Sunday, January 03, 2010

Born from above

Andrew Preslar

“The question is whether it is a work in some sense specifically proscribed as being a means of initial salvation.”

i) Of course, that’s a prejudicial way of framing the question, since it subdivides salvation into “initial” salvation and (I guess) “final” salvation.

That, of itself, might not be a problem unless we play one off against the other.

i) Moreover, the terminology is sloppy. The precise point at issue is not the relation of works to salvation, but works to justification. Specifically, the Pauline definition of works in relation to the Pauline definition of justification.

ii) Also, even though an NT author may not use specifically Pauline terminology, he may have the equivalent concept. If, say, forgiveness is proffered on the basis of faith in Jesus.

“James 2 gives us an example of external and socially verifiable works (which are not, of course, the only kinds of good works), but these are not in that context excluded from justification (quite the opposite).”

Once again, that’s a sloppy comparison. It evinces the indifference of Catholics to the word of God when they refuse to draw basic distinctions.

Yes, works are justificatory in the Jacobean sense of “works” and “justification.”

This doesn’t mean we can substitute Jacobean usage for Pauline usage, as if these are interchangeable terms and concepts.

“In Galatians and Romans, the kinds of works that are explicitly excluded as a means of initial justification are the ‘works of the law’ (specifically circumcision) and works that demand a commensurate wage as a matter of strict justice (Romans 4). Baptism does not appear to be anything of the kind. Christian baptism is not part of the law. It is nowhere recommended as a means of earning a wage.”

i) Notice how he smuggles in the implicit wedge between “initial” justification and (presumably) “final” justification, or perhaps progressive justification, which may or may not terminate in final justification. If he’s going to introduce that dichotomy into his analysis, then he needs to present an exegetical argument.

ii) He is also conflating the issue of whether baptism is a work in NT theology with the issue of whether baptism functions as work in Catholic theology. Even if baptism is not a work in NT doctrine and practice, this hardly means baptism can’t be a work (in the Pauline sense) in Catholic doctrine and practice.

The question at issue is not simply one of what significance Paul (or some other NT writer) ascribes to baptism, but what significance Catholic theology ascribes to baptism.

iii) Apropos (ii), let’s not forget the central role of merit in Catholic theology.

“Since baptism is not disqualified merely because of its use of matter, and since it is unreasonable to consider baptism a proscribed work, that interpretive dispostion whereby salvation-like ‘baptism’ passages must refer to something other than baptism and / or something other than initial salvation, is driven to seek grounds in the timing of baptism relative to inward faith in the cases of those who did not receive the gift of baptism before making an intentional act of faith.”

i) The timing is one obstancle, but not the only obstacle.

ii) No one is arguing that baptism is a prescribed work in NT doctrine and practice. The question at issue is whether it becomes a prescribed work when its original significance is rerouted to Catholic doctrine and practice.

iii) It isn’t simply a question of whether “salvation-like” baptismal passages “must” be given a different import. One doesn’t have to take such a strong position, although that’s available.

It’s sufficient to question the underlying presumption. If, for example, baptism (or communion) is simply meant to function as a token of salvation, or some aspect thereof (i.e. forgiveness), then we’d still have “salvation-like” passages, for that’s the nature of symbolic predication. If you say Jesus is the “vine,” then you attribute vine-like properties to Jesus. Yet those are figurative properties of a figurative vine. They have a real world analogue, but the botanical metaphor itself is entirely inefficacious.

“I maintain that (1) some of the gifts given in baptism can be enjoyed through inward faith prior to baptism, and (2) the sacraments of the New Covenant can be discussed and even celebrated prior to Pentecost. As to (1): Some events in Scripture have a proleptic aspect. The entire Church dispensation is often understood as a present enjoyment of that which is yet to come (i.e., the eschaton). So it is entirely commensurate with biblical thought patterns to understand some gifts of initial salvation as enjoyed (already) by inward faith and conferred (not yet) by baptism.”

i) It’s true that the benefits of the atonement can retroactive for God’s people, viz. OT saints. Likewise, the OT sacrificial system prefigured the atonement of Christ.
But what this means is that OT rites are simply forward-pointing signs. They didn’t actually confer remission of sins. Rather, they were just symbolic placeholders. So that sort of thing undercuts his argument.
ii) To my knowledge, the already/not yet rubric is normally applied to distinguish the church age from the final state. It’s not applied within the church age itself.

iii) Of course a new covenant sacrament can be “discussed” prior to Pentecost. That’s not the issue. The issue is whether it is discussed in passages like Jn 3:5.

iv) Likewise, yes, in principle, a new covenant sacrament could be celebrated before Pentecost. But the interpretation of any specific verse requires specific textual and contextual evidence. These abstractions don’t move the ball.

“We do not know exactly when the sacrament of Christian baptism was instituted, but it is reasonable to suppose that Our Lord, who is in himself the substance of the New Covenant, could have conferred this gift, or commissioned his disciples to confer this gift, at any time after his own baptism.”

We can “suppose” many things. And Jesus “could” have done many things. But we must interpret the Johannine narrative according to the narrative clues which John has put at our disposal.

That’s how he expects the reader to understand his narrative. An author has to supply the reader with the necessary information. And that’s also how the author controls the interpretative process. He guides the reader by the choice of information he supplies. And John is very deliberate about his selection criteria (20:30-31).

“Also consider that Our Lord gave his disciples ‘my Blood which is poured out for many’ even though his Blood had not yet been poured out.”

Which is one reason that many Christians reject the real presence as hopelessly anachronistic. Giving his disciples the communion elements before the event it signifies thereby precludes the bread and wine from being his “true” body and blood. It can’t be shed blood before the bloodshed. So, once more, Preslar’s illustration undermines his argument.

When Preslar gives these supporting illustrations, his illustrations take for granted the same interpretation as he places on his prooftexts. He has yet to furnish an independent argument for his hermeneutical filter. Rather, he filters everything through the same presumptive filter. Each supporting argument begs the same question in the same way. The same parts in different configurations.

“Thus, the baptisms performed by the disciples in John 3 could have been Christian baptisms. I am not entirely sure if there is a definite teaching on when, after Jesus’ baptism, we first find Christian baptisms.”

Actually, the Fourth Gospel is conspicuously silent on the institution of Christian baptism. So it’s not as if you can even read that back into the account. John’s Gospel doesn’t furnish a (Christian) baptismal reference-point from which you can either work forward or backward.

Part of responsible exegesis is to practice studied ignorance. Even if you happen to know more than the text indicates, you shouldn’t normally intrude that extraneous viewpoint into the narrative viewpoint. You need to move within the referential world of the narrative.

“Our Lord’s conversation with Nicodemus does not necessarily indicate that he expected him to pick up on the reference to the sacrament of baptism.”

So it’s a veiled reference to baptism, which he wasn’t expected to recognize, even though he’s upbraided for his failure to grasp the true meaning of this enigmatic statement.

“(But remember that Our Lord’s discourses, mediated through the evangelists, are intended for more than a single audience).”

i) I’m not sure what that’s supposed to mean. Is this a real conversation between two real speakers? Does it accurately reproduce the gist of what they actually said to one another? Or does Preslar think that John is concocting a fictitious, allegorical dialogue about baptism_which he backdates and puts on the lips of Jesus and Nicodemus?

ii) John’s Christian audience has a responsibility to take the original setting into account. If we can, so can they.

“Rather, Nicodemus’ question ‘How can this be?’ expresses incredulity at the very possibility of rebirth, not about the instrumental cause of rebirth.”

He’s incredulous about the possibility of physical rebirth. And that’s because he fails to detect the figurative import of Jesus’ imagery (i.e. spiritual rebirth). He doesn’t get the metaphor. So that undercuts sacramental realism.

“In this case, Jesus is indicating that Nicodemus should have been aware of the necessity (hence, possibility) of rebirth in order to enter the Kingdom of God.”

But Preslar doesn’t think that water-baptism is a necessary precondition of salvation. Therefore, his interpretation either proves too much or too little.

“The specific mode of rebirth is alluded to in John 3 and the OT passages from which Jesus draws, but it is not explicitly revealed to Israel before the coming of Christ.”

i) Preslar is now assuming that OT passages foreshadow the institution of a new ceremony, rather than foreshadowing the event which the ceremony signifies. But why would we make that assumption?

ii) And, of course, he interprets the “mode” of rebirth in Catholic terms (“the sacrament”). But that begs the question. What if the mode of rebirth is not a ceremony, but the immediate action of the Holy Spirit, of which baptism is a concrete, picturesque metaphor? An object lesson or enacted parable?


  1. For those who don't know, the thread Steve is interacting with is here. And I've been posting my own responses there. For example, in comment 69 you can find my response to the post Steve is replying to above.

  2. "But Preslar doesn’t think that water-baptism is a necessary precondition of salvation. Therefore, his interpretation either proves too much or too little."

    Leonard Feeney tried to force the RCs to be consistent with their overt exaltation of baptism as THE source of salvation, and to declare that unbaptized persons simply cannot be saved, all their good intentions or pious deeds nonwithstanding.

    Feeney failed, as PR-conscious Roman theologians thought that such a legalistic doctrine would not go well with the 20th century audience...

  3. Is the "Steve" posting in the comments section (beginning with comment 54) of the Bryan Cross article that Jason linked to above Mr. Hays? Thanks