Theology Thursday - The Significance of Baptism

What does baptism signify? In this excerpt,1 Alvah Hovey, former President of Newton Theological Institute (1868 – 1898), explains. Some Baptists may be intrigued by Hovey’s assertion that (among other things) baptism symbolizes purification and washing from sin.

In determining the significance of baptism, our appeal must be to the language of the New Testament on this point, and to the natural import of the rite itself; for ritual acts are, to a certain extent, self-interpreting, and there can be no reasonable doubt that, in most instances, their true meaning lies on the face of them, — that they were chosen as being a sort of universal language, readily understood by men of every age and nation.

Hence, where the natural language of the ritual act accords with the explanation of it by the sacred writers, there remains no ground for doubt; assurance becomes doubly sure. And this is true in the present case.

For, looking at the ritual act, and at the language of Scripture, we remark:

1. That it symbolizes the regeneration of the subject, as being, on the one hand, a dying to sin, and, on the other, a rising to holiness,— (See Rom. vi. 4; Col. ii. 12; together with the passages cited under ” Penalty of Sin,” (I.) (1) 2 (4), and under “Nature of Regeneration”) …

2. That it commemorates the accomplished death and resurrection of Christ (Rom. vi. 3; Col. ii. 12; Mark x. 38, 39; Luke xii. 50).

Says Dr. Dollinger:

‘St. Paul made this immersion a symbol of burial with Christ, and the emerging a sign of resurrection with him to a new life.’

And Messner remarks, with equal clearness:

‘Peculiar to Paul is the manner in which he connects the two acts of the rite of baptism, as then administered; namely, the submersion and the emersion, with the idea of fellowship with Christ in his death and resurrection, —a view which, in this definite form, belongs to him alone. While the submersion symbolizes the putting- off of the old man, the emersion from the water is an emblem of the reception of a new divine life; and, because the former is considered by him as an effect of the death of Christ, the latter is brought into connection with the resurrection of Christ.

Thus Paul connects the act of submersion with the death of Christ, and that of emersion with the resurrection of Christ,—a symbolism of the baptismal rite which has lost its significance with the disappearance of the rite as then observed.’

The same explanation of the apostle’s language may be found in the works of numerous Pedobaptist scholars; and there is no good reason whatever for doubting its correctness.

3. That it represents this regeneration as a purifying change. Acts xxii. 16; Titus iii. 5 ; Eph. v. 26 (cf. 1 Peter iii.21).

To this part of the symbolism of baptism, those persons who reject immersion attach almost exclusive importance; and they maintain that this part of the meaning symbolized is set forth as clearly by sprinkling as by immersion. But there is abundant reason to doubt whether biblical writers ever express the idea of purification by the sprinkling or pouring of mere water upon a person or object.

The only passage where this seems at first sight to be the case is Ezek. xxxvi. 25, —”Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean; from all your filthiness, and from all your idols will I cleanse you,” &c. But the words “clean water” should rather be “pure water,” meaning the “water of purification,” in which the ashes of the heifer of purification had been steeped. Num. xix. 11-22 (cf. viii.5-22).

Says Hengstenberg:

‘The sprinkling with water has likewise the shedding of blood for its foundation. It was done with such water only as had in it the ashes of the sin offering of the red heifer.” — (See Heb. ix. 13, 14.) — “It is very evident that there is an allusion in this passage to the Mosaic rites of purification; especially to the holy water, in which the ashes of the red heifer were mixed, and which served as an antidote, first to the greatest of all defilements,— contact with a corpse, —and then to defilements in general.’

But washing or bathing in water is a natural symbol of purification; and, if Baptists have not insisted on this as often as on other ideas symbolized by immersion in water, it is perhaps due in part to a reaction of feeling against the exclusive reference made to it by Pedobaptists; yet they have by no means failed to recognize this part of the meaning conveyed by the rite.

Says Dr. Chase:

‘In baptism, there is retained, in all its significancy, the idea of cleansing or purification; for the water in which we are buried is a purifying element. Thus there is a figurative washing away of sins, a putting off of the body of sinful propensities, and, as it were, a depositing of it in the grave,— from, which, in this emblem, we come forth as alive from the dead, to walk in newness of life, and at length to enter on the life everlasting.’

And this is but a sample of the language often used by Baptists.

Notes

1 Alvah Hovey, Manual of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics (Boston, MA, 1877), 320-323.

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There are 6 Comments

pvawter's picture

I've never found the argument compelling that baptism is a NT symbol of purification. Hovey uses all the typical passages in support of the idea, but none of them offer any explicit support for the idea. Titus 3 and Ephesians 5 make no mention of baptism, only of washing (and Eph. 5 expressly states that the washing is accomplished by "the word"), and 1 Peter 3 seems to imply the exact opposite, namely that baptism is not about cleansing but about a testimony of cleansing already received. The only passage that might support his position is Acts 22:16, but it is far from conclusive and in a narrative text rather than a didactic one. This idea is driven by presupposition rather than by the text of scripture.

TylerR's picture

The text:

18 For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; 19 in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, 20 who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. 21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him. 

The idea, as I understand it with 1 Pet 3:21, is that if this is believer's baptism, how does it now save you? If it is Spirit baptism, then of course it saves you. This is a very hard sentence to interpret. 

Tyler Robbins is a former Pastor. He lives with his family in Olympia, WA. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Bert Perry's picture

Regarding the notion of baptism as washing or purification, it's first of all problematic to use OT rites of sprinkling to describe NT rites of immersion, for starters.  Going further, I seem to remember being a young pup, prone to getting wet and getting out of the bathtub, and my sainted mother's response to that was "get back in there and get clean."  I am guessing that our forefathers in the faith also saw the difference, and to me that's always explained 1 Peter 3:21 pretty clearly.  The immersion is most clearly a promise of a clean conscience--in other words, a commitment of faith. Then the immersion one undergoes in the church simply serves as a symbol of that previous commitment.

Many thanks for Thursday Theology, BTW.  Always good to be challenged.

TylerR's picture

I'm at work, and don't have the Greek text handy, so I cant do a diagram, but follow through the English text:

18 For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; 19 in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, 20 who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.

There's a lot to deal with about the "spirits in prison," so I'll ignore it for now. But, we do know they didn't obey, when God's Spirit was patient in Noah's day, when the ark was being built. Inside the ark, eight people were saved by or through water.

What is Peter's point here? He appears to be drawing an analogy. They got in the ark, and were saved through the waters of the flood. Saved from what? Perhaps the evil world. But the real analogical point is that the water was the instrument which rescued Noah and his family from the wicked world that God then destroyed.

21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you,

How does baptism correspond to this analogy? The relative pronoun (rendered "this") refers back to the waters of the flood. It corresponds to the flood waters. What kind of baptism is this? You generally have two options; (1) the ordinance of baptism, (2) Spirit baptism (i.e. regeneration). Which one corresponds to floodwaters that save? This is important - Noah and his family were actually saved through the instrumentality of these floodwaters. It wasn't symbolic. It was an actual salvation and deliverance from evil.

Of the two choices (the ordinance of baptism or spirit baptism), which one actually saves and delivers you, and provides a fitting analogy for the correspondence?

not as a removal of dirt from the body

This baptism, whatever it is, is not a removal of filth from the body. It isn't a literal rite of literal washing. It's something more.  

but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience,

This baptism corresponds to the Noah story in that it's an appeal to God for a clear conscience. It could also be rendered, "an appeal of a good conscience to God." In what way does the Noah story of floodwaters which have saved you correspond to an appeal of a good conscience to God? It might correspond because, as a result of this appeal, the Spirit has washed you clean with pure water.

Some Baptists believe this is the ordinance of believer's baptism, but it is difficult to see how this picture corresponds to Noah's floodwaters (which saved and delivered them) if there is not a symbolism of purification and washing from sins.

through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,

How does this "baptism" (whatever it is) correspond to an appeal of a clear conscience to God, through Christ's resurrection? Does this connect more logically to Spirit baptism or believer's baptism? Isn't the baptism of the Spirit, and the inauguration of the New Covenant, predicated on Jesus' resurrection and ascension? Doesn't He sit in the heavens, and send the Spirit? Read on ...

22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him. 

All told, the Greek is very tricky in this passage, and a whole lot of theological freight hangs it. I took some time to translate the passage a year ago, made some preliminary exegetical notes, but I need to do some serious research and write a paper on it. I tentatively feel the Spirit baptism position makes better sense, but I am far from certain its the correct interpretation.

This is a fun passage!

Tyler Robbins is a former Pastor. He lives with his family in Olympia, WA. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Aaron Blumer's picture

It's worth noting, too, that baptism existed before John, Jesus, and the Apostles, and it had a cleansing significance built into it. Without a strong, clear removal of that concept from it in the NT, it would be reasonable to lean toward seeing it as included in the symbolism.

(This is, by the way, one reason John is initially so appalled at the idea of baptizing Jesus. He is the Lamb Who Takes Away the Sins of the World and not in need of any kind of repentance or cleansing. But Jesus' choice to do it shows that baptism can symbolize more than just cleansing.)

TylerR's picture

Hiscox, in his infamous polity book for Baptists, sees the symbolism of washing, and cites 1 Pet 3:21. See also the first London Confession (1644) and the Somerset Confession. See also, for example, Henry Weston's lecture entitled "Baptism - A Symbol" in the Madison Avenue Lectures (ca. late 1860s). I'm beginning to suspect this is a modern Baptist phenomenon to reject the purification symbolism of believer's baptism.  

Tyler Robbins is a former Pastor. He lives with his family in Olympia, WA. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

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