Barry Newman's Blog

February 7, 2010

Biblical Baptism Revisited (part XII)

Filed under: Baptism — barrynewman @ 4:51 am

Matthew 28: 19 – Problems in Understanding the Text as a reference to a Baptismal Water Ceremony (continued)

6. Another argument appealing to the “natural” understanding of Matthew 28: 19 could be along the lines of baptismal water ceremonies having become so well known that any reference to “baptizo” would readily be understood as a reference to the water ceremony unless a very obvious metaphorical usage was being employed. In response: a) There are two references to “baptizo” in the Gospels (Mark 7: 4, Luke 11: 38) which are not metaphorical but which at the same time do not relate to the water baptismal ceremony.  They do however relate to a washing procedure perhaps of a fairly formal nature. b) Before the time when Jesus uttered these words, there is no clear evidence that either John the Baptiser or the disciples of Jesus ever baptised in the name of anyone.  While it is true that the baptismal ceremony conducted by John the Baptiser is spoken of as “John’s baptism” in Acts 18: 25 and that certain Ephesian disciples referred to themselves as having been baptised into John’s baptism (Acts 19: 3), this is not necessarily the same as being baptised in or into his name.  Admittedly however, if “in his name” meant something like “coming under the authority of”, that concept could have been involved independently of the phrase being used both with the baptisms conducted by John and those conducted by the disciples of Jesus. c) What is quite novel in the Matthew text however, is its reference to that specific name – the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  There is no precedent for this and the singularity of “name” along with the three persons joined by two “ands” is striking.  The usage of “baptizo” in a simple setting, particularly if water had also been mentioned, might have suggested a water ceremony to a Greek reader of the Gospel. However, the uniqueness of “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”, either when heard originally probably in Aramaic or when read later in Greek, might well have alerted the hearers at the time and subsequent Greek readers of the text, viewing the word, “baptizo”, to seeing something other than a reference to a water ceremony.

7. It is significant that Paul, in writing to those Corinthians who had been “sanctified in Christ Jesus”, did not regard literal water baptism to be of considerable importance.  In opposing the view that they belonged to different factions, defined in terms of who baptised them, he wrote, “Christ did not send me to baptise but to preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 1: 17).  If the Lord Jesus commanded his disciples to carry out literal water baptisms, how odd that Paul considered himself exempt from this commission!  It little helps to say that Paul’s focus was on the problem of how people saw themselves rather than on the ceremony itself.  In addressing that problem he indicates that the water ceremony itself is not the crucial ceremony understood as such by others and that furthermore he does not see carrying it out as one of his essential tasks.

8. Finally, that there should be a water ceremony that Jesus, by implication commanded that his followers had to undergo seems absolutely contrary to the gospel.  It was argued in the “Biblical Baptism” series that most references to baptism and being baptised in Paul’s epistles should be understood primarily metaphorically.  However even if they were not so understood, we do not find Paul in these epistles referring to the necessity of the baptismal water ceremony alongside of his various references to the grace of God.  If he did so, his portrayal of God’s gracious acts alongside the necessity of a human act would constitute an unfathomable clash of concepts[1].

[1] The understandably difficult but misunderstood passage in 1 Peter 3: 20 was briefly referred to in the “Biblical Baptism” blog series.



  1. ‘absolutely contrary to the gospel’!!!???

    A touch of overstatement perhaps?

    Comment by Michael Jensen — February 8, 2010 @ 11:15 pm | Reply

    • I said, “seems absolutely contrary to the gospel” and so it seems to me.

      Comment by barrynewman — February 9, 2010 @ 2:10 am | Reply

      • Is it the commanding or the ceremony that ‘seems absolutely contrary to the gospel’? (If you are going to say ‘absolutely’, you might as well drop the ‘seems’!)

        You seem happy concede that some form of water ceremony (…let’s call it ‘baptism’) was practiced by the Christians of the New Testament. So is the contrary-to-gospel bit the commanding of the thing (ceremony or otherwise)?

        I should also like to point readers to a brilliant post by Andrew Errington:

        Comment by Michael Jensen — February 9, 2010 @ 5:37 am

  2. Barry, you might be interested to know that a CMS Missionary Leon Hribar did some work on Matthew 28:19 a few years back and he also thinks that this verse is not referring to water baptism. His view (also mine) is more akin to that of Broughton Knox, who argues that those being baptised here are the nations, not individual persons being baptised with water.

    Against this view, Don Carson argues that, because ‘them’ in the Greek text does not match the gender of ‘nations’ it follows that the Knox view is wrong. But Leon Hribar examined the use of ‘them’ with antecedents to and noted that, in many cased, the gender of ‘them’ is different from the antecedent. In other words, that nations (grammatically feminine) does not match with ‘them’ (masculine) does not mean that ‘them’ cannot refer to ‘nations’. In fact, in many cases involving the word ‘nations’ and where no one disputes ‘them’ refers to the nations, one finds the same gender difference. Revelation 19:15 is a clear example of this. So then, Carson’s objection does not hold up.

    Comment by Philip Griffin — February 9, 2010 @ 5:23 am | Reply

    • So, Philip: can you still sign Article XXV?

      Comment by Michael Jensen — February 9, 2010 @ 5:42 am | Reply

      • Yes, Michael I most certainly can. As I recall Dr Knox also had no problem with this article. Article XXV does not commit me to the view that Matthew 28:19 is about water baptism. Michael, I have not explained my view of water baptism here, so I am a little incredulous at your question.

        Comment by Philip Griffin — February 9, 2010 @ 9:08 am

    • Philip, thanks for the info about Hribar.

      Knox’s view on the Matthew 28 text can be found on pp. 277-282, vol II his Selected Works. On p. 278 one finds, “”A fully metaphorical use of the concept of baptizing as discipling is in Jesus’last words to his apostles in Matthew 28. He is sending them to bring the nations of the world into the knowledge of the triune God. … “This ‘great commission’ of Jesus contains no reference to administering water baptism. The reference to baptising is entirely metaphorical …” On p. 280 he wrote, “Jesus’ words in the great commission did not have reference to the administration of the rite of water baptism, as though our Lord’s last words to his disciples on the eve of his ascension to his throne of glory was to instruct them in the use of a ritual formula, but it was a commission to preach the gospel of the forgiveness of sins in his name to all the nations.”

      Robinson was less confident about what the text meant. In his “Towards a definition of Baptism” he wrote, “If the baptism which the eleven disciples are commanded to carry out is to be with water, its only precedent in this Gospel is the baptism of John – a baptism which was an expression of repentance … This would mean that the disciples of Jesus, like John were to bring men to repentance through their teaching and in the name of the trinity. On the other hand, the baptism might represent the baptism of judgement … But if this is what is meant it is (a typo corrected to “is it”) necessary to suppose that such a baptism of judgement … was intended by Jesus … as a baptism with water? If we think so, we must still wonder how we get from such a baptism of judgment to a baptism which is a sharing of Christ’s death and/or a receiving of his Spirit.(pp. 11,12) In a private conversation with him he indicated how he was simply trying to honestly ascertain what the NT said having no other motive in mind and independently of the beliefs and practices of any tradition.

      In both cases one of their chief concerns was not with a commandment as such but with what the commandment was about. Each recognised that a commandment was involved. Knox was confident that it was associated with the word, “baptising” metaphorically, while Robinson considered two possibilities, one of which had the possibility of being metaphorical in character, and could not decide on either. Robinson only became aware of Knox’s view some time after the publication of “Selected Works” and is still actively thinking about the issues.

      In case anyone is in any doubt, in my statement, containing the words, “seems” and “absolutely” each of these words has an independent function. To omit either changes the intended sense of the statement.

      Comment by barrynewman — February 10, 2010 @ 11:10 am | Reply

  3. If Jesus did not command the disciples to baptise (ie with water, in the usual, straightforward sense) – which is what you are arguing I take it – then Article XXV seems in error, no?

    Comment by Michael Jensen — February 9, 2010 @ 12:33 pm | Reply

    • Also, you’d have to say that the best Hribar has achieved is a nil-all draw against Carson. He hasn’t knocked down his objection: he has just produced an element of uncertainty, in pointing to some examples that don’t follow the usual pattern. He hasn’t got positive evidence that this is how the language operates in this particular instance – at best he has only established the possibility that it might do.

      Comment by Michael Jensen — February 9, 2010 @ 9:58 pm | Reply

  4. Michael, Carson argues that the antecedent of them cannot be nations, and in this respect his argument does not hold up at all. Leon Hribar’s paper then argues the case as to why ‘them’ has ‘nations’ as its antecedent by an examination of earlier texts in Matthew as well as Matthew 20 itself. I don’t have his permsission to post his paper (it is unpublished) and this is not the forum to rehearse all Leon’s arguments. I don’t want to detract from the line of thought Barry is pursuing on his blogsite.

    I have already indicated that I can sign off on Article XXV, and so quite obviously I do not believe the article to be in error. I think water baptism is important, properly understood of course, and Christian baptism has as its origin Jesus’disciples baptising as a command of the Lord (John 4, Acts 2 et al).

    However, with Donald Robinson, who signed off on Article XXV, and Broughton Knox, and many others, I think we are too quick to read water baptism into the texts that use the terms baptise or baptism.

    Comment by Philip Griffin — February 10, 2010 @ 12:09 am | Reply

  5. …but if Mat 28 isn’t about water baptism, then we have no explicit dominical command for water baptism… (you don’t find that in John 4 or Acts 2 at all)… in which case, whatever Knox and Robinson may have said (and we have to remember their polemical concern to repudiate Anglo-Catholicism), Article XXV is plainly wrong (it teaches the dominical command), and we shouldn’t sign it. I should just like us to understand the denominational consequences of taking on board Barry’s arguments, that’s all.

    Comment by Michael Jensen — February 10, 2010 @ 1:06 am | Reply

  6. We may have to agree to disagree Michael. The language of the article is not of an explicit dominical command, but of a sacrament ordained by Christ our Lord in the gospel. So then, I sign article XXV happily, as I am very happy with that language. One would hope, Michael, that you would not be encouraging ordination candidates at Moore College not to proceed if they think Matthew 28:19 is not about water baptism.

    And whatever the context in which Knox and Robinson wrote was, if they don’t accept Matthew 28:19 is an explicit dominical command to water baptise, that does not mean that they are teaching implicitly that Article XXV is plainly wrong.

    Comment by Philip Griffin — February 10, 2010 @ 1:56 am | Reply

  7. um…’a sacrament ordained by Christ our Lord in the gospel’ IS what ‘dominical command’ means…

    And of COURSE I would dissuade candidates from continuing if they can’t sign Article XXV – and they quite clearly can’t if Mt 28:19 is not about water baptism. Because there is no other instance of Christ ordaining water baptism as a sacrament.

    You know – perhaps Knox and Robinson were…shock, horror – mistaken?!

    Comment by Michael Jensen — February 10, 2010 @ 4:29 am | Reply

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