Friday, January 6, 2017

The Problem of Saying, "Baptism Saves," in Lutheran Theology

I recently listened to a Lutheran youtube video that a friend posted, where the Lutheran proponent argued that Lutherans just read texts, like "baptism now saves you" (1 Pet 3:21), and let them speak plainly for themselves. Hence, Lutherans take this text at face value in their theology of baptism, and others (including many a Reformed folk) do not.

If you're not familiar with the Lutheran view on baptism is goes something like this: Baptism is a normative means through which faith is given, as God enjoins the Word to the sacrament. Hence, grace is received through the sacrament, always enjoined to the Word, of course, by which faith is given; and in this way, baptism saves.

Lutherans also affirm sola Fide, i.e., that one is justified by faith alone. Hence, faith, and only faith, is the means by which the grace that justifies an individual is given.

So what they do is say that baptism is a normative means to receive the means of the grace that justifies.

Now, here is the dilemma, as I see it, for this view. The texts do not say that baptism is a means by which faith is given and faith saves. So Lutherans actually are not just taking the texts according to their plain meaning. The texts actually indicate that baptism saves us, baptism is for the forgiveness of sins, baptism washes away our sins, etc.

The problem can be simplified by this syllogism. X = faith, Z = justification, and Y = baptism.

X is the only means by which someone can receive Z.
Someone can receive Z through Y.
Y, even if partially related, is something different than X.
Therefore, X is not the only means through which one can receive Z.


Faith is the only means by which someone can receive justification.
Someone can receive justification through baptism.
Baptism, even if partially related, is something different than faith.
Therefore, faith is not the only means through which one can receive justification.

In other words, the texts state that baptism saves us, not faith given in baptism, but baptism itself. To say otherwise is to do the very thing Lutherans are accusing others of doing.

So to take the texts as they read plainly is to admit that the texts plainly state that baptism saves.

Now, if the use of "baptism" in these texts is synonymous with faith, rather than something other than faith, then the claim that one believes in sola Fide is justified. This is what I argued. Baptism in the early church was often used as a synecdoche (a part for the whole, i.e., something associated with the act representing the act itself) for the faith commitment one made to follow Christ.

Hence, the blood and cross of Christ are said to do the same. They atone for sin. They provide reconciliation to God and a basis for forgiveness, but it's not the literal wood of the cross that does this. It's not Jesus' bodily fluids. The blood always represented death of the sacrifice, so these sit in as synonymous terms that refer to Christ's death. It's Christ's death that can be described as the cross that is atoning. It is Christ's death that can be referenced with the word "blood" that provides a propitiation. These are uses of synecdoche, and the figure of speech is used often in Scripture.

Hence, when I read texts that indicate baptism saves, and that baptism washes away sin, and that baptism is for the forgiveness of sin, I see that baptism refers to the decision to follow Christ, to be His disciple, i.e., faith.

Therefore, I can say, faith alone justifies and baptism justifies, as long as baptism is understood as the same thing as faith.

But in Lutheran theology the term is understood as the baptismal water ceremony. This is different than faith. Faith is given through it, but that means that faith and baptism are not the same thing, as one is given through the other, and cannot be, therefore, identical activities.

If this is the case, I would submit that, as long as they are seen as two different things, Lutherans simply would have to believe a flat contradiction that one is saved by faith alone and by baptism if they take these texts at face value, as they claim.

Now. if they understand it, as they often explain it, that baptism is the means through which one can be given faith, that's fine. I disagree and it has echoes of Roman soteriology to me a bit, but my main contention is that none of the prooftexts used actually say this. There is no text that says that baptism is the means of receiving the thing that saves you. It says baptism itself saves you. That's a big difference and something those claiming to believe in sola Fide need to reconcile if they are going to use these texts as their evidence for their theology.

Again, to reiterate, the texts in question do not say one is saved "in baptism," but that baptism is actually the thing that saves, forgives, washes sins away, etc. If the term "baptism" is not synonymous with the term "faith," by way of being used as a synecdoche, then Houston, we have a problem. The claim to believe in faith alone means that nothing else besides faith unites one to Christ so that he or she may be saved by Him. That means that baptism, if something different than faith, cannot save, and the biblical text that teaches both sola Fide and salvific baptism is wrong.

Or we can just go with the simpler view of understanding the way they often used something associated with an act, event, etc. in place of the act, event, etc., and there really is no problem with saying things like baptism saves you because baptism merely refers to one's faith commitment, transfer of allegiance to Christ, baptism merely representing that since one often made his public declaration of the transference of his allegiance to Christ by being baptized.

But I do think Lutherans should stop saying they take these texts literally for what they say because they don't. They're talking about baptism as a means by which faith is given, and the text is talking about baptism as that which actually justifies, not the thing that the thing that justifies comes through.

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