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Is Baptism Merely a Symbol?

OBJECTOR: I heard the most absurd thing the other day—a Catholic said baptism is necessary for salvation. That certainly can’t be true, because the Bible says in Acts 4:12 that Jesus is the only “name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

CATHOLIC: Baptism is necessary for salvation because 1 Peter 3:21 also says “baptism . . . now saves you.” Jesus as the only Savior uses the waters of baptism to save people from their sins. Further, our Lord once said, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16).

OBJECTOR: But that’s impossible. Baptism is a symbol of our faith in Christ. It is not the Savior himself. The Catholic doctrine confuses the symbol and the reality.

CATHOLIC: The Catholic doctrine of baptism unites the symbol and the reality. It is because of the union of the symbol—water—with the reality—the Holy Spirit—that the apostle Peter can say, “baptism now saves you.” It is the same idea as Jesus said in John 3:5, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Being born of the water and the Spirit is an explanation of what he says in verse 3, “Unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

OBJECTOR: But surely Jesus is not speaking here of baptism. Either he is speaking metaphorically or he is referring to the “water” that comes out during natural birth. He is saying that a person must be born twice: once naturally and once spiritually.

CATHOLIC: So you would agree that Jesus meant a spiritual birth, or regeneration, when he spoke of “being born of the Spirit”?

OBJECTOR: Yes, when he spoke of “being born again,” he used the Greek word anothen, which means both again and from above. He intended to draw on the systematic ambiguity of the word to show that a supernatural birth is involved in being born again.

CATHOLIC: I agree. But tell me: When does a person have this experience of “being born again” or “being born from above”?

OBJECTOR: When he believes on Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.

CATHOLIC: Then what is the purpose of baptism in your view?

OBJECTOR: It is an outward symbol of that regeneration of the heart. It has no other function.

CATHOLIC: So when Jesus said that you must be “born of water,” what was he referring to? Natural birth? That would be equivalent to him saying that you have to be a human being to enter the kingdom—as opposed to being an animal or something else—which seems unnecessary. It seems more natural to read his words as meaning that you have to be “born of water” in some deeper sense.

OBJECTOR: Like I said, it’s possible that he was speaking metaphorically. Perhaps he was referring to the promise in Ezekiel 36:25–26: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you.”

CATHOLIC: That is a beautiful verse. It expresses exactly what we Catholics believe takes place in baptism. We sprinkle water on the person and God gives that person a new heart.

OBJECTOR: Notice that Ezekiel 36:25 does not say that we will sprinkle clean water on a person. God says “will sprinkle clean water on you.” So this cannot be talking about baptism, since baptism is us doing the action, not God.

CATHOLIC: You tend to place separations and divisions in biblical texts. We Catholics believe that when we baptize a person, God is baptizing the person through our hands, our agency. Notice that Ezekiel 36:25–26 says that God gives the sprinkled person “a new heart” and “a new spirit.” Isn’t this the same as what Jesus says when he speaks of being born again of the water and the Spirit? Furthermore, when Ezekiel says that the person will be cleansed from all impurities and idols, isn’t this the same kind of cleansing that Ananias told Paul when he said, “Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his [the Lord’s] name” (Acts 22:16)?

OBJECTOR: Look, we agree that God cleanses the heart. I just don’t believe that baptism effects that cleansing, because water has no power to do something spiritual like forgive sins. To be baptized is an act of obedience to God that portrays the inner cleansing of the heart.

CATHOLIC: We don’t believe that water has some inherent power to forgive but that Christ’s presence in the water is what brings about the forgiveness. It is a symbol, as you say, but it is also more than a symbol. Otherwise, what Ananias said to Paul makes no sense, “be baptized and wash away your sins.”

OBJECTOR: I don’t believe that the washing away of sin is inherently connected to baptism. Ananias said, “Be baptized and wash away your sins.” He didn’t say “be baptized and through this wash away your sin.” I already said that the waters of baptism are a symbol or sign of the inner spiritual reality.

CATHOLIC: Yes, I know. But there is even more. In the Bible, physical things could represent spiritual realities because they also contain those realities. Take the pillars of cloud and fire along with the tent of meeting (tabernacle) in the Old Testament. It was not merely a sign of God’s presence among the children of Israel; it embodied God’s presence. That is why Exodus tells us that when the pillar of cloud or fire descended on the tent of meeting, the people bowed down and worshiped. These symbols carried the realities they indicated.

It is this same way with baptism. If we read the Bible in the proper historical meaning of the times, we see that people believed that water could carry a spiritual reality like forgiveness of sins and the presence of the Holy Spirit.

OBJECTOR: I don’t know if you are right in how you see ancient times. But assuming that you have understood them correctly, it is still possible that those ancient people were wrong in their views and that we are now in a better position to know the true meaning of baptism.

CATHOLIC: I suppose that’s theoretically possible, but in the case of baptism I don’t think that we know better than the ancients. There seems to be unanimous agreement among the Church Fathers on this matter. They all believed that baptism was more than a symbol. They said that it brought about the forgiveness of sin as implied in Ananias’s statement to Paul. Further, they often quoted Titus 3:5 in connection with baptism, “He saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit.”

OBJECTOR: But that verse shows my point. It is the “renewal in the Holy Spirit” that saves us, not baptism.

CATHOLIC: Agreed. The Holy Spirit renews our hearts. But notice how Paul connects that renewal with the washing of regeneration. Why would he talk about “washing” unless he was referring to the only washing that Christians were familiar with, that is, baptism?

That’s how the Church Fathers viewed it. For example, Proclus, one of the Eastern Fathers said, “God bestows salvation through baptism, offering baptism as a common grace for all.” This is echoed by Hippolytus who said, “If we become divine after rebirth in baptism through water and the Holy Spirit, we shall also be co-heirs with Christ after the resurrection of the dead.” It was the common faith of all Christians that baptism is a life-giving sacrament.

OBJECTOR: Even if all ancient Christians believed the way you say, that still doesn’t mean that we should believe the same way they did.

CATHOLIC: For Catholics it does. We believe that a unanimous teaching among the Church Fathers carries a binding force for the Church today. For us it is a matter of corporate humility and a willingness to listen to the Church of Christ throughout the ages. But even if you don’t agree with that methodological rule, I still think that your symbolist understanding of baptism fails to explain why Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River.

OBJECTOR: Jesus was baptized “to fulfill all righteousness,” as he says to John the Baptist in Matthew 3:15. Now, clearly, Jesus did not have to be forgiven of any sin (cf. Heb. 4:15). So in what sense was he fulfilling all righteousness? He was giving us an example to follow.

CATHOLIC: Yes, Jesus certainly did not need to be forgiven. And he no doubt wanted us to follow his example. But here again I think you are reading the biblical text in a reduced fashion.

OBJECTOR: Then what do you think Jesus’s baptism meant?

CATHOLIC: Jesus was baptized to make all the waters in the world holy and usable for baptism. His presence in the Jordan sanctified the natural element of water so that it could carry the forgiveness that only his person can convey. This view is also common among the Church Fathers as expressed by Maximus the Confessor: “When the Savior washed, all water for our baptism is made clean, purified at its source for the dispensing of baptismal grace to the people of future ages. Christ is the first to be baptized, then so that Christians will follow after him with confidence.”

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