Theology Thursday - John Smyth on Baptism

On “Theology Thursday,” we feature short excerpts on various areas of systematic theology, from a wide variety of colorful characters. Some are orthodox, but decidedly outside the Baptist orbit. Others are completely heretical. Regardless of heresy or orthodoxy, we hope these short readings are a stimulus for personal reflection, a challenge to theological complacency, and an impetus for apologetic zeal “to encourage you to contend earnestly for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints,” (Jude 3).

John Smyth on Believer’s Baptism

“[B]aptism is the external sign of the remission of sins, of dying and of being alive, and therefore does not belong to infants.”1

“The Holy Baptism is given unto these in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, which hear, believe, and with penitent heart receive the doctrines of the Holy Gospel. For such hath the Lord Jesus commanded to be baptized, and no unspeaking children.”

“The whole dealing in the outward visible baptism of water, setteth before the eyes, witnesseth and signifieth, the Lord Jesus doth inwardly baptize the repentant, faithful man, in the laver of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Ghost, washing the soul from all pollution and sin, by the virtue and merit of his bloodshed; and by the power and working of the Holy Ghost, the true, heavenly, spiritual, living Water, cleanseth the inward evil of the soul, and maketh it heavenly, spiritual, and living, in true righteousness or goodness. Therefore, the baptism of water leadeth us to Christ, to his holy office in glory and majesty; and admonisheth us not to hang only upon the outward, but with holy prayer to mount upward, and to beg of Christ the good thing signified.”2

John Smyth on Infant Baptism

“Now concerning this point of baptizing infants we do profess before the Lord and before all men in sincerity and truth that it seemeth unto us the most unreasonable heresy of all Antichristianity: for considering what baptism is, an infant is no more capable of baptism than is any unreasonable or insensible creature: for baptism is not washing with water: but it is the baptism of the Spirit, the confession of the mouth, and the washing with water …

Now that an infant cannot be baptized with the Spirit is plain, 1 Pet 3:21, where the Apostle saith that the baptism of the Spirit is the question of a good conscience into God, and Heb 10:22, where the baptism which is inward is called the sprinkling of the heart from an evil conscience: seeing therefore infants neither have any evil conscience, not the question of a good conscience, not the purging of the heart, for all these are proper to actual sinners: hence it followeth that infant’s baptism is folly and nothing.”3

Notes

1 “Short Confession of Faith in XX Short Articles by John Smyth,” Article 14, in Baptist Confessions of Faith, revised ed. William L. Lumpkin, ed. (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1969), 101.  

2 “The Short Confession,” in Baptist Life and Thought: 1600 – 1980, ed. William H. Brackney (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1983), 36.  

3 John Smyth, “The Character of the Beast,” in A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage, ed. H. Leon McBeth (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1990), 20.  

8464 reads

There are 44 Comments

Dan Miller's picture

TylerR wrote:

It is also clear that Smyth viewed 1 Pet 3:21 as speaking of Spirit baptism, which fits with his conception of the ordinance as a symbol of regeneration. 

As I think on it now, I realize I never considered that 1 Pet 3:21 could be referring to Spirit baptism (i.e. regeneration). It's an interesting thought. I've spent a good part of the last few evenings translating 1 Pet 3:21, and if you see the "baptism" as Spirit baptism, this would solve the issue of how to classify the present tense-form of the verb "is saving." It could then easily be a durative present ("has saved") at that point. No tap-dancing necessary. 

Thoughts? 

I think the phrase "not the putting away of the filth of the flesh" makes it clear that it is water baptism. Thus, it is that Peter is referring to two aspects of water baptism:

1. The way it washes dirt from the body (this part does not save)

2. The way it is "the answer of a good conscience toward God" (this part does 'save' in that it is the proscribed and understood response of a hear seeking salvation) 

Often, a sign can become conflated with the thing it signifies. When a sinner prays a sinners prayer, does he save himself with that prayer? Of course not. The faith that caused him to agree he's a sinner and reach out to God in prayer-that faith saves him. In that way one could say, "Does the sinners prayer save? Yes - not the speaking of special words, but as the answer of a good heart toward God."

TylerR's picture

Editor

It's definitely something to ponder. I haven't taken a good look at it. A few random thoughts:

  • Jesus' purpose is to explain that the Spirit will replace Him as their Comforter, Helper and Advocate. 
  • The entire emphasis seems to be on union and relationship. He is leaving, but Jesus will ask the Father, who will send another Comforter, who will be with them forever.
  • This Comforter is theirs alone; He is only with the Father's children. The world knows nothing about Him.
  • If we can agree that the basic sense of the passage is union, not indwelling, then I think the basic objection to OT indwelling falls apart for Jn 14:17. The passage isn't about indwelling at all. It's about union and relationship, the replacement of one Comforter for another. In fact, Jesus and the Father will come fully in the Person of the Spirit (cf. Jn 14:18, 14:23) to commune with the saints.
  • In brief, I see the promise of the Spirit in Jn 14:17 as a promise of God's corporate union with His elect people, in the Persons of the Father, Son and Spirit. 
  • Haven't done too much study on this aspect of the passage, but off the cuff, I'm comfy with that for now. 

Regarding Spirit baptism, I pulled Chafer's systematic down from its shelf, and will be reading about his explanation of Spirit baptism over the next few days. Maybe I'll finally "get it," after all these years.

Chafer starts his discussion by declaring that Satan is behind the confusion over Spirit baptism. Chafer was certainly not a man to tap-dance. "Go big or go home," and all that. Look forward to reading what he had to say. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

TylerR's picture

Editor

Dan,

Here is the problem I see:

  • the subject nominative is the immersion
  • the subject is performing the action of the verb "saving"
  • the direct object is the recipients ("you"). The TR/BYZ reads "us."
  • the verb is a present tense form ("is saving"), so you have to decide how, precisely, baptism "is saving" people who are already Christians. 

This is one of the passages Lutherans, for example, cite when they point to baptism as a means of grace. They do it, in part, because of the verse says that baptism is saving Christians. Baptists usually do something else with the verb to get around it:

  • they make it a present of existing results ("has saved").
  • they make it a descriptive present ("is saving"), but hasten to toss in an "already/not yet" aspect to our salvation (which isn't necessarily incorrect).
  • they then have to explain how, exactly, baptism does anything. Baptists aren't sacrementalists! 

There are good answers to all these questions. Hiebert's commentary, for example, is really good on this passage. But, it occurred to me as I read what Smyth wrote - why couldn't this be speaking of regeneration? I know it isn't the "normal" interpretation, but why couldn't it be? Chafer and Unger thought it was. I'm not necessarily sold, but it is intriguing. This would solve the difficulty of explaining how baptism saves you! 

What was fascinating to me was that John Smyth, a man whom proponents of the "English Separatist" view of Baptist origins call "the first Baptist," viewed 1 Pet 3:21 as referring to regeneration, and he viewed baptism as symbolic of regeneration, not Jesus' death, burial and resurrection. Interesting . . .

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Dan Miller's picture

TylerR wrote:

Dan,

Here is the problem I see:

  • the subject nominative is the immersion
  • the subject is performing the action of the verb "saving"
  • the direct object is the recipients ("you"). The TR/BYZ reads "us."
  • the verb is a present tense form ("is saving"), so you have to decide how, precisely, baptism "is saving" people who are already Christians. 

This is one of the passages Lutherans, for example, cite...

I know the Lutheran part. I grew up in a Lutheran church. 

I don't see the problem with the grammar above. 

Present tense - It is easy to think of Baptism as doing (present tense) what is does in the church even though in the life of a maturing Christian, it did what it did*. Probably somewhere in the world today, baptism is doing whatever it does. 

* In another sense, I do believe that it continues to do something in our lives now. The memory I have that I committed my old man to death is a reminder that I should live for God (Romans 6). 

TylerR's picture

Editor

You're right about that explanation of baptism. It does make sense. I'm just saying Peter could be talking about regeneration by the Spirit, instead. Is there any exegetical reason why this isn't likely? 

Regarding the Lutheran reference, I was at a used bookstore today and was browsing through Luther's Short Catechism, specifically the section on baptism. Very, very different. Very interesting!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Dan Miller's picture

TylerR wrote:
You're right about that explanation of baptism. It does make sense. I'm just saying Peter could be talking about regeneration by the Spirit, instead. Is there any exegetical reason why this isn't likely?

To me it seems obvious that Peter's follow-up of "not the wetness part" means that water was his topic.

TylerR wrote:
Regarding the Lutheran reference, I was at a used bookstore today and was browsing through some Luther's Short Catechism, specifically the section on baptism. Very, very different. Very interesting!

TylerR's picture

Editor

Why do you assume it's the ordinance, though? All Peter is saying in the first clause is that baptism does not correspond to the analogy with Noah in a physical way.

  • The correspondence is not in the sense of an external act with external effects.
  • Instead, the correspondence is in the sense of the fact that baptism is an appeal of a good conscience towards God. How do you issue an appeal which consists of a good conscience concerning God? You have to born again and regenerated. 

If that is the case, then why do we have to see Peter as referring to the ordinance of baptism, rather than the metaphor of spiritual regeneration?

For we too were once foolish, disobedient, misled, enslaved to various passions and desires, spending our lives in evil and envy, hateful and hating one another. But "when the kindness of God our Savior and his love for mankind appeared, he saved us not by works of righteousness that we have done but on the basis of his mercy, through the washing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us in full measure through Jesus Christ our Savior. And so, since we have been justified by his grace, we become heirs with the confident expectation of eternal life." (Titus 3:3-7). 

It seems to me that the "ordinance of baptism" view goes one step further back from the text, like this:

  1. Only a regenerated person could issue an appeal consisting of a good conscience concerning God
  2. Peter says this baptism (whatever it is) actually saves Christians. Baptism is the subject, the verb is active, the direct object are Christians. Therefore, whatever this baptism is, in and of itself . . . it saves Christians.
  3. The analogy had to do with Noah and his family being saved from the world by water
  4. Christians are saved from this evil world by the washing of regeneration
  5. But, nevertheless, Peter must be referring to an ordinance which pictures the very thing I don't think the text is actually saying

It seems easier to see 1 Peter 3:21 as referring to regeneration. Like Smythe did. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Dan Miller's picture

Why do you assume it's the ordinance, though?

Because he says "baptism" and because he states that it involves H2O.

How do you issue an appeal which consists of a good conscience concerning God? You have to born again and regenerated.

I see ἐπερώτημα as "answer."  Certainly the word means question or interrogation. ATRobertson says, "In ancient Greek it never means answer, but only inquiry. The inscriptions of the age of the Antonines use it of the Senate's approval after inquiry. That may be the sense here..."

In English you can say, "Take an exam" or "Write an exam" with the same meaning. The student sits down to write his exam. (In another sense the teacher wrote it.)

I think the KJV rendering is best. Peter says to someone, "Do you believe in Jesus? Do you want to respond to Him by undergoing baptism?" The right answer is YES and if you have a good conscience, the response is to go in the water.

So baptism is the good conscience's response. 

TylerR's picture

Editor

Dan, the ordinance doesn't seem to correspond as well to the analogy to Noah as regeneration does:

  • Noah and his family were saved from the wicked world of their day through (δι᾽) water. Water was the agency, the vehicle, through which they were saved.
  • What is the agency which saves today, that Peter is drawing an analogy to for his readers? It's a baptism that "is saving you." That baptism is not like an external rite, where it washes filth from the body. In this respect, Peter may simply be saying he's leaving the physical realm here (not physical water like Noah and his family encountered). Whatever this baptism which "saves you" is, it's not an external rite at all.
  • The conjunction ἀλλὰ draws the sharp contrast. This baptism does not correspond to the Noah analogy in an external, physical way - it corresponds in an inward way. How is it an inward correspondence? It corresponds because it is an appeal of a good conscience towards God. The Spirit saves, washes away our sins, and is poured out upon God's children. By the agency of the Spirit, God draws His own to Himself and washes them clean. Now, with this new and good moral consciousness, man makes a penitent appeal to God for grace and mercy.  

Here is the question:

  • What kind of baptism is analogous to the floodwaters which saved Noah and his family from this wicked world?
  • What kind of baptism actively saves sinners?
  • What kind of baptism is not an external rite?
  • What kind of baptism corresponds to the Noah analogy, in that it is an appeal of a good conscience towards God?

It seems to me both our solutions can answer these questions, but I think regeneration answers them better. Your weakness is the saving efficacy of the baptism, and the weak correspondence with the Noah analogy. Mine is the appeal of the good conscience. John Smythe saw this as regeneration, too:

Now that an infant cannot be baptized with the Spirit is plain, 1 Pet 3:21, where the Apostle saith that the baptism of the Spirit is the question of a good conscience into God

Regardless, it's a tough passage!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Dan Miller's picture

That baptism is not like an external rite, where it washes filth from the body....What kind of baptism is not an external rite?

This is the watershed for you and me. When Peter says, "not the removal of the filth of the flesh," you take that to mean, "I'm not talking about baptism that removes dirt." I take it to mean, "Not the aspect of [baptism] that removes dirt." 

Am I understanding you?

TylerR's picture

Editor

First, I have to try and understand myself. I translated 1 Pet 3:21 and made my own comments on it with the understanding he was referring to the ordinance. Let me try to be clear:

  • I think he was arguing against the idea of baptismal regeneration with the phrase "not the removal of filth from the body." 
  • That is, Peter says the correspondence to Noah has nothing to do with an outward act which results in an inward transformation. 
  • Instead, the correspondence is to the washing of regeneration which saves Christians, which results in an appeal of a good conscience towards God. 
  • It is also interesting to note that the baptism is because of (δι) the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It could be expressing the cause of the baptism, or the agency. 

So, Peter could be saying two things about this correspondence with Noah:

  • Option #1: It isn't about the aspect of baptism which removes dirt. It's about the aspect of baptism which springs from an appeal of a good conscience towards God. It's about the ordinance, which pictures Christ's resurrection and our identification with that. 
  • Option #2: It isn't about some mystical idea that the ordinance of baptism, as an external rite, actually saves you by removing your sin. Instead, the correspondence is inward; that the baptism that saves you corresponds because it is an inward appeal of a good conscience towards God. This baptism is wrought by the Spirit, and it happens because of Christ's resurrection (i.e. His finished work can now be applied by the Spirit). 

Nobody agrees about anything in this passage:

  • Nobody agrees what the antecedent for "which" is
  • Nobody agrees what the word I translated "appeal" is
  • Nobody agrees what this "good conscience is (implied genitive subject, object, or something else)
  • Nobody agrees what the antecedent of Jesus' resurrection is (the baptism mentioned, or the appeal of a good conscience)

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Dan Miller's picture

Peter says:

The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us

And then he seems to know that some clarification is necessary:

not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God

From this, I think we can conclude that Peter knows his readers will read "baptism" as "water baptism."

Do you agree with that?

TylerR's picture

Editor

I have little time, but I'll make a few comments. I have to translate 1 Pet 3:20 before I say too much more (although you haven't really addressed your own position's weaknesses yet!):

  • Noah and his family were saved through (or by) water. The verb in 1 Pet 3:20 is passive. The action was done to them, and it resulted in their deliverance from the wicked world they lived in. I think that's important - it was passive. Doen to them. It saved them.
  • This corresponds to the baptism "which is now saving you." The baptism is the subject performing the "saving." The Christian are the direct object, receiving the action of the verb. So far, the analogy is still good. The baptism in the Noah analogy was the agency through which Noah and family were saved. The baptism (whatever it is) is also the agency through which Christians are saved. Got it.
  • The next mention is about the washing of filthy bodies. You assume Peter is referring to water baptism. I agree. But, Peter says it does not correspond in a physical way. He says, "It doesn't correspond like the act of washing a filthy body. It corresponds a different way."
  • The conjunction expresses sharp contrast. The correspondence is not physical. It is not in the outward, physical deliverance which Noah and family experienced. No, the contrast emphasizes this is an inward salvation and deliverance.
  • It corresponds because this immersion, which is the agency of salvation, is an appeal of a good conscience towards God.
  • This baptism is possible because of, by or through (dia) the resurrection of Jesus Christ

Again, the questions a valid position needs to answer are these:

  • What kind of baptism is active, and is the agency by which God saves Christians, just as Noah and his family were saved through the agency of water?
  • What kind of baptism saves, yet is not an external action done by the Christian?
  • What kind of baptism actively saves sinners, and yet corresponds to the Noah analogy in a non-physical way, as emphasized by the contrasting conjunction "alla?"
  • What kind of baptism saves sinners, is not an outward act which produces an external effect, and yet is "an appeal of a good conscience to God?"
  • What kind of baptism can actively save sinners, is not a physical rite with external effects,and is possible because of Jesus' resurrection?

Again, the regeneration view seems to answer these questions better. I have to spend time translating and working on 1 Pet 3:20, and I'll probably come back with more; or, more likely, post something about this on my own blog.

 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

TylerR's picture

Editor

For what it's worth, my Greek professor disagreed with me. It makes me nervous when he disagrees with me . . . !

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Pages

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.