The Baptism Ritual: Symbolism and Efficacy
This is the last in a series of daily notes on baptism, commemorating the dates of Jan 6 and 13 and the Baptism of Jesus. One of the most pressing questions for believers in recent times, regarding baptism, has to do with the efficacy of the ritual. As we saw in the previous notes on Paul’s treatment of baptism in his letters, baptism represented the new life believers have and experience in Christ. However, the question is: does baptism symbolize a situation which already exists independently, or does the ritual in some way confer or transmit this new life to the believer?
In technical theological language, this latter idea is referred to as the “operative power” (virtus operativa) of the ritual itself, whereby the ritual (in this case, baptism) serves as a “means of grace” which functions ex opere operato (i.e., by the [proper] performance of the ritual). Christians with a more sacramental orientation tend hold this view, or belief, regarding baptism—that it serves as a vehicle whereby God transmits the saving power of Christ and the Spirit to the believer. By contrast, spiritualist Christians—that is, those who emphasize the inward spiritual aspect of religion over and against the outward form—would utterly reject such a sacramental approach. Many Protestants share this tendency, treating baptism as a symbol of the new life we already possess through trust in Jesus and the presence of the Spirit.
When we turn to the writings of the early Christians, what they say about baptism (and the Lord’s Supper) is ambiguous in this regard. For the most part, the baptism ritual is symbolic, but at times they seem to indicate that the ritual itself is efficacious. The evidence in the New Testament is, in my view, rather less ambiguous, but direct reference to baptism (especially outside of the Gospels and Acts) is scarce enough to make any conclusions on the matter tentative and uncertain. In fact, there is only one passage which addresses the efficacy of baptism directly—1 Peter 3:18-22; it also happens to be the only direct reference to baptism outside of the Pauline letters.
1 Peter 3:18-22
Verses 18-22 form the conclusion of an instructional section of the letter (3:13-22), exhorting believers to live in a faithful and upright manner, even in the face of suffering and persecution. In so doing, believers will be following the example of Jesus himself (v. 18), whose suffering culminated in his death and resurrection. In previous notes, we saw how Paul interpreted the baptism ritual in terms of our participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus; and here the author (Peter) seems to have something of the same idea in mind. Part of Jesus’ death (and burial) is said to have involved his proclaiming “to the spirits in (the prison) guard”, i.e., in the realm of death and the dead. This enigmatic tradition has been much discussed; I will not address it here except to say that it relates in some way to the early Christian idea of salvation, of the work of Jesus delivering and freeing humankind (those who respond in trust to him) from the power of sin and death.
As a prototype for these disbelieving “spirits”, the author draws upon the ancient tradition reflected in Gen 6:1-4ff, of the situation on earth at the time of Noah and the great Flood. The widespread wickedness of that time is paralleled with the author’s own time—seen as the period just before the end (4:7)—with the Flood serving as a type for the imminent coming Judgment (cp. Matt 24:37-38 par; 2 Pet 2:5). The people bound by wickedness in the current end-time are no less “dead” than those to whom Jesus preached (in the realm of death); by proclaiming the Gospel to them, they may yet be saved before the coming Judgment (4:1-6). Believers, too, were dead, and have died to sin, only to come alive again in new life through the Spirit (4:6).
This is the context for the reference to baptism in 3:21, couched as it is within the image of the great Flood. The common motif is that of being submerged in water, which explains how the Flood can serve as a parallel to baptism:
“…in (the) days of Noah, (with the) box [i.e. ark] being put down [i.e. built] in preparation, (and) into which a few—that is, eight souls—were saved through water, which also (is) a pattern opposite [i.e. facing] us now—(the) dunking [ba/ptisma] (that) saves—not (as) a putting away of (the) dirt of (the) flesh, but (the answer) of a good sunei/dhsi$ unto God (in response to) what is asked, through the standing up (out of the dead) [i.e. resurrection] of Yeshua (the) Anointed” (vv. 20-21)
The syntax here is complex and difficult, as indicated by the literal (glossed) translation above. The number of parenthetical English words I have used shows how poorly the Greek syntax (and much of the vocabulary) has a corresponding equivalent in English. The portion in bold above is especially important, since it is a direct statement—one may say, the only such statement in the New Testament—regarding what the ritual of baptism actually accomplishes for the believer. It is framed as a contrast, with the negative clause given first:
“not (as) a putting away of (the) dirt of (the) flesh”
ou) sarko\$ a)po/qesi$ r(u/pou
In other words, the water of baptism does not (concretely) wash away the sinfulness (or “dirt, filth”) of the flesh. This is in spite of the longstanding idea of baptism as symbolizing a cleansing from sin, going back to the original Johannine dunkings (Mark 1:5 par; cf. Acts 22:16; 1 Cor 6:11). In more conventional religious language, we may paraphrase 1 Peter here as saying that the ritual of baptism itself does not effect the forgiveness and cleansing of a person from sin. What, then, does baptism accomplish? The author indicates this in the positive statement that follows:
“but (the answer) of a good sunei/dhsi$ unto God (in response to) what is asked”
a)lla\ suneidh/sew$ a)gaqh=$ e)perw/thma ei)$ qeo/n
The Greek is extremely difficult to render into English, as can be seen by the considerable variety in translations. For ease of analysis, it is useful to break down this awkward phrase into two components:
- suneidh/sew$ a)gaqh=$. The noun sunei/dhsi$ (syneíd¢sis), which I leave untranslated above, derives from the verb sunei/dw (syneídœ), “see (things) together”, i.e. “see completely”. It refers to a (correct) perception and awareness of how things are, sometimes rendered in English as “consciousness”, or, when emphasizing the moral/ethical aspect of perception, “conscience”. The modifying adjective a)gaqo/$ (“good”), means that one’s awareness and perception is good, or (functions) for the good.
- e)perw/thma ei)$ qeo/n. The noun e)perw/thma (eperœ¡t¢ma) stems from the verb e)perwta/w (eperœtáœ), “ask/inquire about”. The noun occurs only here in the New Testament, and only once in the Greek OT (Dan 4:14 Theodotion). However, the evidence from the papyri, for both the noun and verb, shows that it was used in a technical sense, of formal questions and answers made over a contract, etc. In such a setting, the noun can refer to an answer given to a question, in the sense of a confirmation or guarantee (some translations here use “pledge”). This answer is given “unto God” (ei)$ qeo/n), and two specific settings could be in mind: (1) the believer’s response (or ‘pledge’) at the time of baptism, i.e. during the ritual, or (2) in the scene of the Judgment, when the believer stands before God to give answer. Given the strong eschatological context of chaps. 3-4, I am inclined to favor option 2, but it is hard to be certain.
Putting these elements together gives us 1 Peter’s answer as to what the ritual of baptism truly accomplishes. I would perhaps summarize it this way:
By undergoing the baptism ritual, which certainly entailed a public confession of one’s trust in Jesus, such a person demonstrates his/her awareness of how things stand between the believer and God, “for the good” (a)gaqo/$). This perception, confirmed through the ritual, means that the believer will be able to stand before God at the Judgment and give an answer, without fear or doubt. But the believer’s response at baptism (i.e. the confession of faith, etc), also functions as a pledge to God, to remain faithful and live in a holy manner befitting the new life one has in Christ. It is in this sense that a person is saved now, in the present, with the truth of salvation realized even prior to actual moment of the Judgment. The dunking “saves” a person in two respects: (1) as symbol of salvation, following the parallel of the ark, and (2) as sign of the believer’s awareness of what has been achieved through the death and resurrection of Jesus (vv. 21b-22), with confidence/certainty that we can stand before God at the Judgment.