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Notes on Baptism From Witherington and Dunn

John replied to them all, “I baptize you with water, but the one who is more powerful than me is coming. I’m not worthy to loosen the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."
-Luke 3:16 


Ben Witherington: "it is no wonder that we have been debating baptism for two thousand years now, with no sign of the debating abating.  The New Testament does not answer all our modern questions about baptism, and it especially does not answer questions about what to do with Christian children when it comes to baptism.  As Dunn said earlier, the popular notion that conversion necessarily precedes baptism and should be seen as a seal or testimony or even a confession to conversion and commitment previously made is nowhere clearly stated in the New Testament.

Unfortunately, baptism is one of those contentious issues that pushes us so that we can not and do not allow the silences of the New Testament text to rest in peace.  We fill in the gaps with our own theologies and urgencies, which has led to turning baptism into something it is not: a Christian dedication ritual, or a Christian bar mitzvah or confirmation ritual.  The result is understandable, because the church today is mainly a nurture organization which has a missionary committee or two.  If it were rather a missionary movement that also did nurture, I suspect we would read Acts and other New Testament evidence quite differently, for what we see in the New Testament reflects the missionary situation, not a settled system of church and sacraments.  Most of all, if the New Testament teaches us anything on the subject, it is that we should be prepared for surprises and divine irregularities, and we should accept that Acts tells us that sometimes water baptism comes before, sometimes with, and sometimes after the Spirit has baptized a person into Christ.  God can do it how God wants to."  (Witherington, Troubled Waters, (2010) pp. 111-2)


James Dunn: "In scholastic Protestantism the Spirit became in effect subordinate to the Bible, and the latter replaced the sacraments as the principal means of grace and inspiration.  Where Catholics fastened on to the objectivity of the sacraments, Protestantism fastened on to the objectivity of the Bible (see Brunner, Truth as Encounter, (ET 1964) 77f.).  Though the Spirit was regarded as the principal participant in the work of salvation, he was still hardly to be experienced apart from the Bible (see H. Watkins-Jones, The Holy Spirit from Arminius to Wesley (1929) 170f.; G.F. Nuttall, The Holy Spirit in Puritan Faith and Experience (1946) 23f., 31-33, B. Ramm, The Witness of the Spirit (1959) 64, and J.I. Packer, 'Fundamentalism' and the Word of God (1958) 119.) 'The Bible only is the religion of Protestants', and conversion is essentially justification by faith alone.

Like earlier 'enthusiasts' Pentecostals have reacted against both these extremes.  Against the mechanical sacramentalism of extreme Catholicism and the dead biblicist orthodoxy of extreme Protestantism they have shifted the focus of attention to the experience of the Spirit.  Our examination of the NT evidence has shown that they were wholly justified in this  That the Spirit, and particularly the gifts of the Spirit, was a fact of experience in the lives of the earliest Christians has been too obvious to require elaboration (eg., Acts 2:4; 4:31; 9:31; 10:44-46; 13:52; 19:6; Rom. 5:5; 8:1-16; 1 Cor. 12:7, 13; 2 Cor. 3:5; 5:5; Gal. 4:5; 5:16-18, 25; 1 Thess. 1:5; Titus 3:6; John 3:8; 4:14; 7:38; 16:7 - the presence of the Spirit was to be better than the presence of Jesus).  It is a sad commentary on the poverty of our own immediate experience of the Spirit when we come across language in which the NT writers refer directly to the gift of the Spirit and to their experience of it, either we automatically refer it to the sacraments and can only give it meaning when we do so (1 Cor. 6:11; 12:12; 2 Cor. 1:21; Eph. 1:13; Titus 3:5-7; John 3:5; 6:51-58, 63; 1 John 2:20, 27; 5:5-8; Heb. 6:4), or else we discount the experience described as too subjective and mystical in favour of a faith which is essentially an affirmation of biblical propositions, or else we in effect psychologize the Spirit out of  existence.

The Pentecostal attempt to restore the NT emphasis at this point is much to be praised, but it has two unfortunate aspects.  First, the Pentecostal has followed the Catholic in his separation of Spirit-Baptism, from the event of conversion-initiation (represented in water-baptism), and has made the gift of the Spirit and experience which follows after conversion.  This is quite contrary to NT teaching....

The second mistake of the Pentecostal is that he has followed the Protestant in his separation of faith from water-baptism...

If the NT is to be our rule, therefore, the rite of water-baptism may not be given the central role in conversion-initiation.  It symbolizes the spiritual cleansing which the Spirit brings and the finality of the break with the old life; it is a stimulus to faith and enables commitment to come to necessary expression; it is the rite of acceptance by local Christians or congregation as representative of the world-wide Church; but otherwise is not a channel of grace, and neither the gift of the Spirit nor any of the spiritual blessings which he brings may be inferred from or ascribed to it,  A recall to the beginnings of the Christian life in the NT is almost always a recall not to baptism, but to the gift of the Spirit, or to the spiritual transformation his coming effected.

In short, in the beginning, no Christian was unbaptized, but not all those baptized were 'ipso facto' Christians.  The NT teaching at this point may be expressed epigrammatically thus:

  Faith demands baptism as its expression;
  Baptism demands faith for its validity.
  The gift of the Spirit presupposes faith as its condition;
  Faith is shown to be genuine only by the gift of the Spirit.

...What is a Christian?  What is the distinguishing hallmark of the Christian?  Our study has given us the NT answer to this question with some precision; with remarkable consistency the answer came:  That man is a Christian who has received the gift of the Holy Spirit by committing himself to the risen Jesus as Lord, and who lives accordingly."  (Dunn, Baptism in the Holy Spirit: A Re-Examination of the New testament on the Gift of the Spirit (1977), pp. 225-229)



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