Reproclaiming the Everlasting Gospel
There are at least two difficulties connected with the concept of baptism from the Quaker understanding. One has to do with the fact that most people have a generally accepted concept of what baptism is. To present the Quaker view of baptism means to offer a radically different view, and most people do not easily give up long-held understandings. The second difficulty lies in the fact that, unlike most words in the Greek New Testament, the word baptizo was never translated into English; early translators simply took the Greek word and pressed it into the English language. Combine these two difficulties and it becomes quite an uphill climb to offer a different understanding in a convincing way.
However, once one has been convinced, the Quaker view of baptism becomes quite clear and understandable. It is helpful to always remember that Quakerism is essentially radical, and by that I mean "always endeavoring to get to the root". I feel safe in saying that the majority of non-Quakers, who are at least somewhat religiously aware, have a concept of baptism that involves the use of water in a Christian ritual geared toward initiation into a congregation. While this concept is probably accepted at face value by many, Quakers, as is their habit, ask, "What is baptism at its root?" To get to the root, it is necessary to examine the early Quakers' interpretation of Scriptures.
Two passages from Scriptures form the basis for the Quaker understanding of baptism. The first passage occurs early in the Gospels (Mt. 3:11-12, Mk. 1:7-8 and Lk. 3:15-18), and tells of John the Baptist offering a prophetic contrast between the kind of baptism he employs, and a new type of baptism, performed by someone mightier than John. Baptism typically requires some kind of medium; John uses the muddy Jordan River. The new kind, which John infers supercedes his kind, will employ the Holy Spirit and fire. However, the contrast does end there. John's baptism was directed toward repentance, or expressing regret and a changed mind about sin. The new kind of baptism, however, will be much more thorough; John prophetically uses the imagery of grain harvest to proclaim that this new baptizer (which Quakers rightly understand to be Christ) will involve the separation of chaff (to be burned with fire) from grain (to be reserved in the granary). George Fox writes, "And Christ, he baptizeth with the Holy Ghost, and with fire, whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into his garners; but will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." The chaff, of course, is sin; and the grain is, on the one hand, righteousness, and on the other hand, it is Christ himself in Seed form. And the granary is the heart or inmost being of a convert.
The other passage from Scriptures is from Ephesians 4. In this passage, Paul is urging the Ephesian Christians to lead "lives worthy of the calling." The way to do this is to humbly, meekly and patiently live in loving and peaceful unity with one another. To inspire his readers toward this kind of unity, Paul reminds his readers that, "There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all." As to the "one baptism", Quakers will ask, "Which is the 'one baptism'? Is it John the Baptist's hydraulic kind? Or is the one which John said would supercede his, Christ's baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire?" It makes sense to Quakers that Christ's kind of baptism, which cleanses the heart and brings in righteousness, is the "one baptism" which Paul is referring to. Quakers will point out that (as well as the Salvation Army) one of the issues that has caused disunity among Christians involves the particulars of hydraulic baptism. Quakers will also point out that Christ's baptism brings Christ into individuals, and in Christ there is no "strife, but life and peace." In other words, Christ's baptism is more likely to incline a believer to live the life of unity described by Paul.
As for the Greek word baptizo, it is a word that the early Christians borrowed from the cloth-dyeing industry. The early Christians likened their experience with the Holy Spirit to the process of immersing a piece of uncolored cloth into a vat of dye. The dye had the power to transform an ordinary, uncolored cloth into a piece of colored fabric. Power to transform is of utmost importance to Quakers; ordinary, earthly water has no power to transform. Water is limited and subject to decay, just as we are; because it is not eternal and heavenly, it cannot fundamentally transform us. The Holy Spirit and the unquenchable fire of God (for God is an unquenchable fire, Hebrews 12:29), however, are powerful. Because they are not of our earthly level, but supernaturally greater than us, they are able to fundamentally change a believer. It is the power of the medium of baptism, not the rite itself, that is of ultimate importance.
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