It hadn’t struck me before the last few days just how significant the opening verses of 1 Corinthians 10 are for ecclesiology. As Paul emphasises the need to ‘run in such a way as to get the prize’, he draws the Corinthians back to the story of Israel in the wilderness. He deliberately conjoins the language of the Christian church with the story of Israel…
For I don’t want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea – and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea… 1 Cor 10:1-2
Paul uses the language of baptism to draw his parallel, evoking the story (and placing the Corinthians within the story) of the wilderness generation. Paul is a master rhetorician as well as a master theologian. And this is not merely rhetoric, but theology.
Baptism into the Church is being drawn in parallel with belonging to Israel in the Old Testament. Why? Because for Paul, the Corinthians do actually belong to Israel; they are grafted into this ancient olive tree in Christ. The story is their story. Paul is very consciously saying ‘those who do not know their own history are destined to repeat its mistakes.’
This is not only Paul’s theology of the church, but also his theology of the sacraments. Baptism here is not the baptism of individual faith, but baptism into the people of God: all were baptised into Moses. This is critical to Paul’s point: not all of those baptised into Moses were pleasing to God (v.5). In the same way, the Corinthian Christians who are toying with idolatry need to know that it is their faith in Christ, not their baptism which is the ground of their security.
In describing Israel in this way, using the language of the Church (the language of baptism), Paul is describing the mixed nature of the Church as the People of God. Within it are those of faith and those without. It is this truth that is expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith (chapter 25, emphasis added):
The visible church, which is also catholick or universal under the gospel … consists of all these throughout the world that profess the true religion, together with their children.
Thus baptism, as the means of entry into the visible church, cannot be fundamentally based upon the faith of the one who receives baptism (WCF 28.4).
Oscar Cullmann in Baptism and the New Testament understands Paul’s link between baptism and the exodus in 1 Cor 10:1-2 as demonstrating that baptism follows the paradigm of God acting first and man responding. Indeed,
[t]he whole point of the connection of this event with Baptism is that afterwards, really and temporally afterwards, the response must follow―and this even when faith was already present before Baptism. This sequence of events: act of God―response of man―is normative. What happened to all (πάντες) the members of the people, namely, the miracle of God, is opposed to what happened to τινες, whom that miracle did not suffice to save, since they did not respond to it with faith but incurred the guilt of the sin mentioned there (p.49).
Thus, for Paul baptism is an act based not primarily on faith, but on God’s covenant promises. These promises are not just to individuals or to families, but to a whole community. In the case of the baptism of the children of believers it is a sacrament based on God’s promise, not first and foremost on the parents’ promise. It is God’s promise that demands a response. And it is a sacrament that involves a community, the Church. The sacrament demands a forward-looking response in life together, the response of faith. This is true for children of believers and for those from outside the Church whose faith has led them to baptism in the first place.
If we don’t respond to our baptism with faith, we will be disqualified from the prize.