Peter Leithart on Baptism

Posted: June 15, 2010 by Rick Hogaboam in Baptism
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Peter Leithart posts a thoughtful and beautiful reflection on baptism that I amen throughout, but only if he qualifies his last comments:

That is the calling that baptism lays on your son today.  His baptism calls him, of course, to obedience and faith, but not only that.  Through baptism, he is brought into the company of the blessed who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

I agree that Baptism has a binding calling upon the recipient, so agree with him there, but would also add that baptism is only to be admitted to those who have repented and believed. Baptism necessitates this initial turning to Christ, and also calls for further obedience. I also agree with the final sentence where Letihart declares the one baptized as belonging to the company of the “blessed…”, granted that they believe. Their union to Christ and His Church necessitates faith as a sign of regeneration. Circumcision in the Old Covenant called for faith, whereas baptism in the New Covenant is administered only to those who have faith and yet calls for further faith.

  1. joelmartin says:

    “…one baptism FOR the remission of sins…”

    • It corresponds with the remission of sins. Baptisms in Acts were prompt and linked with faith and repentance. I don’t believe the act ex opere operato provides remission of sins, but that faith does.

      I think Piper articulates my own view well when he says the following:

      Now the problem with this is that Peter seems very aware that his words are open to dangerous misuse. This is why, as soon as they are out of his mouth, as it were, he qualifies them lest we take them the wrong way. In verse 21 he does say, “Baptism now saves you” – that sounds like the water has a saving effect in and of itself apart from faith. He knows that is what it sounds like and so he adds immediately, “Not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience – through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (Or your version might have: “the pledge of a good conscience toward God”).

      But the point seems to be this: When I speak of baptism saving, Peter says, I don’t mean that the water, immersing the body and cleansing the flesh, is of any saving effect; what I mean is that, insofar as baptism is “an appeal to God for a good conscience,” (or is “a pledge of a good conscience toward God”), it saves. Paul said in Romans 10:13, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord – everyone who appeals to the Lord – will be saved.” Paul does not mean that faith alone fails to save. He means that faith calls on God. That’s what faith does. Now Peter is saying, “Baptism is the God-ordained, symbolic expression of that call to God. It is an appeal to God – either in the form of repentance or in the form of commitment.

  2. joelmartin says:

    I was actually referencing the Nicene Creed:
    “I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins,”
    To be creedal is to believe in baptism for the remission of sins. As Peter Leithart says when interacting with Tim Bayly:

    Throughout this argument, Bayly translates the flesh/conscience distinction in 1 Peter 3 into a “physical act”/”spiritual reality” contrast. In making that translation, he is assuming the kind of semiotic theory that I have tried to challenge – the notion that, as David Jones put it, “what matters” in the sacrament is not the sign but the spiritual reality signified. The “physical/spiritual” contrast, as well as the “sign/thing” distinction that goes with it, need to be defended, not just assumed. To repeat, Bayly’s formulation assumes the same underlying semiotic as “Catholic” sacramental theology.

    Further, though he notes that the word in verse 21 is “flesh” rather than “body,” he fails to see the implications of that observation. Throughout the NT (especially in Paul), the word “flesh” is lined up with Adam, the old covenant, the elementary things of the world, circumcision, Judaism; and it stands over against Spirit, which is itself aligned with Last Adam, the new covenant, maturity, the Christian faith and the Christian church. Peter’s contrast of “flesh/conscience” is found also in Hebrews 9:13-14, where it clearly is a temporal contrast of old and new and not a cosmological contrast of physical/spiritual or an anthropological contrast of inner/outer. A covenantal contrast makes more sense in 1 Peter 3 than the physical/spiritual, for who would be tempted to think that physical cleansing of dirt was the point of baptism? Peter is not disparaging the physical act; he’s telling his readers that Christian baptism is not like Hebrew baptisms in removing uncleanness from flesh. Rather, Christian baptism is an appeal to God for a good conscience.

    Third, what is the force of that last phrase? Bayly explains it this way:
    “Baptism is thus physical prayer, enacted prayer, an appeal for God to grant the spiritual reality behind the physical act. This verse, taken in its totality, presents so vastly different a view of baptism from that which advocates of the ‘plain language of Scripture’ view claim, it is hard to believe they’ve read or considered the whole verse.”

    Well, now. For the record, I have read the whole verse, and I don’t see the “spiritual/physical” contrast there. But I’ll grant Bayly’s interpretation of “appeal” (a hapax that is difficult to translate and interpret) for the sake of argument. Even on Bayly’s interpretation, the parenthetical qualifier in verse 21 has to be a qualification to and not a contradiction of the main statement of the verse, which is “baptism now saves you.” The “appeal” as a physical prayer must be an explanation of how baptism saves, not a disguised way of saying that baptism doesn’t save after all. With this I assume Bayly would agree.

    But how does baptism “save” as an “enacted prayer” to grant the thing that the sign points to? Apparently, because God will answer the prayer. Baptism saves in that it asks God for cleansing, and God answers favorably. Does God answer everyone who makes this appeal in baptism favorably? No. Rather, those who trust God to answer the prayer enacted in baptism are saved. When faith is added to baptism, baptism saves. If that’s what Bayly means, he’s not far from the kingdom. If that’s not what he means, I’m not sure how the qualifier avoids becoming a cancellation.

    Fourth, Bayly includes an extensive quotation from Calvin, and concludes that Calvin as well as Scripture are against me and mine. As I’ve recently explained at length on this site, I do not pretend that my sacramental views are identical to Calvin’s (though in certain fundamental ways my views are consistent with Calvin’s).

    Fifth, Bayly concludes his post with this: “The sacrament of baptism includes two things: the washing of water and the washing of the soul by the blood of Christ. They are not identical. Nor are they necessarily linked. And to attribute to the water alone the power it signifies, to say, ‘Baptism saves,’ without adding the negative and positive qualifying statements of Peter is to deny not only Calvin but, more importantly, the plain language of Scripture. Baptism is not a washing of filth from the flesh. It is a faithful appeal to God for the spiritual washing of a good conscience through inclusion in the death and resurrection of Christ.”

    I agree that saying “baptism saves” without qualification is misleading. That’s why I’ve never said it (nor, to my knowledge, has anyone else, ever). My concern with this last formulation (and with several others in Bayly’s post) is that it lends itself to a Baptist interpretation. If baptism saves as an enacted prayer, then baptism is a human act. But that goes contrary to the Reformation insistence that baptism and the Supper are first of all acts of God, gifts to be received by faith. Perhaps Bayly sees 1 Peter 3 as only one dimension of baptism, and would find a more theo-centric conception in other passages. [end of quote]

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