Thursday, June 01, 2006

Born Again?

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I have always enjoyed working with and learning from non-Catholics Christians. As I have explained on this blog, as a Catholic student at APU and Fuller Theological Seminary, I have had the wonderful opportunity to learn from some of the most gifted Christian scholars around. Of course, every now and then, I encounter someone on campus who, upon hearing of my denominational affiliation, determines that God has called them to "save" me from the errors of Catholicism.

I've heard just about every argument against the Catholic Church you can imagine--from "call no man father" to the charge that Catholic epistemology is essentially "foundationalist". One that I recently encountered focused on the sacrament of Baptism. My non-Catholic friend insisted that Jesus did not call us to be baptized but simply to be "born again"--by which he meant making an interior committment to Christ. I do not dispute the need for interior committment--that's of the upmost importance. But did Jesus really say that we need to be "born again"? That's what I want to focus on here.

I asked my friend where Scripture tells us about being "born again" and he said, "John 3:3: "I truly, I say to you, unless one is born again [anōthen], he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." I told him he was making the same mistake Nicodemus made. Let me explain.

The word typically translated "again" is anōthen (sorry, I don't know how to insert Greek font here). The word can be translated two ways: "again" or "from above". Nicodemus apparently thought Jesus was saying that a man must be "born again": "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" (John 3:4). Jesus has purposely chosen a word with two meanings to flush Nicodemus' earthly mindset out--to demonstrate his inability to think "supernaturally". [Jesus does the something similar with the woman at the well in the next chapter, where he speaks of hydōr zōn--"living" or "running" water (4:10).]

Rodney A. Whitacre writes, "Thus, in his response to Nicodemus, Jesus is giving Nicodemus the opportunity to recognize who it is that stands before him. But Nicodemus gets confused. When Jesus says one must be born from above (anōthen), Nicodemus takes it as being born again (cf. NIV text and note). Jesus is speaking of the spiritual realm, but Nicodemus thinks he is referring to the physical." [John (IVPNTCS; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 88.]

Jesus goes on to explain: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, "You must be born anōthen" (John 3:5-7).

After comparing the Holy Spirit to the invisible movement of the wind, Jesus says, "If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man" (John 3:12-13). I wonder if it might be more in line with Jesus' teaching to speak of "Born From Above Christians," and not "Born Again Christians"?

Regardless, what is often missed in this whole narrative is the underlying baptismal imagery: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven" (John 3:5). There is clearly a reference here to Ezek 36:25-28. But, to my mind, it is impossible to imagine that John's first readers would not have seen this as a reference to baptism. In fact, water and the Spirit have previously been linked together earlier in the Gospel--at Jesus' baptism (1:31-33).

In fact, immediately after this episode we read: "After this Jesus and his disciples went into the land of Judea; the he remained with them and baptized" (John 3:22). Jesus wanted us to be born again, that is, born "from above" through the Spirit in the sacrament of baptism (cf. Matt 28:19).


Stephen (aka Q) said...

I agree with you that there's room in the Church for both Roman Catholics and Protestants. I am a Protestant who has learned a great deal from the books of Roman Catholic scholars like Joseph Fitzmyer and Raymond Brown.

I also agree that John 3:5 is alluding to baptism. John is always oblique in his references to the sacraments, but I still think the references are clear.

I disagree with you insofar as I don't think we must choose between "born again" and "born from above". This is typical Johannine word play, and presumably he wants us to understand both meanings as valid.

In this text, as you observe, there is a clear reference to two births: one from below, of flesh; and one from above, of water and the Spirit. But if there are two births, surely it is appropriate to speak of being born again: i.e., a second time.

Hence both meanings of anōthen are clearly rooted in the text, and it would be a mistake to exclude either of them. But that doesn't mean that baptism isn't the occasion of our rebirth, or that baptism is a step that we can skip because what "really counts" is the interior commitment.

Michael Barber said...

Well said, Q...


I am always surprised when a Protestant uses the "Call no man Father" argument on me. It is obvious that all of us call our earthly fathers "father," so it is an argument that is not the most obvious on its face.

I always end up saying, charitably, "Is that it? You want me to leave the church I was raised in and love, because of this one Bible verse that we interpret differently?" They ususally see quickly that it is not a good argument.

Looking around elsewhere, great blog.