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συνειδήσεως ἀγαθῆς ἐπερώτημα εἰς Θεόν

Can this phrase from 1 Peter 3:21 be translated as "the request addressed (by God) to a good conscience in God." meaning that God demands baptism from every man who has a good conscience in God.

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    Thayer: If this use of the word is conceded, it affords us the easiest and most congruous explanation of that vexed passage 1 Peter 3:21: "which (baptism) now saves us (you) not because in receiving it we (ye) have put away the filth of the flesh, but because we (ye) have earnestly sought a conscience reconciled to God" (συνειδήσεως ἀγαθῆς genitive of the object, as opposed to σαρκός ῤύπου). It is doubtful, indeed, whether εἰς Θεόν is to be joined with ἐπερώτημα, and signifies a craving directed unto God ... or with συνείδησις, and denotes the attitude of the conscience toward … God
    – Dottard
    Feb 20 '20 at 10:00
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Not exactly. The better translation is in Young's:

"20 who sometime disbelieved, when once the long-suffering of God did wait, in days of Noah -- an ark being preparing -- in which few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water;

21 also to which an antitype doth now save us -- baptism, (not a putting away of the filth of flesh, but the question of a good conscience in regard to God,) through the rising again of Jesus Christ," (1 Pet. 3:20-21, YLT)

The method of reconciliation to the Father was already established through Christ's example and command (Matt. 3:16; Mark 16:16). That Peter was distinguishing the purpose of getting in the water - not for washing off the dirt of the flesh - means that they were definitely practicing immersion in water.

The anglicized Greek "batism" from "batisma" is a transliteration, not a translation. Even today, the original Greek word means to be immersed, completely submerged. (1)

So, the question is not the method; not how to be reconciled, but will you?

"17 so that if any one [is] in Christ -- [he is] a new creature; the old things did pass away, lo, become new have the all things.

18 And the all things [are] of God, who reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and did give to us the ministration of the reconciliation,

19 how that God was in Christ -- a world reconciling to Himself, not reckoning to them their trespasses; and having put in us the word of the reconciliation,

20 in behalf of Christ, then, we are ambassadors, as if God were calling through us, we beseech, in behalf of Christ, `Be ye reconciled to God;'" (2 Cor. 5:18-20, YLT)

The commentaries argue over this passage. Ellicott, after exploring several possibilities concludes with "and that baptism itself only saves you by the fact that in it you ask and receive the cleansing of the conscience.” As do several others, Barnes' Notes reasons it as "The word here rendered "answer" (ἐπερώτημα eperōtēma) means properly a question, an inquiry. It is "spoken of a question put to a convert at baptism, or rather of the whole process of question and answer; that is, by implication, examination, profession". Bengels' Gnomen has it as "Therefore it is the asking of a good conscience which saves us; that is, the asking, in which we address God with a good conscience, our sins being forgiven and laid aside." (2)

The Pulpit Commentary has it that we are the petitioners of God in the act of baptism / immersion. "Thus ἐπερώτημα seems to mean an "inquiry," and the genitive is probably subjective. The inner meaning of baptism is not that the flesh puts away its filth, but that a good conscience inquires after God." (Ibid)

This seems to be the best understanding; that a good conscience seeks after God, to be willing to do what He has commanded. We then ask Him for forgiveness because we want to be cleansed of our sins, and want to be reconciled to Him. The commanded and established method is immersion into Christ through the symbolic and anti-type of the water that saved Noah. It also was the anti-type of the crossing of the Red Sea, and the river Jordan after the Exodus. Going into the water, completely submerging, and rising back up again is putting on Christ, and the salvation is through His resurrection.

There is the element of God's asking us to come to Him. Both questions exist simultaneously in the process.

"...why tarriest thou?..." (Acts 22:16, YLT)

"Call upon you, then, do I -- the prisoner of the Lord -- to walk worthily of the calling with which ye were called," (Eph. 4:1, YLT)

"for your walking worthily of God, who is calling you to His own reign and glory." (1 Thess. 2:12, YLT)

The question is asked, Will you come? The good conscience answers and asks, Will you forgive? He has assured us He will.

See also my post "Crossing Over" at ShreddingTheVeil.org. (3)

Notes:

1) How is Baptism Defined By Greek Dictionaries? TrueDiscipleship

2) Ellicott's Commentary on 1 Pet 3:21 Biblehub

3) Crossing Over ShreddingTheVeil

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The word ἐπερώτημα (eperōtēma) should probably really be translated "examination" or "inquiry" and not "request". It is used in this sense (in verb form - ἐπερωτάω) in Romans:

Ἡσαΐας δὲ ἀποτολμᾷ καὶ λέγει· εὑρέθην τοῖς ἐμὲ μὴ ζητοῦσιν, ἐμφανὴς ἐγενόμην τοῖς ἐμὲ μὴ ἐπερωτῶσι.

Then Isaiah is so bold as to say, “I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not inquire after me” (Romans 10:20)

where Paul is quoting verbatim from the Greek Septuagint version of Isaiah 65:1.

A footnote in The Orthodox New Testament (not to be confused with The Orthodox Study Bible) notes that ἐπερωτάω and ἐπερώτημα were "used in ancient times with the sense of approval or sanction after inquiry of a higher authority as the senate or Areopagos."1


The Greek phrase συνειδήσεως ἐπερώτημα literally means an "examination of conscience" and means exactly the same thing as the English phrase. The ONT translates the verse:

There is also an antitype which now saveth us - baptism (not a putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the examination of a good conscience toward God.)

This is also the way that Greek Church Fathers understood the passage,2 but only Young's Literal Translation (cited in another answer) seems to come close to this.


This examination of conscience as it relates to baptism is perhaps brought to mind in Peter's instruction at Pentecost: Repent, and be baptized (Acts 2:38). Repentance - μετάνοια (metanoia) - is a changing of one's spiritual being (νους - nous), the Greek word meaning not merely contrition or regret, but "more positively and fundamentally the conversion or turning of our whole life towards God."2


With the above in mind, Bede (672-735) explained the verse:

... Not the removal fo the body's dirt but as the examination of a good conscience for God

For where is a good conscience except where there is sincere faith? For the apostle Paul teaches that the purpose of the commandment is charity [love] from a pure heart and a good conscience and unfeigned faith (1 Timothy 1:5). The fact, therefore, that the water of the flood did not save those outside the ark but slew them without doubt prefigured every heretic who, although having the sacrament of baptism, is to be plunged into the outer waters by which the ark is raised up to the heavens.3


1. The Orthodox New Testament, Vol 2., Acts, Epistles, and Revelation (Holy Apostles Convent, 2000), p.463.
2. The Philokalia, Vol. 1, (tr. from Greek; Faber and Faber, 1979), p.364
3. Commentary on the Seven Catholic Epistles (tr. from Latin, Cistercian Publications; 1985), p.105

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The question itself feels like it may be at risk of trying to adjust the passage to fit a theology - 'can the passage be translated to say this?' This is a difficult passage for anybody to analyse dispassionately, as it bridges many loaded words and concepts - free will, salvation and Baptism all present their own challenges. And it's made all the more awkward by the only NT usage of ἐπερώτημα, though we do have some usage of ἐπερωτάω to work from.

Assessing the proposed translation

It's often difficult to translate passages without a sense of the immediate context - if we impose the proposed translation on the surrounding text, it becomes increasingly awkward:

ὃ καὶ ὑμᾶς ἀντίτυπον νῦν σῴζει βάπτισμα οὐ σαρκὸς ἀπόθεσις ῥύπου ἀλλὰ συνειδήσεως ἀγαθῆς ἐπερώτημα εἰς Θεόν δι’ ἀναστάσεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ

[the water] which is now an antetype of saving baptism, not a removal of the dirt [of God], but the request addressed by God to a good conscience [in God], through the resurrection of Jesus Christ

By sense-checking this reading and applying your same approach - reading God as both the subject and object of the verbs, we can see that it doesn't really fit with the rest of Peter's sentence. To me, the context is enough to dismiss the proposed translation as a possibility.

Why most mainstream translations are useful, even if not entirely clear

It can be dangerous to hang a translation on a preposition, but the εἰς seems to indicate the directionality of the request/demand/inquiry as being something done toward God.

Today we often get caught up in theological questions from later eras - is salvation something man does, or something God does? Is Baptism a work of man, or a work of God? What does baptism mean for children or infants? As far as we can tell, none of these questions were ever really considered in any depth the New Testament.

I think the ESV captures the sense of the passage well:

"Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ"

Partly this is because it doesn't fixate on the doctrinal challenges or implications of the text, and just seems to try and render the Greek clearly - Noah and his family were saved through water, and in the same way Baptism is an event of salvation. For first century Christians as much as those in later centuries, Baptism and salvation were viewed synonymously, as they always happened at the same moment, and so they never needed to wrestle with the implications of whether one would ever happen without the other.

Whatever part the good conscience plays - whether it is presented by us, or a gift to us, Baptism is an appeal to God through the resurrection of Jesus, which in the first century was seen as the moment of effecting salvation on the believer's life. Peter's teaching here as the ESV and most modern English translations present it is consistent with what he teaches in Acts:

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." - Acts 2:38

Since most mainstream translations capture these senses consistently with each other, I think that serves as a useful indication that we've at least understood Peter's words correctly - so that has to serve as the foundation for any theological choices we may make on the basis of this passage and others.

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"Christ also has suffered once for sins, the Righteous on behalf of the unrighteous, that He might bring you to God, on the one hand being put to death in the flesh, but on the other, made alive in the Spirit; in which also He went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, who had formerly disobeyed when the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared; entering into which, a few, that is, eight souls, were brought safely through by water. Which water, as the antitype, also now saves you, that is, baptism, not a putting away of the filth of the flesh but the appeal of a good conscience unto God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ." - 1 Peter 3:18-21

Can this phrase from 1 Peter 3:21 be translated as "the request addressed (by God) to a good conscience in God." meaning that God demands baptism from every man who has a good conscience in God.

I'd say no since the subject there is baptism, which is the believer's act toward God, not God's action or request toward the believer.

As far as what the verse means affirmatively, Thayer's comment seems most true. Baptism is a believer's request or appeal to God. For salvation. Not salvation from eternal condemnation, since baptism has nothing to do with that (Mk 16:16). But salvation from "Pharaoh" (Satan) and the world (Ex 14:30; Heb 11:28-29). Nor salvation from the sin in our flesh, the "filth" (Jam 1:21; 1 Jn 1:8), since only the experience of Life (Christ) rescues us from that (Rm 8:2). This also annuls the ignorant or evil teaching of "infant baptism." Since baptism is of volition and faith. Of the baptized one. Not of a third party's faith or will. Baptism could be said not to be a "sacrament" since, in Scripture at least, there is no such thing as sacraments - that is, inanimate impersonal things infused with God or grace to, in effect, serve as idols or talismans. Peter says "water" then clarifies that to mean baptism.

The word might also be translated "answer" of a good conscience to God, since God commands baptism after faith (Ac 8:36) and baptism is the obedient response to God's command. "Examination" is okay, since it suggests an inquiry which resembles a request or appeal, but the English becomes unnecessarily bulky, and also lessens the directness of the interchange. Baptism (immersion in water) is simple and evocative (of death and entrance into), and is a visible act. Not a thought or invisible choice.

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  • (-1) I've downvoted this answer because it reads primarily as a derived theological reasoning rather than a hermeneutic analysis of Peter's text. You say "no" initially on the basis of your pre-existing doctrinal view, not by building a convincing exegetical case. And the rest of the answer isn't too much different from there.
    – Steve Taylor
    Oct 22 '20 at 6:02
  • I appreciate your particular downvotes as good signs, thanks. Yes, the events in our Lord Jesus' lifetime and in the starts of the first assemblies, as well as many recordings of them in Gospels and Acts and Paul pre-existed Peter's letters of AD mid-60s. In my Bible reading too I happened to read and receive impression of the former before the latter. With Pentecost, Cornelius' home, the Ethiopian official and Philippian jailer, faith and baptism were as simultaneous as possible. But I answered FTC "no" based on 1 P 3:20-21's describing the action of baptism, not the fact that God demanded it
    – Walter S
    Oct 25 '20 at 18:38
  • Appreciate your kind words. As you say, there are lots of ways to read the Bible, and none necessarily right or wrong in themselves. For something as foundational as a translation question, hermeneutics really need to be the anchor of the answer, or else we could risk running off and re-translating any passage to fit the lenses we prefer to read it through. If we just 'normalise' Peter's teaching using other texts and teachings, we could risk throwing out any distinctive things he has to teach us.
    – Steve Taylor
    Oct 26 '20 at 6:40

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