Why do we baptize with water? Since Scripture gives us a water ritual to perform, the element used in that ritual must contain some essential significance. How might we deepen our understanding of baptism by reflecting on the element of water?
One way to fill out our understanding of the waters of baptism would be to reflect on the import of water in our everyday experience, then apply those insights to baptism. Typically, reflection on the elements of the rite of baptism centers on the cleansing properties of water. Water washes away dirt and impurity. Water aids healing. This is quite true, and an important component of our understanding of baptism. This is also something readily discerned from Scripture (especially the law). However, the role of water as a cleansing agent doesn’t really emerge in Scripture until the time of the flood (at the earliest). Yet we read plenty about water in just the first two chapters of Genesis.
To fully understand the significance of the waters of baptism, we need to consider the nature of the world God created and how water functions in Scripture from the very beginning. If we read the creation narrative carefully, we will see that water figures prominently as a primal and vital element – a source of life for the world.1
A clearer view of the role of water in creation will illuminate our understanding of baptism:
First, Genesis presents a close association between God the Holy Spirit and water. Genesis 1:2 says the Spirit of God was “hovering over the face of the waters.” From the beginning, the Spirit and water are depicted together. To be sure, Spirit and water are distinct – their spatial difference (Spirit above / waters below) is especially important. Nevertheless, Scripture begins by associating Spirit, water, and the act of creation – the combination of Spirit and water signals a new work of God. In creation, the Spirit is the agent of action, and the primeval drama begins with Him poised over the waters.
Second, life on earth is sustained and surrounded by water. God divides the waters by carving a space between them (Genesis 1:6). Now there are waters above the heavens, and waters below the heavens. God then shapes the waters below into seas and creates dry land in their midst (Genesis 1:9). The land, like the heavens, is carved out from among the waters. Mankind’s story is to take place in the midst of the waters – between the windows of heaven and the fountains of the deep.
Third, the waters are the first place living creatures appear (Genesis 1:20). God has formed the waters; on day five of creation, He fills them. God commands the seas to abound with living creatures, and the waters teem with life (the sky and land populate soon after). The waters are the womb of life on earth.
Fourth, water nourishes the garden of Eden and beyond. Water gives life to the garden: a mist goes up from the earth and waters the ground (Genesis 2:6), feeding the vegetation God created, which in turn gives life to man, who subsists on the vegetation of the garden. Moreover, water from the garden gives life to the world. The waters inside the garden are not stagnant, but flow out to the land outside the garden: a river proceeds from the garden and splits into four tributaries throughout the earth (Genesis 2:10-14, cf. Genesis 13:10).
Scripture has much to teach us about the role of water in the story of redemption, but our brief survey shows that the creational waters are a primal element, a source of life, and a subject of God’s special attention. Water is a gift, nurturing and sustaining the life of the world. And when we see water and the Spirit of God together, we should expect that the creative power of God is about to be unleashed. The Spirit hovering over the waters, forming structure and giving life – this is the rich creational and symbolic context of baptism.
1. This way of understanding the sacraments has deep roots in church history. See Jean Danielou’s excellent studies of patristic typology: The Bible and the Liturgy and From Shadows to Reality.<>meganakrutkaпродвижение а стоит