Wednesday, 26 February 2014

On Baptism in Water and the Spirit

One of the convictions about the Bible that has slowly solidified in my heart over the years is that if you cannot clearly ground a New Testament teaching in the story and/or imagery of the Old Testament then you are barking up the wrong tree and need to start again. If it isn't clearly foreshadowed in the Old Testament then, however fashionable it may be in the modern church, it is at best misguided and at worst heretical.

Now of course, my last paragraph could sound like overweening arrogance, I don't mean it to be. I don't have all the answers to complex theological question, but I do believe deeply that this is the standard to apply to any aspect of church teaching (doctrine) or church life (ecclesiology).

Take the controversial baptism of the Holy Spirit - to put it simply, conservatives say he is given fully at conversion, charismatics say he comes fully with the laying on of hands after conversion / water baptism.

So which is it?

The New Testament describes believers as, amongst other things, a royal priesthood (1Pet.2:8). In order to understand that term, we need to know how the Bible defines it, and there is very little on it in the New Testament, but plenty about it in the Old, so it is to the Old we go.

In Leviticus 8 God gives instructions to Moses as to how Aaron and his sons are to be ordained as priests in the service of God.

Lots of symbolism goes on with Aaron being set apart as high priest (see similarities with Jesus own baptism in Matt.3), but cutting a long story short, first they are all washed Lev.8:6...
Then Moses brought Aaron and his sons forward and washed them with water...
Then they are all anointed (v30) with  special oil that is strictly forbidden to be used in any other context except the ministry of the priesthood (Ex.30:22-33).  To anoint anyone else with this oil was punishable by death / banishment...
...Then Moses took some of the anointing oil and some of the blood from the altar and sprinkled them on Aaron and his garments and on his sons and their garments. So he consecrated Aaron and his garments and his sons and their garments.
Setting these men apart for service to God happens in two distinct stages (hooray for charismatic position and boo to the conservative position), but those two stages happen at the same time, (hooray for conservative position and boo to the charismatic position).

If Leviticus 8 is the starting paradigm, then I don't get why many conservatives don't lay hands on Christians after they have been baptised in water and pray for them to receive the Spirit. It feels like they publicly testify to half of the Spirit's work.

Equally, I don't understand why many charismatics seem happy after baptism in water to allow new Christians to wander around in what they would consider a spiritual wilderness for a couple of weeks (or perhaps months or even years) before suddenly announcing in a meeting that they need to be baptised in the Spirit by the laying on of hands. It seems like an unnecessary (unbiblical?) delay. Imagine Moses sending Aaron and his sons away after washing, telling them that at some point in the future, at his convenience, he will call them back again and anoint them.  Why wait? The apostles didn't. As soon as they heard of the "unfinished business," they were quick to rectify it, Acts 19:1-5. (Note to those who think about these things, I therefore think that the book of Acts is both prescriptive and descriptive.)

Now, if one were to adopt a position that feels a bit more like an echo of Leviticus 8 then, there are two obvious and opposite dangers to avoid:
  1. Clearly the whole thing could become a ritualistic "batch" process where we go through the motions and don't expect the Spirit to take hold of someone and give them a life changing experience - and besides that kind of thing can be messy and awkward especially when we want to get home and eat lunch / dinner / supper / watch TV / check social media etc!
  2. Praying for someone to receive the Spirit after they have come out of the water and when everyone's eyes are boring into them could be a terrifying prospect for some and a devastating prospect for others if the Spirit doesn't appear to come to them at that moment in the way they hoped he would. However, he is not a spell or formula and he comes and ministers as he sees fit. Whilst I see no reason why he would not want to bless the person in question, we can never assume his motives for him.
Both these pitfalls need to be handled with great wisdom and sensitivity for the sake of the whole body of Christ.

A final thought...

God has also placed this "Leviticus-8-ordination-of-the-priesthood" paradigm at the heart of our daily rhythms. Most of us, every day, before going out to work or at the very least, before going to a special occasion - like a wedding feast (Rev.19:7-8), wash ourselves with soap and shampoo etc then and anoint ourselves with deodorant, perfume/after shave etc.

This too is a (daily) echo of both our once for all salvation and our day by day dependence on the risen Christ and his Spirit - to confess our sins (1Jn.1:8-10) to hear and receive again the eternal word of  the cleansing Christ and to be clothed with his anointed power to live the Godly life (Eph. 5:18).

8 comments:

Dove of Creation said...

The rite of Confirmation, eh? Seems like a sound suggestion to me. And it makes sense of the fact that water baptism and spirit baptism are strongly associated.

Richard Walker said...

My perception is, and I may be wrong, that we could humble ourselves and learn a thing or two from the traditional denominations - Catholics / Orthodox / Anglican. That said, in those contexts I do feel that it can fall into danger 1 becoming a more of a rite to be performed than a turning point to be experienced.

Dove of Creation said...

I'm not sure I agree. It sounds like you are elevating 'experience' as the main factor in determining whether or not someone has been baptised with the Spirit. In the Bible, the determining factor is repentance and water baptism (Acts 2:38), possibly accompanied by the laying on of hands (confirmation). In his letters, the Apostle Paul often writes to Churches and simply assumes that they have all received the Spirit. That's not to deny that people often do have a strong sense of God's presence whilst undergoing baptism or the laying on of hands, but rather it's to see such experiences in their proper perspective.

This article by Glen Scrivener is along the same lines, but to do with the new birth: http://christthetruth.net/2013/10/14/new-birth-is-in-christ/
I agree with the evangelical doctrine of the new birth, but I think there is a real danger when we insist on it being an experience - instead of being a blessing received through faith in Christ (not our subjective feelings). I think the same is the case with Baptism in the Holy Spirit. God's Spirit is free, and He has freely chosen to give Himself to us through Word and Sacrament, as we respond in faith.

Richard Walker said...

Hi Chris, you may be right saying that I am elevating experience higher than I ought, but that isn't my intention, or if it is, it's not in the navel gazing way that wider culture assumes.

I want to treat people as whole human beings with emotions too. I totally agree with you, Glen and the whole of faithful Church history that Christ's work on our behalf and our participation in it is objective fact to be received in faith.

When I talk of experience, I mean along the lines of Luke 10:21 - when Jesus rejoices in the Spirit that the gospel has been revealed to the weak not the strong. Or how about Rom. 15:3 that we may be filled with joy and peace in believing through the hope of the Holy Spirit or Rom.14:17 that the Kingdom of God is righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit or 1 Peter 1:8 that we are filled with joy inexpressible and full of glory.

All these experiences point to a joy in revealed truth that a person is caught up in rather than a navel gazing experience. There are similarities between the two on a surface level, but they are at root different.

I agree we mustn't overly focus on emotions or worse, pursue the endorphins that come from these experiences, but to ignore them altogether? Don't you just end up with other problems? A bunch of people who believe the right stuff but have no guts or fire in their belly about it except when around people who agree with them? Where's the power for kingdom expansion and self sacrifice in that?

Richard Walker said...

Like I said in the original post, all this needs great wisdom and pastoral care wrapped around it.

The church has a great responsibility to disciple people through their new experiences appropriately.

Dove of Creation said...

Hi Richard,

I do think our experiences are important, and many of those passages you refer to reflect a joy and sincerity of heart which is hard to come by in many Christian circles (and is therefore much needed). But I'm not sure that the term "baptism with the Holy Spirit" is best used to describe such experiences. Certainly many Christians have experienced joy in the Spirit on a number of occasions (myself included). But biblically, Jesus teaches in Acts 2 that the main purpose of the giving of the Spirit is for power and authority in witnessing. Of course, we should expect there to be joy in such situations, just as a couple usually feels joy (and solemnity) on their wedding day. But just as the lack of a joyful wedding experience would not invalidate the wedding, so too the lack of joy in undergoing Baptism and the laying on of hands would not invalidate a person's spirit baptism.

Another point to mention would be that in many of those passages which you cite, the experience of joy is sought in community with other people, not as an individualistic pursuit. Perhaps that helps us navigate this tricky issue a bit better. Galatians 5 distinguishes between works of the flesh (about serving yourself) and works of the Spirit (serving others). Instead of seeking the experience of joy for its own sake, we should seek one another's joy, and we often get the experience of joy in even greater abundance!

Richard Walker said...

Hi Chris, sorry for the delay, blogging is a hobby after all.

I agree with all your points - I emphasise the experience of joy for being in union with Christ only in as much as I want to avoid settling into the mediocrity of saying that it never matters if our emotions are not united happily with truth / reality. I also want to avoid giving the impression that the giving of the Spirit is necessarily tied to a particular supernatural manifestation.

I also agree with your point about the power and authority in witnessing, although I think it is part of the whole which is the giving of the Spirit for establishing the Church as the newly delegated authority of Christ in the world. Her authority is for that of taking dominion in all things, not just evangelism. She is the second Eve for the second Adam...

A hearty amen to your second paragraph. Thanks for taking the time to comment. :-)

Dove of Creation said...

Yep! Very true. Well I think that's enough mutual edification to keep us going for now :)