The Nicodemus Objection

Posted: June 29, 2010 by joelmartin in Baptism, Covenant Theology, Debates, Theology
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Over on Facebook, Pastor Rick wrote:

…if there was continuity in the constituting [of] God’s covenant people, Jesus would never have told Nicodemus that he must be born again. How dare Jesus be so pietistic as to tell a respected “covenant” member that he needs to be born again.

He echoes a question I once asked: why would Jesus tell Nicodemus that he must be born again if he was already in the covenant by circumcision?

Someone pointed out to me that “…Jesus is not talking about individual regeneration in John 3. Rather, he is talking about the need for a new Israel, a new humanity. Nicodemus needs to follow Jesus into the new world through death and resurrection. Being baptized will unite him with the disciples of Jesus, with those who are following Jesus into a new world.”

James Jordan puts it this way:

Nicodemus is brilliant. He says to Jesus, “You jest, surely. How many times have we been born again? the Flood, Sinai, Elijah, Cyrus. But it has never taken. You would have to back into mother’s womb and start over.”

“Yep,” says Jesus. “And watch me do it.”

Sure enough, Nicodemus is there when Jesus is buried back into mother’s womb. I’m certain Nicodemus knew Jesus would rise again, born anew from the soil. Maybe the disciples had doubts, but Nicodemus knew.

In union with Jesus’ resurrection we are all born anew from mother’s womb.

He also points out that John describes the tomb as a virgin:

19.41 Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid.

(Genesis 24.16 The young woman was very attractive in appearance, a maiden whom no man had known.)

Put this together with Luke’s record of Jesus vs. Sadducees on resurrection where he says that one becomes a son of God by being a son of the resurrection, and Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 about the “birth pangs” of death being unable to stop Jesus, the use of Psalm 2 (“today I have begotten you”) in the preaching of the resurrection of Jesus in Acts, the title “firstborn of the death,” Romans all over the place….

And then there is this from Biblical Horizons.

And this essay from Jordan’s “Trees and Thorns,” chapter 10.

Then Yahweh God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul (Genesis 2:7).

The word for man is ‘adam and the word for ground is ‘adamah. Commentators routinely point out the similarity between these two words, noting that the first is masculine and the second feminine. In terms of what we have already seen (in Chapter 2), we can see the motherhood of the earth expressed here. Humanity is the offspring, so to speak, of heaven and earth, of God and the soil.

Most commentators question whether there is any relation between the words Adam and Adamah. The question of etymological relationship needs to be reexamined presuppositionally, however. If we assume that the human race existed for tens of thousands of years, and that languages grew up gradually over time, then we can try to understand Hebrew in terms of evolutionary development from certain “trileral roots,” as is commonly done today. Thus, Hebrew lexicons are organized in terms of these “three-letter roots,” with specific words grouped under each root.

Even on an evolutionary presupposition, however, I wonder if languages would grow developmentally out of roots. I suggest that languages grow and develop out of usage, and usage includes puns, analogies, and other things that are not “orderly and scientific.” The connections between words are more a matter of sound associations than of evolutionary development (though historical development also plays a part).

From a Biblical standpoint, however, the whole question must be recast. God scattered humanity at Babel, and the Spirit of God worked rapidly, yea instantly, to create many new languages. We don’t know if Hebrew was set up at that time, or if Hebrew is the primordial language of humanity before Babel. In either event, it was created virtually ex nihilo, either around 4000 B.C. – I come up with 3930 B.C. in Biblical Chronology 4:7 (July 1992) – or around 2150 B.C. (Babel; cp. Gen. 10:25, 30 and 11:2). This being the case, such things as puns and other word-similarities were built into human languages by God, and where these occur in the Bible we ought not to think them adventitious. The words Adam and Adamah are indeed related, then, and the motherhood of the soil is in view.

Another word in this passage that is surely related to these two is the word ‘ed in 2:6, which refers to the water that flowed out of the earth (‘erets) and watered the ‘adamah. (Vowels in Hebrew are secondary; what counts are consonants. Notice how Old Testament Edom becomes New Testament Idumea; “ee-dom” become “ee-dum.” Thus, ‘d, ‘dm, and ‘dmh can be seen to be quite similar, particularly when we take note of the context and theology of this passage.) The ‘ed, we notice, does not flow from the ‘adamah. Rather, the ‘ed waters the ‘adamah. The ‘ed carries out the same function as the ‘adam, the man. There is no ‘adam yet made to cultivate the ‘adamah, but for the time being ‘ed does so. Once the ‘adam is created, he will work with water and become the cultivator of the ‘adamah.

The ‘adamah is the mother, but she has no water in herself. She must get water from a father. ‘ed from the earth (‘erets) acts as the father-fluid, and later ‘adam, ruler of the earth, acts as father, to make mother ‘adamah fruitful. More precisely, man takes over God’s function as High Father, to bring ‘erets and ‘adamah together in fruitful marriage.

But where does man himself come from? Is he the offspring of mother ‘adamah and ‘ed from father ‘erets? By no means. Man is made from dust, which is dry and without water. Genesis 2:7 sets us up for the question: “Then Yahweh God formed man of dust from the ‘adamah.” A man-shape has been made of dust. Now, where will father-water come from to quicken this dust? The answer is that the “water” is the (moist) breath of the Spirit of God.

Genesis 2:5-6 pictures plants as generated by water and soil, by ‘ed coming from the ‘erets combined with soil (‘adamah). According to Genesis 1:24, the ‘erets brought forth animals, and according to Genesis 2:19, God formed the animals out of ‘adamah. Though God acted to make these things, they are not said to be made of a combination of heaven and earth. Only man, the ruler of the ‘erets (earth) is made of God’s breath and the dust of the soil.

The Spirit of God, His divine Breath, is heavenly. The firmament of Genesis 1:7 separated the waters, and the firmament is called heaven. Thus, the waters above the firmament are heavenly waters. The Spirit’s breath should be seen to impart the moisture of the heavenly waters to the dust. This creates an association between wind, water, and the Spirit of God, an association that continues throughout the Bible. When God sends a dry, desiccating wind that dries up our moisture, we die (Ps. 32:4). Similarly, God’s Spirit is not found in a flood of water devoid of air (Ps. 32:6). But when God sends sprinklings of water from above, mixed in air, we are baptismally revived.

Exegesis of certain passage may help influence us one way or the other, but ultimately I do not believe exegesis can be decisive. Every controversial text has been commented on by both sides – do you think they are unaware of the passages and have never heard them before? At some point you have to lean upon a tradition of interpretation, or else we simply have interpretation vs. interpretation and what are the criteria to determine which is right? Who makes that call?

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Comments
  1. I realize that there are some who wish to distinguish between indicative and imperative in Jesus’ statement to Nicodemus. It really doesn’t matter because God clearly commanded Israel to circumcise their hearts. Whether Jesus is commanding that we be born again or making the statement, the whole point is that it is impossible apart from the Spirit.

    The “New Creation” motif that Jordan and others point out is also helpful and I am in agreement that Jesus was constituting a New Creation on a corporate level. This doesn’t negate that this New Creation is constituted by regeneration, not by physical relation to Abraham. This is a clear departure from one aspect of the administration of the Abrahamic Covenant that is fulfilled in Christ. The New Covenant sign of Baptism is only administered to those who are Abraham’s children by faith, being grafted into the true substance of the Abrahamic covenant in Christ, the true seed of promise.

    John the Baptist and Jesus were calling upon Abraham’s children to repent. Only those who repented were brought into the waters…this is even admitted by paedo-baptists (concerning John’s baptism). Covenant solidarity is found in Christ, not in relation to Abraham, your parents, or anyone else. Union to Christ is only wrought by regeneration, normally requiring faith for union to the Church, which corresponds to this New Covenant administration of a “faithful” Church.

    Our kids must be born again, or else we perpetuate the same presumption that Abraham’s children had. While Baptists can rightly be accused of undermining assurance and demanding too much, I am equally concerned about many paedo-baptists who consider it a sin to preach John 3 to their children with the application that they may very well need to be born again from above. When a kid perks up like Nicodemus, asking how one can be born again, I certainly hope that parents would explain the radical nature of regeneration, rather than assuring their kids that they were born again in their baptism, or covenant status.

    At least the confessionaly Reformed call their children to faith, whereas many of the paedo-communion folks quickly cite John the Baptist (ironically) as paradigmatic in that he was regenerate in the womb. This descriptive narrative gets posited as pardigmatic. The Pentecostals have a stronger hermeneutic for Tongues as Initial Physical Evidence based on paedo-communion arguments from John the Baptizer.

    Creating these systems almost boxes in the Sovereign freedom of the Spirit. Catholics, Evangelicals, Reformed all use John 3 to support their paradigms. I think they are all missing the whole point that Jesus made to Nicodemus: John 3:7–8 (ESV) — 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

    As a Baptist, I readily acknowledge that the Spirit may regenerate in infancy. We can’t state with any authority that one is presumptively born again or is certainly not born again in childhood. The fruit will usually indicate what kind of tree our children are. Parents need to exercise more discernment in their raising of children and what we communicate to them. Every espoused paradigm has way too many exceptions to make anything fixed. This is owing to the sovereign work of the Spirit. I may encourage the baptism of one of my children at age 5, while at age 10 for another, or never for another. This complexity is again owing to the freedom of the Spirit.

    As for the administration of the sacraments and the exercise of the keys of the Kingdom, it is to be done with discretion. Basically, it comes down to who we believe are the proper subjects for baptism and the Supper. There are 3 well-reason positions that I had already mentioned in the Facebook post. I am sincere when I say they are well-reasoned. I opt for one paradigm that I think is clearer from the administration of the New Covenant as recorded in the New Testament. If I were to rank the 3 systems, I would rank the credo-sacrament position 1, the paedo-sacrament position 2, and the confessional position 3. Positions 2 and 3 alternate from day to day though 😉

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