (through the Gospel) to effect true heart-change.  What then is government’s separate responsibility with regard to the law of God? It is primarily to protect innocent people from the harmful effects of others’ sins.   By “harmful effects” I do not mean simply the offence of someone’s sensibilities, but actual harm (material or immaterial) to another human being’s person, rights, dignity, or property as a result of the violation of God's Law.   Since government cannot change hearts, it can only protect the innocent from the actions of evil doers.  Government cannot change a thief’s heart, but it can and should prevent a thief from taking someone else’s property. Government cannot change a murderer’s heart, but it can and should prevent the taking of someone else’s life (note that abortion falls here).   These protections from sinful acts fit with the biblical description of government as “God’s servant to bring wrath upon the wrong doer” and the biblical mandate to enforce justice on behalf of constituents.

Government Must Never Normalize Sin

Although government is powerless to prevent sin and change sinfulness, it stands to reason that it has no right to authorize, endorse, command, or empower sin.  It may not be responsible to apply the law of God beyond what is necessary to protect people, but it has no right to fight against the law of God.  By way of analogy, I may not be responsible as a private citizen to punish criminals, but that does not mean that I have the right to aid them in their criminal endeavors.  Similarly, the doctrine of “separate spheres of responsibility” does not mean that government itself is authorized to violate or endorse the violation of the law of God. For example, it is possible that a certain immoral behavior might not have any harmful effect upon anyone other than the willing participants.  Government will overstep its bounds to legislate against this behavior, but at the same time it cannot and should not authorize, endorse, empower, or command this immoral behavior.  Government might not be authorized to legislate against homosexuality or premarital sex, for instance, but it has no right to authorize or endorse it.

Endorsing or authorizing homosexuality and homosexual marriage normalizes sin. Any normalization of sin in society hurts the innocent, especially children who will grow up in a society in which a sinful behavior is normalized rather than rebuked.  Likewise, forbidding the church, Christians, and others in society to take public positions against those sins removes necessary social protections for the innocent in society. The result is what we are experiencing and what we should expect. More and more young people are convincing themselves that they are necessarily gay and have no reason to not be.  Government has normalized sin and grossly overstepped its bounds to the detriment of the innocent.

Guiding Questions

Therefore, the two most pertinent initial questions for evaluating whether Christians should support moral legislation are these:  1) Is this law necessary to protect the innocent from others’ sins as defined by God's Law?  2)  Will this law authorize, endorse, command or empower violations of God’s Law?   Beyond this, Christians should be concerned to do all within their power to protect the inalienable right of the church to preach the Word of God in the church and to society. The question of whether or not legislation will restore a nation to its Christian roots or bring about a revival of Christian moralism is irrelevant.  There will never be a law that can do such a thing.   Christians who use political activism to this end are wasting their time with useless efforts that God neither endorses nor commands.   They may even be unwittingly working against God’s created order and his Gospel.

[This is an edited repost of an old blog post from 2010. I thought it pertinent to certain goings on in the world today.]

Friday, September 1, 2017

Representative List of Spiritual Gifts

Representative List of Spiritual Gifts
Ephesians 4:11
I Peter 4:11
Romans 12:6-8
I Corinthians 12:4-11
List of Offices
Broad Functions
Specific Functions
Special Abilities




Being merciful

Miraculous powers
Distinguishing spirits
Speaking in tongues
Interpretation of tongues

  1. These lists are probably not exhaustive, but are rather meant to be representative examples of how God fits the Church to accomplish the work of the ministry.
  2. These gifts are bestowed upon the body for the edification of the whole body, not merely for the enjoyment of individual members possessing them (I Cor. 12:7; 14:5,12).
  3. No one has all the gifts, nor is any one bestowed upon all people.  Everyone needs each other.  However, some qualities or activities are expected of everyone, i.e., faith, service (12:14-21; 28-30).
  4. Although not equally visible, all the gifts are important (12:22-26).
  5. The Holy Spirit apportions the various gifts to whom and as he wills (12:11).
Adapted from  Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology by Rev. Dr. Dennis E. Bills

Thursday, August 31, 2017

A Comparison of the Spiritual Gifts Passages in the NT

Comparison of Spiritual Gift Passages in the New Testament
Potential Problem with Gifts—Disunity in the Church
Romans 12
I Corinthians 12
Ephesians 4
I Peter 4
3. Do not think of your self more highly than you ought to think.
1. Walk in a manner worthy of the calling …with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain unity.
9. Be hospitable to one another without complaint.
Gifts given by God, empowered by the Spirit.  Apportionment by God’s sovereign choice.
3. Each according to the measure of faith God has assigned; 6. having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us . . .
7. Manifestation of the Spirit
11. The Spirit empowers each one individually as he wills.
7. Grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.
10. As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.
Diversity in the Church--One Body, many members. Unity not in spite of diversity, but because of diversity.
4. As in one body, we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, 5. so we, though many,  are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.
12. All the members of the  body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  14. The body does not consist of one member, but many.
4.  There is one body. 12. for the building up of the body of Christ. 16. From whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow . . .

Purpose of the Gifts

7. For the common good,
12. For the building up of the body of Christ, 13. Until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. 16 the whole body . . .makes the body grow  so that it builds itself up in love.
10. . . . employ it in serving one another 11. . . . so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever.
What Unifies Diversity?
9.  Let love be genuine. 10. Love one another with brotherly affection.
31.  I will show you still a more excellent way. Continued in Chapter 13.
2. Bearing with one another in love, 4. Eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 15. Speaking the truth in love, 16.  when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.