14 June 2005

newbigin on baptism

I've been reading back through a number of resources that were formative in my own understanding of Christian baptism as my understanding has developed over the past two decades regarding the place of the sacraments within the Reformed tradition. In addition to Calvin himself, and alongside our Confession and Catechisms, more contemporary resources have included Ronald Wallace, Brian Gerrish, Robert Rayburn, Hughes O. Old, Geddes MacGregor, Thomas Torrance, Pierre Marcel, Lewis Schenck, and E. Brooks Holifield, as well as many others.

Among the most lucid explications of Christian baptism that I've found, is that provided by Lesslie Newbigin, which builds on the resources of Scripture and the Reformed tradition. As you may be aware, Newbigin was a missionary of the Church of Scotland who served for many decades in south India, making significant contributions in ecclesiology, missiology, and ecumenism, before returning to England where he served the United Reformed Church, publishing some of his most well-known books.

While Newbigin helpfully touches on baptism in his more widely known work The Household of God (SCM 1953), I'd like to begin by looking instead at the account that he provides in his short book, The Holy Spirit and the Church, published in India in 1972.

In the opening chapter, "The Coming of the Holy Spirit," Newbigin begins by tracing the notion of God's Spirit as we find that in the Old Testament, as the "mighty breath of God which is the life of God himself" (2), who then brings light and life to God's first creation of the world. He reviews the giving of the Spirit to the prophets, sacred craftsmen, elders, and judges of Israel.

Newbigin then turns to Old Testament eschatology, first noting than when Isaiah prophesied the coming son of David, "who would be the true representative of God in ruling his people, he saw him as one supremely endowed with the Spirit" (4; see Isa 11:12). Moreover, as the prophets "looked forward to the great works of God which were to comes, they saw visions of the Spirit's working" (4). He notes especially Ezekiel's vision of the valley of dry bones and Joel's prophecy of the Spirit outpoured upon all peoples.

At this point Newbigin engages in a longer examination of the ministry of John the Baptizer, his prophetic message -- "The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent!" -- and his use of the expressive prophetic action of baptism to embody and bring home the meaning of his words. By calling the people to the Jordan, which was, as Newbigin notes, "the river that their fathers had had to cross in order to enter the Promised Land," John's baptism functioned as "a sign that they were unclean and needed to be cleansed if they were to be fit to meet their God" (5).

Newbigin suggests that John was consciously building upon God's promise of forgiveness and cleansing, given through Ezekiel, "I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean..." (Eze 36:25). Thus John's baptism served as "a sign that God was fulfilling his ancient proise and preparing his people to meet him in all his kingly power" (5). But John made it clear that he himself was not the coming Messiah, for the Messiah would baptize not only with water, but also the Holy Spirit.

It is in this context that we find Jesus coming to John in order to receive baptism in his own person. It it worth quoting Newbigin at length here:

To outward appearance he was just one among the crowd of those who came to be baptized. But in truth his coming meant something very different. They were coming burdened with a sense of their sin, seeking escape from the impending judgment of God. He carried no burden of his own sin; he was seeking to be with them in honouring God, his Father. They came seeking their own salvation; he came seeking the salvation of the world. But he made no distinction between himself and them. He made himself wholly one with them. He who was without sin came as a sinner among sinner to receive to baptism of repentance and forgiveness. In his love for men, he took their sins as his own. The sinless one was baptized, not for his own sin, but for the sin of the world. (6)

After reviewing the events of Jesus' baptism at the hand of John, where the Spirit descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove, Newbigin notes that when "Jesus was baptised with water, he was also baptised in the Spirit. The sign and the thing which it signified came together" (6).

When Jesus accepted the baptismal sign in humility, he received all it signified and, in light of that event, "these two things are no more to be separated" (7). Newbigin goes on to explain: "Entrance into God's rule is to be by sharing in the baptism of Jesus--which is baptism in water and the Spirit. What God has thus joined together is not again to be put asunder. Those who try to separate them again, to pit Spirit-baptism against water-baptism, are trying to go back behind the baptism of Jesus to the baptism of John" (7). He returns to this point later in explicating Christian baptism, but before doing so continues his reflections upon the baptism of Jesus.

In particular, Newbigin notes that the Spirit did not come upon Jesus as a fire or as a mighty wind or with tongues, but as a dove, "the poor man's sacrifice." The manifestation of the Spirit as a dove descending upon Jesus reveals that Spirit as the one "who would lead him to complete his baptism by the way of the cross, lead him to give himself up as a sacrifice for the sin of the world" (7).

Jesus' baptism, of course, not only involved the descent of the Spirit, but also an interpretive word, "You are my beloved son with whom I am well-pleased" (Mark 1:11). While this word carries various allusions to the Old Testament, Newbigin particularly notes Isaiah 42:1 in which God speaks of the servant in whom he delights, thus marking Jesus' ministry under the sign of baptism as one that fulfilled Isaiah's vision of the Servant of the Lord. Thus the Spirit given to Jesus in his baptism is reveals as "the Spirit of sacrifice, the Spirit of humble service, the Spirit who will lead Jesus by the way of the Cross" (7).

Moreover, while the Spirit came upon various Old Testament figures for a time or a particular service, and in some case was later taken away, with Jesus it would be different. As Newbigin notes, citing John 1:34, "the gift of the Spirit at Jesus' baptism is no temporary gift; it is for ever" (8).

The event that follows Jesus' baptism, however, is that the "Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness" to be tempted (Mark 1:12), an event that Newbigin notes is "immediately connected with the preceding baptism" (8). Jesus' baptismal commission as the one who would bear God's saving purposes for Israel and the world raised the question of how this divine empowerment would be exercised:

What will be the outward sign that Jesus is really anointed by the Spirit? Will it be by miracles which dazzle men and compel their allegiance by the sheer sense of marvel? Will it be by meeting all their physical needs? Will it be by creating a great political movement and becoming the kind of Messiah that many of the Jews dreamed of?

These formed the substance of the tempter's questions as Jesus wrestled with his calling alone in the desert. And in the end, Jesus answers these questions by rejecting the temptations, giving up "all the things that men call power and wisdom" (9).

Instead, as Newbigin notes, Jesus "came trusting simply in the power of God, which is the power of love -- a power that men are apt to call weakness" (9), an understanding of baptism by the Spirit that Jesus further explains when he read the scroll in the synagogue of Nazareth (Lk 4:18-19). As Peter puts it in Acts, "God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power...he went about doing good and healing all that were oppressed by the devil" (Acts 10:38).

But when Jesus sent out the Twelve and, later, the Seventy, while he gave them the authority to heal and exorcise, he did not yet give them the Spirit. Why was the Spirit not yet given? Newbigin answers this question citing John 7:37-39 and 16:7, explaining that the

promise to pour out the Spirit upon all men could only be fulfilled when Jesus had completed his work, when the power of the Devil had been broken, when the baptism which began in the River Jordan was complete on the Hill of Calvary. The death and resurrection of Jesus were the necessary condition for the pouring out of the Spirit upon all men. (10)

Or, to explain it in another way, "it is only when the fortess of the self has been broken at the cross that the Spirit can come in and take control." In his baptism Jesus took the "sin and sorrow of the world" upon himself to that in our being crucified with Christ, the Spirit begins to reign in us. As Newbigin says, the disciples "could only be sharers with Jesus in the anointing of the Spirit when they had been made sharers in his cross" (10).

Newbigin goes on to unfold he way in which the gift of the Spirit was given to Jesus' disciples, examining both John 20:19-23 and Acts 2:1-9. While these passages give accounts of different events and different phases and modes of the Spirit's being given, there are, nonetheless, some important commonalities: [a] in both instances the Spirit is given "to a company of people together and not to separate individuals," [b] the gift of the Spirit is one that abides, rather than functioning as a temporary empowerment, [c] the Spirit is "given to the disciples as the gift of the crucified and risen Lord," [d] the Spirit is given "to enable the Church to filfil its mission" to draw all men to Christ so that "God's mighty work of salvation in Jesus is carried forward among men of every tongue," and [e] the "gift of the Holy Spirit is give in the closest possible connection with the gift of forgiveness" (11-13).

Newbigin concludes that the New Testament makes clear that four things all belong together: "repentance, baptism, forgiveness, and the gift of the Spirit. There is no separation between these things" (14). Peter, after all, tells the gathered crowd on Pentecost, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38). As Newbigin comments:

In effect Peter is telling them to follow Jesus in what he has done, to accept the baptism which was begun in Jordan and completed on Calvary, a baptism for the sin of the world, and to receive the anointing of the same Spirit that was given to Jesus in his baptism. (14)

And all those who are baptized with this baptism and receive this gift of the Spirit, he notes, "immediately become one fellowship," a fellowship that continues and is renewed "by its devotion to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, the breaking of the bread and the prayers" (alluding to Acts 2:41-41; 14-15).

This salvation-historical account of Christian baptism emerges from and provides the backdrop for the further remarks that Newbigin makes regarding the sacrament in his earlier work, The Household of God (SCM 1953). After a lengthy discussion in which he demonstrates that it is by faith alone that we receive Christ for our justification and salvation, Newbigin turns to the following sorts of questions:

But how is God presented to our faith? In Jesus Christ. There is one mediator, given once for all, at the center of world history, bu whome we are reconciled to God. How then is Jesus Christ present to out faith who live nineteen centuries after His incarnation? In what way is he He made contemporary to us that we may believe in Him?...how is He present to us today? (47)

Newbigin answers these questions in orthodox Protestant fashion, pointing to Christ's present to us in the word and sacraments of the Gospel where "Christ Himself is present in His saving power, to evoke faith, to reconcile sinful man with holy God, to build up the Church which is Body" (47).

But the word and sacraments are not an abstraction. They make Christ present to us within the context of "the ongoing life of the Church," from which they cannot be isolated (49). Newbigin notes that while the word and sacraments create and re-create the church, this does not mean that the church lacks historical, organic continuity. The word and sacraments "are never -- if one may speak crudely -- let down from heaven at the end of a string...Every seting forth of the word and sacraments of the Gospel is an event in the life of an actually existing Christian Church" and thus "cannot be severed from it" (49). When Jesus sent his Gospel into the world, he did so through a fellowship of believers.

All these observations lead Newbigin to conclude, in answer to his earlier question of the way in which Jesus is present to us today, that "He is present in His people, in His apostolic fellowship" (50). It is this community of believers, this fellowship that Jesus "called, trained, endowed, and sent forth," that was "the explicit provision which Jesus made for the extension of His saving power to the whole world" (50). Thus, we can say that the "word is preached and the sacraments are administered in and by the Church as well as to the Church, and Christ, the Head of the body, acts in them, both through and for the Church" (57). And so, with regard to the sacrament of baptism, "we are made incorporate in Christ primarily and essentially by sacramental incorporation into the life of His Church" (61).

Newbigin goes on to unpack this last assertion from several perspectives, noting: [a] how Jesus gathered, trained, and sent out his Apostles so that he might "be represented in all the plentitude of His power, by His own chosen and commissioned people," [b] the way in which Scripture shows us how "God's saving purpose is executed through the calling of a particular people" through his pure grace in order that they "may be with Him and that He may send them forth," [c] that, despite the Bible's profound sense of the ultimate responsibility of each person before God, God also deals with humanity "in their natural solidarities of family, household, and nation," and [d] that the Biblical doctrine of the Church occurs in the context of concern "with the whole created order," so that the "final consummation of all things is conceived to include the renewal of the whole created universe" along with and in the resurrection of the human body (62-66).

These considerations, Newbigin insists, provide the necessary context that must govern how we think about the church and the means of grace. He concludes that "it is in accordance with the whole biblical standpoint that the spehre of salvation should be a visible fellowship marked by visible signs wherein God uses material means to convery His saving power." Only in such a present economy of salvation can we find "an earnest and foretaste of the restoration of creation...and of man to his true relation to the created world" (67).

In light of this, it should come as no surprise that Scripture teaches that our entrance into the fellowship of God "should be by the door of baptism in water, and that the Son of God Himself should enter into His earthly ministrt through that same lowly door" (68). Thus, we find that in the New Testament, over and over again, "admission into the new covenant with all its privileges and responsibilities is by faith and baptism" (68).

Newbigin recognizes that this can raise all kinds of questions in our minds: "How is faith related to baptism? If there is really faith, is baptism necessary? What is the use of baptism if there is no faith? Is baptism only a useful sign and seal?" and so on. In response, he comments that "the New Testament writers are totally unconcious of these difficulties" (69). On the contrary, it is "simply taken for granted taht baptism is that bywhich we were made members of the Body ofvChrist and participants in the Spirit" (69). Newbigin substantiates this point with a brief survey of a number of relevant Pauline texts (Gal 3:26-28; Rom 6:3-4; Eph 4:5-6; Col 2:12; etc.), drawn together in the following point:

In spite of everything that Paul has to say about faith as the ground of our justification, of our sonship, of our receiving the Spirit, of our living "in Christ," he also speaks, euqally plainly and unambiguously, of baptism as that by which we are made members of Christ. The Body of Christ in which Christians are members is a visible body, entrance into which is marked by the visible sign of baptism. (69-70)

Newbigin continues by expositing the New Testament doctrine of the "Body of Christ" in greater detail, an exposition that I will not take time to summarize here, though it is central to all that Newbigin has to say and does address some of the "difficulties" he referred to earlier.

Lesslie Newbigin wrote a number of other works that, though often focussed on the missional vocation of the church, nonetheless touch on wider questions of discipleship, ecclesiology, sacraments, and so on. I would certainly commend much of what Newbigin has to say on all these thing and hope this brief dip into his teaching on baptism piques your interest.