Friday, July 27, 2007

of water and spirit

Four months ago, I started something and then quickly dropped it. I said I was going to spend time critiquing some of my own past writings, from my seminary days, when things seemed much more cut-and-dried. I think I got through one paper, on the canon of the Old Testament, and then dropped the project. I think what probably happened was that I just never got around to pulling up other materials. They're mostly stored on a different computer from the one I use to do my blogging, so it's rare that I think about it enough to look for them when I have the chance. The pace of life has slowed down a bit, while I'm taking some time off of work to help out with the new baby. I finally went through everything and decided there's really only one other subject I want to address. (There's certainly other stuff that could be covered, but most of it's not quite so directly controversial between Evangelicalism and Orthodoxy. Besides, I frankly get bored reading my own writing.)

In my first semester of seminary, I took a required class on "methods of biblical research." One of our assignments (I believe it was the big assignment for the semester) was to write a paper on John 3:5 and the meaning of "born of water." As with the other, I have no idea how long I'll leave the paper online; and once again, I apologize for the formatting. I've tried to clean up the Greek and Hebrew scripts (I wasn't doing them in Unicode back then); otherwise, I pretty much left it as Google docs rendered it.

Much like the OT canon paper, a major bias that stands out is that I never really took seriously the traditional view. I paid some lip service to the possibility that the passage could be talking about baptism, but I wrote it off with some pretty flimsy arguments and instead spent most of my attention on the choice between "born of water" as a reference to physical birth and "born of water and spirit" as more or less redundant. The whole discussion has a feel of, since it's not about baptism, what does it mean? The other overriding assumption is the typical bottom-up interpretive ideal of Evangelical hermeneutics. The meaning of the passage can only extend to what was going on at the moment between Jesus and Nicodemus, which can only be based on their shared background in OT Scripture. The life of the Church in which John wrote is more or less irrelevant.

Not to be too hard on myself, I think I was on the right track with the idea that Nicodemus's initial assertion about Jesus was earthly, fleshly, and could only be correcting through a total rebirth. I failed, however, to extend the idea to its logical conclusion, that Jesus was not really explaining things for him (at least, not as he was) but for those who already saw with the eyes of the Spirit. This is, I think, a common flaw in Evangelical reasoning--that although the importance of being born again is emphasized, and particularly in more Reformed circles, the incapacity of fallen man to receive the things of the Spirit prior to regeneration, when it comes to interpreting Scripture, methods are applied that assume clarity is possible prior to the presence of the Spirit. In this case, the contradiction is obvious (once you know where to look for it)--Jesus plainly told Nicodemus that he had to be born again before he could understand, but I assumed with many Evangelical interpreters that whatever Jesus's meaning, it must have been something Nicodemus could grasp.

Toward the end of the paper, I marshaled my specific objections to the sacramental view:
  1. If Jesus meant to convey baptism, he would have continued referring to it explicitly throughout the passage. I reasoned that, if this passage was talking about baptism, he was making it a means of regeneration and a condition for salvation. Since this idea is articulated nowhere else in Scripture, Jesus would surely have made his meaning explicit. I assumed, of course, an absurdly strong view of sola scriptura, that whatever Jesus would say here would be done with a view toward the eventual need that every doctrine could be clearly articulated and defended using only statements contained in Scripture. (I don't suppose I stopped to think that this line of reasoning runs counter to the expectation that Jesus's words gain their full meaning in their immediate context.) I also assumed that Scripture nowhere else suggests a sacramental view of baptism and that John's Gospel has nothing to say about Christian ordinances.
  2. Nicodemus was unlikely to have made the connection with baptism. Again, I missed the point that Nicodemus was not yet ready to receive the truth Jesus was getting at here, and I completely ignored the force his words would have had for the Christian community that would read John's Gospel.
  3. The topic was not Spirit baptism but regeneration. Perhaps even more absurd than my assumption that Jesus was intentionally constructing the New Testament as one might write a theology book, I also assumed that the theological categories I was studying in seminary had some relevance to the language of the NT. Clearly, Jesus would not have mixed up these two important and distinct doctrines. If he had in mind regeneration, there was no place for him to be talking about baptism, which is an altogether different ministry of the Spirit!
I don't know where I thought this silly notion came from, that Jesus was talking here about water baptism. I acknowledged that it was the majority view among commentators (and surely the only view expressed for the first several centuries of the Church, though at the time it wouldn't have occurred to me that such might be worth knowing), but I apparently wasn't bothered by the discrepancy. It wasn't even worth giving much consideration.

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