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Discussion in 'The Gospels & Acts' started by David Taylor, Feb 13, 2020.
What is everyone's position on being born of water in John 3:5?
I do not believe Jesus is referring to physical birth by the phrase, "born of water," juxtaposed with the expression "born of... Spirit." Nor do I think it is a mere symbolic reference, whether to a pure verbal metaphor or a bodily activity.
I admit to feeling the force of the argument that actual baptism by means of water is in view; however, I agree with the majority-Reformed view that Jesus is not speaking of such ritual per se by his use of the language. Rather, he is in the midst of a discourse where he pointedly declares the inefficiency of any means which are not actively energized by the Holy Spirit. He urges Nicodemus to engage beyond any sign to things signified by such.
So, I (along with men like Calvin and Hodge) regard the full expression, "born of water and of the Spirit," as an instance of hendiadys, a figure of speech which uses two terms (usually joined by "and") to convey a single if complex idea. It is not as though any ritual baptism would be alien to the mind of Jesus or Nicodemus here; it certainly could not be far from the mind of John, who had just written of JtB's Jordan-baptism in ch.1 (water again factoring in the wedding story of ch.2). Reference to the water is intended to evoke all the meaning of OT symbolism associated with ritual cleasings (e.g. cf. Heb.9:10; Num.8:7; Ezk.36:25).
In line with that interpretation, here is Ch.Hodge discussing this text, as part of his discussion of baptism in his Systematic Theology:
(from here: https://ccel.org/ccel/hodge/theology3/theology3.iii.vi.xii.html)
Reference to Eze 36
So is he saying the same thing twice, since the 'water' is a reference to Ezekiel 36?
To me that argument seems to be a stretch longing for symbolism and forcing that upon the text. I know many commentators see it that way though. However, the more plain interpretation, to me, seems to be the obvious of physical birth vs. spiritual birth as that follows the parallel progression of the passage.
That's what makes it so explicit to Eze 36.
If you knew how much of John's account draws on Ezekiel, it would not be a stretch at all.
Plus, for these kinds of references, I go to the OT first before some Western, modern explanation. That's why Jesus says Nic should have known this as a teacher of Israel.
Also, how does being born of water work in a physical sense? They were down and dirty w/ the way birth takes place. No water! Just... well I couldn't bear to look at the birth of my kids as I was grossed out. But definitely no water.
Water can refer to amniotic fluid or even semen.
The woman's water breaking. Granted, it is exegetically ludicrous but you see people advocate it at times.
How exactly is it exegetically ludicrous to attribute water to water breaking or semen?
What would have been on the minds of the earliest Christians who read being "born of water:" a woman's water breaking or baptism?
We know it was baptism because of the overwhelming influence of the baptismal ritual. In any case, I am open to citations from Ignatius or others on its being a woman's water breaking.
Except Jesus was not talking to the earliest Christians. He was talking to Nicodemus. Nicodemus would not have thought immediately of Christian Baptism. So no, that actually makes no sense exegetically.
"Exegetically" speaking, we'd expect Nicodemus to be making a theologically informed comment--Jesus certainly seems to think he should've, even if he wasn't.
On the other hand, the notion that Jesus' words he expects Nicodemus to take physiologically, or gynecologically, is "Sociologically" speaking. It's a form of cultural exegesis, giving that priority over intertextual correlation.
Furthermore, why wouldn't Nicodemus have related that language to the baptism of John? What was Jewish expectation on this score? Jn.1:25, "And they asked him, saying, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”"
The plainest interpretation contextually is that Nicodemus had just offered this understanding as a physical birth, Jesus then states you must be born physically, but born again spiritually.
Was Nicodemus speaking literally or ironically, when he asked, "Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?" My money is on the latter, meaning I don't think he really imagined any such thing was Jesus' meaning on the subject of rebirth. Nicodemus seems to struggle to make out Jesus' meaning, and does not infer (as he should have, instictively) that Jesus habitually taught from the biblical text as an authoritative source.
I do not think that Jesus responded to Nicodemus' statement with a reference to the physical act of birth. You are welcome to suppose that he did, but to assert that this is the "plainest" interpretation is somewhat question-begging. "Born of water" is not a straightforward statement of anything, but is by the very words an oblique reference to... something.
If it is a mention of amniotic fluid, then it is a kind of euphemism, and bespeaks a kind of subtle avoidance of "birth mystery" or some such. Why not say "born of woman?" If it is a mention of seminal fluid, it is even more euphemistic! Why not say "born of a husband's seed?" That whole comparison seems theologically inapt; therefore amniotic fluid seems that much superior an idea, under the "physical birth reference" interpretation.
But if it be a hint at amniotic fluid, the question is "Why?" Why this curious drift into euphemism on the part of Jesus, who is more well known for avoiding verbal winks? If Jesus did not think Nicodemus would be misled by the expression, then it must have been a fairly typical way of speaking about physical birth. What historic evidence is there that this was typical speech in that part of the world, or anywhere in antiquity?
If there's no historical support for that concept, then we're back to the literary context. And there's more to the close literary context than two verses: there's the whole conversation; there's the context of chs.1-3 of John; there's the rest of the Gospels-context (since John is apparently aware that he's making a complementary contribution to the Synoptics); and, given the lateness of John's Gospel, there's the NT context; and the OT context, since both parties to the conversation, and especially Jesus, are having a religious conversation with the Bible as the starting point.
Theology of Baptism aside, 1st Century Jews understood ritual washings. That would have made more sense than a gynecology lesson.
But Odeberg has gathered an impressive array of passages from rabbinic, Mandaean, and Hermetic sources to show that terms like “water,” “rain,” “dew,” p 192 and “drop” were often used of the male semen.
Leon Morris, The Gospel according to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 191–192.
Good, if old survey of the meaning...
OK...? I don't have LM's commentary here at home, but are you now inclined to a seminal reference above an amniotic? I don't think you can have both. Does LM even favor the seminal interpretation? I don't recall, but he often mentions more than one interpretation than the one he prefers.
Is your point simply: a physical-reference interpretation has its defenders? So, if one has some historic support, we may assume the other has merit? That's not safe or reasonable.
The value of the seminal interpretation has to be determined from a consistent theological position. Is a person "born of the Spirit" in some way parallel to the way he is "born of [a man]" (alt. agency interchanged for "water," to effect the parallelism)? No, it's not even comparable; I'd go so far as to say Jn.1:13 stands opposed to it.
Any analogy is reduced to paper-thinness: natural birth on one hand, and supernatural birth. It doesn't help if we take it the opposite direction: born of "water" from a man, vs. born of "[... what would go here? the word?]" from the Spirit. I'd say that's inconsistent with NT teaching, and borderline blasphemous.
I think the physical birth notion is forced back to some connection between womb/amniotics/breaking-waters/birth. And this still seems to me a curious way Jesus might have spoken of natural birth. In v6 he pits "born of flesh" against "born of Spirit," he doesn't set them in series the way he is supposed to have said almost the same thing in v5.
One must think that Jesus is most likely speaking of a physical birth (using the term "born of water), by first according Nicodemus' statement "enter again his mother's womb" a non-ironic sense, and then uses a (typical) euphemism for giving birth; and sets two kinds of birth 1st in series (v5), 2nd in contrast (v6)--it may be compelling to some, but I don't see this as typical of John's style.
I think the hendiadys "born of water and the Spirit," two terms that belong together in some sense (v5), is shortened (v6) to "born of the Spirit" (Spirit being the qualifying element) and is contrasted to "born of the flesh." Feel free to differ, but it's just as plain a reading.
No, my position is it could be either or but definitely referring to physical birth. This is the position Morris takes as well. However, he seems to favor seminal as he says it has double meaning comparing the physical seed with spiritual seed for the birth.
The article posted at #18 includes LeonMorris' take, under the position: "(3) Spiritual Seed." He says the two terms are united in one meaning; though he does not use the word hendiadys, it is obvious that he has that exact concept in mind.
Leon Morris in The Gospel According to John: The New International Commentary On The New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971) writes, “. . . we may take ‘water’ and ‘Spirit’ closely together to give a meaning like ‘spiritual seed’ [This is rendered the more likely in that neither noun has the article and the one preposition governs both (216n29)]. . . .
Nicodemus was a Pharisee. He was used to this way of speaking. The allusion would be natural for him. We should accordingly take the passage to mean being born of ‘spiritual water’, and see this as another way of referring to being born ‘of the Spirit’. Jesus is referring to the miracle which takes place when the divine activity re-makes a man” (216-218).
I can see why LM would appreciate the many instances of "water" being used extrabiblically and euphemistically for seminal fluid; however he does not appoint one meaning (physical) to "water" and a second to (ethereal) to "Spirit."
Correct, he appoints double meaning.
Those who take water in this verse as referring to physical birth are definitely a very small minority. No early church fathers or pre-modern Protestant exegetes (or RC and EO for that matter) that I'm aware of suppose such an interpretation. So to say this is exegetically the plain and obvious meaning is quite audacious.
In my own study of the issue, considered in light of respected and in some cases fairly detailed exegetical writings, I have come to largely agree with the position Rev. Buchanan is advocating. Water almost certainly has an allusion to the obligation and significance (as in signification) of religious ritual washings in general. In this paradigm there really isn't even a need to determine whether Levitical, Proselytic, Johannic or Christian baptism is specifically in mind. Each had similarities in practice and purpose.
The other mainstream interpretation (Calvin, Poole et. al.) is that water here refers directly (though still symbolically) to the work of the Spirit, but for myself (and most interpreters I've read), given the specific reference to the Spirit that occurs alongside water this would seem to turn the verse into a rather odd tautology ("you must be born of water - i.e. the work of the Spirit- and the Spirit").
Water breaking is a Western and modern euphemism. And to refer to amniotic fluid or semen as water seems a huge stretch.
As I said, I'll start w/ an OT referent, especially since Jesus said Nic should have understood the reference due to his role as a teacher of the OT.
I think interpretations that see Nicodemus as a sort of dimwit are naive. It’s called “midrash” (the exegetical model of the rabbis made frequent use of the kinds of hyperbole and metaphors Jesus himself seems to have employed) and so Nicodemus most likely thought Jesus was using this technique and responded in kind.
Still - I think Bruce hit the nail on the head way at the top of this thread and all else has been superfluous.
A tentative thought: why should not the water of baptism itself be symbolic of genesis (new creation, new birth) in an organic way?
The Spirit is first associated with movement over the face of the waters. John echoes the creation very deliberately from 'In the Beginning', the Light and the Word, and then (I can't help thinking, and have lately found that other much more qualified people have thought the same) the day... day... day echoes (which culminate at the end of the week in a wedding). And we also find in this chapter an association of water and Spirit. Water is pretty prominent throughout these first chapters, through the woman at the well, the Pool at Bethesda ...
I think maybe the water in the vessels of purification that is turned to wine which is juxtaposed with Christ's cleansing of the temple, and then here the usage of 'water' juxtaposed with our old birth, is all teaching us more about what the Spirit does in new creation? It gives content for our conception of His new creative work, and so of what we receive in baptism. I think maybe this gets carried through the contrast between the water in the well for which we thirst again and the water Christ gives; and perhaps also through the healing water in the pool to which the paralysed have to be carried under just the right conditions, and the healing that comes to the paralysed in Christ. But John's usage of 'water' throughout is one of those things I want to read and understand much more about.
[edit: only John has the detail of Christ's side being pierced when He is lifted up, and water and blood flowing out.]
Who can know 'cept God alone? That's a lot of people and opinions. Some may not even have one yet.
A few guiding principles...
#1: Look at the whole phrase rather than trying to parse out bits of it. You asked what Jesus means by "born of water," but actually what he says is "born of water and the Spirit." That helps us. If the first half of that phrase is unclear, look to the second half for clarification. The most likely explanation is that "born of water" is somehow similar or a companion to being "born of the Spirit."
#2: Assume the conversation participants are intelligent. The explanation that Jesus is teaching, "You must not only be born physically, but also spiritually" does not make much sense because surely Nicodemus would not be so dense as to think being born physically automatically gets one into the kingdom of God, so that Jesus had to correct him. It makes more sense that Jesus means something like, "You need God to do a cleansing and spiritually transforming work in you" because this fits a more reasonable view of where Nicodemus was erring. He had come with a self-reliant and presumptuous attitude—"Rabbi, we know..."—and Jesus was correcting this.
#3: Be guided by the main point of the passage. The explanation that "you need God to do a cleansing and spiritually transforming work in you" is also more in line with the main thrust of the rest of the passage.
#4: Be guided by the rest of Scripture. Which is a bigger theme in Scripture: that water symbolizes a baby being born, or that water symbolizes God's cleansing work in a believer? The second explanation is the hands-down winner, making it most likely.
So, all of this combines to suggest that "born of water and the Spirit" means something like "having had God do a work in you that is both cleansing and spiritually renewing." Which means Bruce is probably right. It also means Jesus has given us a phrase rich in imagery which we can ponder as we consider the many water and cleansing references not only in the rest of John but in all of Scripture. These are a wonderfully worshipful few words that pack a terrific punch.
That just makes no sense to have before the verse talking about physical, after the verse talking about physical, but somehow this verse is different?
But (assuming that Nicodemus is a smart guy) the most reasonable interpretation of Nicodemus' comments in verse 4 is that he means something like, "I can tell you can't be talking about physical birth, so please explain the spiritual truth you must have in mind." And Jesus responds with comments about spiritual birth. It makes everything fit together much better.
The alternative is that you must believe Nicodemus is a complete dimwit. Admittedly, this passage gets taught that way sometimes, because it's fun to imagine Nic is clueless. But we can and should do better.