“Whether by word of mouth or by letter…”

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The US Constitution is a prime example of how the same words can be interpreted in many different ways. Sometimes this is just a way to get around the clear meaning and other times it is simply a problem with language. There are many cases, with this founding document of a nation, that it would be nice if we could have some further explanation. Sure, you can read some of what the writers and signers said elsewhere in order to try to fill in the blanks. But, in the end, without them here, we don’t truly know how they would respond to the demands of our modern economy, technology, and needs.

This only gets murkier when dealing with Scriptures written two millennia ago. Yes, every Bible-thumper and their brother thinks they have a clear understanding while everyone else is just making things more difficult than they really should be. I mean, “The Bible Says It, I Believe It, That Settles It,” right? And yet, if I were to answer that with, “do you bury your poo outside of your property, in a hole you dug with a trowel, as instructed in Deuteronomy?” I’m guessing that suddenly what the Bible says would become a bit less settled as those using this phrase made some sort of theological exemption and that’s okay, there are things in Scripture that aren’t perfectly clear without some further explanation.

But what is more intriguing to me is what is completely left out that would be so obvious to early Christians that it wouldn’t even be worth mentioning in the letters. As the saying goes, more is caught than taught, and sometimes the most important things never do get written out. In other words, if we were writing instructions on how to drive a car, we would probably assume that the person knows how to get into the vehicle or sit facing forward. However, from the Bible, do we know how the early church structured their services or generally lived? Would they even recognize us as Christians? The reality is that there are gaps that many today just fill in with assumptions and it is usually these different extra-Biblical assumptions that lead to many divisions.

In the Protestant world “extra-Biblical” is practically a curse word. How dare you ever have a rule, custom, or tradition that goes beyond the written text! That’s false religion or something! This is why Orthodoxy is often dismissed by those seeking to strip down Christianity to the Biblical bare bones. It is a special kind of ignorance.

A good illustration? In World War II there was a study of returning aircraft and the damage that they had to determine how to better prevent future losses. The Center for Naval Analyses concluded from this that the aircraft needed more protection in these most heavily damaged areas. However, Abraham Wald, a Hungarian mathematician, begged to differ. He reasoned that the aircraft returning had survived and those that had been hit in more critical areas did not. In other words, what needed to be done was the very opposite of what the others had concluded. They needed to better armor those areas that weren’t damaged in the returning aircraft. This tendency to misinterpret evidence, based on what we have rather than what is missing, is called “survivorship bias” and can lead to woefully incorrect ideas.

This is what the Bible says about what is written versus what is not:

So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.

(2 Thessalonians 2 NIV)

The “letter” is what we have received in Scripture. These are the books of the Bible, canonized by the Church and believed to be truly inspired writing for this reason. But the “word of mouth” is where things are more interesting. What of the Apostle’s teaching (or tradition according to the KJV) is not written in their letters and how do we know what is missing?

The Orthodox, of course, say that this is the tradition of the Church and tie their legitimacy to the fact that there is a line of secession going all the way back to the Apostles, by the laying of hands and ordinations, and this only makes sense. The Church (note, not an individual or even the institutions) is what keeps the spoken teachings of the Apostles preserved like it did the Bible, and also serves to provide the correct understanding of Scripture. Because we should know, as Peter warned, that the Bible does not provide its own interpretation: “[Paul’s] letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Peter 3:16 NIV)

However, it isn’t just the non-Orthodox that fall victim to their own bias. There are parts of the Church tradition, whether spoken or written, that slip through the cracks. We all have blind spots. We all have our distortions of concepts and errant assumptions. The difference is, that the Orthodox, if they are truly seeking to be Orthodox, are at least making some effort to incorporate the sayings of the Fathers and have a grasp of those “word of mouth” traditions not necessarily ever expressed in Scripture. In doing this, in understanding how Christianity was practiced by the faithful throughout the centuries, it becomes that much harder to distort the words of the Bible.

In the end, Christianity is about Communion, not easy textbook answers, not following an instruction manual, not standing alone, but real relationships. The more important being that between ourselves and God. However, a relationship with God implies love for our brothers and sisters. It means we are rubbing elbows with other Christians and the Saints. As Fr. Anthony put it, in his fatherly council to me, “there are no Lone Rangers” in Christianity, we can’t put the words of Jesus to practice in solitude or isolation. It’s not in removing ourselves that we are purified, it is in our getting messy and involved in the life of the Church of imperfect people (like us) that we are changed. That is taking up our cross. That is the hard part of Christianity we would rather run from.

Learning never stops in relationships. Christ Jesus did not come so we could house church with the few other perfect people who have the proper understanding of a book according to us. Instead, the very act of Incarnation was God choosing to be around those undeserving and impure, to identify with them and their suffering, which should be the impulse of those filled with the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit, St Paul tells us, that will bring “unity” and a “bond of peace” which should span centuries or the current divisions because: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6 NIV)

Are We Saved Through Our Consciousness?

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Let’s talk about consciousness and infant Baptism, shall we?

My entire life, as a child of Anabaptism, I was taught a doctrine called “Believer’s baptism” (or credobaptism) which a) tied Baptism to church membership and b) teachings that Baptism requires a conscious or adult decision.  The irony of that is that many Mennonites are Baptized as children, as a result of indoctrination, and not after an exhaustive search for truth that ends with Christ.

It makes sense, at one level, that a believer in Christ must be able to “count the cost” (Luke 14) of discipleship, right?

And yet, if we look at the Apostles themselves, were any of them actually ready when they were picked by Jesus?

No, if Peter had counted the cost, if he truly understood what it meant to enter the kingdom, he would never have denied Christ.  The doubts of Thomas, and the betrayal of Judas, all point to a group of men who did not fully comprehend the words of Jesus prior to their Baptism.

#1) We don’t choose, we’re chosen and drawn to Christ:

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day.  It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’  Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me. […] The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them. 

(John 6:44-45,63-65 NIV)

#2) We did not decide the hour of our first birth nor do we decide the second birth:

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. you should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” 

(John 3:2-8 NIV)

#3) We were dead, dead people aren’t conscious to make adult decisions:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.  But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.  For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. 

(Ephesians 2:1-10 NIV)

By adding the requirement of adult comprehension, the teachers of credobaptism turn Baptism into a work and base salvation on our consciousness of the need.  That’s rational, yet humanistic and not the process we see outlined in Scripture.  Lazarus, dead for four days, did not have the mental capacity to listen to the command of Jesus, “Lazarus, come out!”  No, we understand that this would be impossible.  And, likewise, when the Rich Young Ruler (asks “what must I do to be saved,” the final answer is not “sell all and give to the poor,” as some Anabaptists believeit is “with man this is impossible, with God all things are possible.”

The real problem with this idea that Baptism requires a certain level of consciousness (and the invented concept of an “age of accountability”) is that it is totally arbitrary and would exclude those not fully capable of making an adult choice.  I mean, truly, will we refuse to Baptize the mentally disabled because they can’t count the cost of discipleship?  Should we have an IQ test?  Maybe make applicants provide proof of their faith?  At the very least, if this notion of Believer’s baptism is correct, and adult consciousness necessary to appreciate Christ, then should we cut this silliness of a baby leaping in the womb (Luke 1:41) out of the Gospel narrative?

There is evidence, in Scripture, of whole households being Baptized.  But there is little to support this idea that one must reach a certain level of consciousness to be Baptized.  It is really like some people think they’ve saved themselves and this misunderstanding of the significance of Baptism, starting five centuries ago, got turned into theological hubris.  If Baptism is about being born again or spiritual rebirthand our first physical birth was not a willful choicewhy would we ever conclude that Baptism must be a choice, a matter of age or adult comprehension?

What is Baptism truly about?

Baptism is the start of a journey of faith, like birth, and something to accompany repentance.

But wait, there’s more…

Baptism and the Nuptial Bath

Up until very recently, being unfamiliar with Jewish wedding traditions, I would never have made the connection between Baptism and a Jewish bride’s nuptial bath.  A friend of mine shared a podcast that dove into that topic (listen here) and the parallels seem to be very real.  Upon further research, this ‘other” meaning is also something understood historically by the church and quite clearly implied in this passage:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 

(Ephesians 5:25-27 NIV)

Baptism, in effect, is a symbolic representation of the start of this ritual cleansing that doesn’t end with the act.  The Christian life is a life of repentance, of continually turning towards Christ.  Our spiritual cleansing doesn’t end with the water of our physical Baptism either.

After this, Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them, and baptized.  Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were coming and being baptized. (This was before John was put in prison.) An argument developed between some of John’s disciples and a certain Jew over the matter of ceremonial washing.  They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.”

To this John replied, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice.  That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.” 

(John 3:22-30 NIV)

It was directly prior to this that we have the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus where we get the phrase “born again” and where Jesus tells the perplexed Jewish religious leader about this rebirth “of water and the Spirit” like the wind that goes wherever it pleases.  That is an indication of the mysterious origin of Baptism, that it is not something that comes about through our own rational thought processes.  

So what is this “ceremonial washing” about? 

And how does Baptism relate to brides and bridegrooms?

A few months back I worked on a truss layout for a religious building project, a Mikvah bath, and learned more about the Jewish ritual cleaning process and something observant women of that religion must do on a regular basis.

Mikvah bath

However, most significantly, it is something they do prior to marriage, which seems to be the connection between the quarrel about everyone getting this ceremonial washing and the response of John the Baptist. 

The point and purpose of John’s ministry, like the pre-marital ritual washing of a bride when her groom arrived, Baptism was to make people ready for the marriage to Christ. It was not symbolic of the commitment itselfrather it was only a part of the process leading up to the commitment.  So, sure, Baptism is the start of an important transitionary moment and yet our salvation comes through a life-long Theosis, through our being washed, sanctified, and justified by the Spirit of God until the time we depart this world.

One last point, and related to this nuptial bath tradition and the parallels to Baptism.  Jewish brides did choose their partners nor the time of their wedding like we do.  No, they practiced arranged marriage and the arrival of the groom was at the appointed time of his father once the preparations were complete.  So again, where does this idea come from that the bride must choose the time or place of this meeting and bath?  Wouldn’t responsible Christian parents want to prepare even infant children for their groom? 

The expanded consciousness that comes through our prearranged nuptials with Christ can come after the ritual washing of Baptismas it did for the disciples who didn’t know what they were being signed up for when they began their journey of faith.

And, yes, apparently Jewish infants are immersed as a part of their religious conversion process.

Oh, and also, the groom (Jesus) gets washed too prior to the wedding ceremony…