Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans 6, and the Mode of Baptism

BaptismLast Sunday I witnessed the baptism of a 10 year old.  As the minister submerged the young fellow under water, he said, “Buried with Christ in baptism,” and as he emerged, “raised with Christ to walk in newness of life” (referencing Romans 6:4).

Now I know not a few who object to using a text like Romans 6 to establish a mode of baptism.  I get that this is not the primary import of this text.  However, given God’s use of rituals and sacraments in redemptive-history, we cannot simply dismiss the imagery of baptism here and what it points to–our union with Christ in his death and resurrection.

And it is true that Jesus was buried above ground in a cave, not underground, and “hence the notion of burial underground as pictured in baptism does not clearly portray death.”  While this objection helps us “to clarify Pauline intention,” Thomas R. Schreiner believes that “it does not succeed in terms of its main point.”

In saying that baptism pictures death and resurrection, the point is not that death is always undergroundBaptism pictures death because submersion under water kills.  The waters represent the flood of God’s judgment on account of sin (see 1 Pet 3:20-21), and hence even Jesus himself, as Mark 10:38-39 explains, underwent a baptism in which he absorbed God’s wrath on the cross for the sake of his people.  Submersion under the water in baptism–which is in Jesus’ name–indicates that the persons baptized have experienced God’s judgment in Christ.  That is, since they are incorporated in Christ, he has borne the judgment they deserved.  Submersion under the water, then does not specify that the dead are buried underground.  The picture is not meant to be taken so literally.  It does communicate, however, death and burial.  Submersion is an apt picture because it demonstrates that death overwhelms and conquers its subject.

Schreiner continues,

Pouring and sprinkling simply do not have the same effectWe all know that if we are held under water long enough we will die.  Similarly, newness of life is represented by emerging from the water.  Believers now enjoy the resurrection life of Christ because they have been incorporated into him (Rom 6:4).  I conclude, then, that the imagery used in Col 2:12 and Rom 6:3-5 points to immersion (“going into”) and emersion (“coming out of”).  (Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, pp. 82-83, emphasis added)

Is Schreiner overreaching here?  Is he reading back into Paul his baptistic notions that are simply not warranted by the text?  Has Schreiner turned the Apostle Paul into a Baptist with regards to the mode of baptism?

And if we maintain as we do that the sacraments are the gospel made visible, then what better way to signify our union with Christ in his death and resurrection, than in our submersion and emersion?  Perhaps something is missing here.

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4 Responses to Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans 6, and the Mode of Baptism

  1. Simon says:

    TC, I’m not sure if you’re aware, but Eastern and Oriental Orthodox baptise by immersion. That being said, I’m just not convinced that the sprinkling that occurs in Western Churches – both RC and Protestantism – is something that I would jump up and down about. I get what you’re saying about the symbolism of going down and coming up out of the water. I don’t know what Schreiner is getting with his comment about dying when held under the water.

    The question isn’t about the mode of baptism for me. It’s about should we keep our childrent at arms length from the Church until such time that they can make an intelligent decision.

    • TC says:

      Simon, here’s the gist of Schreiner’s argument: ” Submersion is an apt picture because it demonstrates that death overwhelms and conquers its subject.” and “Similarly, newness of life is represented by emerging from the water.”

      Baptists historically hold to regenerate church membership. This is fundamentally a Baptist distinctive. This is one of the discontinuities we see per Jer 31:31ff – so infants do not fit the bill, so to speak.

  2. Lon says:

    “Passing through waters” was a well known OT figure for being saved from certain death (the flood, the exodus, various prophetic references to these), so its not surprising that Paul should rely on these as typological references to baptism in Christ. But as to whether the OT figure requires complete immersion as the only appropriate anti-type, I’m doubtful. Noah and his family stayed relatively dry, I’m sure, as did the Israelites passing through the Red Sea and Jordan. When Peter baptized 3,000 in Jerusalem, I doubt they submerged them in their drinking water wells. Any question that Scripture does not directly address — such as the “correct” mode of baptism — requires that we not be too dogmatic, and that multiple modes may be appropriate given the availability of water.

    • TC says:

      Lon, since posting this, I’ve done some more reading, and you’re absolutely correct. In fact, I want to go on record as saying that Schreiner may even be overreaching here. I stand with all your objections. They’re quite valid.

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