The Value of Baptism (Part II)

In the previous post, I demonstrated that a primarily symbolic understanding of baptism is simply not biblical. When the New Testament talks about baptism, in most instances it refers to the concrete act. Even when it talked about it symbolically or metaphorically, immersion in water was still implied or indirectly referenced. Since the notion that baptism only has symbolic value is not really biblical, the Protestant doctrine that led to the symbolic interpretation needs to be critically re-evaluated. Continue reading “The Value of Baptism (Part II)”

The Value of Baptism

Baptism has an interesting place in Pentecostal theology. Baptism in the Spirit is perhaps the signature belief of Pentecostal Christianity. They believe that it is practically essential for the full Christian life and a fully empowered church. Now water baptism, on the other hand, has nowhere near the importance of its spiritual counterpart. In comparison it is almost an afterthought. While water baptism is regarded as something that ought to be done, in effect it is ultimately regarded as optional. This is because in Pentecostal theology if a person does not get baptised, they do not really lose anything, at least not anything necessary for salvation. Pentecostals consider baptism as important in the beginning for what it represents but beyond that it is not really significant at all.

It seems to me the core reason for baptism’s lack of importance stems from the Protestant belief inherited by Pentecostals that it plays no role in salvation. In Protestantism, salvation is by God’s grace alone through faith alone and not by human works (Ephesians 2:8-9.) Only God has the power to save and we cannot save ourselves by virtue of our strength or merit. Since the baptismal act is performed by people, it qualifies as human effort and therefore cannot save. So while the rite is still required among Protestants and Pentecostals because Jesus himself expressly commanded it, they both interpret it as having only symbolic value. This means the rite in itself does not substantively accomplish anything. At best it is only an external sign of inward faith, which is far more important.

A symbolic understanding of baptism within a faith versus works paradigm raises some questions. Now the most obvious question it raises is why the Lord would even command baptism if it accomplished nothing and held only symbolic value. Another question is whether the Protestant dogma that results in a symbolic interpretation is even the right framework for making sense of baptism. Now the most direct obstacle to a symbolic interpretation is whether the text even warrants a symbolic understanding of the value of baptism. If baptism is not merely symbolic, then it does have a purpose, which is why the Lord commanded it. It also means a dogmatic Protestant lens is not the right way to interpret baptism. (I have argued elsewhere, apart from the specific issue of baptism, why the Protestant view of faith and works is wrong.) Now let’s briefly examine what the New Testament actually says about baptism. Continue reading “The Value of Baptism”

When Heaven Landed on Earth

During Christmastime, we go over the all too familiar stories about Jesus’ birth. New Testament scholar Dr MIchael Wolter has an interesting interpretation of the nature of the heavenly host that appeared to the shepherds in Luke 2:13, which I covered in an earlier post.

Instead of reading it as some of the heavenly host, he reads it as all “the multitude of the heavenly host” appearing on earth to praise God for the birth of his Son. For the first time in Israel, all the angel’s around God’s heavenly throne had appeared. The birth of Jesus was unprecedented event in human history. Dr Wolter goes on to explain that the appearance of all the angels meant that “The distance that separates heaven and earth from each other [was] removed for a moment…” The boundary between heaven and earth had been lifted at the birth of Jesus but I do not think it was a temporary opening. Continue reading “When Heaven Landed on Earth”

Faith, Grace and Works (Part III)

A New Perspective on Grace

Over the last couple of decades, a better understanding of the socio-cultural environment of the ancient world has revolutionised New Testament studies, including the scholarly understanding of grace. Over the course of centuries, the word grace has accrued a special religious meaning but it originally just meant a gift. According to our modern sensibilities, giving a gift is a one-time transaction which comes with no expectation of a return. The seminal work of John Barclay in Paul and the Gift (Eerdmans 2015) has convincingly demonstrated that the idea of an unconditional, purely altruistic gift probably originated with Luther in the medieval period and was actually quite foreign to the ancient world. As Dr Barclay explains, in the patron-client economy of the Greco-Roman world, gift-giving was about forming a lasting reciprocal relationship, which was absolutely necessary in a world full of scarcity. (Dr David A. deSilva provides a fairly concise overview of the patronage system and honour system in ancient Mediterranean societies which contextualises why gift-giving was so important.)

Now there are some important differences which Dr Barclay explores in detail, however, the same societal view of gift-giving mostly applied to the ultimate Benefactor. God’s gifts were also regarded as conditional. So even though his favours and benefits are completely his initiative and he gives them to people regardless of their prior merit or worth, his divine gifts still require certain behaviour from recipients. In ancient times, beneficiaries were not necessarily expected to reciprocate with equivalent value, especially when there was a difference in social status. However, in the ancient view of gift-giving, the very least a recipient could do was show public gratitude to their benefactor and generally conduct themselves in a manner that honours and enhances the reputation of their patron. In other words, gifts were always given with some expectation of return. The reciprocity existed because of the relationship that was formed through the act of gift giving and receiving. This applied to the gifts of God and the believer’s reciprocal relationship with God due to the gifts. Continue reading “Faith, Grace and Works (Part III)”

Faith, Grace and Works (Part II)

A New Perspective on Faith

The fact that in the New Testament we will be judged according to works is a rather old objection to the Protestant teaching that human effort has no real merit before God. Now more recently, since the late 70s at least, there has been a sea change in New Testament scholarship which has seriously undermined the Protestant dichotomy between faith and grace on one hand and works on the other. The scholarly movement known as the New Perspective on Paul was the main catalyst for initiating this shift. By problematizing the old understanding of New Testament era Judaism as a works based religion, it opened new avenues for reexamining the meanings of faith and grace.

One of the arguments made by the New Perspective is that when Paul said negative things about “work”, he did not necessarily mean all human activity. In fact, an attentive reader of Scripture will notice that in context he is usually referring to the “works of the law” i.e. the Law of Moses. This is clearly not a wholesale rejection of the value of human effort (or even the law per se) (Romans 7:12.) Rather, what he is really teaching is that we cannot be justified and saved by the works of the law alone. (Romans 3:20-21, Galatians 2:16.) As I pointed earlier, Paul simultaneously teaches that we are saved by faith and that we will be judged by our works. This implies that our final salvation does not depend on just belief alone but on our actions as well (Romans 1:16, 2 Corinthians 5:10.) Continue reading “Faith, Grace and Works (Part II)”