Sunday, January 22, 2017

Born of water and the Spirit

I consider "water" in Jn 3:5 to be a metaphor for the Spirit's agency in regeneration. 

1. Ironically, the Catholic interpretation contradicts Catholic theology. If Jn 3:5 refers to water baptism, then the rite of baptism is a sine qua non of salvation. Yet at least since Trent (i.e. "baptism of desire"), Catholic theology denies that you must be baptized to be saved. Indeed, modern Catholic theology leaves the door open for the salvation of non-Christians or even atheists. 

The problem here is that the traditional Catholic interpretation predates reversals in Catholic theology that contravene the traditional interpretation. 

2. As many scholars note, John's Gospel deemphasizes the sacraments. 

3. The Catholic interpretation is anachronistic. Jesus upbraids Nicodemus for failing to understand something which he ought to be able to grasp. If, however, Jesus is alluding to the Christian rite of baptism, that's not something Nicodemus could be expected to know.

For some interpreters that's not a problem because they think the speeches and dialogues in John's Gospel are fictitious. They favor the baptismal interpretation of Jn 3:5 because they think the narrator fabricated a backstory to retroactively validate a later Christian rite. 

So the baptismal interpretation sacrifices the historicity of the account. The same problem afflicts the eucharistic interpretation of Jn 6. 

4. A recurring motif in John's Gospel is the spectacle of listeners who misunderstand Jesus because they mistake his figurative usage for literal usage. That should warn us against assuming that Jn 3:5 is literal.

5. John's Gospel makes abundant use of theological metaphors, viz. light/darkness, sheep/shepherd/sheepgate/wolf, wheat, vine, sleep, birth, bridegroom, lamb, thief. 

It would therefore be surprising if Jesus is speaking literally in Jn 3:5. In that event we'd expect a broad clue that he's speaking literally rather than figuratively. 

6. That's especially the case if, according to the baptismal interpretation, the rite of baptism is a prerequisite for salvation. For if no one can be saved apart from baptism, we'd expect Jesus or the narrator to dispel any ambiguity regarding such a momentous issue.

7. The OT uses aquatic metaphors. An oft-cited parallel is Ezk 36:25-27. Likewise, the "outpouring" of the Spirit (Isa 44:3; Ezk 39:29; Joel 2:28) is an aquatic metaphor linked to the Spirit. 

Another possibility is that Jn 3:5 evokes the water-from-the-rock motif. That would be consistent with the way in which Exodus narratives are often a subtext in John's Gospel. 

8. Furthermore, the association with OT theological metaphors would dovetail with Christ chiding Nicodemus, since he ought to be familiar with that OT background information. 

9. Following Keener, I think water=Spirit is a hendiadys, in which "Spirit" is epexegetical of "water". 

Moreover, that has a parallel in Jn 7:38-39, where the life-giving work of the Spirit is likened to a spring or stream.

10. That's my preferred interpretation. My fallback interpretation is "water" as amniotic fluid. For a defense of that interpretation, cf. Richard Bauckham, Gospel of Glory (Baker, 2015), chap. 5. 


  1. Later in the passage, Jesus repeatedly refers to faith without any mention or implication of baptism (verses 15-8). And John's gospel has many other passages along those lines, passages that refer to faith as the means of justification and never include baptism, even when you'd expect baptism to be mentioned if it was meant to be included. Similarly, other New Testament authors frequently contradict the notion of baptismal justification. Ironically, Catholics often appeal to the alleged earliest interpretations of John 3:5 to argue for their position, all the while ignoring the evidence we have for how John interpreted his own passage and how the earliest sources outside of John interpreted Jesus' interaction with Nicodemus (and other relevant evidence). There is a lot of patristic support for the Catholic view or something similar to it from the second half of the second century onward. But that's too late in a context like this one. There's a lot of Biblical and extrabiblical evidence that predates what Catholics appeal to and argues against their position. For more about the earliest interpretations of John 3:5, see here and here.

    Catholics often argue that the requirement for baptism didn't go into effect until after the cross. Not only is there no evidence for that view and much evidence against it, but it also makes too little sense of John 3 under either Catholic interpretation Steve referred to. For Catholics who think John 3 is historical, why would Jesus tell Nicodemus that baptism was required at a time when it wasn't? Or if the modern liberal Catholic view is correct, and the passage was fabricated in light of later theology, why wouldn't the later theological belief that baptism wasn't a requirement until after the cross be incorporated into the passage? If you're going to insert into Jesus' mouth some comments about justification through baptism, why not do it in a post-resurrection passage, for example? There are ways to get around the objections I'm raising here, such as by arguing that the later theological belief about when baptism became a requirement hadn't developed yet when the fourth gospel was composed, but that sort of position creates some different problems of its own. There is no easy way for Catholics to handle this passage, contrary to what they often suggest.

  2. Catholics like to connection John 6 with communion even though their theology affirms transubstantiation. In their theology the elements of bread and wine (with the tiny bit of added water) literally transforms into the body and blood of Christ. Yet, in that same chapter (John 6) Jesus says, "It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all ["profits nothing" in the NKJV and NASB]. The words [i.e. His message] that I have spoken to you are spirit and life." So, the spirit/Spirit is contrasted with flesh and is received by faith through words (i.e. the message of the Gospel).

    This Reformational interpretation is confirmed by John 6:35 where eating and drinking Christ is fulfilled by going to Him and believing in Him and His message.

    Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.- John 6:35 ESV

    The crowd was, in effect, asking Jesus either to promise to continually perform the miracle of multiplying bread which He just performed, or to teach them how they could themselves do it too (John 6:28). Then Jesus uses that as a springboard to teach people to seek that true (spiritual) bread that results in everlasting life (next verse 29).

    28 Then they said to him, "What must we do, to be doing the works of God?"29 Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent."- John 6:28-29

    That's why Jesus said what He did in the previous verse (v. 27).

    Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal."- John 6:27

    All this goes contrary to the RCC's teaching of transubstantiation which attempts to literalize and physicalize what Jesus was trying to spiritualize.

  3. Thank you for this post, Steve. One interpretation of John 3:5 that I have never understood is the one that equates the water with physical birth, meaning Jesus was saying one needs to be physically born and spiritually born. Why would Jesus say we need to be physically born? Anyway, the interpretation you present makes more sense to me.

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  5. That was very good, both Steve's article and Jason Engwer's comments.

    Why do most people see the early church as unanimous that they thought this was baptism and that it taught baptismal regeneration? ( Justin Martyr's take on that is famous) William Webster in his books has written that baptism regeneration was the one thing that the ECF's were unanimous on. (one thing about which Protestants and RC's disagree on - all other points have various interpretations in the early church.)

    This is from the article on baptismal regeneration and the early church fathers at the called to communion web-site, - article by Bryan Cross:

    Next, is the well known figure of St. Justin Martyr (c. 100-165). Here are some selections from his First Apology:

    “I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ; lest, if we omit this, we seem to be unfair in the explanation we are making. As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. They then are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. . . . The reason for this we have received from the Apostles.” (Chapter 61)

    And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. (Chapter 66)

    Notice that Justin Martyr, writing about fifty years after the death of the Apostle John, claims that they received from the Apostles the doctrine that through baptism they receive “remission of sins that are past” [i.e. prior to baptism], and through baptism they are “regenerated” in the same manner that all Christians were regenerated (i.e. by baptism).

    Timothy Kauffman has written a response to a lot of Cross' article. (a whole series of articles)

    See part 2 on how he deals with Justin Martyr. Any thoughts on that, if you have time?

  6. Steve is it true you're theologically a paedobaptist? Were you ever a credobaptist?

  7. I just noticed a lot of other threads in Jason's links that I had not seen before ( or I don't remember them) - wow; that is a lot over at called to communion on baptism and justification and also some of Jason's older articles here.

    I have a lot to catch up on reading some of that.

    Sorry if my question(s) seem to have been something you already dealt with in those old articles and comment boxes.

    1. Ken,

      The thread you referred to at Called To Communion has a lot of material on baptism. I discussed the subject with Cross and some other Catholics who were posting there at the time. However, I stopped following the thread after a while, even though I kept getting email notifications about more people posting there. I don't know what happened to the discussion beyond the time just after my last post. Regardless, I did write a lot there about baptism in the New Testament and extrabiblical sources.

      William Webster's comments that you cited are problematic, for reasons I've explained above and elsewhere. There's no reasonable way to deny that some of the earliest patristic sources discuss justification in a way that seems to exclude baptism, and there's no denying that Tertullian's treatise on baptism refers to individuals in his day who rejected baptismal justification. The patristic support for baptismal justification is significant, but is outweighed by the evidence against it in scripture, Josephus, and some patristic sources.

  8. I believe a simple euphemism used by Christ has been overly complicated that the passage may be more flattering to a certain preferred theological end.

    Jesus says that unless one is born again, he cannot see the KoH.

    Nic. replies questioning how one can re-entry the womb of his mother.

    Jesus simply used the construct of his question to affirm, with a euphemism, yes, we are born of water - the water breaking most common in signifying human birth but now it must be of Spirit.

    It may be reaffirming the obvious and appear redundant and might be so without the contrast but that is precisly the point because Jesus set the context of being born twice, hence, references to both.

    Finally and very problematic is the conclusion this forced which is that one must be baptized to be saved. Christ is quite clear, unless both occur, one cannot see the KoH. Thus, there goes faith minus water.

    1. I don't take a dogmatic stand on any interpretation, but I've leaned toward that position for the same reasons. The next verse (v. 6) supports that interpretation.

      That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.- John 3:6

      Jesus seems to explain what he meant in verse 5 in verse 6. Namely, just as there is a fleshly birth that has has an anticipatory sign that involves water before the actual birth (while the child is still in the womb), SOOO there is a Spirit baptism and/or regeneration that happens in this world before a person enters the fully realized Kingdom of God at the eschaton. Being in this Age and regenerated is analogized to having the water break during pregnancy (to indicate a birth is about to happen) yet the infant is still in the womb.

      So both the context before and after verse 5 seem to support this view.

      This is consistent with Steve's good point that this Gospel de-emphasizes the sacraments. It also emphasizes genuine faith as being sufficient for salvation. In Pauline terms, justification and entrance into the rest of the process of salvation including sanctification and glorification.

    2. The "water has to break" during pregnancy before an infant will enter this world. So, Spirit regeneration must take place in this Age if someone will enter the Kingdom of God as an accepted citizen.

      Verse 8 tells us that this regeneration ultimately happens according to the Sovereign move of the Holy Spirit.

      The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."- John 3:8

      BTW, if "born of water" in verse 5 refers to the sacrament of water baptism (which I doubt), then it would seem to undermine the universal practice of baptizing the infants of believers on the basis of the Catholic understanding of baptismal regeneration. Regeneration a sovereign prerogative of the Spirit and so man can't do it or presume to assist in it via Catholic infant baptism. Though, this doesn't touch arguments for infant baptism based on Covenant theology. BTW, i'm a credobaptism.

    3. Finally, I think Jesus uses "born of the Spirit" in two senses. 1. Entering the eschaton as a citizen of the Kingdom of God in the future. 2. Regeneration in this present age. Figures of speech are flexible in that way.

    4. In the last post I was specifically addressing the error that Armstrongites (and possibly others) make in thinking we are begotten in this age, but only "born again" at the resurrection. Both the Gospel of John and the First letter of John teach we're "born again" in this Age and that NOW we are children of God (1 John 3:2; 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1,4).