“Born Of Water And Spirit:” John 3:5 -- By: Linda Belleville

Journal: Trinity Journal
Volume: TRINJ 01:2 (Fall 1980)
Article: “Born Of Water And Spirit:” John 3:5
Author: Linda Belleville


“Born Of Water And Spirit:” John 3:5

Linda Belleville

Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”

Jesus’ seemingly simple statement in John 3:5 concerning birth of water and Spirit has sparked the interest of exegetes and theologians down through the centuries. A confusing array of interpretations has been the result. Moreover, the history of interpretation of this verse has been complicated by the fact that most interpretations have been arrived at either on the basis of presuppositions that have predisposed the interpreter in favor of a particular view of the verse,1 or through contemporary literary parallels unsupported, on the whole, by contextual evidence.2

What these interpretations have in common is a tendency to impose on the text a “favored” idea regarding the meaning of v 5 rather than allowing the text itself to establish necessary parameters of meaning. As J. D. G. Dunn aptly states regarding the identification of ὓδωρ (“water”)with Christian baptism: “It is a sad commentary on the poverty of our own immediate experience of the Spirit… that we automatically refer it (the Spirit) to the sacrament and can only give it meaning when we do.”3

It is the intent of this article to evaluate the major lines of interpretation on the basis of contextual and theological considerations, and then to attempt to arrive at a fresh understanding of γεννηθῇ ἐξ ὔδατος καἱ πνεῦματος (“born of water and Spirit”) that arises naturally and directly from the text itself.

I. Major Lines of Interpretation

There is great diversity of opinion as to what “born of water and Spirit” means. Interpretations may be grouped according to the following six categories: ritualistic, symbolic, physiological, dualistic, cosmological and figurative.

1. Ritualistic Views of ῾Υδωρ

Ritualistic views of ὓδωρ fall into one of two categories of interpretation: (a) those which assume a basic contrast between ὓδωρ and πνεῦμα , ὓδωρ

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