Baptism and the New World

Baptism and the New World October 26, 2015

Stephen Turley (The Ritualized Revelation of the Messianic Age) doesn’t think standard treatments of Paul’s baptismal formula in Galatians 3 get the point. The standard options – ex opere operato and ex opere operantis – share the “common false assumption: they both place pistis and baptizein in a dichotomous relationship” (40).

Turley brings the two dimensions together in part through the use of ritual theory. Citing Roy Rappaport, he refines ritualization as “that social strategy that overcomes uniquely the incommensurable metrics between private and public domains.” It does this by “imposing highly definite temporal demarcations upon indefinite and vague psychological processes” (41). Thus, “the baptism ritual, as entailing a highly definite demarcation of time, would impose effectually a publicly recognized clarity and lucidity upon private subjective processes of faith and belief.” Subjective faith thus is “transformed into public confessions indicative of the objective social order to which such confessions are specific, thus indicating the individual’s participation in it” (41).

Somewhat in tension with this, Turley points out that elsewhere in Galatians “pistis is consistent presented as a temporal reality, a sphere, as it were, that is not reducible to the private psychological processes of the individual.” Pointing to Galatians 3:23, 25, he notes that “faith” is “an objective reality in which participates of communes in a manner that frees one form the imprisonment of the ‘present evil age’” (46).

From this considerations, he concludes that “baptism in Galatians is presented by Paul as an apocalyptic ritual that generates performatively a spatio-temporal dualism of ‘this world’ and ‘the world to come’/’the new creation’ located in the space of the baptized body.” Clothing the baptized in Christ, “baptism transformed ‘faith in Christ’ into an indicator of the dawning of the messianic age and its adoptive sonship as over against the ‘present evil age’ indicated by the ‘curse of the law’” (47). Baptism is neither a supplement to or symbol of faith but “baptism sanctifies faith, setting it apart form the present evil age and revealing to those who are ‘Jews by nature’ as well as “sinners among the Gentiles’ . . . that their time under the pedagogical function of the law  . . . and stoicheia tou kosmou . . . has come to an end in the baptismal dawning of the messianic age” (47-8). Baptism establishes the status of the baptized in the baptizing community.

And this is why baptism is not a “replacement” for circumcision: “Circumcision generated a world made of Jews and Gentiles, those with and those without the Law.” Baptism doesn’t replace it, but reveals a new world. It “generates nothing less than the ritualized found, the fons et origo” of the apocalyptic antinomies of flesh and Spirit, of this age and the age to come. Thus, “the charge that Paul appears to be merely replacing one external ritual . . . with another . . . is off base: Galatians is not about replacing one ritual with another, but rather one ritually revealed world with another” (48).

Baptism, he argues, doesn’t reveal a world that is established elsewhere and otherwise. Rather, it “generates what it communicates through the very act of communication” (51). It realizes the new world it reveals by marking the baptized off from the old Jew-and-Gentile world and bringing him into the new world of Jesus.

This too is why Paul sees a return to circumcision as a catastrophic betrayal of the gospel: “For the Gentile Galatians to being living as Jews would in fact render their own particular confirming disclosure of the messianic age obsolete and therefore compromise the apocalyptic significance of baptism. Said differently, by relegating baptism as a sub-rite to circumcision, the Galatians would in effect assimilate baptism within a world-order revealed through Jewish rituals, and in effect nullify baptism’s apocalyptic significance. Thus, if the Galatians were to go ahead with circumcision, they would in fact be cut-off from Christ” (56).

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