Anabaptists are fond of saying that they read the plain meaning of scripture first, before we try to do any gymnastics to explain what a verse means or doesn’t mean. Oh, and we don’t start with our theological teleology and back the truck up into our reading of scripture either; no never. This sounds well and good and noble, but sometimes I really wonder how much this holds up.
Take this verse for instance: 1 Peter 3:21
Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,
and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also–not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ,
The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ:
The thing it corresponds to, is Noah and his ark safely conveying people and animals through the flood waters to safety. It is, of course, historical anabaptist doctrine that baptism is only for those who profess faith in Christ and that it is an outward sign of something that God has already done on the inside. In other words, it has no actual metaphysical effect on the believer.
In that context, I’ve always struggled with 1 Peter 3:21. On plain reading, it clearly seems to be saying that baptism is salvific (having a direct metaphysical connection to salvation). “Baptism, which now saves you”. It’s really hard for me to see how we didn’t read our theology back into this verse. The explanation of how why this IS NOT actually making a connection between water baptism and salvation seem to me, at times, to be gymnastics worthy of the Olympics.
First, a selection of perspectives, found in various commentaries and the Church Fathers (sorry, some of these selections are quite lengthy).
First:Baptism has no real efficacy:
From the New American Commentary:
The typological thrust of the text is now specifically stated, expressed in the NIV by the verb “symbolizes,” though in the Greek the word is a noun that could be translated as “type” or “pattern” (antitypon; cf. Heb 9:24). The water that deluged the world in Noah’s day and through which Noah was saved functions as a model or pattern for Christian believers.324 But to what is the water related in the new covenant? The answer is baptism.
From the Holman New Testament Commentary
Verse 21 has also generated great debate. This writer believes that Peter used the historical account of Noah and his family as an analogy for the triumphant salvation provided through Christ. His reference to baptism, however, is not water baptism. The flood waters did not save Noah—quite the opposite. The waters of the flood destroyed everyone in judgment. Noah passed through those waters safely because he and his family were placed securely in the ark. Water baptism does not fit the picture and is not the point.
The point of the analogy becomes clear when we recall that when a person accepts Jesus Christ as personal Savior, he or she is placed into “the body of Christ.” At that moment the Holy Spirit enters that person’s life as a permanent resident. This action is described in the New Testament as “the baptism of the Holy Spirit” (see 1 Cor. 12:13). This is Peter’s emphasis. When you accept Christ, you are placed spiritually in Christ. As this occurs, you stand before God with a “good conscience” (v. 21) because your sins have been forgiven. Water baptism does not provide a person with a clear conscience before God; baptism by the Holy Spirit does.
Second: An attempt at a middle ground
From the Crossway Classic Commentary on 1, 2 Peter
That baptism has power is expressly stated: baptism that now saves you. What kind of power this is, is equally clear from the way it is here expressed. It is not by a natural force of the element. Even when it is used sacramentally it can only wash away the dirt of the body, as its physical power reaches no further. But since it is in the hand of the Spirit of God, as other sacraments are and as the Word itself is, it can purify the conscience and convey grace and salvation to the soul through its reference to and union with what it represents. It saves by the pledge of a good conscience toward God, and that by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Thus, we have a true account of this power, and so of other sacraments, and we find the error of two extremes. First, that of those who ascribe too much to them, as if they worked through a natural, inherent value and carried grace in them inseparably. Second, the error of those who ascribe too little to them, making them only signs and badges of our profession. Signs they are, but more than signs that merely represent something. They are the means exhibiting and seals confirming grace to the faithful. But the working of faith and the conveying of Christ into the soul are not put into them to accomplish in themselves but are still in the supreme hand that appointed them. God causes the souls of his own to receive these seals of his with faith and makes them effectual to confirm the faith that receives them in this way. They are then, in a word, neither empty signs to those who believe, nor effectual causes of grace to those who do not believe.
Third: Baptism is efficacious
According to: Ambrose of Milan. “On the Mysteries” and the Treatise “On the Sacraments.”
Therefore, when the Lord saw that the transgressions of mankind were multiplied, he saved the righteous one alone with his offspring, but he bade the water rise even above the mountains. And therefore, in that flood all corruption of the flesh perished, only the family and pattern of the righteous survived. Is not the flood the same thing as baptism, whereby all sins are washed away, only the mind and grace of the righteous is revived?
According to: St. Cyprian, The Epistles of Cyprian, Epistle LXXV
2. But that the Church is one, the Holy Spirit declares in the Song of Songs, saying, in the person of Christ, “My dove, my undefiled, is one; she is the only one of her mother, she is the choice one of her that bare her.” Concerning which also He says again, “A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring sealed up, a well of living water.”9 But if the spouse of Christ, which is the Church, is a garden enclosed; a thing that is closed up cannot lie open to strangers and profane persons. And if it is a fountain sealed, he who, being placed without has no access to the spring, can neither drink thence nor be sealed. And the well also of living water, if it is one and the same within, he who is placed without cannot be quickened and sanctified from that water of which it is only granted to those who are within to make any use, or to drink. Peter also, showing this, set forth that the Church is one, and that only they who are in the Church can be baptized; and said, “In the ark of Noah, few, that is, eight souls, were saved by water; the like figure where-unto even baptism shall save you;” proving and attesting that the one ark of Noah was a type of the one Church. If, then, in that baptism of the world thus expiated and purified, he who was not in the ark of Noah could be saved by water, he who is not in the Church to which alone baptism is granted, can also now be quickened by baptism. Moreover, too, the Apostle Paul, more openly and clearly still manifesting this same thing, writes to the Ephesians, and says, “Christ loved the Church, and gave Himself for it, that He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water.”2 But if the Church is one which is loved by Christ, and is alone cleansed by His washing, how can he who is not in the Church be either loved by Christ, or washed and cleansed by His washing?
Next, from First and Second Peter, Jude: Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture
21–22 Stepping aside from his narrative of Christ’s journey, Peter now applies the waters of the flood to us: This prefigured baptism, which saves you now. This is the only explicit reference to baptism in 1 Peter, though baptismal imagery and themes are found throughout the letter (1:3, 22–23; 2:1–3). The syntax of this verse is extremely complicated, and scholars continue to debate how to render it appropriately in English. Yet all agree that the meaning is fairly clear. “Prefigured” translates a rare word in the Bible that indicates here a divinely ordained correspondence between the waters of the flood and the waters of baptism. What happened to Noah is similar to what happens to us, and we can learn about our baptism by understanding Noah’s passage through the waters of the flood. What then is Peter saying? Just as Noah and his family were saved from death by passing through the waters of the flood, so we are saved from sin by passing through the waters of baptism. In both Noah’s case and ours God himself is the true cause of salvation, but the waters are the instrument through which salvation comes.
Peter goes on to clarify that baptism is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience. It is not perfectly clear what Peter means by this contrast. He seems to be saying that baptism does not consist in cleansing the body from dirt (literally, “filth”) but in our appeal to God to give us a “clear conscience.”
A “clear conscience” (literally, a “good conscience,” the same as in 3:16) is similar in meaning to a pure heart; that is, those who have a clear conscience are morally upright and pure. By submitting to the waters of baptism we purify our souls (1:22) by asking God to cleanse us within. It is God’s power that brings about a “clear conscience,” but by actively submitting to baptism we make an appeal to God to accomplish this in our hearts. Some scholars believe that “appeal” is better translated as “pledge,” such that baptism is “the pledge of a good conscience toward God” (NIV). In this interpretation, we are not making an appeal to God to give us a clear conscience but are pledging ourselves to live with a clear conscience in an upright way. Both senses are true: baptism includes our appeal to God and our commitment to him.
In a final phrase Peter shows that the true power for salvation comes through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is not the water itself that saves, and even less our appeal or commitment to God; it is God who saves us through the resurrection of Christ
Finally, we can’t conclude such a brief outline of views, without quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1094:
It is on this harmony of the two Testaments that the Paschal catechesis of the Lord is built, and then, that of the Apostles and the Fathers of the Church. This catechesis unveils what lay hidden under the letter of the Old Testament: the mystery of Christ. It is called “typological” because it reveals the newness of Christ on the basis of the “figures” (types) which announce him in the deeds, words, and symbols of the first covenant. By this re-reading in the Spirit of Truth, starting from Christ, the figures are unveiled.16 Thus the flood and Noah’s ark prefigured salvation by Baptism, as did the cloud and the crossing of the Red Sea. Water from the rock was the figure of the spiritual gifts of Christ, and manna in the desert prefigured the Eucharist, “the true bread from heaven.”
Now, back to Sacred Scripture: There is this particularly odd verse from Ephesians: “25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,”
So, now baptism is connected to preaching?
Ok, I’m tired just thinking about it now. Truthfully, I’m less concerned about “what” baptism does, as I am the clear necessity for it. I am often distressed at the length of time it seems to take professing Christians to be baptized (if they have not already been as infants and therefore they may legitimately be struggling with the decision to be re-baptized).
… But, that’s for another post.
Essentially, the point of this post was to point out that there is valid diversity of opinion, and that the “plain” reading of Scripture is maybe not os plain after all. Let’s give each other some grace as we work through these things.