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§ 42. The Phenomena at the Baptism, and their Import.
(1.) No Ecstatic Vision.—(2.) The Ebionitish View and its Opposite.—(3.) Developement of the Notion of Baptism in New Testament.—(4.) The Baptism of Christ not a Rite of Purification.—(5.) But of Consecration to his Theocratic Reign.—(6.) John’s previous Acquaintance with Christ.—(7.) Explanation of John, i., 31.—(8.) The Vision and the Voice; intended exclusively for the Baptist.
Two questions present themselves here: the bearing of the baptism upon John, and its bearing upon Christ. The first can easily be gathered from what has been said already, and from the concurrent accounts of the Evangelists. It is clear that John was to be enlightened, by a sign from heaven, in regard to the person who was to be the ἐρχόμενος whom he himself had unconsciously foretold. The second, however, is not so easy to answer. The accounts do not harmonize so well with each other on this point, nor are all men agreed in their opinions of the person of Christ; and these causes have given rise to several different solutions of the question.
The point to be settled is this: Was the Divine revelation made on this occasion intended, though in different relations, for both John and Christ; not merely to give the former certainty as to the person of Messiah, but to impart a firm consciousness of Messiahship to the latter? And did Jesus, thus for the first time obtaining this full consciousness, at the same moment receive the powers essential to his Messianic mission? Did what John’s eyes beheld take place really and objectively, and the fulness of the Holy Ghost descend upon Jesus to fit him for his mighty work?
(1.) No Ecstatic Vision to be supposed in the case of Christ.
If we adopt this latter view, we must look at all the phenomena connected with the baptism, not as merely subjective conceptions, but as objective supernatural facts. It is true, we may imagine a symbolical vision to have been the medium of a Divine revelation common to Christ and John; but we must certainly be permitted to doubt the application of such a mode of revelation to Christ. It may be granted that the Prophets were sometimes, in ecstatic vision, carried beyond themselves and overwhelmed by a higher power: but in these instances there is an abrupt suddenness, an opposition of the human and the Divine; a leap, so to speak, in the developement of consciousness, which we could hardly imagine in connexion with the specific and distinctive nature of the person of Christ. Nor, in fact, is there a hint at such a possibility in the Gospel narratives.
(2.) Ebionitish Views of the Miracle at the Baptism, and its Opposite.
There are two opposite stand-points which agree in ascribing to the events of the baptism the greatest importance in reference to Christ’s Messiahship. The first is that of the Ebionites, who deny Christ’s specific Divinity. It is, that he not only received from without, at a definite period of his life, the consciousness of his Divine mission, but also the powers necessary to its accomplishment. The other view (proceeding, however, from firm believers in the divinity of Christ) supposes that the Divine Logos, in assuming the form of humanity, submitted, by this act of self-renunciation, to all the laws of human developement; and further, that when Christ passed from the sphere of private life to that of his public ministry, he was set apart and prepared for it as the prophets were; with this single element of superiority, viz., that he was endowed with the fulness of the Holy Ghost.
As for the first view, it is not only at variance with the whole character of Christ’s manifestation, but also with all his own testimonies of himself. In all these there is manifested the consciousness of his own greatness, not as something acquired, but as unoriginated, and inseparable from his being. He does not speak like one who has be come what he is by some sudden revolution. In short, this whole mode of thinking springs from an outward supernaturalism, which represents the Divine as antagonist to the human, and imposes it upon Christ from without; instead of considering his entire manifestation from the beginning as Divine and supernatural, of deriving every thing from this fundamental ground, and recognizing in it the aim of all the special revelations of the old dispensation. This is a continuation of the old Jewish view of the progress of the Theocracy: all is formed from without, instead of developing itself organically from within; the Divine is an abrupt exhibition of the supernatural. How opposite to this is the view which sees in the human, the form of manifestation under which the Divine nature has revealed itself from the beginning, and perceives, in this original and thorough interpenetration of the Divine and the human, the aim and the culmination of all miracles.
The second view above mentioned will appear the most simple and natural, if, instead of considering a Divine communication from without to have been made necessary by the self-renunciation of the Logos in assuming human form, we admit a gradual revelation (in accordance with the laws of human developement) of the Divine nature, potentially present, as the ground of the incarnate being, from the very first, and trace all that appears in the outward manifestation to the process of developement from within. In the lives of all other reformers, or founders of religions, whose call seems to have dated from a certain period of life, the birth-time, as it were, of their activity, it is impossible not to trace, in their later labours and in their own personal statements, some references to the earlier period when their call was unfelt.101101 As in Luther we see frequent references to the light which first broke upon his mind during his monastic life at Erfurth, an epoch of the utmost moment to his after-career as a reformer. In the discourses of Christ, however there is not the most distant approach to such an allusion.
(3.) Different Steps in the New Testament Notion of the Baptism, up to that of John the Evangelist.
In the revelations of the New Testament, and in the process of the developement of Christianity which those revelations unfold, we can distinguish various steps, or stages, of progress from the Old Testament ideas to the New. Especially is this the case in regard to the person of Christ. The conception of Christ, as anointed with the fullness of the Holy Spirit, and superior to all other prophets, is akin to Old Testament ideas, and forms the point of transition to the New, which rest upon the manifestation of Christ. But it required a completely developed Christian consciousness to recognize, in his appearance on earth, the Divine glory as inherent in him from the beginning, and progressive only so far as its outward manifestation was concerned. These two views, however, by no means exclude each other; the one is rather the complement of the other, while both, at a different stage of developement, tend to one and the same definite aim. And the latter, or highest stage of Christian consciousness, we are naturally to look for in that beloved apostle who enjoyed the closest degree of intimacy with Christ, and was, on that account, best of all able to understand profoundly both his manifestation and his discourses. From John, too; we must expect the highest Christian view of the person of Christ. [The account of the principal event of the baptism is thus given in John’s Gospel: “And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him. And I knew him not; but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. And I saw and bare record that this is the Son of God.”102102 John, i., 32-34.] Now the fact thus stated, if interpreted in an outward and material sense, and combined with the view of Christ which we mentioned a while ago as akin to the Jewish ideas, might easily give rise to the doctrine that Christ obtained at the baptism something which he had not possessed before.
Our conclusion is, that Christ was already sure of his Divine call to the Messiahship, and submitted himself, in the course of the Theocratic developement, to baptism, as a preparative and inaugural rite, from the hands of the man who was destined to conduct prophecy to its fulfilment, and to be the first to recognize, by light from heaven, the manifested Messiah.
(4.) The Baptism not a Rite of Purification.
The idea that Christ was baptized with a view to purification is absolutely untenable, no matter how the notion of purification may be modified. Akin to this idea, certainly, is the view held by some,103103 De Wette, on Matt., iii., 16. Conf. his Sittenlehre, § 49, 50; and Strauss, too, after he had seen that the view formerly expressed by him was untenable (1. c., 432, 433). that he submitted to this act of self-humiliation in the same sense in which he humbled himself before God, as the One alone to be called good.104104 Matt., xix., 17. This view would suppose him conscious, not of actual sin, but of a dormant possibility of sin, inherent in his finite nature and his human organism, always restrained, however, by the steadfast firmness of his will, from passing into action. But if we suppose in Christ the abstract possibility to sin105105 This is not the place to examine the old controversy whether Christ’s sinlessness is to be regarded as a posse non peccare or a non posse peccare. which is inseparable from a created will, pure but not yet immutable—such a capability as we attribute to the first man before the fall—even this would not necessarily connect with itself a dormant, hidden sinfulness, involving in him a conscious need of purification in any sense whatever. Such a consciousness can grow only out of a sense of inherent moral defilement, by no means originally belonging to the conception of a created being, or of human nature. We cannot admit a dormant principle of sin as an essential element of the moral developement of man’s original being. Sin is an act of free will, and cannot be derived from any other source, or explained in any other way.106106 We cannot enter further into this subject here, but take pleasure in referring our readers to the late excellent work of J. Müller, viz., “Die Lehre von der Sünde,” in which the subject is treated with remarkable depth and clearness. The new elucidations in the 2d edition, especially, evince a soundness of mind that is not more rare than excellent. There is, then, in Christ’s humbling himself, in his human capacity, before God, the only Good, no trace of that sense of need and want with which the sinner, conscious of guilt, bows himself before the Holy One. The act manifested only a sense, deeply grounded in his holy, sinless nature, of absolute dependence upon the Source of all good.
(5.) The Baptism of Christ a Rite of Consecration to his Theocratic Reign.
All difficulties are cleared away by considering John’s baptism as a rite of preparation and consecration, first in its application to the members of the Theocratic kingdom, and secondly to its Founder and Sovereign. The repentance and the sense of sin which were essential preliminaries to the baptism of the former, could in no way belong to Him who, at the very moment when the rite was administered, revealed himself to the Baptist as the Messiah, the deliverer from sin. But while the import of the rite thus varied with the subjects to whom it was administered, there was, at bottom, a substantial element which they shared in common. In both it marked the commencement of a new course of life; but, in the members, this new life was to be received from without through communications from on high: while in Christ it was to consist of a gradual unfolding from within; in the former it was to be receptive; in the latter productive. In a word, the baptism of the members prepared them to receive pardon and salvation; that of Christ was his consecration to the work of bestowing those precious gifts.
(6.) Had John a previous Acquaintance with Christ?
If the Baptist had an earlier acquaintance with Jesus, he could not have failed, with his susceptible feelings, to receive a deeper impression of his divinity than other men. We cannot but infer, from Luke’s107107 The Apocryphal Gospels contain many fables in regard to Mary’s descent from a priestly lineage, arising, perhaps, from the fact that the Messiah was to be both high-priest and king. (So in the second Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, the Testament of Simeon, § 7: ἀναστήσει κύριος ἐκ τῶν Λευὶ ἀρχιερέα καὶ ἐκ τῶν Ἰούδα βοσιλέα, both in the person of the Messiah.) There is nothing akin to these in Luke’s account of the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth, the latter being of priestly lineage, which is only given en passant; the stress is laid upon the descent from David’s line. statement (chap. i.) of the relationship108108 Matthew’s omission to mention this relationship and to give any reason for John’s reluctance to baptize Christ, only proves his narrative to be more artless, and therefore more credible. The Ebionitish Gospel to the Hebrews shows far greater marks of design, and, indeed, of an alteration for a set purpose. It represents the miraculous appearances as preceding and causing John’s conduct.—When John hears the voice from heaven, and sees the miraculous light, he inquires, Who art thou? A second voice is heard to reply, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. John is thereby led to fall at his feet and cry, Baptize thou me. Christ, refusing him, says, Suffer it.—Here not only are the phenomena exaggerated, but the facts are remodelled to suit Ebionitish views, which denied the miraculous events at Christ’s birth, and demanded that the sudden change by which he was called and fitted for the Messiahship at the moment of baptism should be made prominent by contrast with all that had gone before. They conceived, accordingly, that he first received the Holy Ghost when it descended upon him in the form of a dove, and that at that period he was endowed with a new dignity, and must offer new manifestations. His divine character was thus obtained in a sudden, magical way; and the two periods of his life, before and after that event, were brought into clear and sharp contrast: every thing that occurred at the baptism was deemed miraculous, while all the wonders of his previous life were rejected; in short, his Divine and human nature were rudely torn asunder. We see in all this the effect of a one-sided theory in obscuring history, and detect in it also the germ of a tendency which led the way from Judaism to Gnosticism. So it was with the doctrines of Cerinthus and Basilides on the person of Christ, according to which Christ possessed, as man, the ἁμαρτητικόν of human nature (although it never became actual sin in him); and the Redeemer was not Christ, but the heavenly Spirit that descended upon him. Another instance of the way in which the general object of John’s baptism (viz., purification and forgiveness) was brought to bear upon the doctrine of the person of Christ may be seen in the Gospel of the Nazarenes, translated by Jerome, in which the account runs, that when Christ was asked by his mother and brothers to go with them to John, in order to be baptized for the remission of sins, he replied, quid peccavi, ut vadam et baptizer ab eo, nisi forte hoc ipsum quod dixi ignorantia est (“unless I, who have not sinned, carry the germ of sin unconsciously within me”). (Hieron., b. iii., Dialog. adv. Pelag., ad init.). It is seen more strongly still in the κήρυγμα Πέτρου, according to which Christ made his confession of sin before the baptism, but was glorified after it. Thus we see two opposite tendencies conspiring to falsify history in the life of Christ. The one sought falsely to glorify his early life, and embellished his childhood with tales of marvel; the other sought to degrade his prior life as much as possible, in order to derive all that he afterward became from his Messianic inauguration. The relation of our Gospels to both these false and one-sided tendencies is a proof of their originality. I cannot suppose, with Dr. Schneckenburger (Studien der Evang. Geistlichkeit Würtemburgs, Bd. iv., s. 122), that Matthew’s simple account of Christ’s baptism was abridged from the Ebionitish narrative, which, as we have seen, gives evidence of a designedly false colouring. Nor can I agree with Usteri and Bleek (Stud. u. Krit., Bd. ii., s. 446, and 1833, s. 436), that the dialogue between John and Christ, which, according to the Ebionitish version, took place during the baptism, is inaccurately placed by Matthew before it. between the two families, that he had heard of the extraordinary circumstances attending the birth of Jesus. The Saviour “prayed” at the baptism (Luke, iii., 21). If we figure to ourselves his countenance, full of holy devotion and heavenly repose, as he stood in prayer, and its sudden association, in the mind of the Baptist, with all his recollections of the early history of Jesus, we, cannot wonder that the humble man of God—all aware as he was that the Messiah was to be consecrated by his baptism—should have been overwhelmed, in that hour so pregnant with mighty interests, with a sense of his own comparative unworthiness, and cried, “I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?”
(7.) Explanation of John, i., 31.
One of two things must be true: either John baptized Christ with sole and special reference to his Messianic mission, or with the same end in view as in his ordinary administration of the rite, involving in its subjects a consciousness of sin and need of repentance. Now it is clear that he did not take upon himself to decide to what individual the Messianic baptism was to be administered, nor was he willing to rest it upon any human testimony, but waited for the promised sign from heaven; and as for Jesus’ receiving the rite in the second sense at his hands, his own religious sense must have rebelled against it. Nor is this contradicted by his words recorded in John, i., 31, “And I knew him not; but that he should be made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water.” John’s refusal to baptize Christ did not necessarily involve (as we have already said) a knowledge of his Messianic. dignity; and the words just quoted refer only to that dignity. He means to say with emphasis that his conviction of Christ’s Messiahship is not of human, but of Divine origin. His previous expectations, founded upon his knowledge of the circumstances of Christ’s birth, were held as nothing in comparison with the Divine testimony immediately vouchsafed to him.109109 It was the main object of John the Evangelist to bring out prominently the Divine testimony given to John the Baptist (as the latter pointed the former originally to Christ); the knowledge which the latter had derived from human sources was comparatively unimportant. In fact, he seems not to have thought any thing about it, and hence his words may imply that the Baptist had no previous acquaintance at all with Christ; but such an interpretation of them is not necessary, considering the definite end which he had in view. Let an event be described by different eye-witnesses, and their accounts will present varieties and even contrasts, simply because each of them seizes strongly upon some one point, and leaves the rest comparatively in the back-ground. True, there are degrees in historical accuracy, and we must distinguish them. In this case, the one certain fact, involved in all the narratives, however they may differ in other respects, is, that the Baptist was led, by, revelation made to him at the time, to consecrate Jesus to the Messiahship by baptism. This fact must remain, even if the other discrepancies were irreconcilable. We always consider a thing stated in common by several variant historical narratives, to be more probably historically true.
(8.) The Vision at the Baptism, and the Voice, intended exclusively for the Baptist.
When the Baptist thus drew back in reverence and awe, Christ encouraged him, saying, “For the present,110110 Showing that this relation between him and the Baptist was to be but momentary, and soon to be followed by a very different one. De Wette’s remarks (Comm., 2d ed.) seem to me not very cogent. “Christ describes his baptism as πρέπον, and hence this view cannot be correct.” But what made it πρέπον was the fact that it was but transitory and preparatory to the revelation of Christ in all his glory. The remark of Christ applied to the now and only to the now. The ἄρτι implies the contrast, which is not expressed. suffer it; for thus it becomes us (each from his own stand-point) to fulfil all that belongs to the order of God’s kingdom.” While Jesus prayed and was baptized, the reverence with which John gazed upon him was heightened into prophetic inspiration; and in this state he received the revelation of the Divine Spirit in the form of a symbolical vision; the heavens opened, and he saw a dove descend and hover over the head of Christ. In this he saw a sign of the permanent abode of the Holy Spirit in Jesus; not merely as a distinction from the inspired seers of the old dispensation, but also as the necessary condition to his bestowing the Divine life upon others. It indicated that the power of the Spirit in him was not a sudden and abrupt manifestation, as it was in the prophets, who felt its inspiration at certain times and by transitory impulses; but a continuous and unbroken operation of the Holy Ghost, the infinite fulness of the Divine life in human form. The quiet flight and the resting dove betokened no rushing torrent of inspiration, no sudden seizure of the Spirit, but a uniform unfolding of the life of God, the loftiness, yet the calm repose of a nature itself Divine, the indwelling of the Spirit so that he could impart it to others and fill them completely with it, not as a prophet, but as a Creator.
The higher and essential unity of the Divine and human,111111 We do not intend to say, by any means, that John comprehended this in the full sense which we, from the Christian stand-point, are able to give to it. as original and permanent in Christ, which formed the substance symbolized by the vision, was further and more distinctly indicated to John by the voice from heaven,112112 Although the words of the voice, as given in our Gospels, contain at most only an allusion to Psalm ii., 7, we find that passage fully quoted in the Ebionitish Evang. ad Hebraeos. The words are still better put together in the Nazarean Gospel of the Hebrews, used by Jerome: Factum est autem quum ascendisset Dominus de aqua, descendit fons omnis Spiritus Sancti et requievit super eum, et dixit illi; Fili mi, in omnibus prophetis expectabam te, ut venires et requiescerem in te. Tu es enim requies mea, tu es filius meus primogenitus, qui regnas in sempiternum (Hieron., 1. iv., in Esaiam, c. xi., ed. Vallarsi, t. iv., p. 1, f. 156). Here a profound Christian sense is expressed: Christ is the aim of the whole Theocratic developement, and the partial revelations of the Old Testament were directed to him as the concentration of all Divinity; in him the Holy Ghost finds a permanent abode in humanity, a resting-place for which it strove in all its wanderings through these isolated, fragmentary revelations; he is the Son of the Holy Ghost, in so far as the fulness of the Holy Ghost is concentrated in him. But although a Christian sense is given, the historical facts are obviously coloured. saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Words that cannot possibly be applicable, in their full meaning, to any mere man, but to Him alone in whom the perfect union of God and man was exhibited, and the idea of humanity completely realized. It was this union that made it possible for a holy God to be well pleased in man. John’s Gospel, it is true, makes no mention of this voice; but it will be recollected that this evangelist does not relate the baptism (John, i., 29, 33), but cites John Baptist as referring to it at some later period. The subsequent testimony of the Baptist, thus recorded (“I saw and bare record that this is the Son of God,” v. 34), presupposes the heavenly voice which pointed out that Sonship. At all events, the voice expressed nothing different from the import of the vision; it was the expression of the idea which the vision itself involved.
We consider, then, that the vision and the voice contained a subjective revelation of the Holy Spirit, intended exclusively for the Baptist,113113 We follow here especially the account of John, according to whom the Baptist testified only of what he had seen and heard. If this statement be presupposed as the original one, the rest could easily be derived from it. What the Baptist stated as a real fact for himself would readily assume an objective form when related by others. This original apprehension of the matter seems to appear also in Matthew (iii., 16), both from the heavenly voice being mentioned in indirect narration, and from the relation of εἶδε to αὐτόν; although the expression is not perfectly clear (conf. Bleek, Stud. u. Krit., 1833, s. 433, and De Wette, in loc.). A confirmation of the originality of Matthew’s account may be obtained by comparing it with that in the Ebionitish Gospel. In this, first, the words are directly addressed to Christ, and Psalm ii., 7, fully quoted; then a sudden light illuminates the place, and the voice repeats anew, in an altogether objective way, the words that had been directed to Christ. In comparing our Evangelists with each other, and with the Ebionitish Gospel we see how the simple historical statement passed, by various interpolations, into the Ebionitish form; and how a material alteration of the facts arose from a change of form, through the addition of an imaginary and foreign dogmatic element. These accounts form the basis, also, of the view held by the sect called Mandaeans (Zabii, disciples of John), who combined the elements of a sect of John’s disciples opposed to Christianity, with Gnostic elements. But as their object was to glorify the Baptist rather than Christ, they further distorted and disfigured the original with new inventions. “The Spirit, called the Messenger of Life, in whose name John baptized, appears from a higher region, manifests still more extraordinary phenomena, submits to be baptized by John, and then transfigures him with celestial radiance. Jesus afterward comes hypocritically to be baptized by John, in order to draw away the people and corrupt his doctrine and baptism.” (See Norberg’s Religionsbuch of this sect.) to convince him thoroughly that He whose coming he had proclaimed, and whose way he had prepared, had really appeared. He was alone with Jesus; the latter needed no such revelation. What was granted to John was enough; he recognized, infallibly, the voice from heaven, and the revelation of the Spirit, by his inward sense; no outward sensible impression could give him more. For others the vision was not intended; it could benefit them only mediately through him, and in case they regarded him as a prophet.
After Jesus had thus, alone with John, submitted to his baptism, and received in it the sign for the commencement of his public Messianic ministry, he withdrew into solitude in order to prepare himself. by prayer and meditation,114114 The chronology of the Gospels by no means excludes such a time of preparation, although we cannot decide whether the “forty days” are to be taken literally, or only as a round number. John’s Gospel, as we have said, does not relate the baptism in its chronological connexion (John, i., 19, presupposes the occurrence of the baptism); so that there is no difficulty in supposing a lapse of several weeks between the baptism and the first public appearance of Christ. The words in John, i., 29, may have been the greeting of the Baptist on first meeting Christ upon his reappearance. Nor does the retirement of Christ throw a shade upon the credibility of the narrative as matter of fact. It is entirely opposed to the mythical theory; for we do not see in it (as we should were it a mythus) any of the ideas of the people among whom Christianity originated; on the contrary, it displays a wisdom and circumspection in direct antagonism to the prevailing tendencies of the time. As St John’s object was only to state those facts in Christ’s life of which he had himself been an eye-witness, his silence on the subject is easily accounted for. for the work on which he was about to enter. This brings us to inquire more closely into Christ’s subjective preparation for his public labours.
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