Barry Newman's Blog

January 22, 2010

Biblical Baptism Revisited (part V)

Filed under: Baptism — barrynewman @ 7:14 am

Baptism as Understood in early Christian Writings (continued)

There are some positive things to say about the early christian references to baptism.  In addition to those beliefs and practices outlined earlier, one also finds some references to the need for those to be baptised to be instructed (e.g. Justin Martyr and the Didache).  This notion will be taken up in the discussion of correctly understanding Matthew 28: 19, 20 later.  One can also detect in some of the texts a general correlation between on the one hand, the ceremony and on the other hand, repentance involving turning to a new life of righteousness, the forgiveness of sins and the giving of the Spirit.  Such is in accord with the New Testament perspectives, although the repentance of Acts 2: 38 may have had as its chief component a repentance towards Jesus the Messiah.  Furthermore, in order to avoid making too close a connection between the ceremony and the giving of the Holy Spirit, one should remember that in the Acts of the Apostles, the gift is given sometimes before and independently of the ceremony being performed (Acts 9: 17, 18; 10: 44-48).

Taking what these early christian texts have to say about baptism, as a whole, however, one should not assume, for example, that any work that understands the “baptizo” of Matthew 28: 19 as referring primarily to a literal water ceremony is in fact correct.  The reference to “baptising” in the text may be primarily a metaphorical reference with overtones of the water ceremony in the background or indeed simply a metaphorical reference. I will return to this matter in more detail later.

Indeed one of the fundamental problems in appealing to the writings of the early christians, over the first 3 or 4 centuries concerning what they believed about baptism and how baptism was practised is that there was no single belief or practice to which we can appeal.  Just as today there are different practices, so in those days there were different ways of conducting baptism including whether the water should be “applied” once in connection with the one name or three times in association with the three persons. More importantly, there were different beliefs about its effectiveness – would it deal only with sins committed before baptism or did it cover sins yet to be committed (as though a ceremony could ever deal with sins!), and for those who “fell away”, but desired to return, did they need to be baptised a second time or was a second baptism forbidden?

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