The unpredictable God (a dialogue)

Comment from RS, USA

After reading your reply to MF’s question about God being unpredictable, I feel compelled to point out that God’s Being is Perfect and that the only reason we cannot know or predict His Perfect Doings is because we are all imperfect. beings, given to imperfect understandings and doings. Thus, God uses His Freewill Perfectly and we, being imperfect, are perplexed and mostly ignorant of His Perfect Doings.

Finally, God, our Infinite and Eternal Heavenly Father, has given us free will despite our imperfections and finite lack of life experiences, because it is His Will that we become perfect “even as He is Perfect,” by making our own decisions, both good and bad, and learning from them, on our path to perfection. Indeed, it is clear that if He made us perfect by fiat, we would have no choice, no credit, no dignity for us as perfect robots. We must come to know right from wrong and consistently choose right according to our own free will. This, of course, explains why there is evil and sin in the short run, but in the long run the opportunity for us to grow and progress spiritually and become increasingly more perfect children in our Heavenly Father’s Awesome Divine Family…

A reply from Jon the freelance theologian

There are two problems with this approach. Firstly, in the face of a difficult question for the believer, namely ‘why does God appear unpredictable’, RS seems to advocate a retreat into mystery, in this case ‘God’s perfect ways are over our imperfect heads’. But Christian theology has always contended that, while human beings were created physically finite, in other terms humans have a grasp of the infinite. This is echoed poetically in Ecclesiastes chapter 3, verse 11, where God is described as ‘setting eternity in the hearts of men’.

It is fairly reasonable to assume that as humans are the only creatures created in the image of God (Genesis chapter 1, verses 26-27, and repeated in chapter 9, verse 6), that part of bearing that image would include mental or spiritual alignment. Very few people would argue that it meant physical similarity, especially given that “God is Spirit” (John chapter 4, verse 24). Of course, the doctrine of the Fall of Man means that sin has marred the image of God, but that image can still be restored through belief in Jesus Christ. At some point in the process of salvation, it is believed that Christians will attain perfection, but to say that “we, being imperfect, are perplexed and mostly ignorant” seems to be a pious, yet unpersuasive, cop-out.

The second problem stems from the definition of free will. At a deeper level, free will that is forced on an agent is not free will. There is no choice in the matter. There is, of course, a danger of drifting into a philosophical debate about power and freedom at this point. However, to keep the discussion on course, it is worth pointing out that most of what RS states in his comment is bordering on philosophical speculation about the necessity of free will. Relying on human free will to justify the existence of problematic things like evil, has huge ramifications.

The dilemma is that, in allowing free will, God allows the possibility of sin. But if God is omniscient, then God should know what the outcome of giving free will to human beings would be. Therefore if God knew what the outcome of any action was going to be, it would be very simple for God to prevent that outcome or act in a way to influence it. Deciding not to change the outcome is as much of an action as changing it completely (a ‘sin of omission’). So, this argument relying on human free will is weak. Whatever happens, God has the final decision over whether an action happens or not (unless the believer is willing to accept the idea that there are some actions that God does not know the outcome to).

The Biblical picture of humanity’s choices does not dwell on the concept of free will. Human sin is the result of human rebellion and whether in Eden, or in any other place, the Biblical picture tends to be one of rebellion, not ‘misused free will’. Saying that God ‘had’ to give his creation free will in order for those created beings to mature, puts limits on God’s power. RS says that “it is clear that if He made us perfect by fiat, we would have no choice, no credit, no dignity for us as perfect robots. We must come to know right from wrong and consistently choose right according to our own free will.” But must we? Doesn’t this imply that God is limited in some way? If God is truly omnipotent, as believers tend to proclaim, then surely it would have been possible for God to create beings that knew right from wrong without sinning in the process.

Equally, saying “it is His Will that we become perfect “even as He is Perfect,” by making our own decisions, both good and bad”, is tantamount to saying that humans had to have the opportunity to misuse free will by rebelling against God in order to mature. This seems to imply that the Fall of Man was allowed or tolerated by God. If this is the case then God becomes a morally ambiguous being, who not only allows sin to happen, but also sets the situation up for it to happen, and is therefore the indirect cause of sin, evil and suffering.

Ultimately, of course, calling God ‘faithful’, like any other attribute ascribed to him, is a matter of personal faith on the part of the believer. However, when it appears that God is not faithful, then human beings, imperfect though they are, should be able to ask why that is. If faithfulness is part of God’s nature, then the appearance of unfaithfulness makes it difficult to emulate God as believers seek to we “become perfect even as He is Perfect.”

Thanks for your comment, RS – freelance theology welcomes comments on anything posted on this site, with a view to constructive debate or further discussion.


The rejection of Jesus as the Messiah – a ‘what if?’ question

Question 101 – from JG, United Kingdom

What would have happened if the Jews had accepted Jesus as their Messiah? It follows that if they had, then Jesus would not have died, thus there would be no salvation.

This kind of consequential (‘what if’) question is very interesting. Of course, it does depend on how you view the life and death of Jesus in terms of God’s plan of salvation. For theologians who emphasise God’s foreknowledge, this question is irrelevant because it was God’s pre-ordained plan that the messiah would be rejected and crucified. So this is only a relevant subject if it is assumed that human beings have genuine free will and so there would have been an option for ‘the Jews’ to accept Jesus.

It is worth remembering that many Jews did accept Jesus. In fact, as far as can be deduced from the text, it must be assumed that every believer present at the ‘birth of the Church’ on Pentecost was Jewish. There is definitely a sense that these early believers were ‘called out’ from among the chosen people, and many New Testament commentators note the theme of the earliest Church being the ‘true Israel’ as differentiated from their fellow Jews.

Over the centuries the view has developed in Christian thought, that salvation hinges solely on the death of Jesus. In classic protestant evangelical terminology, Jesus’ death ‘pays the price’ for human sin and thus negates the effect of sin on human beings (the effect being eternal separation from God). This is not the only view of salvation ever promoted across the Christian denominations, but a variant of this idea is probably the most common. However, in some senses this ‘substitutionary’ theory (Christ dying in the believer’s place) is one that has been reached ‘after the fact’. Because the historical events of Jesus’ life, as recorded in the gospels, happened a certain way, it has been presumed that salvation had to happen that way.

There are several views on what would have happened had Jesus been accepted, or enthroned, as the messiah. One view, that has been voiced in Christian Zionist circles, is that there would have been no salvation for the Gentiles. Israel would have become the prime mover among nations and the Jews would have been the only people ever to be saved.

Another possibility is that Jesus would have been installed as a kingly ruler over Israel. Certainly it would seem that this was how some of his followers thought the Kingdom of God would be established, even after his resurrection (see Acts chapter 1, verse 6).

The covenant God made with Abraham in Genesis includes the promise that “all nations will be blessed through him” (Genesis chapter 18, verse 18). Traditionally, Christians have interpreted this verse to mean that form the nation of Israel the messiah would come to save the world (through his death), but equally it leaves open the option for the messiah to rule the world. Despite emphasising the ‘chosen’ status of Israel, the worship of Yahweh always had a universalistic edge, with a special place in the Temple given to the gentiles. The prophetic idea that the Temple would be a house of prayer ‘for many nations’ (found in Isaiah 56, verses 6-7, and quoted by Jesus when he caused a riot in the court of the Gentiles in e.g. Matthew chapter 12, verse 13) indicates this potential ‘political’ salvation.

One final option is that the Jews, as a race, accept Jesus as their messiah – they just haven’t done it yet. This theory is frequently found in dispensationalist teaching regarding the end of the world. According to dispensationalist predictions, after the Church is raptured, the Jews convert en masse and recognise Jesus as their messiah, and then evangelise the world during the reign of the Antichrist. Certainly it would seem from Paul’s statements in Romans chapter 11, that he believed that eventually “all Israel will be saved” (chapter 11, verse 26), once certain other events have happened.

So, maybe this question should not be ‘what would have happened…’, but ‘when will it happen…’ The answer to that is best summed up by Jesus in Acts chapter 1, verse 7: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.


The ‘faith’ of political leaders

Question 100, from CM, United Kingdom

Tony Blair and George W. Bush wear their Christian faith very much on their sleeve and are not averse to playing it up in front of the right audience but being very vague about it before another. Their job is very demanding, carrying an enormous amount of responsibility with the scope to make mistakes on a similar scale if they are not careful. There is a question that is often asked regarding whether their faith is genuine. But if they don’t have the time in their busy schedules to do any Bible study, what advice and examples does the Bible offer regarding those with such responsibility in how they should practice their faith and how it should influence their decision-making? What are the top five scriptures they could meditate upon during their brief downtimes?

This is a fairly interesting current affairs topic at the moment, with George Bush allegedly saying that God told him to start the war in Iraq, and Tony Blair revealing on a UK chat show that he God would be his judge over his support of President Bush’s war plans. However, there is a great amount of debate over the genuineness of either politician’s faith. Bush obviously has his supporters among the right-wing Christians in the USA, but some critics have singled out his disregard for the environment and for the American poor as evidence of defective theology. Similarly Blair’s faith occasionally comes under scrutiny, but is more often disregarded or mocked, notably in the magazine Private Eye which includes a regular column reporting the ‘Albion Parish News’ as if the Prime Minister were an ineffectual Anglican vicar.

However, this is a serious enough question and one, which needs an answer. Is it at all possible for a Christian to exert governmental power and make decisions from an entirely Christian basis? One of the major criticisms of recent politics is that pragmatism often wins out over principles. Any Christian in a position of power may feel that they have to make decisions that go against their personal moral stance in order to achieve a ‘greater good’.

There are, of course, several parts of the Bible that relate to how leaders should conduct themselves. In the Old Testament era, when Israel was a theocratic monarchy, the rulers of Israel were expected to adhere to certain standards, although in practice, there was little to differentiate them morally from surrounding nations. Even notable rulers like David and Solomon engaged in certain dubious activities, which despite subsequent attempts to eulogise them, remain central to their stories. The Old Testament, with its many God-sanctioned wars, has proved to be a source of inspiration for many ‘Christian’ leaders through the centuries, who naturally assume that they are fighting God’s battles here on earth.

In some senses, this question does contain a potential area for confusion. Put simply, while on a greater scale, the actions of presidents and prime ministers are no different to the actions of any other human beings. The consequences may be larger, and more public, but the responsibilities for those actions remain the same before God. Christian theology teaches that every human being will be held to account for what they have done (or haven’t as the case may be).

In the case of President Bush and prime Minister Blair, one passage of Scripture that does come to mind, given the events in Iraq, is Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew chapters 5 and 6. This speech which in Matthew’s gospel kicks off Jesus’ teaching ministry, is often regarded as Christianity distilled into a few short phrases. One that stands out is Matthew chapter 5, verse 9: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” Whether peace can be forcibly created is another debate. Calling Bush and Blair ‘sons of God’ is left to the discretion of individuals.

Thanks for your question, CM. This marks the 100th answer to questions sent in from all around the world, since freelance theology began. Thank you to everyone who has sent in a question.

This answer is sponsored by Adam Harbinson, author of Savage Shepherds and the forthcoming book, The Jesus I Know, which includes a contribution from Jon the freelance theologian. Discover more about Adam on his personal website. Adam attends May Street Church

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Is there a correct way to pray?

Question from LH, USA

In our church people have an opportunity to share their prayer concerns and joys. A lot of the time I feel these prayer requests are really just information sharing. Which I guess is okay because they can be prayers too and we all have pure and impure motives when we pray, we are a broken people! But now people would like a follow up to these concerns. They would like an elder to contact them after the prayer request and I guess see how it went. My question is: isn’t this taking the focus then away from God and putting it back on to us? Aren’t we then sort of checking up on God? And aren’t we then sending the message to the congregation that this is a time of information sharing and a call to have a pastoral visit, instead of focusing on God and asking Him alone to transform people? Or am I missing the point of the sharing time during corporate worship?

Corporate prayer in Christian religious services has a long history, stretching back to Peter’s prayer shortly before the selection of Matthias as a replacement for Judas Iscariot in Acts chapter 1, verses 24-25. However, it would seem that even among the earliest Christian gatherings, there were some difficulties when it came to corporate expressions of worship (see, for example, 1 Corinthians chapter 14, verses 26-40). (more…)


Being a Christian in a heavy metal band

Question from TR, USA

I listen to a lot of metal and hardcore music. I’m in a metal band with a couple of my friends. They aren’t the most religious people in the world, but they’re decent people. They don’t drink, smoke, or do drugs. I’m an all around music guy. I’ve been playing piano for 10 years now, I love classical music, and I love jazz etc. I’ve been singing at church since I was 8. But I would like to ask, is it ok for me to play metal? Is there anything saying that listening to metal with a bad message is a sin or whatever? Since my lead singer in the band isn’t very religious he doesn’t care as much about writing lyrics that may be a little edgy. But since I am not writing that, does that make me a bad person? I love playing metal, and I enjoy playing shows and I do not want to quit the band that I’ve developed a personal relationship with. Does God care since I am basically a very good person on the inside? There’s a quote by St. Paul saying something along the lines of “Whether you drink or whether you eat, whatever you do, do it for God’s glory.” I’m not necessarily doing that with metal, but I’m not going to let my singer say “God is bad Satan 666” or whatever the stereotypical thing is. So what I am asking is if you would give me something close to a general Christian standpoint on metal music etc. Please help me out, as you see I am very concerned.

There are of course many Christians with very firm opinions that metal (or any rock or pop music) is Satanic in influence and will place the listener’s soul in mortal danger. However, it should be pointed out that many of the scare stories perpetuated in contemporary Christian culture, including ‘backmasked’ Satanist messages hidden on records, or that rock and roll borrows rhythms from pagan or animist religions, are little more than urban legends. Often it appears that personal preference for particular types of music leads to certain sounds being labelled as ‘Satanic’.

However, there are genuine reasons for Christians to be concerned about some of the imagery and language used in modern music, not just metal. Sexual immorality, violence and nihilism are present in most types of music. Listening to these sentiments seems to go against the instruction of the apostle Paul to the Philippians that: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about these things.” (Philippians chapter 4, verse 8)

However, it is still possible to admire the instrumentalist’s skill, lyrical deftness, or the overall musical ability of musicians who would not define themselves as Christian. Music itself is a neutral thing; the only way it is morally ‘bad’ is if it is used to convey negative emotions. In that way ‘music’ becomes the means by which sin is promoted and transmitted, but only because it has been ‘charged’ that way by the musician. In itself it is not inherently evil.

In this situation, however, being part of a group that is promoting a particular world-view does make a Christian accountable. One of the main thrusts of Christianity is that it insists that human beings are responsible for their actions. So by being a member of an ‘edgy’ metal band there is in some sense a shared responsibility for that ‘edginess’ regardless of how involved a member is in the songwriting process. It is perfectly possible that any unease felt by a Christian in that situation was the prompting of the Holy Spirit, activating their conscience about their involvement.

However, Christians are called to live as ‘salt and light’ in the world (see Matthew chapter 5, verses 13-16), with the idea that like salt they are spread throughout the world to bring flavour, cleansing or healing. (Salt in New Testament times was frequently used for medicinal and cleansing purposes, as well as for preserving and flavouring food.) There is no doubt that being friends with non-Christian metallers may be challenging for Christians, but it does provide an opportunity for reaching a hard-to-reach sub-culture with the good news of Jesus Christ. Living out faith in such a circle of friends may cause tension, but it may also provide the perfect arena for a Christian to glorify God through a positive use of musical giftings.

Thanks for your question TR.


The origin (or fall) of satan

Question from BG, USA

The two primary accounts of the Devil before the Fall that I have been able to find are in Isaiah 14 and Ezekial 28. In John Gill’s commentary on Ezekiel 28, he equates The King of Tyrus (or the Prince of Tyre) as being a form of Antichrist and compares him with the Catholic Pope. Matthew Henry believes Ezekiel 28 is a kind of ‘allegory’ for the devil. My translation of the Bible actually uses the word ‘Lucifer’ in Isaiah 14, but other translations do not. In neither chapter is any reference to the Devil even made outside of that one word, Lucifer, which only appears in the translation that I use and none other that I’ve seen. One could also legitimately suggest all Isaiah is referring to is the fall of Nebuchadnezzar. So the main question is why are those two chapters even used to explain the pre-fall existence of the Devil when the Devil isn’t otherwise mentioned but an actual human King? I realise that I am questioning a common interpretation of scripture, but it’s hard to understand ‘how’ one could come up with these interpretations. Any help in this area would be appreciated.

The ‘career of Satan’ is a term used to describe the theological development of a belief in a literal devil, or adversary. In A Theology of the Dark Side [published by Paternoster Press in 2002], British scholar Nigel G. Wright notes that the ‘Satan syndrome’ seeks to explain evil in terms of a personal entity. “The powers of negation and death at loose in the world are never quite overcome by Yahweh… This sense of a powerful adversary to God’s creation become sharpened and honed in the New Testament. It exists in the world as an objective reality, as the devil, or Satan, or the ‘prince of this world’.” [Wright, op. cit. p.2]

The simplest explanation for the reason these Old Testament references to earthly kings are linked with Satan’s downfall is that the story of Lucifer, an angel of light, overstepping his authority, and being cast out of Heaven as a result, is a very potent myth.

There is no doubt that in the gospel accounts, Jesus referred to Satan as an objective reality during his earthly ministry. Given this it was natural for early Christian theologians to try and find previous references to Satan in the Old Testament, just as they sought to find references to Jesus Christ. Sometimes these are fairly obvious, other times a certain amount of flexibility and imagination is used in interpreting the older texts as references to Satan.

The reason the reference in Isaiah chapter 14, verse 12, is often seen as a reference to Satan’s fall, is because it is echoed by Jesus in Luke chapter 10, verse 18. When the disciples Jesus sent out in chapter 11, verse 1, returned to him they told him that “even the demons submit to your name” (verse 17). Jesus replies “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (verse 18). It is fairly easy to see the logical connection between Jesus’ description of Satan’s fall, and the reference in Isaiah.

Babylon is frequently associated with opposition to God’s divine rule, e.g. in Revelation, and regularly in later Christian thought, so putting the ‘King of Babylon’ and Satan together makes some sense.

A different interpretation of Jesus’ words is that, instead of referring to a prehistoric angelic fall from grace, Jesus saw Satan overcome by the actions of the disciples on their ministry tours. If Satan was popularly believed to be the “ruler of the Kingdom of the air” (as Paul refers to him in Ephesians chapter 2, verse 2), then it may be that Jesus was referring to the disciples’ victory over Satan causing him to fall from his place of dominion (i.e. the air/‘heaven’), not to an event in the far distant past.

The idea of a prehistoric fall of individual angels from among the angelic host is widely held even today in many churches. However, it does seem to be based on an interpretation of key Biblical passages that enables the interpreter to read certain things back into the text.

Matthew Henry’s comment linking the oracle against the King of Tyre in Ezekiel chapter 28 with Satan’s downfall, shows how much this story of an angelic fall has permeated the consciousness of Christian tradition. There is no reason from the text to believe that this is allegorically referring to Satan.

The definite Old Testament mention of Satan, as a personal being, in the prologue to Job does not reflect the idea of a fallen angel cast out of heaven (see Job chapters 1 and 2). Here Satan is an ‘accuser’, but still a being with access to the Heavenly court. It is worth pointing out, as well, that Satan is listed alongside the angels (chapter 1, verse 6, and chapter 2, verse 1) as a separate and distinct entity.

In Jewish interpretation the ‘serpent’ of Eden is identified with humanity’s lower nature, with Adam and Eve succumbing to ‘base desires’. It is only in Christian thought that the serpent is routinely identified with Satan (see Wright, op. cit. p.56), mainly because in Revelation chapter 20, verse 2, Satan is described as “that great serpent”.

The serpent or snake was symbolic of chaos in ancient Middle Eastern theology, so it may be that the serpent’s appearance in the Genesis story alludes to the idea that God brought order out of chaos. Sin and evil are therefore the lingering effects of chaos that somehow impinge on God’s world.

But it remains easier for human beings, as personal beings, to envision a personal Enemy, and it would seem that many people find that Enemy written about in the Old Testament, mainly because they have gone looking for him.

Thanks for your question BG.


Omniscience – the logical difficulties of God knowing everything

Two questions on a similar theme, now:

The first is from GT, United Kingdom:

What does it mean for God to be all-knowing?

The second, more specific, but covering the same area is from NP, United Kingdom:

Does human free will override divine purpose? If God knew Adam and Eve were going to fall, why didn’t he prevent sin in the first place?

The Christian description of God owes much to ‘classical theism’ developed by the ancient Greek philosophers, which states that God is eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing and everywhere (omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent). The ‘unmoved mover’ and similar ideas of a primal God that is the source of everything (including the pantheon of Graeco-Roman gods) can be found in the works of Aristotle and Plato. When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, many leading Christian theologians had been extensively educated in the works of these philosophers, and so the classical conception of God was absorbed into Christian theology.

This view of God does however clash with the Christian assertion that “God is Love” (1 John chapter 4, verse 16), giving rise to the philosophical conundrum known as the ‘Problem of Evil’. This runs as follows: ‘God is omnipotent, omniscient and loving and therefore can prevent evil and would want to prevent evil. Yet evil exists.’ The reason evil exists has been the subject of much debate in Christian theology, with various justifications (‘theodicies’) being made.

If God is all-knowing, then he would presumably have known the results of giving Adam and Eve (or any human being) free will. The Biblical ‘Fall of Mankind’ (in Genesis chapter 3) is a direct result of God’s gift of free will. Under the classical model, God therefore allowed it to happen and so, through giving free will and not preventing the Fall, God becomes indirectly responsible for the state of the world. That is not to say that God is to blame for sin, but it does explain the extraordinary sacrifice of the Incarnation and death of Jesus Christ, who ‘bore the sins of the world’. The death of Christ took the experience of death, which is the punishment for sin, into the eternal Godhead, removing it from creation.

However, another way of viewing God’s gift of ‘free will’ is found in ‘kenotic theology’. This comes from a phrase in Philippians where Christ is described as ‘emptying himself’ during the Incarnation (Philippians chapter 2, verse 6-11, sometimes the Greek word ekenosen is translated as ‘humbled’, but its literal meaning is ‘emptied’). It could be hypothesised that in order for free will to be genuine, the outcome of any action cannot be known. Therefore, in a similar fashion to Christ’s humbling ‘emptying of himself’, God may have accepted a self-imposed limitation on his omniscience. This could be why later in the Genesis narrative of the Fall, God searches for Adam and Eve and does not know where they are (Genesis chapter 3, verse 9).

There are many competing arguments over why God felt it necessary to give human beings free will. By far the most persuasive is the idea that God seeks reciprocal love from created beings, but for such love to be genuine, it has to be the product of independent decision-making creatures. However, the insistence on adhering to the classical view of God being all-knowing, does impact on the belief in human free will. In short, knowing the outcome gives God the option of influencing any decision and it could be argued that as a result human free will is a total illusion because all consequences are dependent on God.


Reasons for baptism

Question from DH, USA

I was wondering if you could explain the Biblical grounds for water baptism and why it is required for membership in many churches today? John’s water baptism is distinguished from the baptism of Jesus which was a baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts chapter 1, verse 5). As I understand it, that occurs at the moment of conversion. So why do we still practice a water baptism?

Full baptism ‘by immersion’ is practiced in many protestant churches that have their roots in non-conformist teaching (i.e. historically they differentiated themselves from established state churches). In seeking to rediscover the Biblical practice of baptism, for a variety of theological reasons covered later, these churches began to teach that true baptism was undergone voluntarily and involved complete immersion in water. The model this is based on is Jesus’ own baptism as recorded in the gospels, which implies full immersion. For example, afterwards Jesus “came up out of the water” (Mark chapter 1, verse 10), using the Greek words ek’ tou udatos, which can only be translated as ‘out of the water’. This implies he was under the surface of the Jordan River during his baptism.

Jesus subsequently commanded that believers be baptised as part of the Great Commission (Matthew chapter 28, verses 18-20), although it is not clear from the gospel accounts whether he insisted that his companions during his earthly ministry were all baptised. It is likely that some of his disciples had been baptised by John the Baptist prior to meeting and following Jesus.

There are a number of theories why Christian tradition changed to infant baptism. Because of the link made by Jesus between belief and baptism, the act of getting baptised was often regarded as a necessary part of being saved. The high infant mortality rate meant that believer’s children might die without being baptised, and thus saved, so it may be that infant baptism developed as common practice to ensure dead ‘innocents’ were washed clean of original sin and therefore would enter Heaven. During the Reformation the principle Reformers refused to abandon the practice of infant baptism, with Huldrych Zwingli, among others, arguing that baptism was the new, and superior, circumcision that marked God’s covenant with his new people, the Christian Church. Zwingli saw baptism as superior to circumcision because it included girls as well as boys, and it was painless. Luther and Calvin regarded infant baptism as marking children out as part of the covenant people. Having your children baptised became a statement of belonging and was linked to family loyalty to the governing powers – an important aspect of life in the threatened Reforming states that had broken with the temporal power of the Holy Roman Empire and the Pope.

However, during the Reformation, many Christian sects sprang up that rejected infant baptism and argued for full ‘believer’s baptism’. Labeled ana-baptists (‘re-baptisers’), these groups were persecuted by both Catholic and Protestant authorities, sometimes with due cause. Many of these groups contained radical elements, which believed in the imminent apocalyptic end of the world and advocated anarchy or different moral codes. However, despite their persecution, these groups provided the blueprint for the emerging non-conformist practice of baptism, both in Europe and the USA.

The theological reasons behind baptism by immersion are quite varied. They range from the idea that in baptism, the participant symbolically enacts death and resurrection, by going beneath the water and emerging a ‘new creation’. In Colossians chapter two, verse 12, Paul tells the Christians in Colossae that they “were buried with [Jesus] in baptism, in which you were also raised with him” (see also Romans chapter 6, verses 1-11).

There is still a strong sense that through baptism, Christians fulfil Jesus’ commandment in the Great Commission, with baptism almost ‘sealing the deal’, acting as a definite sign of the inward acceptance of Christ as saviour. Baptism as a public act is seen as a crucial means of identifying oneself as a believer in Christ.

Within the denominations that still practice infant baptism, the idea that baptism symbolically washes away sin is still held, and this is sometimes found in traditions relating to baptism by immersion. In Acts chapter 22, verse 16, Paul relates how after his vision of Christ on the road to Damascus he was instructed by Ananias to “be baptised and wash your sins away”. There is some debate whether this cleansing from sin actually happens at baptism, or, alternatively, if baptism merely represents symbolically the internal purification of the believer. Certainly in the current Roman Catholic view, baptism of infants causes their regeneration at that point, cleansing them of original sin. It is essential to bear in mind that in regard to sacramental rites like baptism, Roman Catholic theology holds that the sacraments work regardless of the faith of those involved. So it is quite possible for infants to be regenerated, even though they could not possibly have an understanding of what the rite of baptism means.

However, the current standard protestant view is that baptism is not a necessary part of salvation, but it is a necessary part of being obedient to Jesus Christ’s commandments.

The distinction between ‘water baptism’ and the ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit’ is another matter. In fact, the New Testament seems to indicate that the two are distinct and it is possible to have one without the other, as it were. In Acts chapter 8, verses 11-17, the believers in Samaria are baptised in water, and then are subsequently baptised in the Holy Spirit when the apostles Peter and John arrive. There is a definite distinction between the two events, as seen in the story of Simon Magus (‘Simon the Sorcerer’ in some translations). Simon Magus had himself been baptised (verse 13), but when he saw the effects of baptism in the holy Spirit offered the apostles money for their kind of power (verses 18-19).

Baptism in the Holy Spirit is a divisive issue among protestant Christians, especially over the use of ‘gifts of the Spirit’ (for example, speaking in tongues). There are several views on this, broadly split into two camps: those who believe that the external evidences of Spiritual gifts have ceased (the ‘cessationist’ viewpoint); and those who hold that the gifts can still be used today to enhance the proclamation of the gospel and the believer’s own understanding of God’s purposes. Opinion is divided over when and how the Holy Spirit enters the believer. Generally the consensus is that at the moment of confession of faith, the Holy Spirit enters the new convert. There are still some groups who hold that it is only with water baptism that the Holy Spirit enters the believer. Within Pentecostal or charismatic churches, there is sometimes the argument that the Spirit does not enter the believer until the evidence (Spiritual gifts) is seen. More often these churches teach that the believer receives the Spirit at conversion, but later (or at the same time) also experiences the Spiritual gifts. This is sometimes referred to as ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’, but unlike water baptism, it is not considered a one-off occurrence.

There are problems with all these viewpoints. The cessationist view seems to be based more on personal preference for traditional, orderly worship styles, then Biblical grounds, although there are some Biblical ‘proof-texts’ used for arguing that Spiritual gifts ceased after the apostolic era. The link between water baptism and indwelling of the Spirit can be directly disproved from the passage in Acts cited above. The view, sometimes held in charismatic church streams, that Spiritual gifts are the sole evidence of the Holy Spirit is not necessarily Biblical, and charismatics have been rightly accused of promoting a two-tier Christianity, differentiating between ‘Spirit-filled’ Christians and those who are not. The use of spiritual gifts is also often open to criticism and ‘direct revelation’ of the ‘true meaning’ of the Bible, or authority given to ‘prophecies’ received, has led some churches into the margins of orthodox Christian belief.

Baptism in the Holy Spirit, however it happens, and whatever the results are, is generally accepted to happen at conversion. However, water baptism remains one of the ways in which Christians can publicly state their commitment to Jesus Christ, by fulfilling one of his final commandments made while he was on earth.

Thanks for your question, DH.


A woman church leader in the New Testament

Question from JM, Sweden

I’ve been living in Sweden for two months now and have come across a puzzling difference between the translations of the Bible that we commonly use in the UK and their Swedish equivalent…

In my NIV (and also my NLT) translation Colossians chapter 4, verse 15 reads:
Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house.”
And I’ve heard teaching from some pretty respectable theologians to the effect that this refers to a woman who was leading a church in her house. The Swedish translation reads almost word for word but with ‘his’ instead of ‘her’ house.

Then in Philippians chapter 4, verses 2-3 my NIV reads:
I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.

And again in the Swedish bibles it reads almost word for word, but with the word women taken out and replaced with “them”. Is there some kind of conspiracy going on?

This is particularly of interest to some of my friends who are female, Swedish and have leadership gifts, but have been taught by the Swedish state church that women are not allowed to lead.

The problem here lies in the particular texts used by the translators. A variant reading of Colossians chapter 4, verse 15 does read ‘his house’, rather than ‘her house’. It was this reading that was used in the English King James Version, drawing on the ‘Received text’ that was prepared by the scholar Erasmus during the Reformation and was also used by Martin Luther in his German translation of the New Testament. As the Scandinavian state churches are Lutheran, it is highly likely their traditional translations are also based on the ‘Received text’.

It’s worth noting that the ‘Received text’ is so called because it was the complete Greek text that Luther and others received from Erasmus. Despite the subsequent claims of supporters of the King James Version, the title ‘Received text’ does not imply any greater authority. In fact it was an edited Greek text drawing on the best-preserved manuscripts of the time, prepared in virtually the same way as modern textual scholars collate Greek texts to produce the most accurate version possible.

In the past 500 years or so, a number of earlier, and therefore arguably more reliable, texts have been discovered. In these earlier manuscripts ‘Nymphas and the church in her house’ (oikon autes: literally ‘house, belonging to her’) is the more common reading. In more recent collated Greek textual versions of the New Testament (e.g. Nestle-Aland fourth revised edition, published by the United Bible Societies in 1993), this textual form is given, with a footnote recording the textual variant oikon autou (‘house, of him’). It is therefore at the discretion of the translator whether Nymphas is considered to be a man or a woman.

The strong likelihood is that Nymphas is a woman’s name and the earliest texts bear this out. It could be presumed that with the growth of an exclusively male priesthood, it was naturally assumed that Nymphas would be a man, because of the implication that Nymphas led the church that met in his/her house.

In Philippians chapter 4, verse 2-3, the correct translation is actually the Swedish one. The passage reads ‘help them’ (sulambanou autais) and the word ‘women’ does not appear. But this translation, while accurate, is slightly disingenuous because there is no other way for us to tell in translation that Euodia and Synteche are women, as their names suggest. Paul refers to them as ‘fellow contenders for the truth’ and as ‘co-workers’, indicating some level of equality in service. Translating ‘autais’ as merely ‘them’ does not indicate the gender of the two women (who were undoubtedly women), leaving the modern reader uncertain as to their gender, and perhaps assuming that such named and important individuals would be male.

So, in short, there is probably something of a conspiracy, but it has its roots way back in the early history of Christianity as women were marginalised from positions of leadership. Most contemporary scholars and translators would seek to redress the balance by highlighting the gender of these leaders who worked alongside the apostle Paul (e.g. by inserting the word ‘women’ into the translation for clarity). The fact that the institutional church in Sweden has not incorporated these findings into current practice or translation probably indicates a continuing bias against women in leadership roles that has more to do with historical prejudice than accurate Biblical scholarship.

Thanks for your question, JM.