It’s commonly held that baptism is merely a sign. That is, it’s an event where the believer confesses Jesus publicly, with their immersion symbolizing the fact that they died with Jesus, and their appearance from the water displaying their new life and anticipation of the resurrection body. In other words, to put it crudely, baptism doesn’t do anything but represents what has already happened through one’s faith in Jesus. Therefore, it becomes optional for the believer: if it doesn’t do anything, then it isn’t essential. This unfortunately leads to neglect.
But do we even have baptism right? Does the New Testament support our traditions and practices? Paul seems to say that baptism is more than a sign in Romans 6:1-11 and on Monday we saw that Robert Ewusie Moses argues that it releases one from the domain of sin. The logic goes like this:
- Christ’s death and resurrection freed Him from the powers of sin and death (Rom 6:9-10)
- We can also be free from sin’s power if we are united to His death (Rom 6:2-3, 6-7)
- We can have resurrection power now – and actual resurrection later – by being united to His resurrection (Rom 6:4-5)
- We are united to Christ’s death and resurrection through our baptism (Rom 6:3, 5)
Commenting on this passage in Practices of Power, Robert Ewusie Moses says, “baptism is the means through which believers participate in Christ’s career” (p59). Andrew Wilson says the following, “Baptism is part of conversion, and it most decidedly does something. Being buried with Christ, and rising with Christ, happens in baptism, through faith.”
Is it just me, or does this all sit very uncomfortably? Taking Rom 6:1-11 at face value, what does it mean? If one is united to Christ in baptism, and one cannot be saved apart from union with Him, then is every unbaptized believer in fact unregenerate? What professing believers who were never baptized? Are they saved but just not freed from sin’s dominion? None of this seems right, but how do we resolve the issue then?
In this post I wanted to press the issue a little further. I do have some thoughts that I believe help resolve this issue, but will save those for next post. In the meantime, I’d appreciate comments! Is baptism merely a symbol of what’s already happened through one’s faith in Christ? Or is it essential for regeneration, or at least sanctification?
As I mentioned in my introduction, I’m working through Robert Ewusie Moses’ book on Paul’s prescribed practices in regards to powers and principalities, Practices of Power. This is the first post and the first practice is baptism.
Moses begins with a study of Romans 5-8, particularly chapter 6. I cannot hope to summarize the whole discussion in this chapter, but let me say that it is thorough! What I’ll do here is simply unpack his main point and offer a few comments along the way.
Practices of Power: Baptism
The first practice we encounter is that of baptism. Perhaps you are already getting uncomfortable. Baptism is spiritual warfare? What of those who are not baptized? Exactly. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We need to begin with Paul via Moses (not that Moses).
Moses begins by arguing that in Romans 5-8 Paul has Psalm 19 in the background of his thought. Psalm 19 is itself a poetic meditation on Genesis 1-3 (based on this article from Clines). Interestingly, “presumptuous sins” in Psalm 19:13 is translated in the LXX as “strangers”, and Moses says we should recognize them as demons based on word usage elsewhere. So the psalmist prays to be free from the power of demonic forces.
All that to say, a number of connections exist between Psalm 19 and Rom 5-8, with the latter’s emphasis upon the powers of Sin and Death. These concepts are personified by Paul, hence the capitalization of “Sin”. These Powers have enslaved humanity since Adam, and yet Christ has accomplished a way out. “Because Christ died he is no longer under the power of Sin (Rom 6:10); and because Christ was raised from the dead, he is no longer subject to Death (Rom 6:9)” (p58). Through Christ’s death and resurrection, these Powers have lost their, well, power.
Though not a sinner and thus deserving death Himself, Jesus was freed from the realm and power of Sin and Death through His death and resurrection. He can now lead others out of this sinful and deathly age and into the age to come.
That’s all well and good, but how do believers experience this victory too? They need to be “mapped onto Christ’s trajectory; they must participate in Christ’s ‘career'” (p58). To be free of Sin and Death, believers must also die and rise again; and to do that they must partake in Christ’s own death and resurrection.
So how do we do that? The answer is baptism, “the means through which believers participate in Christ’s career (Rom 6:3-4)“ (p59). Through reenacting Christ’s experience in baptism, believers die Christ’s death and even experience His resurrection now (and not yet), thereby being free from Sin and Death. The new creation (aka. resurrection) has already begun in our new birth and the presence of the Spirit in our lives. So believers truly are released from the dominion of Sin and Death, yet they await these Powers’ final destruction to experience complete freedom from their presence, which happens in Christ’s return and our resurrection.
The Necessity of Baptism
This raises a number of important questions; questions that Moses doesn’t downplay, with quotes such as, “Paul’s entire argument depends on believers’ actual participation in Christ’s trajectory in baptism. Or to put it more bluntly, Paul’s argument demands that something concrete happen to the believer in baptism” (p62), otherwise “believers remain under the power of Sin” (p63).
This is both the most important and most controversial point Moses wants to make. If baptism is spiritual warfare, altering one’s relationship to Sin and Death, then baptism does something, something that one has not experienced if they are not baptized. But does this mean that we can have unbaptized, born-again, Spirit-filled Christians still completely under Sin’s reign? And their lack of baptism is the cause? I have some thoughts, but will save them for another post. Until then, I’d love to read your comments!
Many thanks to Fortress Press for kindly providing a review copy. Their generosity has not affected my opinions.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been working through Michael Heiser’s The Jewish Trinity and posting snippets as I go, but in this post I will give some concluding thoughts and review the whole enchilada.
For those who have not been following my posts on the 4-hour The Jewish Trinity Logos Mobile Ed course, the basic goal is establishing a Godhead by reading the Old Testament on its own terms. This latter point is essential. Heiser wisely avoids anachronism and proof-texting that only convinces the convinced; instead, he takes an intellectually honest approach that even a faithful Jew could hear.
Heiser begins by establishing a Biblical definition of monotheism – one that incorporates the OT’s own recognition of “divine plurality”; that is, the existence of elohim other than YHWH. Since the idea comes as a surprise not only to Jews but even Christians, he spends significant time establishing this from texts such as Deut 32:8-9 and Psalm 82. If divine plurality within the Old Testament itself can be established, then the Jew can perhaps overcome the hurdle of the Schema (Deut 6:4) to accept the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Heiser also takes a few segments to respond to texts that appear to deny the existence of other gods (e.g. Gal 1:8-10; 1 Cor 8-10).
With this foundation in place, Heiser begins to show that the Old Testament in fact presents plurality within YHWH Himself. What’s more, Second Temple Judaism in fact recognized these texts and concepts. There is evidence that they wrestled with the identity of this “second YHWH”, positing different characters to fill the role such as angelic beings or exalted humans. Heiser then illustrates that when describing the relationship between YHWH and Jesus, the New Testament clearly draws from this pool of ideas in the Old Testament and in Second Temple literature. This foundation of divine plurality helps explain how early Jewish Christians would rather die than worship Caesar, yet happily worshiped Jesus: He is this “second YHWH”!
Beyond the identity of Jesus and the Father, there are also “seeds” of a full-blown Christian Trinity planted in the Old Testament. Texts such as Isaiah 63, Psalm 78 and Ezekiel 8 hint at a shadowy relationship between YHWH, His Angel, and His Spirit. This relationship is then picked up and expanded in the New Testament revelation. Lastly, Heiser applies his Jewish / Old Testament Trinity teaching to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, skeptical academics, and Jewish evangelism.
Scattered throughout the course are suggested readings for further study, 8 quizzes, and 10 Logos training videos that relate to Heiser’s teaching. For the most part these are relevant and even incredibly helpful. The videos are especially useful as they equip the student to follow up on some of Heiser’s assertions. I found one oddity in the suggested reading, however. After Heiser set forth his vision of a more nuanced monotheism, the suggested reading for that section seemed to contradict all the work that Heiser just did! By its definitions, it implied that Heiser’s view is in fact henotheism. This could confuse the student, and perhaps Heiser could have clarified his own view regarding henotheism in the course.
Since I have the Silver Logos package, I was not able to access all of the reading. In my last review, I criticized the “required reading” not being included in purchase of the Mobile Ed course. However, I noticed that the reading in this course is now “suggested” rather than “required”. I suppose Logos made this change to so that a user with a lower-tier package (Bronze/Silver) will not feel as if they are missing out on something essential if they don’t have everything referred to in the course.
Since the course is labelled as The Jewish Trinity, I do wonder if some students will be disappointed that Heiser spends little time on the Holy Spirit, while the Biblical material on other elohim takes up a large chunk of course time. I do understand his logic, but practically the course could have been labelled (admittedly less-catching) The Jewish Binity. Of course, the Holy Spirit plays a more “humble” role in the Bible, so there’s only so much Heiser can do.
Perhaps most problematic in this otherwise outstanding course is the presentation. In my previous review of John Walton’s Old Testament Genres, I commented that due to the stark visual style, one’s entertainment level will fluctuate due to the varying charisma of the speaker. While I found Heiser’s content ever-fascinating, his visual presence was less stimulating than Walton’s. Where Walton stands, looks at the camera, and expresses himself visually through hand movements and smirks, Heiser sits behind a stand, looks down at his notes (or iPad?), and is considerably more reserved. An anecdote may illustrate the point. I used some Mobile Ed video segments in a recent Bible College class and a few students remarked that Heiser appeared to be falling asleep! Clearly, they were humorously exaggerating the point but there was a real complaint behind the joke. I say this not as personal attack – Heiser is a good teacher and shouldn’t be criticised for being himself – but rather, depending on the context in which these videos are used, this could be an issue. Youth groups may want to look elsewhere (but hey, if you were thinking of using these in your youth group, then I wish I were 14 so I could join!).
This course was truly excellent and stimulating. I admire Michael Heiser’s unique ideas, relentless drive for fidelity to the Biblical text, skill at clearly presenting difficult and unfamiliar concepts, and bravery in presenting controversial, but Biblically-rooted, ideas to the church. This course is a perfect example of these qualities. Heiser makes a very compelling case for Old Testament Trinitarian ideas that not only rubs against the grain of scholarship, but even the broad sweep of evangelical Christianity. Many Christians are ignorant of, or reject, divine plurality. Many also reject an Old Testament Godhead and instead see the Trinity as a New Testament idea that exploded, big-bang-like, in retrospect of Jesus’ ministry and apostolic teaching. Heiser’s The Jewish Trinity is a welcome and stimulating counter-case for a Godhead firmly grounded in the Old Testament.
Buy The Jewish Trinity from Faithlife
Christ’s victory over the forces of darkness was a regrettably neglected topic in my own Christian heritage and I suspect that my experience is symptomatic of a larger trend in evangelicalism. It’s not necessarily the case that we disbelieve in spiritual beings (in fact, I suspect we talk more about them in Calvary Chapel circles than some others), it’s just that I hadn’t always put together all the pieces, particularly the significance of Jesus’ death, resurrection, ascension, and return as a story of victory. All this to say that when I saw Moses’ Practices of Power on the Fortress Press website, I knew I would need to check it out.
Much ink has been spilled in the history of scholarship about the powers and principalities in Paul’s letters, but Moses wants to take the discussion further by bypassing two traps that have ensnared much of the scholarly discussion. These are the preoccupation on the identity of these powers, and the belief/practice dichotomy. Moses’ proposal is that we need to shift our focus towards what Paul says believers should do about the powers: “Paul’s conception of the powers is unintelligible without a developed account of the practices he advocated for the early believers” (p5). What are these ‘practices’? Here is Moses’ own definition:
Practices of power are either activities that guard believers from the dominion of the powers, or activities that expose believers and unbelievers to the dominion of the powers. — (p5)
Since Moses walks through representative passages in Paul’s letters (Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Colossians), and his discussion is dense, I plan to do a post on each “practice of power”. Check back next week for the first practice: baptism, in the letter to the Romans.
Many thanks to Fortress Press for providing a copy of Practices of Power in exchange for a review. Their generosity has not affected my opinion of the book.
We all know Paul the theologian, Paul the letter writer, and Paul the missionary. But do we know Paul the hymn redactor? Most scholars believe that found within Paul’s writings are early-Christian hymns and creeds that he inserted and possibly adjusted to serve his own end. As to which passages these are, well, of course that is debated! Common contenders include Philippians 2:6-11, Colossians 1:15-20, Romans 1:3-4, 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, and 1 Timothy 3:16.
These so-called hymns or creeds are important to historians as they can reveal a much-coveted glance at the beliefs and doxologies of the earliest believers. Imagine if Philippians 2:6-11 were actually an early hymn sung regularly in gatherings!
Many accept that Colossians 1:15-20 is an early hymn, but debates rage as to how the hymn should be structured and whether Paul added or adjusted any of the wording. I would like to share some insights from Robert Ewusie Moses in his Practices of Power. His contentions regarding the structure and redaction of Col 1:15-20 are unique, worthy of consideration, and influence one’s interpretation of Colossians as a whole. In his own words, “these redactions provide an important window into what the author is doing in the rest of the letter” (p164).
I will first display the structure that Moses proposes, and then summarize some of his insights. Moses structures the hymn “based on its content” (p165), rather than guessing a poetic form, and comes up with the following, which I have redacted (ha-ha), as it was originally displayed in Greek.
A. he is the image of the invisible God
B. the firstborn of all creation
C. for by him all things were created
a. in heaven
b. and on earth
a’. and invisible
b’. whether thrones or dominions
a’. or rulers or authorities
C’. all things were created through him and for him
B’. and he is before all things
C’. and in him all things hold together
[D. and he is the head of the body, the church]
B’. he is the beginning
the firstborn from the dead,
that in everything he might be preeminent
A’. for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell
and through him to reconcile to himself all things
[E. making peace by the blood of his cross]
b. whether on earth
a. or in heaven
- The A lines express the relationship between God and Christ. Notice that matching both A lines explains “how Christ can be said to be the visible image of the invisible God: in Christ God in all his fullness was pleased to dwell” (p170-71).
- The B lines express the priority of Christ.
- The C lines express the sphere of Christ. That is, they use prepositions such as by Him, through Him, in Him, etc.
- The D and E lines are Paul’s own additions to the hymn as the structure would not be disrupted if they were removed. Both of these lines draw attention to Paul’s intention for using the hymn in this letter.
- Line D “introduces the theme of the church into a hymn that has so far had a cosmic referent and, thereby, disrupts the consistent cosmological orientation of the hymn” (p167). Therefore, it is an addition by “Paul”.
- Line E “introduces the theme of the cross into a strophe whose main concern is the resurrection” (p167). Therefore, it is an addition.
- By adding these lines, Paul “narrows the cosmic drama to the local arena” (p177). What is happening in heaven has implications for the church. We see the hymn expanded upon and applied to the church in Col 1:21-23.
I would love to see your thoughts via comments below, but here are a few of my own.
First, this is an intuitive structuring of the hymn; it seems natural and makes good sense. However, I am uncertain if identified themes should dictate structure, and then that structure be used to interpret the parallel themes (such as the A lines). This is circular.
Second, a structure that reveals that two lines (D and E) don’t fit may not prove that Paul added them; it just as likely hints that the structure is flawed.
Third, if true, the parallel between the A lines is insightful.
Fourth, Moses suggests that “thrones and dominions” should be considered visible and earthly, while “principalities and powers” are invisible and spiritual. The basis for this is the fact that they match in his structure. However, I’m not sure why he chose an abbaba structure. Why not abbaab? It is a good point, however, that it makes sense for Paul to list some visible and earthly objects and not only invisible. How would we determine which is which?
Fifth, I remain skeptical of Moses’ proposals of redaction. The idea is that the hymn was not originally about the church, but Paul adjusted it. Apparently this is because the references to the church seem arbitrary and unwelcome. However, if the second half of the hymn focused on Christ as the beginning of the new creation, then the reference to the church is no longer out of place but entirely natural and consistent with Pauline theology.
Lastly, of course this can become extremely speculative. I’m reminded of Ehrman’s circular argument in How Jesus Became God that Romans 1:3-4 must have originally been an adoptionistic creed because it would be if one removed the orthodox parts that Paul added to “fix” it. And how do we know which parts Paul added? Why, they are the parts that, if removed, would result in an adoptionistic creed of course! I would conclude that our interpretation must depend on the text we have in front of us, not what may lie behind the text. Otherwise, the tail begins to wag the dog.
Moses’ suggested structure is certainly viable and I will have to give it more thought. His book Practices of Power is equally thought-provoking and controversial.
Comments are very welcome!
I’m working through Heiser’s The Jewish Trinity (other posts) Logos Mobile Ed course. Having laid a foundation that monotheism is compatible with divine plurality, Heiser now turns to argue for plurality within Yahweh Himself. Heiser claims that Judaism once believed in a Godhead, but rejected the doctrine as heretical late in the first century, in response to the claims of Christianity. For many (including myself) this no doubt comes as a shock.
The Old Testament
Before looking at Jewish teaching, however, Heiser begins in the Old Testament. We are used to arguments for the Trinity drawn from the NT, or anachronistic, though well meaning arguments (“God says ‘us’ in Gen 1:26, therefore… Trinity!) Heiser takes a different approach entirely.
It takes Heiser a few lectures to build the case for plurality within YHWH Himself but in this post I will simply present some of the texts he uses. If you want to hear his argumentation, you need to get the course for yourself!
- Implied plurality. Genesis 19:24; Amos 4:11; Genesis 21:11-12
- The Word of YHWH appears embodied. Gen 15:1; Jer 1:4,9; 1 Sam 3:10, 19
- The Name of YHWH appears embodied. Isaiah 30:27
- The Angel of the Lord has YHWH’s Name/presence. Exodus 23:20-21; Deuteronomy 4:37; Ex 33:14
- The Angel claims YHWH’s actions as his own. Judges 2:1-2; Genesis 31:11-13
- The Angel of the Lord is equated with YHWH. Exodus 3:2, 4; Genesis 48:15-16; Judges 6:11f
- The Son of Man in Daniel 7. The heavenly Son of Man is distinguished from YHWH but rides the clouds, an action only the LORD does (Psalm 104:3)
When put together, these texts build a compelling cumulative case. Note that Heiser is not arguing that these texts teach the Trinity, rather, they mysteriously imply plurality within the LORD Himself. This is not Christian prooftexting as Rabbis noticed on these texts and concepts before the time of Jesus.
Second Temple Judaism
Heiser then surveys literature from the Second Temple period and argues that Jews wrestled with identifying this figure in the OT, with varying answers. Heiser divides them into three categories:
- Exalted humans such as Adam, Enoch and Moses. 2 Enoch; Testament of Abraham; Prayer of Joseph; 1 Enoch; Ezekiel the Tragedian,
- Important angels like Michael and Ya’el (Yahoel). Testament of Dan; Joseph and Aseneth; Apocalypse of Abraham
- The Word/Logos. Assorted writings of Philo (Dreams; Agriculture; Confusion; Questions in Genesis)
Heiser argues that the common thread tying these texts together is their attempts to identify the “second Yahweh”. Therefore, streams of Judaism had concepts in place that would later naturally accommodate Jesus.
Check back soon for the next part of my walk through Heiser’s The Jewish Trinity Mobile Ed course. Read other parts in this review series.