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BAPTISM OF JOHN,
THOUGH the author of the “ Plea for Primitive Communion" has not thought fit to annex his name to that publication, as truth alone is the legitimate object of controversy, his claim to attention may be justly considered as little, if at all, impaired by that omission. Religious inquiry is an affair of principles, not of persons ; and under whatever shape an author chooses to present himself to the public, he is entitled to notice in proportion to the force of his conceptions, and the candor of his spirit. How far the author under present consideration is possessed of these qualities, must be left to the judgement of an impartial public.
As he has confined nearly his whole attention to the question of the identity of John's baptism with the ordinance now in force, without pretending to enter into the general merits of the controversy, and this is a question which admits of separate discussion, and is in itself of some moment, the following pages will be devoted to a defence of the sentiments which have been already advanced on that subject.
Previously to this, however, the patience of the reader is entreated for a few moments, while we endeavor clearly to state the bearing of this question on the controversy with which it has been connected. It was in deference to the sentiments of his opponents, rather than his own, that the author was induced to bestow so much attention upon it in his former treatise, persuaded as he is, that its connexion with the point in debate is casual and incidental, rather than real and intrinsic ; since the only possible advantage to the cause of mixed communion resulting from its de cision, is the overthrow of an argument most feebly constructed. To be convinced of this, it is only necessary to remember that the
admission of what our opponents contend for, would merely prove that the ordinance of baptism was promulgated at an earlier period than the Lord's supper. But in determining a question of duty resulting from positive laws, the era of their promulgation is a consideration totally foreign; we have merely to consider what is enjoined, and to what description of persons or things the regulation applies, without troubling ourselves to inquire into the chronological order of its enactment. In the details of civil life, no man thinks of regulating his actions by an appeal to the respective dates of the existing laws, but solely by a regard to their just interpretation ; and were it once admitted as a maxim, that the
particular law latest enacted must invariably be last obeyed, the affairs of mankind would fall into utter confusion. It would be the highest presumption to pretend to penetrate so far into the breast of the legislator, and into reasons of state, as to form a conjecture on the comparative importance of our duties, or the respective relations which they bear to each other, by an appeal to the distinct periods in which the laws were promulgated; nor is there any surdity in supposing it possible, that for the wisest purposes the law which is last enacted may prescribe the performance of an action antecedently to a different one enjoined by a prior enactment. Besides, the most extensive branch of the system of rules which is in force in this, and perhaps in most other countries, arises out of immemorial customs, which it would baffle the profoundest antiquarian to trace to their origin ; whence it is evident that the principle in question is necessarily excluded from the widest department of legal obligations. It is a principle as repugnant to the nature of divine, as it is to human legislation. It appears from the history of the patriarchs, that sacrificial rites were ordained much earlier than circumcision ; but no sooner was the latter enjoined, than it demanded the earliest attention, and the offerings prescribed on the birth of a child did not precede, but were subsequent to, the ceremony of circumcision.
In the case of moral obligations, no one pretends that their reciprocal relation and dependance is to be ascertained by an appeal to the distinct periods of their institution : their co-existence with human nature precludes the possibility of applying such a test; and he who consults impartially the dictates of conscience, confirmed and enlightened by revelation, will seldom feel himself embarrassed with respect either to the nature or the order of his duties.
In the case of positive duties, that is, such as result entirely from the revealed will of God, and with respect to which the voice of nature is silent, how far they are so inseparably linked together as to form a moral whole, in such a manner that the omission of one part renders an attention to the other a nullity, must depend entirely on the language of the institute. To attempt to establish any conclusion where that is silent, is at once to incur the censure justly attached to the application of hypothesis in the interpretation of positive laws, with this additional aggravation, that the hypothesis adopted on the present occasion, is at least as precarious and unfounded, as the worst of those by which the advocates of infant baptism have attempted to vindicate their practice. With unparalleled inconsistency, while the champions of strict communion affect, on the subject of baptism, the utmost veneration for the letter of Scripture, they are driven in support of their sentiments to appeal, not to what is enjoined—not to a syllable of Scripture, but to a chronological deduction of positive ritess a hard necessity surely, and the more so when it will appear in the sequel, that this their forlorn post is untenable.
Before we proceed to notice the objections of the author of the “ Plea” to the statements which have been made on the subject of John's baptism, it will be necessary briefly to recapitulate the grounds on which it was affirmed to be essentially distinct from the ordinance now in use. To such as have not perused the former treatise, the discussion would scarcely be intelligible without it; to such as have, it is possible some particulars may be presented in a clearer light.
The attentive reader of the New Testament will not fail to have remarked, that the rite performed by John is rarely, if ever, introduced without the addition of some explanatory phrase or epithet, intended apparently to distinguish it from every preceding or subsequent religious observance. Thus it is sometimes denominated the baptism of John,' on other occasions baptism in water,' and the 'baptism of repentance, but is never expressed in the absolute form in which the mention of Christian baptism invariably occurs. When the twelve disciples at Ephesus are asked into what (i. e. into what profession) they were baptized, they reply, · Into the baptism of John.' Though innumerable persons were baptized by St. Paul, we read of no such expression as the baptism of Paul; on the contrary, in his epistle to the Corinthians he expresses a sort of pious horror at the very idea of such a supposition. Whoever considers the extreme precision which the inspired historians maintain in the choice of the terms employed to represent religious ordinances, will perceive this circumstance to possess considerable weight.
It derives much additional strength however from reflecting that John's baptism is not only distinctly characterized in the evangelical naratives, but that he himself contrasts it with a superior one, which he directs his hearers to expect at the hand of the Messiah. “I indeed,” said he,“ baptize you in water, but there standeth one among you, whose shoe-latchets I am not worthy to unloose, he shall baptize you in the Holy Ghost and in fire ;" referring unquestionably to that redundance of prophetic and miraculous gifts, which were bestowed on the church, after the effusion of the Spirit. We accordingly find that, after his resurrection, our Lord commissioned his Apostles to teach and baptize all nations, the execution of which order was usually accompanied by the collation of such gifts on believers, as fully corresponded to those predictions. Though he who is confined to no times or seasons, was pleased in some instances to communicate these preternatural endowments, previously to the act of baptizing, at others not in connexion with that rite, yet that they were its usual and expected concomitants, is evident from the language of St. Paul to the disciples at Ephesus, who not having heard of such an effusion of the Spirit were interrogated in the following terms; “ Into what then were ye baptized ?” a question totally irrelevant, but upon the supposition that these gifts were the usual appendage or effect of that ordinance. No such consequences followed the rite administered by John; an important disparity, to which he himself repeatedly directed the attention of his followers, as a decisive proof of his personal inferiority to him that was to come, as well as of the ceremony he administered, to that which should usher in the succeeding dispensation. In exact agreement with the genius of eastern phraseology, he suppresses the mention of water on this occasion, choosing rather to characterize an ordinance accompanied with such stupendous effects, by its more elevated feature, rather than by one, in which it coincided with his own.
Again, it is universally admitted that Christian baptism has invariably been administered in the name of Jesus, and that circumstance is essential to its validity ; while it is evident from the solicitude with which our Saviour avoided the avowal of himself as the Messiah, that during his personal ministry, his name was not publicly employed as the object of a religious rite. After he had been declared on the mount of transfiguration to be the Son of God, he charged his disciples to tell no man of it, till he was risen from the dead, and when Peter had solemnly avowed his profession of faith in him under the same character, he and his fellow-apostles were strictly enjoined to tell no man that he was the Christ. Nor is there a single example of his publicly acknowledging that fact, until his arraignment before the High Priest. But how this is consistent with the practice of baptizing in his name, which must have been equivalent at least to a public confession of his being the Messiah, it is difficult to conceive. If we examine the matter more closely, we shall perceive that ceremony to import much more, that it includes an act of adoration and of worship, of which he in whose name we are immersed is the avowed object. To multiply words with a view to demonstrate the inconsistency of such a procedure, with the acknowledged reserve maintained by our Lord on this subject, would be to insult the understanding of my readers; nor when furnished with certain matter of fact, are we left to form an opinion from previous probabilities. The historian informs us that while John was baptizing, amidst an immense concourse of people from various parts of Judæa, all men were musing in their hearts whether he were the Christ or not, (Luke iii. 15,) and that the deputation sent from the Sanhedrim to inquire into his character, were disposed to infer from his introducing a new religious rite, that he pretended himself to be the Messiah. But how is it possible, let me ask, that such a question should arise amongst the people, on the hypothesis maintained by our opponents? or how could it enter into their imagination to infer, from his baptizing in the name of Jesus, that he himself was, or that he pretended to be, the Messiah ? His constant and daily practice must have completely precluded such a suspicion.
If St. Paul's citation of the language of John, in the nineteenth of the Acts, be correct, what he said to the people was this “That they should believe on him who was to come.” (Acts xix 4.) The epithet o čoxóuevos, he who is coming, it is generally admitted, was the usual appellation applied to the Messiah at that period, which, while it expresses the certainty and near approach of the event of his coming, intimates not less clearly its futurity. At the time when the son of Zechariah entered on his ministry, nothing could be more accurate than the idea conveyed by that phraseology—the Messiah was not yet manifest to Ísrael ; John was sent before him, to announce his speedy appearance; he was as yet coming, not actually come; on which account, the language which the forerunner held was precise and appropriate; it was not a demand of present faith in any known individual, but was limited to a future faith on a certain personage who was about to evince his title to the character he assumed, by his personal appearance and miracles. He said to the people that they should believe in him that was to come. Could the same person, let me ask, at the same moment be described by terms expressive of the present and of the future tense—at once as an existing individual, a person historically known, and as one that was to come? In a word, if John expressed the act of faith which he required, in the future tense, (stiot Evopsi, Acts xix. 4,) it unquestionably respected a future act ; and if he described its object under the term ó ágyóuevos, he that is to come, he did not inimerse in the name of Jesus, which would have been a palpable contradiction.