Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Mighty Comma

Lynne Truss pointed out years ago that 'A  panda is a large black-and-white bear-like mammal that eats, shoots and leaves' means something very different from 'A panda is a large black-and-white bear-like mammal that eats shoots and leaves.'  But the difference is only one comma - a mighty comma.

This past Sunday we began our worship with Andrew King's excellent setting of the creed: 'We believe in God Almighty' and someone queried the theology; for one verse says 'Once baptised, our sins forgiven'.  They took it to mean that we need to be baptised in order for our sins to be forgiven - and I've heard the point made before.  I've even seen it in print.

Once more, it's down to the mighty comma.  'Once baptised our sins forgiven' WOULD mean 'Once baptised our sins are forgiven'.  That, of course, is error.  But put in the comma, 'once baptised, our sins forgiven' and it becomes a list - a list of things that have happened to the Christian.  He has been baptised once, and his sins are forgiven.  (It's based, of course, on the Nicene Creed - and see Ephesians 4:5.)

Then again, there's 'Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven'.  As it stands, it is calling out to the soul to praise the King of Heaven.  Take out the first comma, though ('Praise my soul, the King of Heaven') and it's calling on the King of Heaven to praise my soul.  Quite a difference, eh?

Mind you, those of us who know the difference do make mistakes: my very own 'Why Lord?' should, of course, be 'Why, Lord?'  As one reviewer pointed out.


Jonathan Hunt said...

I have had that same thought about that hymn. I do worry that some might misunderstand it, even with the comma. But it is a great hymn and we sing it fairly often.

Dean Olive said...

Thanks for introducing me to this hymn. We have New Christian Hymns and I found it there after reading your post. I really like the hymn but I do have a problem with that line, even with the comma. Maybe some other brethren can throw some light on the meaning. If it is Spirit baptism it fits but if it is water baptism, it is troublesome to me.

Gary Benfold said...

Dean - the hymn is based, of course, on the Nicene Creed, and the relevant section in that reads
"And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets. And we believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. And we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen."

It's certainly possible to interpret 'baptism' there in an unsound way but combine Luke 3.3 with 1 Peter 3.21 and it's acceptable, I think.

Most of the Reformed are usually happy to take the Nicene Creed as it stands, I think. Are you an exception? Or am I?

Andrew said...

I think we do need to be careful when our concerns over language in hymns (where we MUST teach a degree of critical distance and discernment) may occasionally trip over into the kind of critique that would, frankly, equally kick some parts of inspired scripture into touch. What will we say of Acts 2: 38 or 22:16 - the apostles should have sharpened their speech up a little? It is THEIR language that is normative, not our post-reformation shibboleths. The comma in the hymn is deliberate and critical. Justification by faith alone IS the mark of a true church, but a teaching of justification by faith that severs the link between baptism and remission of sins is unbiblical. That link has important elements to be noted in terms of order and the nature of a covenantal sign, but the link exists and reformed folks (especially baptists) are far too prone to turn the sacrament into both less than what it is, and more, as we fall over into an evangelistic use which owes more to revivalist (Finneyite) hype than to Biblical teaching.

Gary Benfold said...

The 'Andrew' commenting above is Andrew King - author of the hymn.

Gary Benfold said...

A good point, Andrew, about whose language is normative. I was very struck many years ago by a line from Charles Simeon, to the effect that he'd never met a Calvinist who didn't wish the inspired apostles had expressed things differently. I realised then that - if, for example, I wished John hadn't said 'he is the propitiation... for the sins of the whole world' then it's OUR doctrine of the atonement that's defective, not HIS way of expressing things.
I'm still an enthisiastic five-pointer; but happy to quote 1 John 2.2 without qualification.

Dean Olive said...

I am not afraid of quoting any passage of Scripture, including Acts 2:38, etc. but I think we could avoid the appearance of teaching baptismal regeneration in our hymns, even if the language parallels the Nicene Creed, the Apostle's Creed, Augustine, etc. Lovely hymn, though, Mr. King. We shall surely sing it. Would be interested in other hymns you might have written.

We have had a wonderful Thanksgiving Day in in the USA.