Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist in the Gospel of John

The issue of the sacraments in the Gospel of John has received a lot of attention in Christian scholarship. Some scholars have even argued “that John was written to oppose people who gave too much place to the sacraments or those who gave too little place to them” (Leon Morris, “John, Gospel according to” in International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982], 2:1107). There has also been debate over whether or not John 3 refers to baptism, and whether or not John 6 refers to the eucharist. The extent of this debate is rather remarkable considering that, as C. K. Barrett has noted, “the Fourth [Gospel] contains no specific command of Jesus to baptize, and no account of the institution of the eucharist” (C. K. Barrett, The Gospel according to St John: An Introduction with Commentary and Notes on the Greek Text [2nd ed.; London: SPCK, 1978], 82).

I agree with Don Carson that John’s Gospel “is neither sacramentarian nor anti–sacramentarian” (D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, [Leicester: IVP, 1991], 99). Carson views these categories as being inappropriate, and he is right to do so, but he argues this on the basis that the language of the Gospel “drives people to the reality, to Christ himself, refusing to stop at that which points to the reality” (ibid.).

The problem with Carson’s argument at this point is that baptism and the Lord’s Supper (in Reformed tradition at least) are not merely signs that point to Christ; they are signs that actually communicate the reality of Christ. Furthermore, while it is true that the Gospel of John is primarily a call for people to be committed to Christ and his teaching, given that early church placed great importance on baptism and the eucharist, it is highly unlikely that John and his readers would not have drawn connections between Jesus’ teaching in John 3, 6 and the important Christian rites of baptism and the eucharist. The book of Acts shows that baptism was treated as an integral part of the gospel (e.g., Acts 2:38; 8:36), and that the eucharist was an important activity in Christian worship and fellowship (Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7).

Furthermore, if it is accepted that John’s Gospel was written with an evangelistic purpose in mind (primarily for confirming the belief of Christians, and secondarily to promote the conversion of unbelievers), then the issues of baptism and participation in the Lord’s Supper would naturally be present by way of implication. These were the key rites that defined initiation and continuation respectively in the Christian community.

It is valid, therefore, to allow for a deeper significance to Jesus’ words in John 3 and John 6 in the context of John’s day, where Christians (and possibly some non-Christians) would have understood Jesus’ teaching in these chapters in the context of the important Christian rites of baptism and the eucharist, allowing them to draw connections between Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel and Christian doctrine regarding the sacraments. I will pursue some of these connections in my next couple of posts.


jeff miller said...

Hello Steven,
Sacramentarian teaching is built on an infected tradition and is not taught in scripture. I have tried to at least begin to point out how sacramentarian error evolves and becomes assumed as catholic doctrine.
The distinction Jesus made in Mark 7 between "traditions you have handed down" and "the word of God" remains crucial for us today. False mediators, a false sense of entitlement, and a false priesthood, are not helps to our loyalty but are distractions from it. Thanks for your work in the Lord.
(Related essays are linked at the lower left column of my blog.)

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, Jeff.

I don't think that just because we use the term sacrament or eucharist we are necessarily bringing in any unbiblical elements, but historically that is definitely true in relation to the term sacrament. Doing theology in the Latin language with Latin terms had the potential for various Greek and Latin cultural ideas or understandings to be brought into the work of theology, and I think that you are right to point this out in relation to the idea of sacrament historically.