20 because they formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. 21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Pet 3:20-21, ESV).
1 Pet 3:21 is a favorite prooftext for sacramentalism. Let's consider the various permutations of this issue:
1. For the record, I think the NT teaches the rite of water baptism. I'm not opposed to that.
2. Sacramentalists fail to grasp the nature of symbolism. They suppose that if baptism was "merely symbolic," the NT would describe it differently. But symbolism operates on a representational principle, where you can substitute the sign for the significate. In symbolism, the emblem takes the place of the thing it symbolizes. Therefore, whatever is true of the significate can be said of the sign.
For instance, when the cross is used to symbolize the redemptive work of Christ, we ascribe anything and everything to the cross that's actually true of the atonement. But that isn't meant to be taken literally. We aren't saved by a piece of wood.
So the NT would use the same descriptions for baptism and communion whether or not these were "merely symbolic."
3. Water is a flexible theological metaphor in Scripture. Water can be a source of life. Water can be a source of death.
Water is a direct source of life in terms of drinking water; water is in indirect source of life in terms of crop irrigation.
Water is a direct source of death in terms of drowning, or an indirect source of death in terms of Nile crocodiles.
Water is a cleansing agent. By extension, water represents ritual purification.
Finally, it's possible that the ancients associated water with birth via amniotic fluid.
4. Let's grant the sacramentalist interpretation of 1 Pet 3:21 for the sake of argument. If so, that passage is still fraught with complications and ambiguities:
i) Does that mean baptism necessary for salvation? Can you be saved apart from baptism?
ii) Does that mean baptism sufficient for salvation? Is baptism alone all you need to be saved?
iii) What baptism saves you?
a) Does the efficacy of baptism depend on the mode of baptism (e.g. immersion, sprinkling)?
b) Does the efficacy of baptism depend on the intent of the officiant?
c) In the case of adults, does the efficacy depend on the intent of the candidate?
d) Does the efficacy of baptism depend on the orthodoxy of the officiant? Is baptism performed by a heretic valid or invalid?
e) Does the efficacy of baptism depend on words as well as the action (e.g. a Trinitarian formula)?
f) Can a layman perform baptism, or must it be a church officer?
So even if you think baptism conveys saving grace, that leaves many crucial questions unanswered.
5. Concerning baptisma:
i) BDAG offers the following definitions: plunging, dipping, washing, water-rite, baptism. 165b.
ii) That's a fairly rare word in NT usage. By my count, it's only used about 20 times.
And out of that, most occurrences refer to John's baptism. Another few denote "baptism" as a metaphor for martyrdom.
Only three or four occurrences are generally thought to denote Christian baptism (Rom 6:4; Eph 4:5; Col 2:12; 1 Pet 3:21).
That's a very thin database from which to derive belief that baptisma is a technical term for the Christian sacrament. Technical terminology can be established by stimulative definitions or stereotypical usage. But three or four occurrences hardly amounts to stereotypical usage.
iii) Moreover, the appeal to these three or four passages is circular, for unless you already know that baptisma is a technical term for the Christian sacrament, there's nothing in the context that demands that meaning, and, indeed, there are contextual factors which may militate against that meaning. We need some independent lexical evidence to establish usage.
6. There's no reason why Rom 6:4 can't be figurative. Certainly the passage contains other metaphors. Christians didn't physically die with Christ at Calvary. And they weren't physically buried with Christ. So this is vicarious language.
It seems arbitrary to insist that it refers to literal baptism, but not to literal death or literal burial. So I think it's at least as likely, if not more so, that this trades on picturesque imagery.
7. Likewise, it's unclear that Eph 4:5 refers to Christian baptism.
a) For one thing, if Paul is referring to the sacraments, why single out baptism to the exclusion of communion?
b) It might instead denote Spirit-baptism or symbolic death (e.g. martyrdom).
8. Concerning Col 2:12:
a) That may not even mention baptisma. The textual tradition is divided.
b) Even assuming that baptisma is the original reading, since Paul is using circumcision here as a theological metaphor, there's no presumption that he uses baptism literally.
Paul isn't treating baptism as the new covenant counterpart to circumcision. Rather, circumcision carries over into the new covenant as a theological metaphor ("circumcision of Christ").
Put another way, in this passage he uses "baptism" and circumcision as synonyms. But if one is figurative, why not both?
6. Which brings us to 1 Pet 3:21.
i) Unless baptisma is a technical term for the Christian sacrament of initiation, there's no presumption that that's what it means here. To translate the word as "baptism" is prejudicial.
ii) In what respect is baptism comparable to Noah's flood? Noah's family weren't saved by water, but from water. They were saved in spite of water. But those who espouse baptismal regeneration or baptismal justification hardly think we are saved despite the rite of baptism.
iii) Moreover, Noah's family never got wet. If that's analogous to baptism, then it's dry baptism. Surely, though, the sacramentalist considers contact with water to be a basic element of baptism.
Admittedly, analogies have disanalogies. But where's the parallel?
iv) What if, instead of "baptism," we render v21 as:
Washing (dipping, plunging), which corresponds to this, now saves you.
Because the generic usage doesn't specify baptism, it invites a figurative interpretation. Resurrection is the antithetical parallel to death. So baptisma may symbolize Christ rescuing us from spiritual death (by drowning) via our participation in the Resurrection.