Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Baptism Again!

My recent reading has included Erwin Raphael McManus's book An Unstoppable Force, a pretty good book about the church. McManus is one of those Southern Baptists that seems to have a pretty good grip on biblical teachings regarding the church. It is a shame that these guys have so much to say about many things but when it comes to baptism for the remission of sins, they get all foggy and discombobulated.

For example, those of us who heard McManus at the 2004 North American Christian Convention were amused that he made a "faith only" appeal and used typically Baptist language. Someone hadn't told him that Christian churchers are a bunch of baptismal regenerationists. (I know we aren't, but other groups tend to think we are.) Or, maybe he did know!! In his book, McManus continually references individuals who "opened their heart to Jesus," "received Jesus right there," and so on. Then he writes the following:

"One experience that binds us all together is passing through the water grave of baptism. Others hold varying thoughts and traditions related to baptism, but from where I stand, the metaphor of immersion is both dramatic and significant. Through baptism we are drenched in God, enveloped in God's presence, and brought through death to life. The water grave is a perfect expression of this reality. It is both personal and communal."

Earlier he said, "Yet we are baptized into Christ and joined with his body." He also wrote, "Baptism is not simply about being baptized into Christ, but being baptized into the body of Christ."

In my view, there are three observations to make about these statements. First, McManus describes baptism as a metaphor. By describing the language of baptism as figurative, it can be dismissed as necessary. Rather than taking the biblical statements as literal language, Baptists can defend their view that salvation comes at the moment of belief. They assume that the language of baptism in or by the Holy Spirit occurs at the moment of belief. Further, they tend to see such language as literal language. My question is, Why take the language in one place as literal and another as figurative? The only reason they do so is they have accepted the Zwinglian formula that baptism and salvation are unrelated and that understanding colors their interpretation of biblical texts.

Second, there is a faulty understanding of the nature of the body of Christ. Baptists assume that the only expression of the body of Christ is the local church. I would agree than the local congregation is a visible expression of the body of Christ, but I would argue that the body of Christ in toto includes all believers everywhere who demonstrate their love for Christ through trusting obedience.

Third, it is obvious that some of our younger preachers are confused by the language Baptists use. It really sounds good! As a result, statements regarding baptism and its purpose have become cloudy. There are attempts to faithfully express the traditional Restoration view but it gets diluted with Baptist terminology and assumptions until it does nothing but walk a middle line that is indefinite and unclear. Of course, all this emphasis on language as metaphor etc. reflects our Postmodern mindset. Our younger men and women are influenced by Postmodernism and its foggy language so they are more than willing to let each individual "make up their own mind" about the meaning and purpose of baptism (and other things, too).

Since most of our preachers come out of our Bible Colleges (or Christian Universities or whatever), I am forced to conclude that there is not much emphasis on how to understand biblical language. In most schools, biblical instruction is reduced to a minimum in order to meet the criteria of any number of accrediting bodies. While I am in favor of accreditation, I also believe that our schools must remain faithful to their purpose of "preparing a qualified and consecrated ministry." Furthermore, I think they must also remain faithful to the Campbellian tradition of making the Scripture central to all education. In doing so, it is not Scripture that must now to science, literature, and tradition; it is the world that must bow to to Scripture.