Humbly Differing With Authorities over “World” and “Water”
My Bible study sometimes takes the form of intense study of a particular passage as I seek to better understand it. To this end I have been studying John 3 for several months now as I read it over and over, study, and map out the flow of thought of the account as well as any theological arguments being made while taking into account every context: The cultural context of the human author and the immediate audience, the intent of God in his revelation of himself in the given passage to the audience of all men knowing that they come from cultures different than the one of the intended audience, the internal context of the passage such as the context of the immediate flow of thought as well as the larger flow of thought. All this is with the mind that God may allow and plan for a misunderstanding among cultures for a period of time. For example, we see the preservation of the scriptures even through the period of syncretism of the Roman Catholic Church that lasted centuries before the Reformation.
The reason I bring the RCC up is that the Reformation was a return to soteriological orthodoxy. The RCC soteriology is a direct affront to clear Pauline theology. However, they provided the source of theological authority for a long time. The authority was simply wrong.
On the other hand, there is no small amount of mistaken theology even among Protestants. There are plenty of resources available to help discern the true meaning of the scriptures. The reason people don’t get it right is the presence of sin in general, but which is often cloaked in good intentions. In other words, people have cultural and philosophical sensibilities that the literal culture of the Bible offends. It is important to study it diligently and to refer often to those who have studied much with a heart for the glory of God lest we fall into theological error, the center of our theological considerations drifting according to our desires rather than remaining fixed on a love of the Truth of God even as we submit to him.
So then, by what manner did the Reformers of old deny the theological authority of the Roman Catholic Church? And by what manner do we challenge any point of theology of orthodox Protestants today? We know that there are central matters than must not be compromised, for this provides that which defines Christian orthodoxy. But we also know that there are matters most debatable that are not central to the Christian faith or necessary for establishing our relationship in the atonement with Jesus Christ. It is in this matter that I make my observation on John 3:5, and indeed why I began studying this chapter this past summer.
On the streets of London as people passed by to whom we ministered, my wife in prayer for them became aware of a possible meaning for “world” in John 3:16. “For God so loved the world…” The classical debate between Calvinism and Arminianism involves the word “world” here translated from the Greek “cosmos”. Cosmos is a general term and can take on different meanings depending on its context. It’s rather a mistake to base any theology on such a word. Arminians claim that it means absolutely every individual person. Calvinists claim it doesn’t mean every individual, but merely every people group. Arminians claim John 3:16 as the irrefutable source of their soteriology. Therefore, they mean that there is no other way to define “cosmos”. Calvinists, in response, say that we must look elsewhere in scripture to understand what “cosmos” means and find a meaning for the scope of the word in response to Arminians. Since the Reformation, theologians have interpreted this word depending on their orientation with either Calvinism or Arminianism not thinking that there may be some other import.
Well, when my wife saw the people to whom we were ministering, she saw a challenge in the verse. “For God so loved the ‘world’ that he gave…” She saw the people to whom we were ministering as the ‘world’ and was challenged to love them as God does: even as he gave his son and he was sent, so we were sent to minister in some sacrificial way. And so the meaning actually fits pretty well with Christ’s line of reasoning to Nicodemus. Of all the orthodox Biblical commentators I find, not one of them save an obscure reference or two in one even comes close to understanding the use of the word ‘cosmos’ in this context. The logic is simple: Christ came from God, as Nicodemus rightly observed, into this world. He thought he came only to teach. But he couldn’t accept his teaching, for his teaching was that of the Messiah and that his purpose to save the world from sin demanded their faith. In this context, the ‘world’ is the place of sinful men that God loves and where he sent his Son. There is no other meaning indicated by the context and I contend that it is a disservice to the scriptural text to import other meaning in an attempt to validate one theology or another.
Now, back up several verses; Verse 5. What does it mean to be “born of water”? Let me go through my process with you.
I read this verse. Then I read the surrounding verses. I read all of chapter three, even down to where it was talking about Jesus and John both baptizing. However, the context Jesus set up is that there are two births: “Unless one is born again [first one birth then another] one cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus doesn’t understand this so Jesus restates another way “…unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God,” and elaborates, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” My first thought is that “water” is one birth and “Spirit” is another birth. If “Spirit” in verse 5 is “Spirit” in verse 6 then “water” in verse 5 is “flesh” in verse 6. How can this be? The best explanation is that he was referring to the water of physical human birth.
However, most of the commentators I read say that “water” means baptism. Apparently this goes back to the debate over whether baptism saves people or not. Those who believe it does say that “water” cannot be interpreted any other way and that it means that you have to be baptized in order to be saved. In response, those who say that baptism is merely a symbol argue that it is representative of our salvific relationship with God.
So I consider this. There are three options: either the phrase “water and Spirit” are dichotomous, synonymous, or additive. If dichotomous, then they are different things that either represent opposites or two halves of a whole. If synonymous, then they are the same thing – period. If additive, then they are basically the same thing except on different levels.
Those who interpret this as water baptism required for salvation either interpret this dichotomously or synonymously. If dichotomously, they say that one must be baptized and also the Spirit must fill them. If synonymously, they say that water baptism causes the Spirit to fill the person.
Those who interpret this as water baptism symbolic of salvation interpret this as almost exclusively additive. However, the additive is backwards. We submit to water baptism because the Holy Spirit has indwelt us. The problem is that you would have to understand that we must be baptized in order to be saved. Most Protestant commentators I’ve read don’t address this. I have seen an interpretation that went into rather subjective symbolism in order to get around this problem. The symbolism he portrayed was okay, but he didn’t get it from this text.
And that’s the biggest problem with importing water baptism into this verse. Sure, later in the chapter we read about Jesus and John baptizing. But it doesn’t fit the flow of Jesus’ response to Nicodemus. Well, I consider that perhaps Jesus isn’t restating the dichotomy and expounding on it in verse 6. Perhaps he is only talking about water being some symbol for the Spirit. Perhaps Jesus was referring to the ministry he was involved with in baptizing people (even though he really didn’t do the baptizing – his disciples did). But I don’t see how it comports with everything else he says to Nicodemus. To be sure, the baptism of John the Baptist was a call for Jews to repent and return to the core of their faith: the coming of the promised Messiah. Baptism was what the only thing non-Jews had to do that Jews didn’t already do in order to be Jews. Jews were born Jews. Non-Jews were not. In order to become Jews by faith, non-Jews had to (and still have to today) become circumcised (if men), offer a sacrifice (a finger-prick today because they don’t have the temple), and be baptized. The baptism is as though they are being born a Jew since Jews are Jews by birth. If Jesus is referring to baptism, then he is therefore referring to the water of birth. In this case, it would be both dichotomous and figuratively synonymous.
To be sure, verse 5 and verse 6 each have different information that gives us clues and I haven’t gone into every detail. For example, I have to ask if it is coherent to say that one must have a physical birth as well as a spiritual birth. And how does this comport with Jesus saying “we speak of what we know”?
So I humbly submit that all the great orthodox Protestant theologians of our time that I can find who made commentary on this passage may not be entirely correct, or may need significant refinement, in their apparent agreement on this passage. As it is, perhaps my hermeneutical approach is in error. It’s a good thing this isn’t a terrifically important theological matter among us Protestants.
As such, I submit my contemplations to all of my fellow Protestants for your consideration. If you have a good argument that refutes my thinking, please make it.