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.

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