Barry Newman's Blog

March 16, 2012

Baptising in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (part XXV)

Filed under: Baptism — barrynewman @ 1:32 am

“Baptising”, “immersing” them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit – a possible understanding

Finally, we consider an understanding of Matthew 28: 19 that is contrary to the conventional view.  The argument draws on much material dealt with earlier, either directly or indirectly. However, a few preliminary remarks are made about the conventional view and its significance.

Some might claim that a vital part of being made a disciple is to undergo a specific water ceremony.  That is, what Jesus was saying in Matthew 28: 19 was, “Make disciples from all the nations and the first part of doing that will be to baptise them (in a water ceremony).” There is no doubt that a water baptism was practised both by John the baptiser, the disciples of Jesus during his ministry and some of his followers after his earthly ministry had ended.  However would it be the case that one could not be a disciple if one did not undergo a baptismal water ceremony?

Some might argue, that even if Jesus did not directly command people to be baptised, his command actually relating to his disciples baptising, Peter on the Day of Pentecost made it abundantly clear that it was mandatory to be baptised.  However I have earlier suggested that the imperative which came from Peter, “Repent and be baptised” could be understood in the sense of “Take the girl in marriage and give her a ring.” The strict commandment is to marry her.  The reference to the ring is a reference to abiding by a custom which is commonly followed. Not all imperatives are strict commands.  Some merely give directions for what could be done or for what might be expected to be done.  I suggested earlier that the practice of water baptism, with its extensive use, first, by John the baptiser, then the disciples of Jesus and then the Apostles during their era and others, became customary without there being necessarily a mandatory element to its practice. The idea that the practice became customary indeed casts doubt on the idea that it must have been regarded as mandatory unless its mandatory character can be established elsewhere, for example, by appeal to Matthew 28: 19.  The idea that the practice, though customary was not mandatory is consistent with Paul viewing the practice as one from which he could rightly endeavour to distant himself (1 Corinthians 1: 17).

An aside: if undergoing a water rite is considered an absolute necessity for people to become disciples, then those who practise such a water rite should endeavour to duplicate what Jesus is supposed to be referring to.  The ceremony as actually performed was not any old water rite.  It had particular characteristics – characteristics which symbolised and were associated with realities.  Immersion in water was what occurred and it seems that this was carried out upon the person to be baptised repenting, changing their mind, at about that time, about Jesus Christ the Lord and consequently about themselves, their behaviour and orientation. This type of situation still occurs here and there today and the symbolism that accompanies the practice, if rightly understood, is still as powerful as it ever was. However, where the person is not immersed or where the person being baptised, actually repented long ago or was brought up as a believer from early childhood, a childhood of many years ago, the realities to be symbolised are not so symbolised.  One is not being obedient to what one considers a command if one feels free to change the nature of the practice and when it is to be performed.  What has happened historically is that there have been, what I regard as, painful attempts to justify practices which are not in accord with New Testament practice, as though they were.

However please do not take offence.  What I think is justifiable is to develop customs, whatever their character, which are actually beneficial, which are not misleading, of which one do not claim historical precedence that is false and which are not mandatory.  In my mind it is not all that important what customs we human beings develop and practice in whatever cultural sphere, explicitly Christian or otherwise, happens to be the case, provide that something like those four criteria are met.  One should not forget however, the pointed and powerful symbolism of the practice as performed by John the baptiser, the disciples of Jesus, the apostles and others.

Arguments against considering “baptising”, “immersing” in Matthew 28: 19, as a reference to a “water baptism”, a water “immersion”, include: the Acts of the Apostles only records people being baptised (in a water ceremony) in the name of Jesus the Christ or Jesus the Lord; some elements of the early Christian communities also only baptised in the name of Jesus; the birth of Jesus, the teaching and the great acts of Jesus and the death and resurrection of Jesus as narrated to us by Matthew in the preceding textual material do not prepare us for the final utterances of Jesus to indicate that the making of a disciple will involve the undergoing of a mandatory water ceremony.

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