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
(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
(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
(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).