The Baptized Body – 2

“…when mud is slung, few mud-slingers can rival Reformed mud-slingers.” (p. viii)

In my experience, arguing with a paedobaptist is like arguing with an evolutionist. The assumption that paedobaptism is biblical is the lens through which everything gets interpreted as evidence. As one paedobaptist friend put it, “I like to argue from a position of truth.” But if the eye (or its lens) is full of darkness, so is the entire body, especially the baptized one.

There are many things in Peter Leithart’s book The Baptized Body which I think are crucial for the modern Church to get under its belt. As he says, the book is primarily about baptismal efficacy, and its most important chapter concerns the Federal Vision’s central affirmation that, “without qualification or hedging, the church is the Body of Christ. Everything the Federal Vision says about baptism, about soteriology, about apostasy, flows from that affirmation.” Moreover, Leithart calls Reformed Christians away from tradition as our primary authority and back to the Scriptures. The problem is that he still reads the Scriptures concerning baptism through a lens based on tradition. The fact that his lens is less dusty is the reason why there has been so much mud-slinging. He is trying to pack the newly-discovered attributes of a biblical baptism into an unbiblical one.

Chapter 1

Dr Leithart rightly takes John Murray to task for his “watering down” of baptism. He summarizes Murray’s argument concerning Romans 6:1-7 thusly:

  1. Paul says the baptized are united to Christ in His death and burial, so that they may be raised.
  2. We know that water baptism doesn’t have this kind of power.
  3. Therefore, Paul cannot be talking about the water-rite.

Murray realizes that paedobaptism cannot do what Paul is saying. Leithart insists that paedobaptism must be able to do what Paul is saying, but Paul is not talking about the baptism that Murray or Leithart are talking about. Paul is speaking of credobaptism. Without this realization, the disagreement between Murray and Leithart cannot be solved.

Leithart then rightly divorces the efficacy of the supernatural sacraments from the natural powers of bread and water, and observes that their efficacy is in the Triune God. But I know where he is going with this and it is not a position that tees with the rites in the Old Testament.

Baptism and the Real Me

Leithart then moves to discuss the idea shared by both Protestants and Catholics that the “real me” is sealed up inside the body. He notes that Catholics believe that baptism “injects” something supernatural, but Protestants do not. Yet their agreement on the existence of a “ghostly” me inside makes solving their differences impossible. (This is just like the disagreement between Murray and Leithart above.)

Minimizing the difference between an “inner me” and “outer me” as Leithart does, does not in fact gel with either the New Testament Scriptures or the Old. The point of cutting open Adam, or the sacrifice, or performing the “jealous inspection” was to see what was inside. The physical cuttings pictured for us the “ethical” cuttings. Hebrews 4 tells us as much.

Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:11-13)

Leithart says that what happens on the outside affects the inner man, but he is not using biblical definitions. The inner man is always presented as “ethical,” that is, the source of judgment. Will he do what is right in God’s eyes or his own eyes? So, the issue is not a false dichotomy between an outer physical me and an inner “real” me. The ethical me is expressed through the physical me, but they are both me.

The jealous inspection was about discerning the “animating spirit.” Was the woman lying about adultery? Was she beguiled by the serpent? Though it was a physical blade that pierced the sacrifice and exposed its organs, or performed the circumcision, and a physical drink that performed the jealous inspection, it is clear that these were pictures of the Word of God, which comes to us through our eyes and ears and pierces, circumcises, the “heart.” The heart is where idolatry and adultery begin. So, perhaps a better phrase than “ghostly” or “real” me would be “ethical” me.

Jesus took the laws concerning “external obedience” and traced their transgression to the heart. When the final Pentecost arrived, and both Jews and Gentiles received the Spirit, after the “cutting of their hearts,” outward circumcision, the external law, became meaningless. The cutting or circumcision or drinking was common to all, whether blameless or not. It was simply a means to an end. What mattered was what was inside, which was an appropriation of the external law, the stoicheia, as an “inward” and guiding principle.

We see the same “meaninglessness” of outward circumcision in the anointing of David by Samuel. All of Jesse’s sons were circumcised, but the Lord looked on the heart. He chose the man whose heart was after His own heart. This scenario is repeated at Jesus’ baptism by John, where the Father chooses Jesus from among all the other Israelites, and anoints Him for ministry. The Father refers to His Son as “beloved,” which is the meaning of “David.” Jesus was chosen for the same reason that David was chosen. God could see “the real man.”

The big question is this: can an infant have a heart for God? The answer lies in the stoicheia, external Law. Those who came to John, including Jesus, were raised under the Scriptures. They came to John for baptism for “inner” reasons. The Spirit was convicting them of sin, of righteousness, and of the judgment to come. What set these Israelites apart from other Israelites, like the priests and Levites who were scolded by John, was not circumcision, “the call,” but the effectual working of that call in the inner man, “the response” to the call. The flesh of Adam had been cut, and the hearts of those who were “Israelites indeed” were exposed publicly in their desire for baptism.

Baptism was not the placing of the person under the Law, but the vindication of the results of the Law. To relegate baptism to a kind of New Covenant stoicheia is to make nonsense of Pentecost and to make the Gospel redundant. If baptism is something external that changes “the whole me,” whether an infant or an adult, then there is no need for the hearing of the Gospel. To turn baptism into a new kind of call is to miss the point of it entirely.

Dr Leithart concludes this section with a reference to baptism as a “calling.” He claims that baptism makes somebody “a new person.” Once again Dr Leithart overlooks the dual nature of the “creative” process. Paedobaptism is a confusion of the Old Covenant “call” (God’s cultivated, pruned field: circumcision) and the New Covenant “response” (righteous fruit: baptism). It makes the same mistake the Jewish “rulers of the Land” made.

Israel was called to God for “cutting.” It was a pruning for the purpose of bringing forth fruit. Circumcision was about the fruit of the womb, because every “new person” that came from the womb was “an old man,” that is, in Adam, which is why it was only for males. Baptism is not about the fruit of the womb but about the fruit of the Law by the Spirit. It is not about the first birth (the “call”) but the second birth (“the response”). Jesus and Paul hammer this home for us.

The mistake of the Jews was classifying circumcision and offspring as the fruit that God desired, instead of righteousness. Nathaniel was an Israelite “indeed” because the stoicheia of the Law had done its work. There was no guile in him. The serpent had been cast out and this was evidence that the old Nathaniel, as an individual, had been mortified and was thus “a new person,” ethically speaking. Nathaniel was not merely a tree, but a tree of righteousness. Like Adam, Jesus saw him under the leaves, but unlike Adam, Nathaniel was not hiding. He was waiting.  If baptism is merely a new “call” and not a response, then Nathaniel and those who came to John for baptism were no different than any other Israelite.

Leithart makes the argument that baptism always brings about something external, a change of office, like the inauguration of a priest, a husband, a citizen or a president. Strangely, he overlooks the fact that all priests, husbands, citizens and presidents have endured a period of ethical qualification and must now take an oath. The acceptance of the profession is the vindication of an ethical quality, a “holy desire.” It is not “ghostly,” but evidenced by physical acts in the social world. Leithart’s proofs here support credobaptism after a public profession of faith which renders the baptized accountable to shepherding (priestly submission) and church discipline (kingly judgment), and privileged with access to the Lord’s Table (prophetic witness [as a "martyr"]). Of course, citizenship is conferred automatically upon the offspring of a new citizen, but each of these different oaths pertains to a peculiar domain. Citizenship is like circumcision and baptism is like the induction of a public servant. Once again, this is the difference between those under the Law and those administering the Law, between the fruit of the womb and the fruit of the Law, between the cultivated field (Israel) and the actual harvest (the saints).

On the efficacy of the event of baptism, Leithart says:

Whatever else we must say about a baptized person (and we will say much more), we can say with utter confidence that he is baptized, that a minister has poured water on his body in the name of the Triune God, and that this is an irreversible event in his “being in the world.” He emerges from the waters of baptism, and that fact alone means he is a new person. He has received a new name, a new past, and he is called to a new future. Abdul is no longer simply Abdul, and he is not simply wet Abdul. Abdul is baptized Abdul. That means the “real Abdul” has been changed.

Making baptism “efficacious” in this way exposes a glaring mistake when viewed in the light of the Old Covenant rites. It confuses the offering with the offerer. All of the baptismal accounts in the book of Acts follow the rite of sacrifice, and deliberately correspond the cutting of the heart with the death of the sacrifice and baptism with the acceptance of the offerer. Baptism is about the offerer, the one who is being held to his Covenant oath and now desiring to approach God by placing his sins upon a blameless substitute. His faith is counted to him as righteousness. Circumcision was about the cutting of the sacrifice, not the acceptance of the offerer. These are part of the same process but very different acts. The rite was “objective” concerning the one being cut, but “subjective” concerning the one desiring to be reconciled to God. If Abdul is an infant, then his baptism is a “bap-cision.” He is being cut like a sacrifice, picturing the perfect offspring to come. But that offspring has already come, so his “bap-cision” is redundant, and not efficacious at all. However, if Abdul is one whose heart has been circumcised, and thus desires baptism, he becomes the faithful offerer reconciled to God through the sacrifice of Christ. The heart of baptism is ethical. It was not given to us to make more Jews, but to vindicate the true Jews, like Nathaniel.

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3 Responses to “The Baptized Body – 2”

  • Aaron Richmond Says:

    Howdy, Mike. I enjoy the blog…and hope to enjoy the book(s) when time and funds permit.

    Could you expand on this: “All of the baptismal accounts in the book of Acts follow the rite of sacrifice, and deliberately correspond the cutting of the heart with the death of the sacrifice and baptism with the acceptance of the offerer.”

    Would love to see you run through one or a couple of these to see how this argument works.

  • Mike Bull Says:

    Thanks Aaron

    Sure – the best example is Peter’s preaching at Pentecost, but my favorite is Acts 8. It also predicts the pattern of the Revelation:

    …..Initiation/Creation (blameless animal chosen)
    …..Philip commanded by the Spirit
    …..(Genesis – Transcendence)

    ……….Delegation/Division (animal cut)
    ……….The chosen Jew and the “cut” Gentile court official in the desert
    ……….(Exodus – Hierarchy)

    ……………Presentation/Ascension (animal lifted up)
    ……………Philip ascends into the “heavenly” chariot and opens
    ……………the Covenant scroll concerning the Firstfruits lamb
    ……………(Leviticus – nearbringing)

    ………………..Purification/Testing (holy fire descends)
    ………………..The curses of the Law consume the lamb from the Land
    ………………..(Numbers – Ethics, Israel cut off)

    ……………Transformation/Maturity (animal becomes fragrant)
    ……………Philip’s legal (prophetic) witness opens the eunuch’s eyes
    ……………(Deuteronomy – a new, uncircumcised Israel)*

    *The next generation of Israelite males were not circumcised until they reached Jericho.

    ……….Vindication/Conquest (offerer accepted by God)
    ……….The eunuch desires to be baptized
    ……….(Joshua – Word vindicated, inheritance received)

    …..Representation/Glorification (reconciliation)
    …..Philip is taken away (the ascension of the OT saints to “the heavenly country”)
    …..and the new Jew-Gentile body testifies to all nations
    …..(Judges – serving the nations)

    More on this passage (regarding baptism) here:

  • Aaron Richmond Says:

    Great, thanks again.