----

Quaker Theology #13 Winter 2007

The Baptisms of John and Jesus: An Exegesis of John 1:19-34

Lloyd Lee Wilson


Introduction to the Problem

A distinctive of early Friends which they frequently defended in debates with other English Christians in the 17th century was their rejection of water baptism as a necessary part of the Christian life. Not only was it unnecessary, these Friends argued, it was actually spiritually harmful, as a "dead ritual". Robert Barclay, often described as "the first, greatest, and last Quaker theologian", in 1678 articulated the Quaker position on Baptism in his Twelfth Proposition:

As there is one Lord and one faith, so there is "one baptism, which is not the putting away the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience before God, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ." And this baptism is a pure and spiritual thing, to wit, the baptism of the spirit and fire, by which we are buried with him, that being washed and purged from our sins, we may "walk in newness of life;" of which the baptism of John was a figure, which was commanded for a time and not to continue for ever. As to the baptism of infants, it is a mere human tradition, for which neither precept nor practice is to be found in all the Scripture. 1

Following this line of thought, early Friends understood that the baptism of John, i.e., water baptism, was not to be practiced by Christians forever, but the baptism of the Spirit was always the experience of the true Christian. The apophatic spirituality of Friends led them to strip away everything that was not essential to their relationship with and obedience to God, including the practice of water baptism. They defended this position vigorously with arguments from Scripture and logic.

This distinctive Quaker view of water baptism has been sustained into the 21st century, but is now threatened on both sides. Some pastoral Friends, becoming more closely acculturated into mainstream Protestant thought, now feel that water baptism is at least acceptable, and perhaps desirable, for Christians. On the other extreme, some liberal Friendsí rejection of water baptism has taken the form of dogma, with no understanding of the early Friends reasoning.

This study undertakes an exegesis of John 1:19-51 in order to understand the Fourth Gospelís presentation of baptism, by water and by the Holy Spirit. An understanding of the meaning of this passage, based on current scholarship, can help the contemporary Christian understand baptism as first century Christians did. A comparison of this understanding with the arguments put forward by the first Quakers will help the contemporary Quaker discern whether the distinctively Quaker rejection of water baptism is supported by a sound understanding of Scripture. That discernment, in turn, will influence the decision to maintain or abandon the traditional position, or perhaps will lead to a more nuanced understanding of the biblical forms of baptism.

Friends Understanding of Scripture

Friendsí unusual understanding of the position of Scripture in the Christian life has been a distinctive of the movement from its earliest days. Friends have often been accused of not believing or valuing the Bible, but that is not the case. It is true that Friends have never considered the Scripture a final authority for Christians, giving that honor to the immediate and perceptible guidance of the Holy Spirit. Looking again to Robert Barclay, one finds this principle expressed in his Third Proposition:

From these revelations of the Spirit of God to the saints, have proceeded the scriptures of truth, which contain,

I. A faithful historical account of the actings of Godís people in divers ages, with many singular and remarkable providences attending them.

II. A prophetical account of several things, whereof some are already past, and some yet to come.

III. A full and ample account of all the chief principles of the doctrine of Christ, held forth in divers precious declarations, exhortations and sentences, which, by the moving of Godís spirit, were at several times, and upon sundry occasions, spoken and written unto some churches and their pastors: nevertheless, because they are only a declaration of the fountain, and not the fountain itself, therefore they are not to be esteemed the principal ground of all truth and knowledge, nor yet the adequate primary rule of faith and manners. Yet because they give a true and faithful testimony of the first foundation, they are and may be esteemed a secondary rule, subordinate to the Spirit, from which they have all their excellency and certainty; for as by the inward testimony of the Spirit we do alone truly know them, so they testify, that the Spirit is that guide by which the saints are led into all truth: therefore, according to the scriptures, the Spirit is the first and principal leader. And seeing we do therefore receive and believe the scriptures, because they proceeded from the Spirit; therefore also the Spirit more originally and principally the rule, according to that received maxim in the schools, Propter quod unumquodque est tale, illud ipsum est magis tale. Englished thus: ĎThat for which a thing is such, that thing itself is more such.í 2

A common modern paraphrase of this principle is that since a Christian can understand the scriptures only with the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit, which is oneís foremost Guide, then Christians should turn their attention entirely to that Guide, and not be bound by the written word. Nevertheless, scripture is a faithful and true record which can be of great value to the Christian and the Christian community.

A more recent statement about the authority of Scripture is included in the statement of doctrines and principles issued by North Carolina Yearly Meeting of Friends at Woodland, North Carolina in 1935:

We believe any doctrine, belief or practice that contradicts the Scriptures is not to be accepted, and that they are the most perfect outward rule of faith and practice, but not the primary rule, which we attribute to the Spirit that gave them forth, by which alone their meaning can be rightly understood, and we believe without this Spirit none should endeavor to study or teach them. 3

Conservative Friends (like those in Woodland, NC) find themselves in another particular context with regard to academic study of the Bible. "A Brief Synopsis . . ." approved by all seven Conservative yearly meetings of Friends in 1912, regards the whole subject of "Higher Criticism" of the Bible with some suspicion:

Neither would we have any think that our attitude toward the Holy Scriptures, (which we believe is the scriptural one) is induced by any leaning toward, or sympathy for that refined species of unbelief, known as "Higher Criticism," which, calling in question many things recorded in the Bible; that are super-natural [sic], or miraculous, doubtless has shaken the faith of many an honest enquirer after Truth. What we, in this age of materialism need, is not higher criticism, but a higher, deeper, broader faith in God, and in his Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; and a deeper reverence for things Divine, not omitting the Bible, which, in its entirety, is always precious to the humble, devoted Christian. 4

There is beginning to be some discussion among seasoned Conservative Friends in North Carolina about formally modifying this statement about higher criticism. Recent Conservative Quaker experience with Bible study in general and the techniques of higher criticism in particular has been characterized by having oneís primary attention continually re-directed and re-focused on the guidance of the Holy Spirit of God, the Guide and Teacher as called by Friends. It is being experienced that faith in the True Authority is deepened by academic study of the Bible, not weakened.

There is much to be learned from the Bible, and the more one studies it, the more one can learn. However, as Barclay and North Carolina Yearly Meeting-Conservative have said, the scriptures can only be considered a secondary rule, not the primary one. Regarding this particular exegesis, therefore, the results (whatever they may be) cannot be binding on the Quaker position with regard to water baptism. They can and should, however, be a tool for more clearly understanding what the Holy Spirit is trying to illuminate, and how to be faithful to that illumination.

This particular exegesis approaches the chosen passage (John 1:19-34) with this "baptismal problem" in mind, and in the context of the Friends understanding of scripture as a context. A scripture passage cannot be studied in isolation, of course. It must be considered as part of a larger pericope (or textual unit), and as part of the book in which it is found; and that book must itself be understood in terms of its historical setting and context. A fuller understanding of any smaller division of the gospel must therefore start with an examination of the Fourth Gospel as a unit.

Next >>

<< Back to Contents

<<< Back to Theological Resources Page

<<<Back to QUEST Home

QUEST, P.O. Box 1344, Fayetteville NC 28302
E-mail: quest@quaker.org

 

----