Saturday, January 03, 2015

How Did The Earliest Christians Interpret John 3:5?

The subject recently came up on Paul Manata's Facebook page. Here's a discussion of the issue that took place several years ago. The principles addressed there are applicable to scripture interpretation in general, including other cases in which people often appeal to how scripture was interpreted in antiquity (John 6:53, Titus 3:5, etc.).

You can find an archive of many of our posts on baptismal issues here. On eucharistic issues, see here.


  1. It seems to me that a rejection of baptismal regeneration is in keeping with many new testament passages where it's made clear that behind the appearance of an outward activity there is a deeper reality that explain the "mechanics" (for lack of a better word) of holiness and/or salvation.

    For example, in Matt. 23:16-21 our Lord says people are wrong in thinking it's okay to swear by the temple, but not by the gold of the temple. Since, it's the temple that sanctifies the gold. The same thing with the gift and the altar, since it's the altar that sanctifies the gift. Then in verse 21 the Lord teaches that the temple itself technically isn't what's holy, but "Him who dwells in it."

    In that passage our Lord describes three levels-

    Level one: gift or gold

    Level two: altar or temple

    Level three: God who dwells in the temple that makes the altar and temple holy.

    Similarly, Catholics claim John 6 has to do with communion. Assuming it does have some allusion to communion (for the sake of argument), Jesus nevertheless said that flesh profits nothing, it is the Spirit who gives life. It is the Spirit who makes belief genuine and acceptable, and the Spirit who consecrates the elements. Therefore, Jesus seems to be denying the idea that the elements of communion would need to (or actually does) turn into His literal flesh. That's even though God could perform the miracle since God could, were He willing, turn water into wine or stones into bread.

    Jesus said (in Mark 7) that what REALLY defiles a person is what comes out of a person, not so much (or to as great a degree) as what comes into a persons mouth.

    In Acts 10 Peter recognizes that the reception of the Holy Spirit is what's more important than baptism. That's why he didn't get discombobulated by the fact that his listeners received the Holy Spirit before baptism. He didn't say, "Let's do this over. Let's baptize them first, and then lay our hands on them for them to receive the Holy Spirit [the second time]." During Christ's earthly ministry one would think it would have been "holier" for Jesus to baptize His disciples personally, but it was sufficient for His disciples to do it (John 4:1-2). As important as baptism is, Paul *contrasted* it with something more important, viz. the preaching of the Gospel (1 Cor. 1:17). That's why he didn't feel it was necessary to personally baptize all his converts (1 Cor. 1:14-16). Apparently, belief in the Gospel was enough for salvation. Otherwise, he would have been more fastidious about baptism.

    Paul in Col. 2:16 stated that the real meaning behind sabbath observance is Christ who is its fulfillment. Better to have the fulfillment without the shadow, then to have the shadow without the fulfillment. But he implies it's okay to have both so long as one knows which is more important and grounds the other's significance (cf. Rom. 14:5).

    James in chapter 5 of his epistle implies that it's not the oil itself that heals, but the prayer of faith that heals. But even then, who would deny that ultimately it's the Lord to whom the prayer of faith is its object who heals. Hence, three levels again, 1. anointing with oil, 2. prayer 3. the Lord who answers the prayer.

    1. Above I meant to cite Rom. 14:5-6, not just verse 5.

      5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.- Rom. 14:5-6

  2. What do you think of Tim Kauffman's six part series against Baptismal Regeneration in the early church fathers?
    I thought it was very good.

    Part 1 is here:

    Externalism over interal reality seems to me to be the essence of Roman Catholicism.

    1. I agree with Kauffman that Catholics often read false assumptions into the baptismal passages in the fathers, I agree that the laver concept is defined in different ways in different contexts, I agree that the fathers sometimes made comments that are inconsistent with a Catholic understanding of baptismal regeneration, and I agree that the fathers sometimes supported points that have been made by opponents of baptismal regeneration. But Kauffman leaves too many of the passages cited in support of the Catholic view unexplained, and the explanations he offers for other passages are often unconvincing. His dismissal of so many of Tertullian's comments as hyperbolic, for example, is deeply problematic. It's been years since I last read all the way through Tertullian's treatise on baptism, but, from what I remember of it, Kauffman's interpretation seems highly unlikely and a poor explanation of what Tertullian was objecting to in the positions of his opponents. Kauffman's criticism of Cyprian for inconsistency has more merit than his attempt to make other fathers seem consistently opposed to baptismal regeneration.

      If you read my material linked above, you'll see that I argue for more diversity in the baptismal views of the fathers. I think they were often unclear and/or inconsistent on the subject, much as people today are often unclear and/or inconsistent on issues like the role of baptism in justification and the role of works in general.

      Though I disagree with the primary argument of Kauffman's series, he makes many good points along the way. Rather than demonstrating that most of the early fathers opposed baptismal regeneration, what he does is demonstrate how unclear and/or inconsistent some of the fathers were, how much they struggled with the issues involved, and how untenable it is to reconcile baptismal regeneration with the totality of the evidence. When addressing baptism in the patristic era, I would start with the patristic sources who offer clearer and more consistent evidence against baptismal regeneration, like the ones I discuss in my material linked above. What Kauffman discusses is helpful, but less significant.

  3. Thanks Jason, that was a helpful and balanced analysis.