Growing Together in the Light

A place for Friends and others to explore Quakerism. A place where, in the Light that comes from God, we may all grow and where we may hope to find a unity that underlies our diversity of language.

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Location: Arlington, Massachusetts, United States

Raised a Friend, I am currently a member of Fresh Pond Meeting in Cambridge, Mass. I am also active in Salem Quarterly Meeting and in New England Yearly Meeting.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

What is baptism?

This is Barclay's proposition concerning baptism:

As there is one Lord and one faith, so there is "one baptism; which is not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience before God, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ." And this baptism is a pure and spiritual thing, to wit, the baptism of the spirit and fire, by which we are buried with him, that being washed and purged from our sins, we may "walk in newness of life;" of which the baptism of John was a figure, which was commanded for a time, and not to continue for ever. As to the baptism of infants, it is a mere human tradition, for which neither precept not practice is to be found in all the scripture.


Before Barclay comes to the issue of baptism, he takes on the more general question of the sacraments. He says that it has long been a human habit to seek worldly, or as he puts it, carnal worship, instead of pure spiritual worship. He mentions the Pharisees “whom Christ so frequently reproves for “making void the commandments of God by their traditions.” (Matt 15:6,9)

This complaint may at this day be no less justly made as to many bearing the name of Christians, who have introduced many things of this kind, partly borrowed from the Jews, which they more tenaciously stick to and more earnestly contend for than for the weightier points of Christianity: because that self, yet alive and ruling in them, loves their own inventions better than God's commands.
[Apology, Prop 12, Section I]


He then quarrels with using the word sacrament itself. He points out that it does not appear in scripture (Early Friends were amazingly literal, at least to modern readers, in their approach to scripture. They also refused to accept the doctrine of the Trinity because the word Trinity never appears in scripture, either.) He then makes the point that the word sacrament was borrowed from the military oaths of the Romans.

The question I had when I come to this point was, what is baptism? The early Friends were clear that it was a spiritual thing and not the outward rite, whether by immersion or sprinkling. Barclay in fact talks about how there is only one baptism, and since the Bible talks about the baptism of the Spirit and of fire, this baptism cannot be referring to the baptism of water. The baptism of John is said to be a prefigure of the baptism of the Spirit and is so ended since that which it has prefigured has come.

So if it isn't the ritual involving water, what is it? Charismatic Christians claim that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is some sort of ecstatic experience marked by speaking in tongues. But that is not what Barclay is claiming. So what do the early Friends mean by baptism?

In the proposition itself baptism is described as “not the putting away the filth of the flesh but the answer of a good conscience before God, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” It is a spiritual thing, “the baptism of the Spirit and fire, by which we are buried with him, that being washed and purged from our sins, we may walk in in newness of life.” The first part of this is a quote from 1 Peter 3:21. What is this “answer of a good conscience?” The New Revised Standard Version translates answer a appeal. The New International Version translates it as pledge. From this one could make a case that baptism then an act of repentance with a promise of reformed behavior. Or perhaps it is just the acceptance of the gift of righteousness bestowed on us by Jesus as a result of His death and resurrection. But this second view runs counter to Barclay's earlier argument in his discussion of Justification against any imputed righteousness without us actually becoming righteous. The second part of the definition implies a much more active role taken by God. It is a baptism of spirit and fire that washes us and purges us internally and spritually. In section IV of this proposition, Barclay says:

Now this answer cannot be but where the Spirit of God hath purified the soul and the fire of his judgment hath burned up the unrighteous nature; and those in whom this work is wrought may be truly said to be baptized with the baptism of Christ, i.e., "of the Spirit and of fire."
[Apology Proposition 12, Section IV]


Later on Barclay discusses how the Bible often uses the name of the Lord to mean something more than than the bare sound of the word. It also stands for the virtue and power of the thing named. Therefore, those who were baptized into the name of Christ were baptized into the virtue and power of Christ. In the words of Paul, “as many of them as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” This means that the baptism of the spirit involves entering into the virtue and power of Christ. This baptism may be a requirement for salvation. After all, how are we to be justified and perfected without taking on the virtue and power of Christ. We certainly cannot do this by ourselves. But this does not mean that it is a requirement to join a congregation. In fact Barclay notes that Paul gives thanks at one point that he has baptized only a very few people. This is from one of the greatest apostles of the early church.

This then is the one true baptism of Christ: It is the purifying and cleansing work of Christ in us turning us from sin and willfulness towards holiness and faithfulness to God. It is not a sprinkling with water or a babbling in tongues, it is the fire of God burning away the dross within us.

Blessings to all,

Will T

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