Paul’s Literal, Metaphorical, and Metonymical Baptismal Language in Romans 6:3–4

In this paper, I aim to answer two fundamental questions about Paul’s baptismal language in Romans 6:3–4. The first question concerns the nature of his language: is Paul speaking about the ritual of water baptism, or is he speaking about something else? The second question has to do with why Paul chooses to talk about baptism here and what exactly he claims baptism accomplishes in the believer. By employing tools from cognitive linguistics, I will argue that in these two verses, Paul’s language of baptism is literal (referring to the ritual rite of baptism) and figurative (it is metonymic and metaphorical). Paul’s variegated language thus allows Paul to ground the ethical assertions he made in 6:1–2 by (1) framing the ethical argument in terms of the believers’ spatially located identity; (2) conceiving of baptism as the metonymic embodiment of the death believers have experienced; (3) presenting Christ and his death as alternative containers/spheres of existence inhabited by believers; and (4) inferring that baptism is a kind of death that transports believers into a new container/sphere of existence characterized by new life. Understanding the nature and logic of Paul’s argument in this section is important for making sense of Paul’s implicit ethics in this section of the epistle and thus to rightly apply the significance of baptism to our lives.