Sunday, September 30, 2012

The "Protoevangelium"

Genesis 3:14-15, particularly v15, are referred to in Evangelical and protestant theology as the "protoevangelium", or "first gospel".
The LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
The "offspring" referred to in v15 is surely Jesus, who, though struck down by the power of Satan, will ultimately rise and destroy him forever! This meaning is celebrated every time the passage comes up in my church (which is very often; we do an overview of creation, the fall, redemption, and restoration every few months on average that always touches on Genesis 1-3); it is commonplace in commentaries dating back to Martin Luther. One commentary I read even talks about how "seed", as some translations render "offspring", is a hint to the virgin birth of Jesus. It's a beautiful idea; even as He is condemning the mother and father of humanity for the first sin, God gives them a preview of His plan for redeeming their descendants through His son.

While everything this interpretation asserts the passage says is certainly true, every time it is brought up my inner cynic can't help but detect eisegesis, reading a desired meaning into a text rather than reading the meaning out of it. Was anyone's first impression on reading Genesis 3:15 really "it's talking about Jesus!"?

I see three possible interpretations for v14-15:
  1. The literal interpretation: God is talking to the snake as a snake, not as Satan, and promising enmity between snakes and people, as fulfilled in Indiana Jones, Snakes on a Plane, and many other examples.
  2. A partially metaphorical intepretation: Satan's "offspring" are the "children of the devil" mentioned in 1 John 1:30 and John 8:44, Eve's "offspring" are simply humankind; the "enmity" is referring to Satan's antagonizing and destroying of humanity.
  3. The prevalent, entirely metaphorical, "protoevangelium" interpretation: Eve's "offspring" is Jesus, and the last part is a promise of His redemption of humanity and final destruction of Satan.
A few observations to help us decide which of these is most likely:

The same word (zera) is used to refer to Satan's and Eve's "offspring", or "seed". Therefore, it seems more natural to also interpret the second "offspring" in the same way as the first, since it is used in the same context with the same word as the first. This means that both must be plural, or both must be singular. Though the "he" used in the last part of v15 might suggest that they are to be taken as singular, suggesting some singular, representative "offspring" of Satan in opposition to Jesus raises far more questions than it answers and originates many rabbit-trails off into parts of Revelation talking about various figures. I'd rather not get into that. If we take "offspring" as being plural, the "he" might simply refer to an unnamed, representative descendant of Eve, as in Genesis 24:60.

Also, the same word (shuwph) is used to describe what Satan and the seed of the woman will do to each other. I can't see any justification, then, for translating one use of it as "bruise" or "strike" and the other as "crush" as the NIV does. It is translated as "crush" in Job 9:17, but the point is that both uses of the word here, in the same context, should be interpreted the same. This implication of a two-sided, give-and-take battle is problematic for the second and third interpretations. Certainly there is nothing people can do to harm Satan, and at the same time no one argues that the struggle between Jesus and Satan will be evenly matched.

The only hope for the protoevangelium interpretation lies in the fact that whatever Satan and Jesus do to each other, Satan does to Jesus' heel while Jesus does it to Satan's head, which is obviously more important. At the very least, this seems to rule out the second interpretation. But left unanswered is the question: who are Satan's offspring, or seed, with whom Jesus will have enmity? Two possibilities:
  1. The fallen angels who sinned and allied themselves with Satan. But these angels are/were of equal status to Satan, and as far as familial analogies are concerned, Satan is much more like their eldest brother than their father.
  2. People who reject God and follow Satan, willingly or unknowingly. Jesus says that the Pharisees are of "[their] father the devil" (John 8:44); Paul calls Elymas the magician a "son of the devil" (Acts 13:10), and indeed John says that whoever does not practice righteousness or love his brother (i.e. an unrepentant sinner) is not a child of God but of the devil. (1 John 3:10) So this interpretation seems more likely, except for saying that God is predicting enmity between Jesus and these offspring. But Jesus did not come into the world to condemn, judge, or destroy sinners (John 3:17), which God was perfectly capable of doing without sending Him, but to save them. Talking about God putting enmity between Jesus and the very people He came to save is extremely counterproductive to the gospel.
So, even if you allow Eve's "seed" to be singular and Satan's to be plural, this line of interpretation makes no sense and raises contradictions. And so the most likely interpretation of Genesis 3:15 is the first one: God is cursing the snake as a snake, not as Satan in disguise. Taken literally, all the above interpretive problems instantly vanish and the language of enmity and striking makes perfect sense. We are simply left with the question: Why is God punishing the snake (and its descendants) if Satan was simply acting through it?

I won't try to get into the unknowable details of how God's justice applies to non-human creatures. I am reminded of Jesus teaching in Luke 17:1: "Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come!" Perhaps to demonstrate how seriously He takes sin, God curses the snake for its mere involvement in bringing sin into His creation, even as a mere agent of Satan. At any rate, this interpretation certainly has the least wrong with it and I feel the best about it. So, next time you find yourself trying to escape or kill a snake (or watching Indy do so), you can say to yourself: "That's a sin thing."

Addendum: I have realized there are two other possible ways to make the protoevangelium interpretation work: Satan's "seed" could simply be sin itself, though this seems a strange way to use "seed" when it (and its other usage in the same verse) normally refers to people; alternately, the enmity between Jesus and sinners could be purely one-sided. But based on the immediate context the literal interpretation still seems to be favored, with Jesus' happening to mostly fulfill this prediction best considered to be a cool "easter egg" orchestrated by God. At the very least, it is infeasible that this verse is primarily "about" Jesus. You have to ask yourself, what would it have meant to the people receiving it?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Why the Law?

Update: the providence series is on hold for now. The reason? I am taking an Old Testament study class at my church that has been challenging me to think about it in much more depth than my previous readthroughs, and this is simultaneously consuming most of my thinking time and changing the view on providence I had previously developed. As I work through the questions I get from my OT reading, I'll post summaries of my train of thought here. First: the law!

A 10,000-meter Look at the Law

If you have had teaching on the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible), Romans, or Hebrews, among others, you've probably gotten a basic picture of what the Law (capital L) is and its relation to, and contrast with, the Gospel. The Law is a set of over 600 rules for living given by God to Moses and the Israelites before they entered the land He had promised them. These laws covered just about every aspect of life at the time, from justice to worship to the economy. Unfortunately, the Israelites forsook God and His laws and, as He had warned, He allowed them to be conquered and taken away by other nations.

The New Testament offers the other side of this story: the Law was never intended to save, and because of our innate slavery to sin it cannot save anyone. The prescriptions and regulations of the Law were shadows of the reality to come (Hebrews 10:1) with Jesus. The whole system of animal sacrifice for sins foreshadowed Christ's once-for-all sacrifice for the sins of the world, the role of the priests was a preview of His role as our perfect intercessor and high priest, and the whole structure of the Law is a shadow of how God will, by the Spirit, write His law on our hearts. Jesus came to fulfill the law (Matthew 5:17) and now we are set free from it. God always intended salvation to be by faith, as we see with Abraham being justified by faith before the giving of the Law. (Genesis 15:6)

Why the Law?

This is a grossly simplified explanation of the role of the Law for Christians, with which I have never really been satisfied. It raises many questions that have been plaguing me in my reading through the Old Testament, the biggest of which is obvious: if the Law was powerless to save anyone, if its rituals and rules were simply shadows of the reality to come, then why on earth did God give it to His "chosen" people in the first place? It almost seems like some kind of celestial con act; even as God was promising them that they would live if they obeyed the Lew (Leviticus 18:5, Deuteronomy 6:25, 32:37), one pictures Him chuckling behind His back at how naive they were to think they could actually do it.

In answering this question it's easy to do so wrongly and so reach a misconception that I wrestled with. (Or just assume and work from that misconception) I'm first going to follow this wrong train of thought before getting to what I've actually learned.

A Wrong Conclusion

Fortunately, Paul answers the question "Why the Law?" for us.
Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more. (Romans 5:20)
Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. (Galatians 3:19)
For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:20)
So it seems that the purpose of the Law was to heighten the guilt of our sin, increase our awareness of it by showing us God's perfect standard for holiness that we fail to live up to, so that we will more clearly grasp our need for a savior and seek Jesus, who alone is able to save us from our condemnation arising from not obeying everything written in the Law. (Galatians 3:10)

But wait a minute. This means Christians have been thinking about their sins with tunnel vision. If we are condemned for lying, stealing, thinking angry thoughts, or having idols, aren't we also condemned for not circumcising our children (Genesis 17:12), not offering sacrifices for our unintentional sins (Leviticus 4), getting tattoos (Leviticus 19:28), wearing composite fabrics (Leviticus 19:19), or not using the metric system (Leviticus 19:35, my favorite law)? Shouldn't we equally be repenting of these sins and asking God to sanctify us in order to follow these laws as well?

This is a cavil (thank you, John Calvin) often raised against Christians by people trying to ridicule Christianity. They ask why Christians are breaking some of these more obscure laws, or ask why they can't own their own slaves since the Law clearly seems to permit slavery. (Also plural marriage--Deuteronomy 21:15-17) Is there anything to this? The reasoning is pretty simple: if we are condemned for not obeying the law, then shouldn't we as forgiven people try to please God by obeying it?

The Purpose of the Law

I don't think so. Several times in His teaching, Jesus lays down ways to live that openly contradict the Law; some of its restrictions are set aside, others are made more rigorous. (See Matthew 5:17, where His teaching is based on but different than the Law or clarify it) He says that simply not murdering or committing adultery aren't enough; wanting to do these things is equivalent to doing them. Whereas God commanded the Israelites to take oaths by His name (Deuteronomy 6:13), Jesus says not to swear by anything on heaven or earth (Matthew 5:34-37). In Acts 10 and 11 we see that Christians are no longer held to the Jewish dietary restrictions. Paul says that Christians do not need to be circumcised (1 Corinthians 7:18) and elsewhere commands them not to seek it (Galatians 5:2-3). He equates circumcision with trying to be justified by the Law and contrasts it with justification by grace.

So clearly Christians are not meant to live by the Law of the OT, either to gain salvation or because of it. As further proof that we are not condemned because of our failure to act specifically according to the law, notice all the times people are condemned in Genesis before the giving of the law--most notably Sodom and Gomorrah. God hadn't laid down the rules for sexual immorality in Leviticus 18 yet, so how could He be angry at these cities?

Look at the flip side of this: the justification of Abraham (Genesis 15:6), again before the Law. (see Romans 4) He is declared righteous purely because of his faith/belief, his willingness to set everything else aside to follow God. So, conversely, people are condemned because they lack this faith--not faith in the sense of agreeing with a set of truths about God, but faith as total devotion and surrender to Him. This is why Jesus gives Deuteronomy 6:4-5 as the greatest commandment; everything else is subordinate to this supremely important command, that we love the Lord.

In light of this, the Law shows us our sin not simply by our failure to do everything in it, but the reason we keep failing: because we don't love God as we should and can't make ourselves do so. This is why it's not enough to look at the rules we've broken and say, "I messed up; I'll try harder to obey that next time." If we don't go deeper and ask why we keep failing, we're missing the point. So the purpose of the Law is to bring down the proud and demonstrate that no one can be righteous enough for God to accept them; the need for a savior is universal. Even if we are vaguely aware of our own inability, the Law makes it clear; the attitude of rebellion that may have long lain hidden in our hearts rises to the surface when presented with such a clear command and becomes undeniably clear. (See Romans 7:7-13)

So in other words, the Law is not the way for us to be righteous like God and was never intended as such, but it is a holy standard set up by God to show us our own sin. It reveals the failings of our hearts, not our actions.

Other Disputations

You may object, as I did, "But if the Law was so incomplete, why did God withhold the Gospel for so long after it and make the Jews think they had all they needed from Him?" Well, consider what would have happened if the Law hadn't been given. (Which is not hypothetical at all; just look at any nation before the Law or any non-Israel nation after it) Without the Law, these nations heard little from God except whatever prophets He sent to them. Over and over again, the pattern is that they keep sinning and sinning until it gets so bad that God destroys them. The end. (As seen in Romans 1) It's bleaker than Norse mythology, but God is entirely within His justice to treat people this way. Compare this with all the promises God makes to Israel, the grace He repeatedly shows them, and the laws He gives to help them prosper. So it's hard to argue that the Old Covenant was a bad thing in any sense.

As for the objection that being given the Law blinded the Israelites to their need for the Gospel, I would say that they did know "enough" about what was casting the shadows God was showing them. From the example of Abraham they knew that remaining faithful to God would be counted as righteousness and prosper them. They themselves had provided plenty of examples proving that faithlessness and an attitude of disobedience would be punished as it was in the other nations. Abraham's justification and others' condemnation before the law would have shown them that God cares more about the heart than the exterior.

Another problem I struggled to understand: how does the Law point to a need for Jesus as the savior if the procedure for what to do if it was broken (sacrifice; the Day if Atonement) was already built into it? And how can people be cleansed of their sins on the Day of Atonement among others (Leviticus 16:30) if animal sacrifices can't take away sins? (Hebrews 10:4) The Leviticus verse is very clear: the peoples' sins were atoned for "on this day", not on some future day that the Day of Atonement foreshadowed. It is worth mentioning here that the OT term "atonement" and the wording in Hebrews, "take away", don't seem to be referring to the same thing. The Hebrew word for atonement, kaphar, can also mean to cover over (i.e. God commanding Noah to cover the ark with pitch) or push aside, whereas the NT word, aphaireo, means to "take away" or "cut off".

So again, we get this accumulative picture of sin; it keeps building up, but the ceremonies in the Law, by design, didn't deal with it as fully or completely as Jesus did. The point, then, is that we wouldn't put our faith in rituals to save us from sin, but in God Himself. The prescribed sacrifices were intended to help produce the humility and repentance God desires, not to fix our sin themselves. One other interesting thing brought up in class was that while the Law has rules for unintentional sins, it makes no provisions for intentional or "presumptuous" sins. If you sinned defiantly, you had no recourse except to trust in God's mercy.


I see three takeaways from this:
  1. Stop expecting people to try to obey any of the commands from the Law unless you yourself try to obey all of them. (Hint: you don't)
  2. On a related note, to convince people that they sin, don't just list off the Ten Commandments and show that everyone has broken at least one. (I listened to a sermon from the Village Church that kind of did this) Like Jesus did, go deeper; ask why no one follows them all.
  3. At least for me, the tendency to interpret parts of the Old Testament solely as "shadows" of the reality of the Gospel is unhelpful. It seems like mistaking a secondary purpose of these things for their primary purpose. What did the Laws mean to the Israelites when they were given, in context, when they had barely any idea of the Gospel?

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Providence, Part VI: The Biblical Data

This is part 6 of my series on providence. Table of contents:
  1. Introduction and apology
  2. A brief history of the soteriological debate
  3. Overview of Calvinism
  4. Overview of Arminianism
  5. Comparing, contrasting, and evaluation of Calvinism and Arminianism
  6. The Biblical data
     6.5. Interlude: The God Who Seeks Us
  1. My position on providence
  2. Applications of this position to the soteriological debate
  3. Practical applications and conclusion
This post is kind of a jumping-off point for the eagerly-awaited (at least by me) one where I unpack my own position on providence. In contrast, this one is going to be as objective as possible, in which I present the Biblical foundation that I will build on next time. My thought process wasn't quite as simple as inferring doctrines from verses that directly support them. I'm going to take a lot of very simple facts that are (hopefully) beyond dispute, throw them in a blender, and come to my position in a more holistic way. Think of these facts as the ingredients. They can be divided into three categories for the three big concepts I am trying to balance: God's sovereignty, God's goodness, and human responsibility (or "free will" if you must have it in this discussion).

God's Sovereignty

God is omnipotent; He is able to do all that He wills and nothing is too hard for Him. This fact is attested to abundantly in scripture. Jeremiah attests that nothing is too hard for the Lord (32:17), Jesus says that with God all things are possible (Matthew 19:26). One of the anchors for our hope in God's providence is that He is always able to do what He wills. The simplified statement "God can do anything" is a bit misleading because though God can do all He wills, He can only will things that are consistent to his nature. For example, God cannot lie (Titus 1:2), deny Himself (2 Timothy 2:13), or tempt anyone to sin (James 1:13) because these things are antithetical to His nature. He also can't do logical contradictions or things that are by their nature impossible, so the question "Can God make a rock so big He can't lift it?" is best answered with punitive violence of some kind.

God is sovereign and in control over all of creation. This control is both extensive and intensive. God is said to be continually sustaining all things on some basic level; Colossians 1:17 says that "in [Christ] all things hold together", and Paul said "in [God] we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:26). It seems that what we consider to be the laws of physics and nature aren't fundamental to the universe, but are simply God graciously upholding creation in consistent ways that we can understand and utilize. If you're into that sort of thing, you could thank God each morning for keeping the earth in its orbit or electricity working the same way. We also see Him sometimes breaking these "laws" and commanding creation to do something incredible, like calming a storm (Matthew 8:26), parting the sea (Exodus 14), or, of course, raising from the dead after three days. From all this we clearly see that God is absolutely Lord over His creation, and nothing in the universe is outside His dominion.

God knows absolutely everything that has been, is, and will ever be. God is "perfect in knowledge" (Job 36:16) and "knows everything" (1 John 3:20). We also know that God does not change (Malachi 3:6) so He has always had this perfect knowledge and will always have it. Among other conclusions, this means that God always has equally perfect knowledge of every instant in all of time, unlike finite humans who only experience history one moment at a time. This becomes important later.

God has a plan (or "will") that includes everything that happens. Ephesians 1:11 says that God "works all things according to the counsel of His will". Revelation 4:11 states that all things were created and exist by God's will. Ephesians 1:10 says God's plan is "for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and on earth." In other words, everything that happens is part of God's plan/will; nothing takes Him off-guard and He has a purpose for everything that may happen whether we see it or not. (This is a fact that all Christians struggle to believe) This ultimate purpose is simply the pursuit of His own glory as reflected in His own actions and in the redemption or judgment of creation.

It's important to distinguish this will of whatever happens from God's will for our moral actions as revealed in the Bible, as of course the two are often at odds with each other. Others often use terms like God's "revealed will" and "hidden" or "secret" will to distinguish between the two, but this unfortunately implies that God has two contrary, clashing wills within Himself and that He deliberately hid things from us that He could have revealed in the Bible's moral teachings. What is often termed God's "revealed will" for us to perform, I will call His "desire". This goes right into another point about God...

God does not have two wills, but one undivided will that is never thwarted or frustrated. In Mark 3:23-24, Jesus refutes the idea that He could be driving out demons by the power of Satan by highlighting the absurdity of Satan working at cross purposes with his own mission: "If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand." If the kingdom of this world is not divided against itself, how much less could the kingdom of God be divided? This is the unfortunate implication of talking about God as having two different wills.

God predestines (or elects) some individuals for salvation, and in the process chooses others for damnation; this choice was made before any of us were born. This not-so-simple fact lies on the undisputed common ground of Calvinism and Arminianism, which I have well supported in posts 3 and 4. The two positions may disagree on the precise nature of and reason for this election, but they both affirm that it happens. See those posts for more evidence; for now I will simply cite Ephesians 1:4: "...even as [God] chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will." Note the last part, which makes clear that predestination is simply the part of God's overall will that pertains to salvation. Also, in John 15:16 Jesus says that "You did not choose me, but I chose you", making clear that God's choice of us takes preeminence over our choice of Him.

God's Goodness

God is love. 1 John 4:8 Not "love is God", but God is the very definition and perfect embodiment of what love is.

Out of love, Jesus died for our sins so that by faith we can share in His death and resurrection, enjoy relationship with God, and have eternal life. "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him will not die but will have eternal life." (John 3:16) This is the distilled essence of the gospel. My church did a sermon series that asked how you would "tweet" the gospel. There is my answer. (Actually, it's 150 characters, so I would tweet a link to this post. Twitter is ridiculous.)

God is the source of all good, even our faith and repentance. Paul's verse-quoting mashup in Romans 3:10-18 makes clear the extent of our depravity. The only reason the world isn't hell on earth (or a smoking cinder) is because, as mentioned above, God does not abandon His creation but continues to sustain it and prevent us from being as sinful as we could be. James writes that "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above" (1:17) Every stage of our salvation and sanctification is done by God; even our faith itself is a gift from God (Acts 5:31, 11:18; 2 Timothy 2:25).

God wants all people to be saved. 1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9, Ezekiel 18:32. I will not further argue this point here, except by saying that if God does not sincerely desire the salvation of all people, then He is not perfectly loving, because it would possible to imagine a God more loving than the true God.

God can work good through our acts of evil. This is strongly implied by the fact that all things, even acts of evil, are part of God's plan and therefore accomplish some good purpose. For an example, see Genesis 50:20, where Joseph said of his brothers selling him, "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today."

God is perfectly truthful; He cannot lie or deceive anyone. "God is not a man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and he will not do it? Or has he spoken, and he will not fulfill it?" (Numbers 23:19) "And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret." (1 Samuel 15:29) Titus 1:2 outright says that "God never lies". Proverbs 30:5 says that "Every word of God proves true." I am strongly affirming this now because later I'll be dealing with some difficult verses that seem to contradict God's truthfulness.

God is not the author of sin. This is probably the most crucial of all my points to the development of my position on providence. It can be broken down into three subpoints. First, God does not cause anyone to sin, because if He were the source of the sin He condemns man for, He would cease to be both good and just, which He certainly is. (Luke 18:19, Deuteronomy 32:4) No evasions or talk of God's ways being "higher than our ways" here; there is no way to affirm that a good, just God would cause anyone to sin.

Second, God does not tell or command anyone to sin, because they would be faced with the impossible choice of either obeying God by sinning, or disobeying Him and therefore sinning. So God telling someone to sin is the same as His causing them to sin. If you say that God can suspend His law in special cases, this contradicts Matthew 5:18 where Jesus states that "not an iota, not a dot will pass from the Law until all is accomplished." This would also mean that God is divided against Himself, which as we saw above is not the case.

And thirdly, God does not tempt anyone to sin. James 1:13.

Human Responsibility

We are responsible for our actions as moral agents. This is the core of what I mean by "human responsibility". The fact that God judges us according to what we have done (Revelation 20:12) necessarily means that we are held responsible for what we do. This has a wide variety of implications about human nature that are too subjective to post here, so I will save them for the beginning of the next post.

We are slaves to sin and cannot free ourselves or make ourselves holy on our own. Though we are responsible for our own actions, we are also unable to consistently act according to God's standards. We are said to be slaves to sin (Romans 6:17) in our natural state; without Jesus we can't please God or bear any good fruit (John 15:5) Since we are responsible for our actions, this slavery is not on our will; no one is forcing us to sin, but our very natures are fallen into sin so we keep freely choosing other things over God.

Because of unbelief, not every person is saved; salvation is conditioned on our faith. Again see John 3:16, or Luke 7:50 which affirms the connection between faith and salvation even more strongly. Also Romans 9:32, where Paul affirms that the reason some in Israel didn't attain the righteousness they sought was that they did not pursue it by faith, but by works.

We are made holy and conformed to God's image by the power of the Spirit (but not apart from our own will and responsibility). Philippians 2:12-13 is a good statement of this mysterious partnership between the Holy Spirit and us in which each member is essential to sanctification of an individual. Romans 8 is a beautiful exposition of God's crucial role in our transformation from rebellious sinners to obedient and loving children.

Finally, a bit of preparation for my next post. I think the central questions that Calvinism and Arminian answer differently go something like: what is the nature of God's providence, His reign over and work through every event in history? How do His will and ours work together in deciding events, and how do we explain the difference between what He commands in the Bible and the world? Why is everyone not saved? They are two different systems of interpreting the Bible to answer these questions, but as I said about baptism, though the truth of the Bible is not up for debate here, the veracity of any system for reading it is. Calvinism and Arminianism are both internally consistent, but can they be inferred from the rest of scripture? In my opinion, the presence of unresolved contradictions in Calvinism--brushed under the rug with Romans 9:20--is strong evidence that it cannot.

So, we have all this biblical data. But a list of scripturally supported facts does not constitute a complex doctrine like providence in any coherent sense; though organized into three categories, the points are largely unrelated and indeed it's hard to see how some of them (not everyone is saved, but God wants everyone to be saved?) Can be true at the same time. Next time I will finally get into how I have learned to assemble and reconcile these facts into a single picture of God's providence.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Baptism 2

I recently sent an E-mail to a friend who was in a conversation with someone who believed in baptismal regeneration. (It prompted my recent post on baptism) This friend had made a pretty long argument for his view, listing a good deal of verses and providing his prespective of them and how they fit into his theology of baptism. In the course of responding to it, I learned a great deal and found my own theology of baptism as a symbol clarified and reinforced. With my friend's permission, here is an edited version of my response.

Here is my own (hopefully charitable) summary of a theology of baptismal regeneration:

Of course I am not saying that baptism is a work by which we are able to cause or earn our own salvation. I am saying that just as God is able to graciously and freely offer salvation to us in response to our faith, He regenerates us in response to (and even indivisibly from) our baptism by submersion into water. Baptism is the visible, external side of the process of being "born again" (that is, regeneration) that Jesus speaks of in John 3:3. It happens concurrently with the inward element of baptism by the Spirit (John 3:5) and our spiritual identification with the death and resurrection of Christ. Regeneration means dying to our sin and being born again to God, and baptism (in both its senses) is the process by which God performs this great work in those who believe. It follows faith and repentance (in which the penalty for our sins is taken way by the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ on the cross) and is the beginning of our sanctification and eternal life.

This is the framework of the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, which is one system for interpreting the scriptures that deal with baptism; it is certainly possible to interpret the Bible this way. Of course we must keep in sight the truth of the Bible and an earnest desire to correctly interpret it to apply its truth in life and doctrine, but this also means we should not be more attached to any particular system of interpretation more than the facts support. So, the question is, is this interpretation of baptismal verses consistent with the rest of scripture?

I think the thesis of this view is that external, physical baptism and inward baptism by the Holy Spirit are inseparable; both are necessary components of regeneration and in fact they happen concurrently, two halves of the same coin. I will argue for the contrary view that physical baptism in water is a symbol and visible proclamation of the invisible inward baptism and regeneration that has already occurred, not a necessary component of regeneration, just as Protestants believe that communion symbolizes Christ's body and blood broken for us in the Atonement. I'll go through verses that pertain to baptism and present an alternate way of looking at them to the baptismal regeneration view.

Matthew 3:13-17
The words of Jesus, "for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness", are certainly open-ended. Clearly Jesus was aware that baptism was part of the path God had laid for Him and His ministry, just as he was predestined for the cross (Matthew 26:42). Still, it is puzzling from both a baptismal regeneration and a symbolistic view. If baptism is one facet of the Spirit's work of regeneration, then of course Jesus, already possessing eternal life along with Godhood, did not need to be baptized, as John realized in v14. And if baptism is a symbol of our identification with Jesus' death and resurrection, then why did Jesus, who actually died and was actually resurrected, also partake in the symbol when he did the real thing? Maybe the point was simply what happened next; the heavens being opened, the Holy Spirit descending on Him, and the Father affirming Jesus as the Son of God. Jesus' baptism could also simply be another part of His total identification with us and our sins; just as He didn't need to come or take our sins on Himself, He didn't need to be baptized, but He was for our sakes.

Two other things: first, I definitely think John had a strictly inward definition of baptism in his question on v14, the baptism "with the Holy Spirit and with fire" he mentions in v11. Surely he did not mean he wanted Jesus to set him on fire! He didn't care whether Jesus dunked him in the river; he wanted the true, inward baptism by the Holy Spirit. Also, I would caution against expecting the exceptional events of Jesus' baptism to all play out in our own baptism; I think they were also markers of the start of His formal ministry, along with His subsequent temptation in the desrt.

John 3:1-8
Taking the mention of "water" here to mean literal baptism in water is somewhat inconsistent. The second birth Jesus is talking about is obviously metaphorical, about which He corrects Nicodemus, so there is no reason that "water" here can't refer to the living water (John 4:14) by which Jesus is said to cleanse us (John 13:8,10; Ephesians 5:26, Titus 3:5, Ezekiel 36:25-27)

Acts 2:38
Peter isn't necessarily equating water baptism with regeneration here. David Guzik in his commentary on the verse has an excellent insight:

"Baptism made a clear statement. In that day, Jews were not commonly baptized, only Gentiles who wanted to become Jews. For these Jewish men and women to be baptized showed just how strongly they felt they needed Jesus."

So I don't think Peter was calling these Jews to be baptized as part of their salvation, but again as a strong external symbol or declaration of it, to guard against a shallow repentance to simply minimize the guilt they were feeling. Being baptized showed that they really did trust in Jesus, and not the law and old covenant, for salvation, which they previously had not possessed.

Romans 6:1-7
Again, we didn't literally die on a cross, get buried, and rise from the dead with Jesus; this language reflects the spiritual, not physical reality of our salvation. Similarly, the baptism here is referring to our inward regeneration and baptism by the Holy Spirit; it is another part of the spiritual reality that is ours by God's grace and Christ's actual death and resurrection. Switching mid-sentence between literal and spritual/metaphorical interpretations of a passage makes me uncomfortable.

1 Corinthians 12:12-13
The preposition "in one Spirit" makes it clear here that Paul is saying that by regeneration we are baptized (inwardly, by the Spirit) into the body of believers.

Galatians 3:26-27
Again, I think this passage is speaking of regeneration by the Spirit, by which we are made alive and "put on" Christ. This inward baptism is how we pass from the dominion of darkness into the kingdom of God. (Colossiamns 1:13)

Ephesians 4:1-6
Again, a purely inward definition of baptism works just as well here. Again, as all these other things in the list are spiritual realities (body [of Christ], the Holy Spirit, Lord, faith, God and father), it seems natural to interpret "baptism" likewise.

Colossians 2:9-12
Baptism is paralleled with circumcision here. It's interesting that in v10 it refers to (presumably) baptism as "a circumcision made without hands". The clear meaning is that it's hard to take this to mean physical baptism, which is generally done with hands; the implication is that it is not referring to any physical event at all but the circumcision of the heart God promises in Deuteronomy 30:6. Also, we are certainly not put in a tomb with Christ in physical baptism (v12), so again I think a spiritual, non-physical interpretation of "baptism" is in order here.

Titus 3:5
I think this verse is referring to when we repent, believe, and receive the Holy Spirit; at this time, God is said to wash our hearts clean in the process of regeneration. Again, it seems more awkward to me to read this verse as referring to a spiritual truth concurrent with a physical process.

1 Peter 3:18-22
Verse 21, when only the first part is read, is one of the main verses used to support baptismal regeneration, but in its entirety and context I think it is one of the strongest supports for the symbolistic view of baptism. Peter clearly says in v21 that the baptism that saves us is not the removal of dirt (i.e. the physical submersion in water) but the inward process of being born again and receiving Christ's righteousness. This baptism is not synonymous with physical baptism, which has no power to save but is only a declaration of regeneration that has already happened.

1 John 5:6-8
This verse is really difficult. I'm not sure it's talking about baptism at all. One of the main themes of 1 John is addressing the heresy of Gnosticism that threatened the church. Gnosticism was a dualistic worldview that believed that the physical world was evil and the spiritual world was good; we are trying to escape our evil bodies and Jesus, being God, could not have had a physical body at all but had some kind of incorporeal, spiritual body. One interpretation of John repeated use of "water and blood" here is that he is refuting Gnostics who would have denied that He was born like a human being.

Or "water" could be referring to (the physical evidence of) Jesus' baptism, and "blood" to His crucifixion. So the evidence given to us by the Holy Spirit, God the Father's testimony at Jesus' baptism, and all the miracles and wonders of His crucifixion are all in agreement that Jesus is the Messiah.

Acts 2:41
Again, not necessarily equating the physical baptism with salvation, but treating it as visible evidence of it; those who were baptized were counted among the three thousand converts.

Acts 8:36-38
If you really "get" the gospel and are saved, I think it's to be expected that you'll feel an urgency to get baptized as a way of proclaiming this faith.

Acts 9:3-19
God seems to be using Ananias here to complete Paul's journey to faith in Jesus. Presumably, he believed around when he regained his sight (v17) and was then baptized.

Acts 22:7-16
I think Ananias is speaking of baptism here in a symbolic way, but is being somewhat loose with his words; of course we don't wash our own sins away by baptism in water, though this is what he is literally implying.

Acts 16:29-34
I think the sense of urgency here is the same as in Acts 8: he didn't need to get baptized to "seal the deal" of salvation or complete it somehow, but to affirm the conversion and regeneration of himself and his family.

Acts 18:24-19:7
Just as Christian baptism ("in the name of the Lord Jesus") is a symbol and visible proclamation of our spiritual identification with Christ's death and resurrection, John's baptism (as in Matthew 3) was simply a proclamation of repentence for sins, an admission that you weren't "all right" trying to get by under the law, which was intended to prepare your heart for the gospel and the true baptism Jesus offers. John's baptism was never intended to symbolize the whole package of salvation, but it was all Apollos knew and it  was likely why Priscilla and Aquila took him aside to explain things to him.

So, I have shown an alternate interpretation for these passages that supports the symbolistic view of baptism--that it is not necessary for salvation, but that it is a proclamation, affirmation, and symbol of what Jesus has done in us. For many of the passages I have argued from the text that the symbolic interpretation makes more sense. I also think there are some more general reasons to read the Bible this way.

The main reason is that making physical baptism in water necessary for regeneration and salvation creates a whole host of other theological problems. Making physical baptism a necessary condition for knwing you are saved like the fruits of the Spirit, I think, draws a misguided parallel between two different things. The condition for salvation we see over and over again is faith (John 3:16, Romans 9:30-31, Ephesians 2:8-9, &c.) Works are not necessary for salvation, but they are expected as evidence that someone really does have saving faith; they are said to "complete" our faith (James 2:22), and baptism can certainly be one of these "completing" works. Someone who is baptized but continues to live in deliberate sin clearly does not have authentic faith and is not saved, but someone who repents and displays numerous other evidences of saving faith, without being baptized, very likely is saved.

And, on a more basic level, the idea that God would deny salvation to someone because they did not get submerged in water in a certain way seems very ritualistic and difficult to fit into the rest of the Christian theology of salvation. If someone is in a situation (like a prison or a desert) where baptism by immersion is not possible, you get into the quagmire of arguing for different methods for baptism; can baptism by sprinkling save you? Partial immersion? Just how much water do you need? This is what I mean by the view of baptismal regeneration raising a whole host of other theological problems.

And, on a more personal note (meaning you can take it or leave it), I have been baptized twice: once as an infant and again when I was 22. If you hold that baptism always saves even infants without fail, then this would mean I have been saved ever since despite displaying absolutely no evidence of it for most of my life. If you hold that baptism is a necessary component of regeneration and salvation, then this would mean that my faith and all that came from it before August 2011 were false and I was still spiritually dead, which is both personally repugnant and theologically absurd to me.