Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Hermeneutics 101


Just to set the record straight, let us remind ourselves of the actual facts. What does the New Testament have to say about the efficacy of water baptism?

1. Baptism is necessary for the forgiveness of sins, and for receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit: “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). There are only two ways to get around this:

1) It can be argued that the preposition eis which is used here should be translated “because of,”

2) One can argue that the verb “repent” goes with “for the forgiveness of your sins,” and that the clause “and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” is parenthetical…The idea that this verse is trying to disassociate baptism from forgiveness is a fantasy of anti-sacramentalist Evangelicals, who don’t want to accept the rather plain wording of the text.

2. Baptism washes away sin: “Get up so you can be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16). The only way to get around this is to say that you wash away your sins by calling on the name of Jesus, and NOT by being baptized. As if baptism were not the obvious occasion for calling on his name in this text! Baptism is simply the sacramental act, whereby the person who calls on his name has their sins washed away. Again, this is hermeneutics 101. It is only complicated by Evangelical blind spots.

3. Baptism unites us to Christ and his new life: “Therefore we were buried with him through baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from death through the glory of the Father, so also we might live a new life” (Rom. 6:4). This text does not say that baptism is only a symbol of our union with Christ; it says that our union with Christ was effected “through baptism.”…And we are supposed to imagine that they would not be thinking of their own baptism, when they became part of the Church (cf. Acts 2:41)? One might as well argue that Acts 2:38 is not speaking of water baptism either (as the Quakers amazingly do).

4. Water baptism saves: “[T]hey were spared through water. Baptism, the antitype [of the flood water], also now saves you–not by cleaning the body of course–but the pledge of a good conscience to God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 3:21)…In either case, Peter plainly attributes to baptism some sort of saving efficacy. And it is plain that Peter has in mind the water sacrament itself, and not merely what baptism “symbolizes,” for verse 20 said that Noah’s family was spared di hudatos ( “through water”). The relative pronoun which begins verse 21 (ho) is neuter, and refers back to the water (to hudor). It is water baptism, being water which corresponds to the flood water as an antitype, that now saves you. Peter sees baptism has having saving power precisely as antitypical WATER, and not merely as some spiritual grace which is depicted by the water.



I think every Christian should take Hermeneutics 101. Unfortunately, Owen evidently skipped that course when he was in seminary—or maybe he took the course, but cut class so that he’d have more time to recite the Rosary.

Owen simple-mindedly talks about only “two” ways to “get around” Acts 2:38, and so on, while the only ways he can conceive of are syntactical.

It is always so striking how naïve superstition can cohabit the highest levels of education, yet we find this among many Hindus and Buddhists.

One subdivision of Hermeneutics 101 is Symbolics 101. Symbolism has a fundamental role in religion generally. Even in such an aniconic tradition as OT Judaism, the significance of the Mosaic cultus is incomprehensible apart from an elementary grasp of symbolism.

Owen raises the issues of symbolism, but shows no comprehension of what it would entail. Yes, Peter plainly attributes to baptism some sort of saving efficacy.

And that is exactly what you’d expect if baptism were a symbol of remission. The whole imagery of “washing” away your sins through the “cleansing” power of baptism is picture-language to figurate the forgiveness of sins.

The very point of a symbol is that a symbol is a placeholder for something else; hence, whatever you can say about the thing for which it stands you can say about the symbol itself. The sign substitutes for the significate.

To take a classic example, consider the cross of Christ. When Paul says that Jew and Gentile are reconciled by the cross (Eph 2:16), is he plainly attributing to a stick of wood some sort of saving efficacy? In a sense, yes. But only in the emblematic sense that this particular piece of wood is an outward token of Christ’s redemptive work.

BTW, notice how this text doesn’t say that the cross is only a symbol of reconciliation. It doesn’t need to. That is understood.

Of course, it’s entirely possible at this point in his downward spiral that Owen does, indeed, attribute literal efficacy to splinters of the True Cross, along with Mary’s milk and the head of St. Cyriacus.

This is where Catholicism is no better than voodoo religion, with its sympathetic magic. Stick a needle in a doll, and I bleed.

And this is why, in pagan faith, the priest and the witch-doctor are one and the same.

But I’ll take my Calvinism over Owen’s fetishism any day of the week, and twice on Sundays.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Is it really "magic and superstition" to believe that Christ can save us through matter? Remember when he healed the blind man by using his saliva, clay, and water? Or how Paul's clothes got special powers. All this points to the way he saves us in the sacraments . . . even Calvin agreed.

  3. Hello, Hello

    I recognize this Auburn Avenue rhetoric. First, you are confusing the sanctificational efficacy of the sacraments (an orthodox Reformed belief) with Owen's baptismal regeneration/justification (which Calvin denied). Second, Steve's point about the symbolic nature of biblical language still stands. Jesus and the Apostles acted out some of this symbology for pedagogic purposes, not to teach that physical water saves us.

  4. The one thing about blogger is that there's no place to put general comments. So I would like to say that I heard about this site from Paul Manata's debate on a podcast from some place. I am a philosophy student and peer theological minister at the University of Puget Sound. My interest is in inviting Paul (or someone equally intelligent) to my campus to participate in a debate. Does that sound interesting? Please get back to me--


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