Baptism: taking Scripture and tradition seriously

Polycarp at The Church of Jesus Christ and I seem to be travelling the same paths lately (does this indicate that I’m finally a part of the Church of Jesus Christ? The U.S. branch, anyway?). He recently wrote a series of posts, some in depth and some quite short, regarding hell and universalism in Scripture and in the ECF, appropriately leaving the question open-ended.

Now he’s gone and dredged up another topic left conveniently buried by most modern Protestants who champion orthodoxy and good theology (so long as it comports with their already composed beliefs): baptism.

I was thinking yesterday during Sunday School that I should write a post on “unapproved” answers to Evangelism Explosion question number 2, in which God asks the recently departed who appear on His doorstep, “Why should I let you in to my heaven?”

The correct answer, according to EE and other Protestants everywhere, is something along the lines of, “I stand on Christ’s finished work.” I got to thinking that even saying “I believed the story in the Gospels” would ostensibly not quite cut it, because “even the demons believe, and tremble.” Rather, one must have faith that transforms, a conversion experience. And even that’s not quite enough: it is conceivable that one who believes with all his heart and experiences remorse for his guilt and acknowledges it before God who is nonetheless not one of the Elect would still be sent packing away from the Pearly Gates.

Yet all of the below are scriptural answers, sometimes given to people in the NT without the benefit of any of the above qualifiers (e.g. #2 below). And all of them would be considered somehow deficient by most of those who would endorse the Evangelism Explosion method of proselytization.

  1. I repented and was baptized. (Acts 2.38, 3.19) (EE response: “GASP! ‘Baptism’ is a work — do you think you could by human effort contribute to your salvation?”)
  2. My father believed and our whole household was baptized. (Acts 16.31) (EE response: “GASP! Doesn’t matter what your father did — did you believe?”)
  3. I always thought that Jesus was God somehow, and even said so when asked. I mean, why else would God have raised him from the dead? (Romans 10.1) (EE response: “But did you ever bother to consult God on the matter? Did you even really mean it? Did the Holy Spirit come in and begin to work on you from the inside out?”)
  4. Well, You oughta know, Lord — You’re the One who wrote down my name before the world began. (various Calvinist prooftexts) (EE response: “Even the Elect shouldn’t be so impudent!”)

Ok, the last one was somewhat facetious. But do you get my point? Most of the dogmatic “saved by faith alone” persuasion would be horrified with the first two answers at least. The third was an attempt to depict someone in a satured Christian culture (as in my own south-eastern U.S.) who hadn’t really thought about it that much before, but assumed it was true and yet never had a conscious conversion experience.

Now, I don’t want to put words in Multifish’s mouth (Lord knows he has enough in there already), but his posts on baptism certainly suggest (as I have stated before) that in this area, Protestants who look askance at baptismal regeneration are forced both to twist Scripture and ignore early Church tradition in order to do so.

Scripture is anything but perspicuous. And it’s not even particularly coherent: there is no natural way to tie together the answers given in the scriptural references of 1 through 4 above, but all of the answers I gave were in some sense undeniably “scriptural”, nonetheless. This is at the heart of my antipathy toward systematic theologies: they always leave out or skew some data from the historical witness of the early Christians. And as Manyvehiclep pointed out in this well researched post, “Paul was not speaking about written documents when he spoke of Tradition; he was speaking about teachings handed down,” and these teachings kept circulating alongside Paul’s writings and are present in the writings of the Early Church Fathers. Yet they uniformly taught that instead of simply being a symbol of life renewed or a covenant initiation rite, “baptism is dying out to sin,” the outward act necessary to turn to God, just as the confession with the mouth is the act by which Paul says we are saved (Rom 10.10). To these early believers, outward acts aren’t merely signs, but the acts by which things are actually accomplished.

I’m not personally arguing for baptismal regeneration. I’m merely putting on display more of the many necessary assumptions that go into our modern sanitized, preapproved Protestantism. In the end, the majority evangelical view may indeed be correct, but until we receive more, or more authoritative, revelation than what’s contained in Scripture and the ECF, we have no right to be arrogantly dismissive of other Christian traditions that disagree with us, even when it’s in the important area of soteriology. You are free to continue to assume that what you’ve always been taught is correct and that baptismal regeneration is incorrect, but you are constrained by Christian humility to acknowledge that it is an assumption and that other believers who don’t share that assumption can do so in good conscience.

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