Tuesday, May 03, 2022

How did Nicodemus interpret John 3:5?

As I mentioned in a recent post, one of the problems with baptismal justification, such as the view of it advocated by Tertullian, is that it involves so much discontinuity. It's common to allege that baptismal justification didn't go into effect until after Jesus' resurrection, for example. So, even though Abraham is repeatedly cited as the primary example of how people are justified after the time of Jesus' resurrection (much like Jesus' appeal to Abraham prior to the resurrection), we're supposed to believe that we're now justified in a way that has less continuity with Abraham's justification, since baptism is now the normative context in which justification occurs. And even though John's gospel is structured in such a way as to highlight Jesus' pre-resurrection soteriology and associate it with how people who read John's gospel can be justified, we're supposed to think baptism has been added as a requirement since the time Jesus made those statements John highlights. (For a discussion of the relevant material in John, see the section of the post here on John's gospel, for example. And there are other relevant posts in our archives.) If baptism didn't become justificatory until after Jesus' resurrection, then there's a higher degree of discontinuity with multiple types of baptism practiced in the Christian movement prior to that time, namely the baptisms of John and Jesus discussed in John 3:22-4:2. We're told that Cornelius' justification prior to baptism in Acts 10 is an exception to the rule. But it's continuous with how people were justified prior to that time. And what occurred in Acts 10 is referred to as if it's normative in 11:17-18 and 15:7-11 (in the context of how people are justified, not some other context, like whether speaking in tongues is normative). Furthermore, other passages, like Acts 19:2 and Galatians 3:2, seem to likewise treat a scenario like that of Cornelius as normative. The "hearing with faith" of Galatians 3:2 sounds strikingly similar to Cornelius' justification as he heard the gospel proclaimed and believed what he was hearing. What's described in Galatians 3:2 sounds more like Cornelius' situation than a baptismal context. (For a response to the common suggestion that Galatians 3:27 warrants including baptism earlier in the passage, see here.) And if the Galatians were justified as Cornelius was, then Paul's appeal to Abraham and Genesis 15:6 just afterward makes more sense accordingly. And so on. I'm just citing several examples here among others that could be discussed. Justification through faith alone, apart from baptism, involves more continuity and makes more sense of the evidence as a whole.

What I want to focus on in this post, though, is a particular aspect of that evidence. John 3:5 is often cited in support of baptismal justification. And it's often noted, in response, that Jesus speaks of how people are (not will be) born again and criticizes Nicodemus for not understanding what he (Jesus) was referring to in the passage, which makes more sense if the reference to water was about an Old Testament theme rather than about baptism and an aspect of baptism that wouldn't go into effect until after the resurrection of Jesus. But notice, also, that the timing of John 3:5 provides a lot of opportunity for interpretation of Jesus' comments there, regardless of whether the interpretations were correct. (Nicodemus would have interpreted what Jesus said, and other people may have been interpreting it as well, depending on whether others were told about the conversation and/or that portion of it prior to Jesus' resurrection.) We're often told that nobody interpreted John 3:5 as anything other than a reference to baptismal justification prior to the Reformation. I've demonstrated elsewhere, such as here and here, that that claim is false as it pertains to the post-apostolic era. But notice how problematic the claim is even by the standards of the people making the claim.

If baptismal justification didn't go into effect until after Jesus' resurrection, and John 3:5 is immediately followed by references to multiple types of baptism that weren't justificatory (John 3:22-4:2), why think Nicodemus and anybody else who was interpreting John 3:5 at the time would have been interpreting it as a reference to baptismal justification? In other words, it seems that the earliest interpretation of John 3:5 was likely one that didn't involve baptismal justification, even by the standards of the people advocating the baptismal justification view of the passage.

You could get around part of the force of this argument I'm making by proposing that Nicodemus was agnostic about the meaning of the passage, that he interpreted John 3:5 as a reference to baptismal justification, but didn't expect it to go into effect until sometime in the future, or something like that. But that wouldn't change the fact that the evidence as a whole, as outlined above, suggests that it's more likely that Jesus' comments wouldn't have been taken as a reference to baptismal justification at the time. Even under a scenario in which Nicodemus (and whoever else) was agnostic about the meaning of the passage, agnosticism is significantly different than the sort of clarity advocates of baptismal justification often suggest. So, all of this is further evidence against the notion that there was universal agreement about interpreting John 3:5 as a reference to baptismal justification prior to the Reformation.

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