Reimagining Adventism, Part 13a: Baptism and Absurdity

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Reimagining Adventism, Part 13a: Baptism and Absurdity

We have in Christ what we have lost in Adam. – John Calvin

 

Baptism is one of the most remarkable and profound rituals of church life. It emerges in scripture as part of the nexus of sin, salvation, and the new humanity birthed in the second Adam. Properly understood, its themes maneuver like tendrils through the Old Testament narrative, fully blossoming in the post-resurrection apostolic proclamation recorded in Acts. And from this vision of baptism, the believer encounters something transcendent in the tangible and participates in the very unfolding of scriptures current. In short, baptism is a portal of sorts in which the believer moves from a mostly propositional understanding of truth to inhabiting the truth itself – that is, she becomes a character in the very story she has been observing.

 

However, baptism doesn’t always enjoy such an enthusiastic conceptualization. For some, it is merely a ritual by which we affirm who is in and who is out. We have taken its complex synthesis and trivialized it into a procedure by which worthy individuals can attain the ethereal club membership. For others (on the opposite end of the spectrum) baptism is merely “marrying Jesus” or a public declaration of faith. In this scenario, the theodrama inherent in the experience of baptism is missed in favor of a cartoonish, 2-dimensional over-simplification. The tragedy of these common scenarios is difficult to overstate.

 

But it honestly gets worse. Because of our historical sectarian remnant ideology, the conversation of baptism has also been embroiled in a disorienting maze of institutionalism that is then read back into scripture resulting in what can only be described as the sorry mangling of the gospels most romantic metaphor. Thus, when it comes to the conversation over secular outreach and baptism the theme itself splits in two equally important albeit diverse routes: the pragmatic and the experiential. The pragmatic deals with questions such as When should a person be baptized? While the experiential deals with the question of baptism meaning on both a personal and trans-personal level.

 

As we embark on this journey, I would like to begin with the experiential and conclude with the pragmatic because it’s a lot easier to sort through the mess inherent in the pragmatic questions if we return to a proper grasp of the narrative undergirding baptism. With that goal in mind, I want to share the approach I use when studying baptism with secular contacts – a theme that is inherently and rightfully uncomfortable. As usual, I approach the theme from three simple and progressive angles. The first I refer to as humanity’s converging plight, the second, humanity’s converging hope and the third, humanity’s emerging promise. I will explore each in this present article and turn to the pragmatic questions in the next installment.

 

Humanity’s Converging Plight

 

When interacting with secular people, one theme to keep in mind is the denial of historical access. What this means, especially in postmodern circles, is that history is viewed as something that we as humans cannot have access to. We cannot really know what took place in the past because history, in itself, is inaccessible. Some of this is tied to the notion that words have no inherent meaning and that all meaning is supplied by the person doing the listening or reading. If words have no inherent meaning apart from the meaning we already bring, then how can we adequately reproduce history as it happened? This becomes an impossible task.

 

Of course, the absence of meaning in words is itself rooted in a godless universe. If there is no God to give our language substance and meaning, if words are merely noises we make to communicate abstract ideals that are essentially fatuous, then communication loses all transcendental significance. However, if God does exist then this changes everything. Words can now be seen as the tangible manifestation of intangible ideals rooted in meaning and therefore, the words themselves have meaning that transcends the reader’s subjective interpretive framework. This, in turn, means history can be known.

 

Why this matters is because in the tension over our access to history, one of the essential arguments that prove useful is the argument of converging lines of evidence. This simply means that, in the study of history, we can find shared perspectives in which people with diverse motives are reporting observations that converge. This convergence then allows us to piece together facts and consequently emerges as one line of evidence against the notion that the past cannot be known. For example, we protest the injustice of the patriarchy today because we can find converging experiences from women in all past (and present) societies being oppressed or relegated to second-class citizenry. Thus, patriarchy becomes a historical narrative that can be known. Likewise, we protest Eurocentrism, White-supremacy, slavery, economic elitism, etc. by relying on the same convergence. In short, our shared perspectives or shared experiences give birth to clear historical narratives that enable us to know that the thing we are talking about is indeed a thing.

 

The same is true of the experience of sin. While it might be a la mode to deny the trappings of such an old and simplistic religious idea as sin, the truth is sin is a narrative with near-infinite converging lines of evidence. Going as far back as history allows us and progressing to the present day, humanity’s injustice and brutality are a constant, converging point of experience and expression that cannot be denied. This is why, in a recent debate with a secular man who denied that human beings need redemption, I simply pointed out the historical trajectory of self-centred empire, it’s perpetuation of suffering, injustice, and opportunism as well as our present-day pursuit of self-redemption in environmental reform, colonization of Mars, or the transhuman experiment in which man blends with machine to achieve immortality. Why would any of these exist were humanity not looking for some sort of salvation? And what do we make of our historical legacy? The one that clearly reveals, in squalid detail, humanity’s converging plight?

 

Of course, by the time I arrive at a discussion of baptism, most seekers have already understood and embraced the biblical picture of sin and the fall. Nevertheless, secularism is not merely an ideology but rather a mood, a state of being, a value system that has guided many contacts for decades. As a result, I find it helpful to always be prepared to revisit the more difficult aspects of scriptures narrative from different angles. And because the topic of baptism is inherently difficult, especially to the non-religious mind, relaying the foundation of sin via an exploration of man’s converging plight makes the next step in the conversation a lot easier to take.

 

Humanity’s Converging Hope

 

The universal presence of sin presents humanity with a stark and bleak future visage. In exploring with secular contacts, I stay away from too much talk of God’s judgment here because such talk is often loaded with a lot of unbiblical assumptions that create walls. Instead, I focus on man’s judgment upon himself. That is if left to our unrestrained passions – our historically decadent convergence certainly allows for the possibility that we would eventually annihilate ourselves. So then, where can humanity find hope of a new society and new kingdom – one that is entirely different?

 

At this point, we are prepared to explore the narrative of the first and second Adam. According to scripture, I explain, there are actually two humanities – one belonging to the first Adam from creation and one belonging to the new, or second, Adam from the incarnation. (1 Corinthians 15:45) This second Adam, who is Jesus, is the father of a new humanity. In his life, death, and resurrection Jesus exemplified a life of love. He never once manifested selfishness of any sort but was in all things driven by other-centered love. As a result, he has become the first human being to ever live who reflected the very character of God in all its forms. Thus, in him, a new humanity is born. But how can we, born of the first Adam ever participate in this new humanity?

 

Here is where the Biblical theme of adoption comes to life. God, the Bible declares, adopts everyone who puts their faith in Christ into a new, heavenly family of which Christ is head. (Ephesians 1:5) This means that once you have believed in Jesus, God adopts you out of the family of Adam and grafts you into the family of Christ. What this means on an existential level is simple but also extremely profound. For in the days of scripture, an adopted son was not considered an adopted son but rather a son. He inherited the identity, history, legacy, and estate of the new father. He was no longer a member of his original family. Any debts, reputation, or legacy associated with his original family were entirely detached from him. He now had a new legacy, a new reputation, a new story fused to the new father. He was not a second class son in any sense but rather, a son in the fullest ideal.

 

Thus, when scripture declares that you and I have been adopted into a new family, the family of Christ, what this means is that everything we were in the first Adam – our history, legacy, debts, obligations, and even our very identity – is wiped away. We are now given a new history – the history of Christ. He is our ancestor, the head of our new humanity. We belong to a new family and share in its legacy and obligations. No longer tethered to the old identity, we receive an entirely new identity in Christ. “Behold, everyone who is in Christ is a new creation. The old has gone. The new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

 

It is this new humanity to which all are invited that constitutes humanity’s converging hope. Humanity’s because Christ created a new, love-centered humanity in himself and now promises to mold all who trust in him into that same image. Converging because the history of faith is replete with converging stories from all over the world of men and women who have encountered Christ and experienced a metamorphosis of being. Prostitutes and con-men, slave traders and exploiters, the sexually immoral and the addict, the arrogant and the filthy – liars and thieves. Some come with a history littered in vice and regret, others of more noble origin nevertheless come weighed down by the moral failures that stain their projected image. Some are educated, others unlearned. Some are sophisticated and well mannered, others addicts, convicts, and ill-tempered. But what we find in these converging stories is a common theme: hope. The hope of a new beginning. Hope of a new tomorrow. The hope of rebirth from who they were in Adam to a new creation in Christ. And as these converging peoples come, from the diversity of the human experience, they form one family with Christ at the head – a new humanity being molded in the image of love.

 

Humanity’s Emerging Promise

 

This now leads us into the final theme in the progression of baptism’s narrative. I ask my contacts a set of simple questions. First, who is this new family? Where do we find them? The biblical answer is “the church”. Not church as in a building or institution, but church as in a people adopted from “Humanity 1.0 to Humanity 2.0”[1] as pastor Ty Gibson puts it.

 

This is a wonderful point to revisit what church is and is not in our conversations. However, I don’t linger there for too long because my next question is – how do you become a part of this new human family? There are two simple answers of course. The first is to believe in Jesus. And the second is what the Bible calls “baptism”.

 

But what exactly is baptism? In a sense, baptism is a somatic reenactment of a transcarnal reality. When a person receives Christ, their sins are wiped away in the heavenly records. However, the person is not there to witness this. It is a transcendent experience that we bear witness to only in two ways. First, the Holy Spirit brings the assurance that our sins are pardoned. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He goes an extra step by providing us with a tangible ritual through which we can experience a transcendental reality. In baptism then, we take the ethereal reality of our pardon and enact in it physical time and space because the rite itself “reinforces subjectively the truth of the objective reality it attests.”[2] In short, through this ritual, the immaterial becomes material. We experience what God has done “over there”, by bringing it to the “right here”.

 

However, the depth of baptism surpasses this. Paul writes, “Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:7) Two significant points emerge from this. The first is that in baptism we participate in Jesus’ death. In other words, just as Jesus died and was buried, as we are lowered into the water so we too die and are buried. In a very strong sense, this is the epicenter of the doctrines romantic beauty. In the act of being lowered into the water, we participate in the very death of our king. And it is from this death that the second theme emerges: that is newness of life. For the core teaching of the gospel is that a mere-human enters into the family of the Christ-human via death. Death then, is the portal through which we enter into life. You cannot have life then without death. This emerges as baptism’s most profound revelation, one which Dietrich Bonhoeffer eloquently captured when he wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”[3]3 That in the act of baptism I am dying and being buried as a child of the first Adam, and then raised – just as Christ was raised – to newness of life, as a child of the second Adam.

 

But when I am reborn a child of the second Adam, what this means is I no longer belong to the family of the first Adam. I have undergone a transmogrification of sorts, but more, I have undergone a passage from my first birth – to which I have now died – into a rebirth to which I am now entering. In doing so, the believer has been reborn into a new family, a new identity and a new legacy. Who I was in Adam is erased. All my debts, obligations, and identity are gone. Everything is now new. I no longer belong to the earthly family but to the heavenly. And that heavenly family, this new humanity under the headship of Christ, is precisely what the New Testament refers to as the church. Not a building. Not an institution. Not a denomination with a tax number and a copyrighted brand. A family. A new humanity. A new life in Christ. As the reformer, John Calvin once stated, “We have in Christ what we have lost in Adam.”[4]

 

In sharing this with the secular mind, gone is the anti-institutional tension for it does not exist. Gone is the suspicion of a religious empire for it is not in view. What is in view is a new humanity and baptism is then the portal through which a child of Adam dies to his former self and is rebirthed into a new humanity of which Christ is all.

 

In the next article, I will explore the pragmatic implications and challenges of this experience. But for now, I invite us all to meditate on the depth of baptism and what its narrative is conveying to the human experience.

______

Notes.

[1] Ty Gibson. “Humanity 2.0,” [Web: https://subsplash.com/storylineadventistchurch/lb/mi/+chb7f37]

[2] Travis McKayden. “Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Baptism and Rejection of Infant Baptism,” [Web: https://postbarthian.com/2019/07/18/karl-barths-doctrine-baptism-rejection-infant-baptism]

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The Cost of Discipleship.

[4] A common John Calvin quote. Source unknown.

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About the author

Marcos Torres

Marcos Torres is a pastor in Western Australia where he lives with his wife and children. He loves talking about faith, culture and Adventism. You can follow his blog at www.thestorychurchproject.com.