Thursday, February 14, 2008

Rethinking My Theology of Baptism

I must admit that the idea of baptism has always been a bit of a conundrum for me. What I mean is that I've always had a certain level of difficulty getting my head around the meaning, purpose, and intent of Christian baptism. I guess this shouldn't be too big a surprise since many churches are at odds to explain the mode and timing of such an event. Early on in my Christian walk, I was told that in order to become a member of the church, I needed to be baptized. At first I was appalled! I knew that I was a Christian so why should I need to stand up in front of the church, say a few words, get all wet, just to proclaim publicly what I already knew in my heart. In my eyes, it wasn't necessary for salvation so why should I do it?

In recent days, I've been studying the topic with a fresh set of eyes and a renewed sense to get at the heart of what the bible teaches on this subject. I've also been reading other comments and commentary on the subject to lend a helping hand. One such work is Ben Witherington's recent book titled Troubled Waters: Rethinking The Theology of Baptism. In a few sentences, I'd like to offer some remarks about the book and how it is helping to shape and refine my own view on the subject.

First and foremost, the Bible is largely not the place to turn for a prescriptive plan and procedure for baptism. While we can try, and many churches have, to conjure up a systematic theology of baptism, we would be wrong in doing so. The bible is simply less than thorough in this regards. For instance, it never tells us explicitly when the children of believing parents should be baptized. To argue on one side of this issue as a proponent of infant baptism and to argue on the other side as a defender of adult baptism is to argue from inference and not clear evidence (Witherington, 128).

A second item that I'd like to briefly reflect upon is the point or purpose of baptism. What happens and what does not happen? Here Witherington makes the distinction between water baptism and spirit baptism. In short, he states that water baptism is not an act of God and thereby not an act of grace but simply the gift of God to the Christian community. Moreover, it's the first step in the process of the Christian life, enrollment in the school of Christ if you will. I must say that this is a departure from my traditional understanding of the sacrament of baptism that attributed a more mysterious nature to the sacrament itself.

Enough thoughts for today. I'd be curious what you think.