Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Baptism (various interconnected thoughts)

I've been thinking about Baptism on and off for a while now. What follows is me 'thinking out loud' rather than making a case for some point or other. But please do comment anyway.

We tend not to think of it in these terms, but baptism is one of the most divisive issues in the church today. Evangelical Baptists and Evangelical Presbyterians (for example) often work quite happily together on various projects, missions, etc. and seem to get on fine, and then the issue of baptism comes up and all of a sudden one will strongly declare to the other that they are wrong. In my life I have been part of two Baptist churches for significant periods of time. The first used to have a 'mantra' regarding Baptism that really used to annoy me: "You do it your way, we'll do it His way..." My time in the second church led me to the point of realising that I, fundamentally, am not a Baptist.

The main issue facing me now is regarding my new baby, expected in about 9 weeks. I have two kids so far, we had them both baptised as infants. But now we attend a church (Almond Vineyard) which practices believers baptism and dedicates infants. But I don't really want to treat the third any different from the first two.

Interestingly enough, my wife's sister & brother-in-law have just faced the same issue the other way around: whilst attending a baptist church they had their first baby dedicated, but they now attend a Presbyterian church. They resolved this one by having a dedication 'service' in their home with the baby's uncle (a Baptist pastor) officiating. But I'm not sure I want to have a baptism service in my home...

What is baptism anyway?

Well, its one of the very few words in the new testament that the translators (for whatever reason) have never translated. The word we use is simply an anglicised form of the word βαπτίζω (baptizō). In the original Greek, this word does not have any particular spiritual significance, it simply means to immerse. A ship that is sunk has been 'baptizō', in order to pickle a vegetable you 'baptizō' it in vinegar, and so on. (NB there is a difference between 'baptizō' and 'baptō' which is used in the NT a few times and is generally translated 'dip', the difference seems to be that something which is 'baptizō' spends longer in the fluid, or possibly that some change takes place while in the fluid, e.g. when pickling). But obviously, over the centuries between the new testament times and the time when the bible was first translated into other languages, the secular Greek word 'baptizō' had become associated completely with the Christian ritual involving water, so no translation was ever required.

The problem with that is that we gain little understanding of what people thought of baptism in the early days of Christianity. Was it sacramental, essential, special, or simply a normal event?

John the baptizō, who I often think of as the last of the old testament prophets, had a clear message of repent and be baptised - which he did in the river. Apparently (thanks to an old sermon from Liquid Church) there was an old Jewish ritual of public immersion which people would do as part of their conversion to Judaism, but John's baptism was the first instance of someone baptising people, before you would immerse yourself. John's baptism therefore implies a bit of submission to someone or something which had been absent up until then. John's baptism was a baptism of repentance, a symbolic act to mark a change of heart. While there is no record of anyone being baptised multiple times, there is also no teaching which says that this was a once-for-all act. But it is clearly a symbol, not an act essential to salvation.

By the time of the Acts of the Apostles, it is clear that baptism had become a Christian symbol. On believing in (receiving) Jesus, people were baptised as a sign of their new start. But not just individuals, there are several instances in Acts of one person coming to faith and having their entire household baptised (presumably including spouses, children and servants). So part of the act of a believer making a new start is to echo the words of Joshua (24v15) "As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord", and the whole household makes a new start, kids and all.

Of course, what isn't in the bible is the story of someone who was baptised many years before presenting their newborn infant for baptism. Maybe baptism of infants is only 'OK' if it is done at the same time as baptism of the parent(s)?

There are some early Christian writings which give instructions on how to do baptism: "Concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water [i.e. running water, a river]. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit." Interestingly, as far as historians can tell (primarily on the basis of early Christian art), the baptised person generally stood in the water and had a vessel of water poured over them, rather than being dunked into the water as is favoured by most Baptist churches today. The early christian writings seem to endorse the 'three sprinkles' method frequently used when baptising infants, although apparently using a river is still preferable.

What is certain is that from a hundred years or so after the time of Christ until the 16th century, infant baptism was practiced throughout the entire church. Only at the time of the reformation was the practice questioned and then rejected by a subset of the reformers. Almost all of the 1st and 2nd century Christian writers mention infant baptism as being simply the way things were done. This wasn't an evolved ritual of the Church in the Middle Ages which had little connection to the way the early church behaved, this is clearly the way the early church behaved.

And of course, beyond that, there are plenty of theological arguments for infant baptism.

But what to do with our new baby? I still don't know. I'm in favour of infant baptism, but there are practicalities...

One final thought. The great commission in Matthew 28 reads thus: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” The text probably does mean 'dunk them in water in the name of...' but when I read those words the other day I noticed that water is not mentioned and saw an alternative reading of those words, could it mean 'immerse the disciples in the name of...'? In other words is it Jesus himself that we are to be immersed in? Do we need to be up to our eyeballs in his Spirit and totally found in him... or am I taking it too far?

Thanks for reading this far. What do you think?

Monday, February 25, 2008

The death of Samson and the omniscient narrator...

Sorry for the ridiculously long title for this posting, but something struck me when I was thinking about the story of Samson the other day. This is how the book of Judges records the death of Samson:
Judges 16v25-30
While they were in high spirits, they shouted, "Bring out Samson to entertain us." So they called Samson out of the prison, and he performed for them. When they stood him among the pillars, Samson said to the servant who held his hand, "Put me where I can feel the pillars that support the temple, so that I may lean against them." Now the temple was crowded with men and women; all the rulers of the Philistines were there, and on the roof were about three thousand men and women watching Samson perform. Then Samson prayed to the LORD, "O Sovereign LORD, remember me. O God, please strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes." Then Samson reached toward the two central pillars on which the temple stood. Bracing himself against them, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other, Samson said, "Let me die with the Philistines!" Then he pushed with all his might, and down came the temple on the rulers and all the people in it. Thus he killed many more when he died than while he lived.
What I found myself wondering was how anyone knew exactly what had happened, what Samson prayed and what he said. According to the story, he destroyed the temple and everyone in it, presumably including the servant who led him to the pillars and anyone who might have heard what he said.

We have the situation of an omniscient narrator here - someone who apparently knows what happened, even though they couldn't have been there. Unless there was direct revelation from God to the author of Judges, this must be pure speculation...

Thursday, February 21, 2008

"God's laws were made to be broken"

That controversial statement above was made in the sermon I listened to on the train today (on my iPod, it wasn't broadcast on the train or anything like that...).

The sermon "Snakes on a Plain" [mp3|notes|quotes] was another from the Meeting House in Canada, preached by Bruxy Cavey, part of the 'Unbelievable' series. It was based on Numbers 21v4-9, the incident with the bronze snake.

To deal with the problem of an infestation of poisonous snakes, God commanded Moses to "Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live." - So, in essence, only a relatively short time after the 10 commandments were given, God commanded Moses to break the 2nd commandment "You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below." (Exodus 20v4)

Huh? God commanded Moses to break one of the main commandments? What's going on?

What about the others? Well, it can be seen that Jesus himself breaks the 4th and the 5th commandments at points in the Gospels (he heals folk on the sabbath, breaking the command not to work on the sabbath and he completely ignores his mother when he was teaching and folk come and say 'your mother and brothers are here').

Does that mean I can covet my neighbour's ox and commit adultery then?

Well, no. But the point is that it is not the laws and the actions they prohibit which are important, but rather the message behind the laws and how you 'internalise' it - so that your heart is changed and becomes more in tune with God's heart.... y'see?

Thought provoking stuff.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

I worry about fundamentalists

I watched a documentary on BBC 2 last Wednesday - "The End of the World Bus Tour" - part of the 'Wonderland' documentary series. The blurb said:

"The eclectic, observational documentary series continues this week with The End Of The World Bus Tour.

Most package-holiday tourists are seeking sun, sex or adventure, but the customers in Sharon Stolebarger’s charge are looking for something rather different.

Sharon is the tour rep on a special 10-day holiday for people who believe the Apocalypse is only a few years away. Her customers are off to Israel to take a last-chance look at the “valley of Armageddon” – before it’s awash with the blood of unbelievers – and to get baptised in the very waters that Jesus once walked on. They even get the chance to spend a day helping out at an Israeli military base – the highlight of the holiday for many of the tourists.

As the bus winds its way through the Holy Land, the tourists talk about their vision of Doomsday and reveal troubled pasts that seem to have led some of them to take refuge in such extreme religious beliefs. But as soon as film-maker David Clews gets to know them better, they decide they want to save his endangered soul and threaten him with an eternity of suffering."
So basically the documentary followed a group of (mostly, but not exclusively, American) Christian fundamentalists as they visited the 'holy land', not to follow in the steps of Jesus or anything like that, but to see where the final battle between God and man will take place. All these people passionately believe that they are living in the 'end times' and that Armageddon will happen sometime soon, 'within the next ten years'...

Two things struck me the most about these people.
  1. The think that the slaughter of all the 'armies of the world' will be a glorious thing. There definitely was a suggestion of relish in the voices of those who spoke of it. They don't want to save all the lost before the end comes, they want the end to come so that the sinners can be slaughtered.
  2. They sing the same worship songs that are sung in the church I go to. We are literally singing from the same hymn sheet. I don't want in any way to be associated with these people, and yet to the outside observer we're on the same team.
How can these people hear the non-violence message of Jesus (e.g. the 'turn the other cheek' bit) and sing songs of God's love and also relish the slaughter of thousands. God doesn't want anyone to perish (2 Peter 3v9) so how can his alleged followers long for it? This is pure doublethink.

I really do worry about poeple like these. Are there folk like that in my church?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Itching ears...

2 Timothy 4v3-4
For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.
As I said in my past blog posting, I've been listening to a lot of sermons from The Meeting House church in Canada over the past few weeks. The majority of these are preached by Bruxy Cavey, author of the book I just finished reading, The End of Religion. An excellent book which everyone should read (but more on that in another posting, soon). I'm highly impressed with his preaching and on the way he approaches the bible, Jesus, religion and church. Its great to find a preacher who is interesting, relevant, doesn't shy away from the tricky issues (both in contemporary life and in the bible) and seems to have a real passion for Jesus, while actually agreeing with many of my doubts and questions.

The thing is, have I just found someone who preaches what my itching ears want to hear? Or have these guys got it right? How can you tell?

Sola Scriptura - Part 2

I listened to the first two sermons in this sermon series yesterday (will listen to the third on my way to work today). Its a series called "Scripture Scandals" from The Meeting House church in Canada (its part of their podcast feed, why not subscribe now if you use iTunes?).

I've listened to quite a few sermons from there over the past few weeks and the more I listen, the more I think they have the right attitude to the bible. There's more to it than I can summarise in a few lines here, so I think you really should download and listen to their sermons. They can explain it better than I can.

But a few issues raised in these sermons which are worthy of note are:
  • The Word of God is not a book, it is a person (John 1).
  • The book points to the person, but it is Jesus who has the authority, not the book.
  • You should use the book to lead you to Jesus, but use Jesus as your 'guidebook' on how to live your life.
  • Indeed, the bible is the window through which we see Jesus. When we start looking at the window for guidance, we're totally missing the point.
  • They also note that Paul overflows with superlatives when talking about Christ, but considers the Scripture as merely being 'useful'.
  • (This is a radiacal one) they assert that Scripture is 'God breathed' but that nobody ever claimed that the formation of the Canon was inspired. Thus while the bible contains scripture, that does not mean that everything we have in the bible is scripture. However, there is more than enough in the bible to show us Jesus clearly, so even if bits of it are not scripture, they're not a problem if we use the book right.
  • On the same basis, there may be scriptures which are not part of the canon. Had the bible been compliled a hundred years earlier there is a good chance that other books would have been included, while things like Revelation would not have been in there. Indeed, the Ethiopian church has a pre-Constantine Canon of books which includes some not in our new testament.
One of their main points about the New Testament is this: Jesus preached in the Aramaic language, yet all the New Testament writings are in Greek. The implication of this fact is that it is not the words which are important, but rather it is the person and the message that matter. So we should never get hung up on issues relating to the translation or meaning of individual phrases - its the big picture that we should be looking at.

But as I say, you should really download and listen to the sermons for yourself.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Friday, February 08, 2008

Sola Scriptura - Part 1

I've blogged about 2 Timothy 3v16-17 before. It says:
[16] All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, [17] so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
The thing is, who wrote these words? Can we trust them? In verse 1 of chapter 1 of that letter it states that this is from Paul. But textual criticism has cast an awful lot of doubt on that. Indeed, most biblical scholars seem to agree that 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus were not actually written by Paul, but rather were written much later by somone with a 'Pauline' background (the same is claimed for 2 Thessolonians, Ephesians and Collosians). So, on a very simple level, the letter of 2 Timothy contains at least one outright lie. It 'bears false witness'.

Now I'm not saying here that this book is not 'useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work', lots of things (even of secular origin, even from other religions) could be useful in these terms, but can it be truly 'God breathed'?

If any of the words in the Bible are not 'inspired', how do we judge which are and which aren't? How do we choose which to live our lives by?

This is the 'starter for ten', more thoughts (doubts) on this train of thought to follow.