Category Archives: Theology

Is Acts 8:38 an airtight case for immersion baptism?

Baptism is a sacrament of the Christian faith. As such, people can feel rather strongly about how the rite is carried out. While for some there is only one acceptable mode, immersion, for others of us there are three: sprinkling, pouring, or immersion. I, myself, am one of those people who is fine with any of the three modes.

I recently had an exchange with someone who believes that immersion is the only acceptable mode. One of the proof texts presented to me, and one that is frequently used to defend the immersion only view, was Acts 8:38, “And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch, and he baptized him.” (NASB)

The idea is that since Philip and the Eunuch “went down into the water,” it somehow proves that an immersion baptism took place. There are some difficulties with this, however. First, the context states that these events took place on a desert road between Jerusalem and Gaza. This is an area that is remarkably arid – hence the mention of the “desert road.” As a consequence, it is doubtful they came across a substantial body of water – unless the argument is going to be made that a Jewish ritual bath was used in a town somewhere along the way, but this has its own difficulties.

Second, “went down into the water” is not an indicator of depth. The text does not state that they were under the water, only that they went into the water. The same language can be equally applied to deep and shallow water. A person can get drenched in water up to their ankles. Water can be dipped from a shallow water source.

Third, if the statement that they “went down into the water” in and of itself makes it necessary that the Eunuch was immersed, we should turn around and ask if Philip was also under water when this happened. After all, it was both of them that “went down into the water.” If that phrase alone necessarily puts one under the water, then it should put both of them under the water, or very close to under the water.

I will stop there.

Let me make myself abundantly clear: I have no issues with baptism by immersion. I have baptized people by immersion. At the same time, I also believe that a person can be baptized with substantially smaller amounts of water.

The point of this post is simply to point out that Acts 8:38 does not present the airtight case for immersion baptism that some might suppose.

Putting Our Eggs in the Wrong Baskets

I write this post simply to state that a lot of us, as Christians, misguidedly place all of our eggs into the wrong basket. And, if someone has all of their eggs in a basket that fails, then the result is often times a very damaged, or even abandoned, faith.

For instance, a person can place all of their eggs into a particular view of creation (you can take your choice between Young Earth, Old Earth, Intelligent Design, Theistic Evolution, or something else). If that view comes under attack and the holder of the position does not feel it can be adequately defended, a domino effect can take place in that person’s spiritual life that can lead to the ultimate demise of his or her religious belief.

It is important to note that the Christian faith stands or falls primarily on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul, himself, says as much. Outside of this, there is plenty of room for argument and discussion, but if you are going to put all your theological eggs into one basket, then this would be it. After all, the resurrection has several vital doctrines connected to it.

So, why am I spending these few moments to write this very brief post? The answer is simple. Many people will where themselves out battling over some obscure piece of turf that should have never become as important as they made it out to be. It would be like the United States being defeated as a nation, and surrendering unconditionally, in a battle in Greenland – no offense to the good people of Greenland.

Now, let me wrap this up with a note of clarification: the various doctrines we hold are important (even the ones we disagree on), and there are many things worth fighting for (even Greenland). But, it is my prayer that we don’t get so consumed by items on the margins that we lose sight of the most central component of the faith: the resurrection.

The Need for Christians to Read the Bible

Statistics show that few people take the time to actually read the Bible.  A survey conducted by Lifeway of 2,930 Protestant churchgoers indicates that only 19% read the Bible everyday and that 18% rarely or never read the Bible.  Furthermore, only 1 in 5 Americans claims to have read the Bible from cover to cover.  The American Bible Society also reports on the distressing Bible reading trends.

The trouble with these reports should be self-evident.  As Christians, we make the bold claim that the Bible is the very Word of God, but many of us do not regard as such in practice.  The average churchgoer can probably tell you a number of books that they have read, but the Bible, strangely, is not on that list.

So, why is it so important to read the Bible?  Here are a few reasons that I can think of right off the top of my head:

  1. It is the Word of God.  This should be sufficient reason alone for someone to want to read the Bible in its entirety.  Indeed, this is good enough reason to make Bible reading and study a lifelong practice.
  2. It is in the pages of Scripture that we learn about Jesus Christ – the one and only path to the Father.
  3. It prepares us, as Christians, to engage with the world we live in.  Christians should make Bible reading and study a habit so that we know what the Word says.  We should not be part of the number that thinks Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife, or that “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible.  In order for us to engage the world with a developed Biblical worldview, we must read the Bible.
  4. It provides the ethical and moral system by which God expects us to live by.
  5. It allows us to see the Bible as a whole and not as a bunch of random texts that are often read without context.
  6. It has had a profound impact on our culture throughout history that can be seen in numerous places, including literature, art, music, and history.

I am sure that you can probably add your own reasons to this list, but these are what popped into my head first.

While reading the Bible as individuals is important, I also think it is vital that families read the Bible together.  This allows for questions to be asked and answered; deep, thoughtful discussions to take place; doubts and concerns to be expressed in a safe and supportive environment; and it can help families have aligned values.  Reading the Bible in its entirety as a family is also important because it exposes difficult passages that are often overlooked.  Christians should be aware of difficult passages and have some idea, or framework, for how to deal with these.  This framework may vary depending on your theology (Arminian, Calvinist, etc.), but it will help guide you in understanding the Bible as a whole.

This last point, understanding the Bible as a whole, is of critical importance.  I have strange suspicion that a lot of people know bits and pieces of the Bible and build a caricature of the whole thing from those parts.  Similarly, I think many Christian try to engage culture with a very keen knowledge of a very small amount of Scripture, but do not have a good grasp of the whole Word of God.  Having an understanding of the Bible as a whole is of enormous value to mature faith.  After all, the canon of Scripture was given to us for a reason, and that is to learn what God has to say to us.

Happy reading!

On Memory and Transmission

For two weeks in row, the Unbelievable? radio program of Premier Christianity featured a debate between Richard Bauckham and Bart Ehrman. Both men are world renowned scholars and the debate was very informative. Central to the discussion was whether or not the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses. Bauckham argued in favor of the idea that they were, in fact, written by eyewitnesses while Ehrman, unsurprisingly, argued that they were not. What I found most interesting in these two debates was the emphasis on human memory.

Ehrman holds the position that the primitive church in the region of Judea would have been largely, if not entirely, illiterate. He also believes that the human memory cannot be relied upon to convey information accurately. Now, I should make it clear that Ehrman is no knucklehead, and he comes to debates with a wealth of information. He mentions scores of psychological studies, and references scholars regarding the literacy rate in first-century Jerusalem.

Bauckham is no slouch in these matters either, and he also speaks of psychological studies and various scholars that support his conclusions. Still, I wish he would have done a better job of arguing with Ehrman. So, let me throw in my two cents from the cheap seats several days after the actual radio broadcast.

1. Can human memory be trusted? This is a good question, and there is a lot of evidence that shows the human memory is definitely fallible. However, researchers often focus on things that I would say are removed from the individuals being studied. So, one of the studies spoke of a person seeing the space shuttle exploding on television, and another of various silly tasks given to college students on a campus.

These are interesting studies, but do they really prove the point? I say they don’t. To begin, the person on the street will have a very different emotional investment in the memory of the space shuttle disaster than someone who worked on the project. And, there is seemingly no emotional investment in being asked to do oddball tasks on a college campus. The apostles saw a close personal acquaintance die a horrifying death and then return to life three days later. This is a far different emotional experience than what is found in the research mentioned in the radio show.

2. Does memory have to be perfect to be trustworthy? Nope. Since people love to point out the fallibility of eyewitness testimony in a court of law, we can talk about this for a moment. Let us say that three eyewitnesses are called to the stand in a murder trial. The first witness says that he saw a man get shot by an assailant in a blue sports car, and that after the shooting took place the paramedics arrived within ten minutes. The second witness says that he saw a man get shot by an assailant driving a blue pick-up truck, and that the paramedics showed up within five minutes. The third witness says that he saw a man get shot by an assailant in a green SUV, and that the paramedics arrived within fifteen minutes of the shooting.

Now, are any of these witnesses trustworthy, and can we learn anything at all from their testimony? I think the answer is a qualified yes to both questions. We must ask what our expectations are for their memories, and if those expectations are reasonable. Do we expect people to accurately remember the make, model, and color of cars that they see throughout the day? I think not. Their inability to recall minute details only means that they are not trustworthy regarding those particular items. However, they can still be reliable on larger details. Now, turning to the question of whether or not we can learn something from the testimony of these three witnesses, I think it is clear that we can. In this case, we learn that a man was shot by an assailant in a vehicle, and that paramedics arrived within fifteen minutes.

3. We do not need to abandon God when we argue with skeptics. I have never understood the tendency of believers to toss aside God when engaging those who are hostile to our faith. I have immense respect for rational argumentation, but if that is all you have when engaging in dialogue with a skeptic, then the discussion is no different than if two atheists were debating the merits of religion. The Bible teaches us that God was at work in the inspiration, transmission, and preservation of the Scriptures (John 14:26; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:20-21).

Some may argue that this is cheating somehow, or intellectually lazy, but I do not see that as being the case. If I claim that there is a God in heaven that has the capability to act in this world, then I am under no obligation to argue for that God apart from that God. In other words, when we make arguments for God, there is no reason to leave Him out of the discussion.

Whew… This has gone on for quite some time now, and I think it is time to stop. So long for now : )


Is God a Cosmic Care Bear?

In my last post I addressed the notion that God is a cosmic vending machine. In this post, I aim to address another common notion in popular culture: that God is a cosmic Care Bear. According to this view, God is simply the always smiling, always cuddly, stuffed animal from our youth that expects nothing of us. The view is often trotted out with the line that God is love.

Now, before I go further, I should make it clear that God is love and I am not questioning that. What I am calling into question is whether or not this is His only trait. For, when we say, “God is love,” and make that His single defining characteristic, what we have done is mischaracterized God in the minds of many. This is the result of a misunderstanding of both love and God.

Many people take love to be some form of blind acceptance and approval of anything and everything. So, according to this view, regardless of what you bring to the table, God would have a big smile on His face and give His approval. But, is this love? I think not. Imagine a parent acting in such a way. Regardless of what the child does, the parent responds with unflinching acceptance. In this scenario, there is no discipline, concern for others, or guidance as the child develops into an adult. Imagine a government that “cares” for its citizens but refuses to administer justice. The result would be pain for countless citizens that are abused at the hands of others, all the while the loving and caring government stands by and smiles with approval. Suddenly what we thought was love becomes hatred. Most of us know what love is, even if we can’t define it perfectly. And we also know, when we are honest with ourselves, that a Care Bear does not represent real love.

Now, moving on to the real substance of this topic. God is God, this is our actual starting block. From here we begin to see the many ways that God is described in the Bible. So, let’s look at a small sampling of the ways God is directly described in Scripture. God is: love (1 John 4:8, 16); Holy (Lev. 11:44,45; 19:2; 20:26); jealous (Deut. 4:24); great and awesome (Deut. 7:21); a God of justice (Isa. 30:18); one who loves justice, but hates robbery wrongdoing (Isa. 61:8); and the list can go on.

The question is: if we are going to define God by only one term, which one shall we use? Does one deserve more than the others? Or, why can we not just take Him as the Bible describes Him? For myself, I take God as the Bible describes Him, which includes all of the attributes listed in the previous chapter, plus many more. Understanding God in this way does not leave room for the Care Bear view. Adrian Rogers, a brilliant preacher who has gone to be with the Lord, once said, “To preach half a truth as the whole truth is to preach an untruth.” He was referring to people that only emphasize God’s mercy and grace without acknowledging His holiness or role as judge.