The Theology of Paul the Apostle | James D. G. Dunn (§17)

This chapter on baptism rounds out Dunn’s entire section on “The Beginning of Salvation”. Dunn took such pains to show how “in Christ”, “justification”, and the “gift of the spirit” fit together, it will be interesting to see how he fits baptism into the picture.

. . .

Chapter 5: The Beginning of Salvation

§ 17: Baptism

Baptism is a big word. It can include all three aspects of the crucial transition (443):

  1. “Justification is the effect of baptism”
  2. “The means of union with Christ is baptism”
  3. “The Spirit is mediated through or bestowed in baptism”

On the other hand, it can be used to refer to something as specific as the act of immersion.

Many commentators have recognized baptismal allusions in a variety of texts such as the hymns of Philippians and Colossians. Two factors have influenced commentators in this direction:

  1. A Tradition of Sacramental Theology: Baptism is both an inner and outward act, more than a mere symbol. The danger here is the potential for a church to claim to control God’s Spirit.
  2. History of Religions: Baptism is a common rite in a variety of religious settings, although we don’t know as much as we would like to here, especially concerning contemporary mystery religions.

Paul’s baptism theology has a strong exegetical base. Baptism was socially significant, a very public declaration of faith. Paul spoke of baptism as being something the believer does “into” Christ. Baptism roots the believer in God’s saving action back at the Red Sea.

We must not, however, overstate Paul’s emphasis on baptism. All signs indicate that first-century baptisms were simple and spontaneous. Also, Paul used the image of baptism to refer to different events: we are baptized in the Spirit, we are baptized into Jesus’ death. Finally, other events which were later associated with baptism were significant in themselves: Spirit-baptism, the seal of the Spirit, putting on Christ, washing imagery, and Spirit-in-lieu-of-circumcision.

Paul was apparently unaware of the problems these disparate threads of thought would create for later generations. In the end, the clearest picture we get of Paul’s theology of baptism comes in Romans 6:4 and Colossians 2:12. The crucial transition happened “through baptism” and “in baptism”. When examining Paul’s theology of baptism, we need to be careful to consider the relative weight he places on it.

The last topic we should address is infant baptism. Paul didn’t have any reason to consider such an act. He was an evangelist who baptized adults who came to him. If you consider baptism an analogue to circumcision, then there is precedent for infant baptism. That link is tenuous, though. You can build arguments for infant baptism from 1 Corinthians 1:16  and 7:14, but nothing is definite.

. . .

This was a short, confusing chapter. I got the impression that baptism didn’t fit into Dunn’s threefold schema (justification, in Christ, Spirit), so he tied a variety of references together for completeness. On the other hand, maybe Paul just didn’t say enough for us to come up with firm conclusions. At any rate, with this chapter done, we move from the act of salvation to the process.

< § 16: The gift of the Spirit

§ 18: The eschatological tension >

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2 Responses to The Theology of Paul the Apostle | James D. G. Dunn (§17)

  1. Siegfried Paul April 13, 2013 at 11:58 pm #

    I separate the period of the life of Paul of Tarsus before his three days of blindness and the period beginning with his very long years of hidden life – partly in the ARABIAN DESERT – like I separate the period of the history of Israel before the three days of darkness in Egypt and the period after Moses and Aaron leave the Pharao and his queen. Pauls new body is LIGHT: therefore a GRAVE has no meaning for him and therefore an understanding of Pauls theology gains weight at the moment – we abandon the GRAVE, where we can visit our PARENTS and find our NAME. Very fast CREMATION is becoming more and more common, although we still miss the GRAVE of the MOTHER. – I am convinced, however: the name “P A U L” was given to Paul by a MAN, Paul would not be Paul without this name of a family of Rome, that must have been given to him for a precise reason.

  2. Stephen Barkley April 15, 2013 at 10:45 am #

    Siegfried, I’m not sure how your comment relates to Dunn’s chapter on baptism. Thanks for reading, though.

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