No More Baptisms!

The post on Judaizing from earlier this week generated lively discussion, and the theme will certainly be continued. While I am putting together further thoughts on the topic, I wanted to share my most exciting new insight for the week (or longer than that). Quite possibly this is not news to anybody except me, but either way here goes:

I have always wondered why, toward the end the Nicene Creed, we seem to place a strong vocal emphasis on the word “one” – as in, “I believe in ONE baptism for the remission of sins.” That the sacrament of baptism should only take place once in a Christian’s life made sense in general as an affirmation the magnitude of God’s power to save. It further seems aligned with the ecumenical perspective that valid (that is, Trinitarian) baptism should be one and the same for all Christians, uniting all. But was there anything else to this emphasis?

The rite of baptism, of course, is based on Jewish ritual purification by bathing in a mikveh. This is surely part of why, when John preached to the Jews to accept baptism, the response was overwhelmingly positive: purification in running water in anticipation of approaching God (Whose ways John was making straight) was a concept Jews firmly understood. But within Judaism, baptism or ritual purification was practiced regularly; it was required after any instance in which a person became unclean – whether through contact with the dead, sexual impurity, menstruation, crime, etc. – or in preparation for the Day of Atonement. Just as sacrifice was needed regularly to atone for sin, baptism was needed regularly to renew one’s fitness for contact with the holy and for dwelling among God’s holy people.

Thus the importance of the single baptism in Christ parallels that of the single Sacrifice. Both purification and atonement are complete once and for all in Christ; there is no need to resort to them again and again as humanity continues to fall into sin, for sin itself has been conquered.

I’d love any comments on this interpretation, especially if you have reason to believe it is incorrect or overstated. If it is correct, then the practice of single baptism – rather than baptism in general – is yet another instance in which a deeper understanding of Judaism clarifies our understanding of Christian theology and practice.

About The Groom's Family

I was born in Soviet Russia and grew up in Israel. I was baptized Orthodox Christian in 2006. Today my husband and I live in Northern Virginia. I would love to hear from you, so please leave a comment!
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14 Responses to No More Baptisms!

  1. dr p says:

    Whilst mikveh is included in baptism, it doesn’t define it; ie as you mentioned, baptism is only performed once, and there is no Scriptural warrant to require immersion in running water (let the controversy ensue)

    • You raise an interesting question. Indeed the New Testament doesn’t say much about requirements for baptism, beyond describing John’s baptism as indeed taking place in running water. But it seems fair to assume that John’s baptism was well-understood by the Jews – that it was not a new kind of rite invented by John, but built on the concept of mikveh purification that they already knew. It’s also important to note that the New Testament does not purport to be a book of laws that specifies requirements for things, in the way that the Pentateuch does. So – does it follow then that whatever John, Jesus, and the disciples onwards from them meant by baptism is the thing described in the Old Testament , and if we want rules for it, we should follow those (essentially, do the New Testament writers assume we are going to use the Old Testament for the obvious reference)? Or does that not follow? I don’t know much about early Christian sources on this question; does anyone else?

      • dr p says:

        true enough, but there were other baptisms; ie objects like tables which couldn’t be immersed. There were also sprinklings, like at the consecration of priests and blood upon the altar and mercy seat. Then there are NT uses of the terms; eg 1 Peter 3.20f re the ark, and 1 Cor 10.2f re the cloud; in which the parties immersed were not the parties baptised. Although the word is not used, it is clear that the descent of the holy Ghost upon those in the upper room was a baptism – again, dry. So baptism could be said to include mikveh, but is so much more than mere mikveh.

      • Yahnatan says:

        There is an interesting passage in the Didache:

        Chapter 7. Concerning Baptism. And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whoever else can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before.

  2. chironspupil says:

    Good questions, and I wish I could give more than a quick response, but the sun passes along the day and Friday is drawing to a close.

    I would suggest that a mikveh after menstruation or in preparation for Yom Kippur differs from the mikveh of a convert. I would argue that baptism is a mikveh for conversion (valid since our mothers converted by a mikveh, without circumcision). This would also imply that the impurity or uncleanness is different from ‘sin’ as such. This could very well be a difference in linguistic concepts: harmatia in Greek carries different overtones than any number of words used in Hebrew to indicate a need for ritual cleansing.

    I frankly do not see the two as contradictory, since they entail differing relations between people and objects which are holy. After all, an unclean person is not cut off from the community — excision is a different matter altogether, and would seem to approach more a Greek understanding of sin as a cutting oneself off from HaShem/ G’d. Also, I think it is important to remember that one becomes unclean, in need of a mikveh, after touching Torah scrolls, which are holy. Obviously, something else is going on here with the concept of ‘impurity’ than any equivalence of ‘sin’.

    On the other hand, I do like how you’ve drawn a comparison between the Sacrifice of the Cross/ Eucharist and the daily offerings in the Temple — but to really draw the comparison, I’d rely more on the Letter to the Hebrews and the Yom Kippur Avodah/ service specifically, rather than the daily or sin-offerings.

    • @chironspupil – Welcome to the blog (or at least to the comment box!).

      Interesting point about baptism of conversion versus baptism of purification. A more minor point – my understanding is that, if you become unclean under Mosaic Law, you are not to be in contact with the community until you have cleansed yourself properly; so it is related to separating oneself from God and his people.

  3. dr p says:

    @chironspupil: as a Jewish Christian I’m somewhat confused by your references to rabbinic practice, to which we are not bound. To add to Lea’s comment above, for some purifications one wasn’t cleared until seen by a priest (eg zawraath), making the connexion between mikveh and baptism less than 1:1. Your thoughts?

  4. strannik says:

    “One baptism” I have often thought that Christ’s baptism is the “one baptism for the remission of sins”. His baptism in the Jordan signifying the advent of a new creation, crowned by a renewed humanity, the Kingdom of God. (As once the spirit hovered over the waters of creation and as once Joshua led the Israelites and the ark into the promised land). His baptism inaugurates a new identity for all who are baptized into Christ. That new identity is this “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” And yes, this baptism is both of repentance and re-generation. It is one with the baptism of blood and the baptism of the Spirit. Perhaps Paul speaks of “one baptism” as opposed to waiting until death or to signify that the ritual aspect of baptism by water is not what is important but that it is being baptized in the Spirit that counts for eternal life.

  5. dr p says:

    @strannik why do we need to put water baptism (commanded by Christ) over against baptism by the Holy Ghost; ie today aren’t they one and the same?

  6. strannik says:

    They are connected but not the same. Baptism by water doesn’t do much good without ever receiving the the Spirit. The element of water is not what cleanses and regenerates us spiritually. The water baptism, is an extension and a sign of the work of the Holy Spirit bringing us into salvation with Christ and His Church. It is quite difficult to turn into a sacrament something which is purely spiritual. There are many passages in the Scriptures which make a distinction between the two and show the necessity of baptism in the Spirit.

    Of course the baptism of Christ in the Jordan reveals the Holy Trinity and consequently we invoke the holy Trinity for baptism.

    The eastern churches, in the mystery (sacrament) of holy chrismation have a very good sense of how the three baptisms are united. This sacrament is comprised of baptism by water, anointing of holy oil (Spirit), and the Body and Blood of our Lord is received. The eastern churches place less emphasis on the need for a person to be conscious or rational enough to experience something so radically mysterious as God’s gifts whom he bestows on all by his initiative. There is a great emphasis on Baptism of repentance in the eastern churches as being integral to that humility necessary to receive the “gift of the Holy Spirit”.

    In the western churches there is the sacrament of confirmation with anointing of oil which is also akin to a Jewish bah mitzvah. The point of the Western tradition is that one must make a decision for oneself and be personally motivated by the Spirit in beginning to understand and discern ones particular spiritual gifts.

    In the western churches there is a charismatic movement now promoting baptism in the Holy Spirit. It is a retreat experience where there is an intense prayer for the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. This group doesn’t deny the role of the Holy Spirit in previous baptism and confirmation but understands this baptism in the Spirit to bring one into a deeper relationship with the Spirit and awareness of the gifts of the Spirit.

  7. dr p says:

    @strannik: we confessional Protestants all practice paedobaptism, putting us closer to the eastern church than, say, the baptists. I’m unaware of any Scripture urging us to seek a baptism of the Holy Ghost apart from our baptism, although we’d all agree that we could always be filled with and by Him more than we are.

    The charismatics’ and pentecostals’ search for an additional blessing comes less from a study of Scripture than an inordinate emphasis on subjective experience; we see this in the devaluation of the sacraments and clerical education, as well as the emphasis on being converted like Paul (ie, sudden, lifechanging experience) contra that of Timothy (covenant child knowing only of belief).

  8. Dror says:

    Baptism’s meaning to imbue as per the original Greek, has seen the Biblical “…Spirit and water”
    renewal spoken by Messiah to be interpreted by the canons to include elements ranging from
    (in dire circumstances) airbaptism to saliva – and even sand! Perhaps then,”water” may indeed be
    rendered spiritual; as with Messiah’s reference to the same spoken to the Samaritan woman.

  9. Yahnatan says:

    The Groom’s Family, you wrote:
    “Thus the importance of the single baptism in Christ parallels that of the single Sacrifice. Both purification and atonement are complete once and for all in Christ; there is no need to resort to them again and again…”

    I agree with the idea that Messiah’s atonement and his baptism are one-time events. However, given that the different types of washings described in the Torah have different purposes, I find that the one baptism introduced by John and ratified by Messiah and his apostles has a different purpose than and does not conflict with or replace the other “baptisms.”

    Thus we find in Acts 21:26, Paul and the other Jewish believers “purify” themselves before entering the Temple to offer the sacrifices that accompany their vow.

    • dr p says:

      When Christ declared “It is finished” in Jon 19.28 & 30 He used the Greek word “tetelestai,” which was written over bills to declare that the debt was paid in full. Outside of Paul’s desire to abide by civil law and give no offence to the Jews, what possible purification do Jewish and Gentile Christians need today?

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