Some Thoughts on the "Cognizance" Issue

(N.B.: A good portion of my argument depends on what Peter's hearers knew. I am certainly no expert on that subject, and would appreciate any corrections or further information about them. Furthermore, these thoughts are only preliminary.)

[UPDATE: In one of his podcasts, Douglas Jacoby states that most of the people whom Peter addressed on Pentecost had probably been aware of Jesus' ministry for a few years. In a way, I think this undermines my argument. However, certainly not all the people in the crowd - including those who were baptized - were familiar with the gospel beforehand.]

Recently, I've been thinking about the "cognizance" issue, the issue of whether one's understanding of the spiritual import of baptism affects the validity of one's baptism. The most germane question for those of us within the conservative wing of the Restoration Movement is this:

Do we have to understand that baptism is for the forgiveness of sins in order for our baptisms to be "valid"?

For conservatives within the Restoration Movement, this question is hugely important. Very few Christians today subscribe to the Restoration Movement view of baptism (i.e., immersion of adults for the forgiveness of sins and gift of the Holy Spirit); however, many Evangelicals, "born-again" Christians, and other Protestants (not to mention converts to Catholicism) are baptized as adults. This means that our position on the cognizance issue immediately affects what we believe about the salvation of many of our friends and people such as C.S. Lewis and Peter van Inwagen. If our answer to the question above is Yes, then C.S. Lewis et al. are not saved; if our answer is No, then they are. (Some people I know do not answer the question Yes or No, instead arguing that we cannot say with certainty. While this is true in theory, some tentative answer must be given in practice.)

I have not finalized my thoughts on this matter, but I thought it would be worthwhile to share a few thoughts on the implications of Acts 2 for the cognizance issue.

More conservative Church of Christers will argue that a proper understanding of baptism is necessary because Peter's hearers in Acts presumably understood that baptism was "for the forgiveness of sins" (cf. Acts 2:38). The argument, then, is that baptisms are only valid for those whose "cognizance" of baptism is at least comparable to that of the Christian converts in Acts 2.

Because the argument centers around the understanding of Peter's hearers in Acts 2, it would be useful to reflect on what exactly their states of mind were prior to their baptisms.

Peter's Acts 2 sermon was given during the Pentecost. Jews from all over the Roman world had traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate the Festival of Weeks.

These Jewish pilgrims were "amazed and perplexed" (v. 12) because the Christians were speaking in their native languages (vv. 7-11). On top of all this, the Christians had tongues of fire resting above their heads (v. 3). In other words, this was no ordinary day.

Jesus was well-known in Jerusalem and the surrounding regions, but most of those present for Peter's sermon - travelers from various distant lands - had probably never heard of him. They were religious Jews - familiar with the Tanakh (the Old Testament), not necessarily with Jesus' ministry. This means that what they knew about Christianity and baptism was, for the most part, limited to Peter's sermon (vv. 14-36). It is true that Peter's comment in v. 22 ("as you yourselves know") implies some prior awareness of Jesus' miracles; that notwithstanding, I find it difficult to believe that their insight into Jesus' life was anything more than cursory.

From Peter's sermon, they learned that Jesus had performed miracles (v. 22), had been raised from the dead (v. 24), had been exalted to the right hand of God (v. 33), and was Lord and Christ (v. 36).

That is pretty much it.

As far as I can tell, they did not know that Jesus had died for their sins (barring some extremely quick inference from Isaiah 53) or that God was Triune. They probably did not understand the entirety of Jesus' divinity. In all likelihood, some of them knew nothing about Communion, Christian morality, or the relationship of the New Covenant to the Old. For that matter, their understanding of baptism was incomplete or undeveloped at best; they did not know, for example, that baptism was a means of participating in Christ's death, burial, and resurrection (cf. Romans 6). Even if many of them were more informed than I suppose (which is certainly within the realm of possibility), it is clear that no emphasis was placed on their comprehension of Christian doctrine.

In short, any cognizance they may have had of any issue was rudimentary and disorganized - so much so that their exact understanding of the significance of baptism seems completely irrelevant.

Am I to believe that the very same men who may not have known that Jesus died for their sins were saved because they understood that baptism was for the forgiveness of sins? Is incomplete knowledge of baptism necessary for salvation if knowledge about Jesus' death on the cross is not?

Perhaps - but, at the moment, I find it extremely unlikely. And if our answer to the question posed at the beginning of this post is "No, such understanding is not necessary," then we should probably reconsider how we approach evangelism, re-baptism, and almost all of our interactions with the broader Christian community. Acts 2 never says that the Pentecost converts knew exactly what they needed to know to be saved; for all we know, they knew more than what was necessary.

But these are just my initial thoughts.


Doug said...

I like your reasoning. I was once told that the Bible lists 26 different things that happen to us at baptism (I have not personally looked them all up, so I don't personally know if there are actually 26, but I do know there are several); do we, then, need to know all of them prior to baptism, or do we need to be rebaptized everytime we learn one of them? And if baptism is contingent upon what we know, doesn't that make it more of a work than a grace?

I was baptized at 12, not only not knowing what baptism was for but also not knowing why Jesus died on the cross. I did know, however, that I was at that moment choosing to follow Jesus, that I was becoming a follower of Jesus, that I was leaving the world, that my life from that point on would be different, would, in fact, be a life lived with God. And while my learnings about baptism, salvation, justification, propitiation, etc. have added to what happened on that day, they haven't taken away from what happened on that day; they haven't improved on my motives that day. I don't think you can improve on my motives that day; I think my motives that day were/are the motives God is looking for, the motives (child-like and simple though they were) that fit baptism, that fit the beginning of a life lived with God.

Speaker for the Dead said...

I'm interested in this issue of in what way the effectiveness of Christian sacraments - the Lord's Supper or baptism, for example - depends on one's understanding of the sacrament. I think we can say that "belief in Jesus" is necessary for baptism to remit sins - but what (if anything) else is?

As far as I know, however, the only cognizance issue Jesus ever brought up was belief in him - maybe not even in his Messiahship or divinity, but simply in his authority.