Paul's Theology
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Paul's doctrine of baptism
Taken from part of "Paul on the sacraments" by Professor Andrews D.D., originally writing in the Expositor, and quoted in P T Forsyth's book "The Church and the Sacraments" (Longmans, Green & Co., 1917.)
P T Forsyth’s book is “from the Free Church camp, but not from any recognised Free Church position ... neither memorial and Zwinglian nor High Catholic, sacramental but not sacramentarian ... the Sacraments are not emblems but symbols, and symbols not as mere channels but in the active sense that something is done as well as conveyed.”

The tendency of Free Church theologians has been to ignore or downplay the sacramental elements of St Paul’s teaching. Bruce and Holtzmann, for instance, deny that baptism was anything more than a symbol to St Paul, on the following four grounds:

(i) Paul never works out a doctrine of baptism as he does a doctrine of justification by faith. His position has to be deduced from incidental allusions and stray references: of which there are only a dozen. If baptism was fundamental to the faith, why so few references? Why, in particular, no mention in Romans 1-5 which set out his doctrine of salvation?

(ii) How could Paul have written “I thank God I baptized none of you except...” (1 Cor 1:14) if baptism was the vehicle by which divine grace was communicated to the recipient? Doesn’t the verse show that baptism is secondary?

(iii) Romans 6:3 “We who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death”, often cited as the proof of the effect of baptism, need not bear this weight. Paul had a poetic side. “It cannot be shown that baptism is more than a familiar Christian institution which the Apostle uses in transitu to state his view ... he employs it as an aid to thought, just as elsewhere he employs the veil of Moses and the allegory of Sarah and Hagar.” (Bruce)

(iv) The sacramentarian interpretation of baptism seems opposed to the whole tenor of Paul’s theology. Weinel admits the opposition: “In St Paul we have the sacramental and the purely spiritual standing side by side withut any attempt at coordination. At one time it is faith that brings the Spirit, at another baptism; sometimes faith unites with Christ, sometimes the Lord’s Supper. These two have not as yet been united under any one system. They cannot be harmonised.” But is it really possible to assume such a hopeless antinomy in the thoughts of the Apostle? Isn’t this rather an indication that Weinel has misinterpreted the sacramental in St Paul? Moreover, wouldn’t St Paul, who attacked circumcision so stoutly and entirely denied its religious value, have resisted anyone substituting another ordinance, equally external and physical, in its place? Is there any argument he used against circumcision which doesn’t also apply against baptism?

However, these four arguments can all be countered:

(i) It is not a sound canon of criticism to assume a ratio between the importance of a subject and the space devoted to it in the epistles. Baptism was not a suject of controversy, and there was no need for Paul to write at length on it.

(ii) 1 Cor 1:14-17 must be read in the light of the context of a protest against party-spirit: it may be that Paul did not undervalue the rite but that he deliberately asked others to baptize in order to save Christ’s crown for Christ alone.

(iii) Although poetry and mysticism are blended in Rom 6:1-4, it is pure assumption to state that verse 3 is poetry without any other aspect.

(iv) The fourth argument is much weightier, but Paul was not writing a modern “systematic theology”, and we should not interpret some parts of his letters in a way which altogether dismisses other parts. Also, is it clear that Paul had no underlying unity in his thought? Aren’t the three viewpoints in his writings - the juridical, the mystical and the sacramental - really all facets of the one crystal which although veiled to us was clear to Paul?

There are some statements in his writings which make it quite clear that baptism was more than just a beautiful symbol to Paul:

• 1 Cor 6:11 “... but you were washed...” which immediately calls to mind Acts 22:16 “Arise and be baptized and wash away your sins.” There is a definite link here. Paul’s point loses all its force if paraphrased as “you were baptized as a symbol of your conversion”.

• There is that remarkable phrase in 1 Cor 15:29 “those who are baptized for the dead”, which excells in ingenious interpretations to evade its clear sense. The only origin for such a custom (whether approved or not by the apostle) must be that baptism conveyed some spiritual endowment which could not be conveyed any other way, and which those who had died without it now lacked.

• In Eph 3:1-7, “One Lord, one faith, one baptism...” - why is baptism assigned a place in this list, but the eucharist and the apostolate are omitted? If baptism is a mere symbol, it wouldn’t be included.

• Eph 5:26 “Christ loved the Church ... cleansing it by the washing of water ...”. This definite assertion that baptism does something is backed up by Titus 3:5. It is very hard to resist the impression of something very like baptismal regeneration in Paul (although, of course, there is no proof that baptism was administered to infants).

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