Monday, June 11, 2007

Holy Spirit Agency in Baptism

While I'm offline in meetings today, I don't want you to be without anything edifying to read. I left my church a guest preacher; I'll leave the rest of you a guest blogger. Welcome Dr. Greg Welty, candidate for the D. Phil at Oxford (i.e., official supergenius) and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at SWBTS. Thanks for your hard work of late to expose the spurious nature of claims being made about The Baptist Faith & Message, Dr. Welty. ======================

Defending the BFM 2000 on the Spirit as the Agent of Baptism

In a recent post at his blog, Wade Burleson has argued that the BFM 2000 is "contrary to Scripture" in its statement that "He [i.e., the Spirit] baptizes every believer into the Body of Christ" (BFM II.C). Burleson cites Sam Storms, who says the following:
The problem is that there isn't a single, solitary biblical text which says that the Spirit baptizes anyone into anything. It is always and in every text Jesus Christ who baptizes believers in the Holy Spirit, the result of which is that we are incorporated into the Body of Christ.
(Before I go any further, I should stress that what follows is simply an assessment of a particular piece of reasoning, not a judgment of a person. I have greatly benefited from many aspects of Sam Storms's ministry over the years, as have many others.) Before I get to my main rebuttal of Burleson's conclusion, I start by noting that in the above Storms follows up a misleading claim by a false one. The claim that "there isn't a single, solitary biblical text which says that the Spirit baptizes anyone into anything" is misleading at best. For, by the same token, there isn't a single, solitary biblical text which says that "The eternal triune God reveals Himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with distinct personal attributes, but without division of nature, essence, or being." But presumably, Storms accepts this Trinitarian claim at the end of the first paragraph of BFM II. And that's because many claims in the BFM are grounded in *several* texts of Scripture taken together. You don't need "a single, solitary biblical text" which states the entire doctrine in full. The question at hand, then, is whether there is a good, biblical basis (however construed) for concluding that "the Holy Spirit baptizes every believer into the Body of Christ." I submit that there is such a case, if we interpret 1Co 12:3 *in context*, in light of the united testimony of the surrounding verses. Before I make that case, let's consider not Storms's misleading claim above, but the false claim which comes after it. He says that "It is always and in every text Jesus Christ who baptizes believers in the Holy Spirit." Actually, this is false, for 1Co 12 is itself an exception to Storms's sweeping claim. 1Co 12 is clearly speaking about the baptism of believers, but nowhere in 1Co 12 is there the claim that *Jesus Christ* is the agent of baptism. And this points up an interesting issue. *Who* is the agent of baptism in 1Co 12? Jesus Christ is never identified as the agent. Still, there clearly *is* an agent who is identified for us in this passage, and that is the Holy Spirit. As v. 11 points out, "But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills." Here, the Spirit Himself is presented to us as the agent who "distributes to each one individually." And He does this "just as He wills." While v. 11 is about the Spirit's willing distribution of spiritual gifts, the subsequent "gar" clauses in vv. 12-13 help us to understand why we ought to affirm the Spirit's agency here. The Spirit Himself is the agent who distributes the gifts, *for* it is "by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body" (v. 13). If the Spirit were *merely* the passive means employed by another agent (for instance, Christ) to bring about baptism, then there would be no reason to cite baptism by the Spirit as a reason to affirm the Spirit's sovereign, willing, agential distribution of the gifts. But this is precisely what Paul does. He infers the agency of the Spirit from baptism by the Spirit. And this is because the Spirit is an agent in both baptism and gift-distribution. Nevertheless, I can certainly see Storms's point that Christ is also the agent of Spirit-baptism. As he points out, Mt 3:11, Mk 1:8, Lk 3:16, and Jn 1:33 all testify that it is Christ who baptizes. But doesn't this pose an insoluble difficulty for 1Co 12? If Christ is the agent of baptism, how can the Spirit be the agent of baptism? Or, vice-versa? Doesn't one exclude the other? And here we reach the heart of what is unacceptable in Storms's argument that the BFM's statement lacks adequate biblical grounding: Storms imposes a false dichotomy upon the text of Scripture. (Indeed, even if everything I have said in the preceding paragraphs is incorrect, the point made in the present paragraph stands, and is decisive.) Storms seems to infer from the fact that Christ is the agent of baptism, that therefore *the Spirit is not an agent in that baptism*. But why think this? The Holy Spirit is a *Person*, after all. This much is clear from 1Co 12:11; He distributes to each one individually just as He wills. And while it is most consistent with the united testimony of the rest of Scripture to regard Christ as the agent of baptism, the fact that according to 1Co 12 this baptism is by means of *another Person* is surely significant. Why would the personal agency of the Spirit in baptism somehow be suppressed or excluded simply because the Spirit is the means Christ uses to baptize? Storms himself would reject this reasoning in a variety of other contexts. For instance, God uses *His people* as a means to bring about various results here on earth. Does the fact that we are means in the hands of God somehow exclude our own personal agency in bringing about what is effected? Of course not. Indeed, I believe Sam Storms has been used by God as a means to baptize many people in the churches he has pastored over the years. Does it follow from this that Storms was not a personal agent who baptized many people? Of course not. God the Father accomplished redemption by means of Jesus Christ. Does it follow that Jesus Christ is not a personal agent who accomplishes redemption? And so on. Indeed, the fact that Christ baptizes believers *by means of another Person* -- rather than by means of an impersonal force or substance -- is a reason to *affirm* the personal agency of the Spirit in baptism. And thus, we can quite easily find biblical basis for the statement in BFM II.C that "He [i.e., the Spirit] baptizes every believer into the Body of Christ." All we need is the combined teaching of the Bible that (i) believers are baptized by the Spirit, and (ii) the Spirit is a Person. Contrary to Storms's position, contextually speaking it's far more plausible to see the Spirit as an agent here not only of the distribution of spiritual gifts (v. 11), but of baptism into the body of Christ (vv. 12-13). Again, according to Paul, it is precisely Spirit-baptism which leads us to affirm the agency of the Spirit in gift-distribution. Why would a *passive* Spirit as the means of baptism be a reason for affirming the *active agency* of the Spirit in gift-distribution? Paul's reasoning makes no sense on Storms's hypothesis. But once we affirm the active agency of the Spirit as the means of baptism, Paul's reasoning makes sense. The Spirit's will is involved in both baptism and gift-distribution. A final note. Storms says:
"Some have argued from 1 Corinthians 12:13 that Paul is describing a baptism "by" the Holy Spirit into Christ or into his body. Part of the motivation for this is the seemingly awkward phrase, "in one Spirit into one body," hence the rendering, "by one Spirit into one body."
I'm not sure why Storms feels the need to speculate on "the motivation for this" translation. It's not because of a "seemingly awkward phrase." Rather, the fundamental reason to translate 1Co 12:3 as baptism "by" the Holy Spirit is that the preposition "en" is used, and clearly -- as Storms himself notes later -- "en" is quite adequately translated by the English "by". I close this section with the balanced assessment of Jimmy Draper, who recently wrote an article for Baptist Press on "Baptism of the Holy Spirit." Draper says:
"The phrase "baptism of the Holy Spirit" does not appear in Scripture. Christ is always described as the baptizer in the Gospels (see for example Matthew 3:11) and Acts, and then the Holy Spirit is His agent in the epistles."
A bit later, Draper says:
"It is a misunderstood experience. We actually have misnamed it. We refer to the baptism "of" or "in" the Holy Spirit as if He is an impersonal substance. From Scripture it should be "by" or "with" the Holy Spirit. First Corinthians 12:13 is a good example. The Greek preposition "en" can be translated "in," "by," "with" or "of." Here it is clearly instrumental and should be translated "by."
Notice how Draper does not fall into a false dichotomy. On the one hand, the Spirit is the "instrument" of baptism. We are baptized "by" the Spirit. But on the other hand, the Holy Spirit remains an "agent" in baptism. The instrumental status of the Spirit as He relates to baptism does not in any way exclude his status as an agent in baptism. The Spirit is *the agent by which* Christ baptizes. In fact, the double-agency of Christ and the Spirit with respect to baptism parallels quite nicely the double-agency of Christ and the Spirit with respect to the bestowal of spiritual gifts on believers. According to 1Co 12:11, the Spirit is the agent who bestows spiritual gifts. But according to Eph 4:7-8, Christ is the agent who bestows spiritual gifts. The reconciliation of these two claims is easy: the Spirit is *the agent by which* Christ bestows the gifts. So, far from being "contrary to Scripture," the statement in BFM II.C is what Scripture would lead us to affirm. To be sure, the BFM does not state *everything* that could be stated on the topic of baptism by the Spirit. But what it does state seems to be eminently biblical.


Geoff Baggett said...

Well said, Dr. Welty.
That's exactly how I wold have explained it. ;)

Greg Welty said...


Thanks for the light humor :-)


Not that this really matters, but I got the D.Phil. last October. My faculty page at SWBTS hasn't been updated in, err, about two years or so. Hopefully by the end of the summer I can get around to it.

Greg Welty said...

Just in case anyone *is* offended by the detail of the above, keep in mind that it is a response to a previously-given argument, which itself was several paragraphs long.

However, if someone asked me why anyone should believe the BFM's statement that the Spirit baptizes every believer into the body of Christ, the answer is very simple (and is also contained in the above):

All believers are baptized by the Spirit, and the Spirit is a person. So *of course* the Spirit is the agent who baptizes us.

And that's all you have to say.

The Scriptures teach we have been baptized by a Person, namely, the Spirit. What more do you need in order to support the BFM at this point?

Now, if someone wants to indulge in false dichotomies in order to get around this basic conclusion ('if Christ is the agent, then the Spirit is not the agent'), then sure, you need to interact with whatever argument has been given. But that's not necessary in order to make a simple case for the BFM's statement.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Welty,

Thanks for taking time to explain and clarify. This has been very helpful for me. I read a variety of the SBC blogs regularly and appreciate your willingness to appear here. I don't understand why some bloggers criticize and try to poke holes in the BFM2K. Thanks for helping me to see better the strength of this important document.


Ched said...

This is a very helpful defense of this (biblical and confessional) teaching...