On Baptism (Part II)

This post continues my reflections on baptism, focusing on the covenantal and sacramental aspects of Christian baptism.

Covenantal Theology

Those beginning an exploration of historic baptismal theology will almost immediately run into the concept of covenantal theology. As commonly defined, a covenant is a formal agreement made between God and humans, typically one that only God is capable of upholding in its entirety. Christians of various stripes will interpret covenants and their implications differently, but, generally speaking, if God makes a covenant with his people, there are expectations that this agreement will remain important and in effect for a significant length of time. While there are numerous covenants established in the Old Testament, central to the Christian proclamation from earliest times is that Jesus has both established a New Covenant and done something to the Old. Now, the early church did not always agree on precisely what Jesus did to the Old Covenants. Some (like Marcion) thought Jesus did away with the Old in its entirety, while others (like the Judaizers and Ebionites) seem to have thought that the Old remained wholly in place. Yet the Great Church (from Acts 15 until today) took a nuanced middle way, albeit one which has been harder to clearly define, with some even arguing that Christ functionally did away with some portions of the Old and retained others.

In my thinking, the best way to think about the relationship between the Old and New Covenants is that Christ and his covenant expanded portions of the Old Covenants to a new people group—the nations (Gentiles)—while maintaining the Old Covenants for the Jewish People of God. While this is not the place to offer a complete explanation of how the Old and New Covenants interact, this viewpoint means that what God says and does in the Old Testament remain important, particularly his continual emphasis on setting apart (making Holy) his people and their commitment to living out his character. Even if the specifics of the old covenants are no longer required for those following Jesus, belonging to the covenant (i.e., being a child of God) remains important. Accordingly, the Christian Church has emphasized the sacraments—the visible manifestations of God’s grace—as a means of participating in the covenantal family of God and growing in holiness. Two of the earliest and clearest expressions of this transition come in Galatians 3 and Hebrews 8, where Christ’s work is contrasted to that which came before and participation in the covenant of Christ furthers the effects of the Old.

When it comes to thinking sacramentally, from the beginning baptism has held an important place in Christian practice. One need look no further than Jesus’ Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20) to see that baptism plays a defining role in what it means to be a follower of Jesus. No doubt building upon Jesus’ command to baptize, in Romans 6:1-14 Paul argues that baptism into Christ equals baptism into the new covenant of life. Furthermore, 1 Peter 3:18-22 and 1 Corinthians 10:1-5 connect old to new, suggesting that Christian baptism into Christ was prefigured in the acts and covenants of old. As explained by the early Church, the most visible sign of belonging to Yahweh under the Old Covenant was circumcision, something that happened to Jewish males at eight days of age. According to the New Testament, the most visible sign of belonging to Yahweh under the New Covenant is now baptism.

Sacramental Anthropology

So how does baptism work? Only through the grace of Christ (Rom. 3:22, 6:3-11; Eph. 2:8). Fundamentally, we confess with Saint Ambrose that baptism is a mystery rooted in the work of Christ: “See where you are baptized, see where Baptism comes from, if not from the cross of Christ, from his death. There is the whole mystery: he died for you. In him you are redeemed, in him you are saved.”1 If baptism is founded in the work of Christ, the ancient principle of ex opera operato serves as an important qualification about how we explain how baptism works. If baptism is a working apart from the worker, the act of baptism does not depend on the one performing the baptism nor does it depend on the person receiving baptism. That is, the effects of baptism depend not on the pastor or priest performing the ceremony, those in attendance, or even the one being baptized, but rather the one who has commanded and enacts the effects of baptism: God Himself. Gregory of Nazianzus summarizes this thinking well, writing:

“Baptism is God’s most beautiful and magnificent gift…. We call it gift, grace, anointing, enlightenment, garment of immortality, bath of rebirth, seal, and most precious gift. It is called gift because it is conferred on those who bring nothing of their own; grace since it is given even to the guilty; Baptism because sin is buried in the water; anointing for it is priestly and royal as are those who are anointed; enlightenment because it radiates light; clothing since it veils our shame; bath because it washes; and seal as it is our guard and the sign of God’s Lordship.”2

As a gift of grace, the effects of baptism rely not on our work or obedience, but on God’s benevolence. As Gregory says, we “bring nothing of our own.” Thus, a full understanding of baptism is not necessary for baptism to forgive sins, seal Christians, or mark us as members of God’s family. I have a friend who was baptized as a believer one year and then felt the need to be re-baptized the following year because they had a better understanding of their faith. This way of thinking overemphasizes our role in baptism at the expense of recognizing Christ’s work in our lives through baptism (and other forms of grace). Baptism transforms human beings because of the grace of God, not because of the purity of the one baptizing or the understanding of the one being baptized. From this theological vantage, we can straightforwardly see baptism as a mysterious grace which can rightly be bestowed on those who might not fully understand its meaning, be they children or disabled adults.3

Of course, baptism is not some magical event that makes people sinless or removes the need for daily repentance. However, baptism does serve as a means by which our sins are forgiven and formally signifies our place in the Gathering of the People of God. This is true for both infant baptism and believer’s baptism, as both may rightly be understood as the process through which we covenant with God in Christ. Baptism marks us as members of God’s family, a belonging that ultimately depends on God’s gift of grace, bestowed on us through the power of the Holy Spirit and the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

Can we reject our baptisms? Certainly, in much the same way that we may accept or reject every instance of God’s grace. The first movement of all faith belongs to God (both in terms of the grace to make decisions as well as the grace of baptism); it is only subsequent to his gifting that we may respond. But we are asked to respond. Whatever our stage in life, we are called to accept and inhabit the grace offered us by God, whether that entails lifestyle change, identity formation, or both. Baptism presumes life in a community, along with its attendant accountability, maturation, and Christian service. This is true of believer’s baptism as well as infant baptism: no baptized person may live on their own or cease to confess the truth of Christ’s coming into the world as their savior. For those baptized before their teen/young adult years, this means going through a process of confirmation (the affirmation and acceptance of responsibility for their faith), manifesting the baptism of the Spirit. Baptized one-year olds, ten-year olds, and forty-year olds alike should view baptism as the beginning of the process of life in Christ, not its completion, and continue learning to love God and love people accordingly.

Conclusion

By the power of the Holy Spirit and grace of God, baptism marks Christians as members of the Triune God’s covenant family, affects the forgiveness of sins in our lives, and serves as a sign and seal of our salvation (Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 2:38-9; 1 Peter 3:18-21). Baptism should be extended to and recognized by all who belong to the family of God, whether by conversion or familial life, not just those with whom we stand in theological concord. For all followers of Christ, as Saint Irenaeus remarked, “Baptism is indeed the seal of eternal life.”4

O God, great Father, Lord and King!
Our children unto Thee we bring;
And strong in faith, and hope, and love,
We dare Thy steadfast Word to prove.

Thy covenant kindness did of old
Our fathers and their seed enfold;
That ancient promise standeth sure,
And shall while heaven and earth endure.

Look down upon us while we pray,
And visit us in grace today;
These little ones in mercy take
And make them Thine for Jesus’ sake.

While they the outward sign receive,
Wilt Thou Thy Holy Spirit give,
And keep and help them by Thy power
In every hard and trying hour.

Guide Thou their feet in holy ways:
Shine on them through the darkest days;
Uphold them till their life be past,
And bring them all to heaven at last.

~E. Embree Hoss

Many thanks to Joseph Prahlow, Samuel Prahlow, Benjamin Winter, and Nicholai Stuckwisch for their conversations and feedback with this article.


(1) Ambrose, De sacr. 2.2.6.
(2) Gregory of Nazianzus, Oratio 40.3-4.
(3) Here an objection based in history might be offered: should we baptize “pagans” against their wills? It seems here that a distinction should be drawn between baptizing those who are not (yet) capable of independent reflection and willing and those who are capable but remain resistant. Without delving too deeply into the longstanding debates over the human capacity to make choices pertaining to salvation (i.e., the predestination-freewill debate), there is an important functional difference between passive acceptance and active rejection.
(4) Irenaeus, Dem ap. 3:62.32.

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On Baptism (Part I)

In this two-part article, I offer some reflections on baptism, beginning in this post with the Bible and history and wrapping up with some musings on covenant and sacrament in the next.

Baptism in the Acts of the Apostles

Last summer I led a Bible study on the Acts of the Apostles. While I had prior experience reading and studying Acts, nothing quite engages you with a biblical book like having to teach it to a group of people. One of the themes in Acts that we regularly encountered was the issue of baptism: how does Luke explain this Christ-instituted rite associated with the Way? Without delving too much into all the particulars of baptism in the early church, the varieties of baptism that Acts presents as valid stood out in our study. In contrast to many contemporary Christian doctrinal statements on how baptism ought to occur in a specific way at a particular time, Acts describes some basic parameters for baptism—the need for baptism in water in the name of God and the efficacious influence of the Holy Spirit (the so-called “baptism of water” and “baptism of the Spirit”)—and then seems to allow for what contemporary Christians think of as different forms of baptism. Continue reading

God Made Man (Part II)

major-roman-cities-mapBetween the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) and the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD), many controversies erupted from the Alexandrian and Antiochene positions on the person of Christ.[16] The Council of Constantinople (381 AD) condemned the belief of Apollinarius that Christ only had one will, that of the divine.[17] While the Church believed that Christ had a divine will, there was too much scriptural and philosophical support for the position that Christ had a human will as well. How else can one explain Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane, “Not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42), and other verses that seem to indicate that Christ had a human will? For God to be the redeemer of man, He needed to include full humanity as Irenaeus and Tertullian had emphasized years before.[18] Continue reading

God Made Man (Part I)

jesus_catacombC. S. Lewis once said that if the incarnation happened, “it was the central event in the history of the earth.” What is the incarnation? And why has it been such an important area of theological consideration since the earliest days of Christianity? The term ‘incarnation’ may be defined as “a person who embodies in the flesh a deity, spirit, or quality.”[1] For the Christian tradition, the man who has been understood as deified has been Jesus of Nazareth; but the Christian claim of Jesus as God, not merely as one who embodied God, historically presented a plethora of questions to the early Christian theologians.

In determining what the incarnation means for Christians, the Early Church Fathers sought to determine more concerning the person Jesus. Maurice Wiles writes that “the heart of Christian faith is the person of Christ and what God has done in him.”[2] The orthodox Christian Church has always professed monotheism based upon the Jewish tradition and the scriptures.[3] Given this monotheistic belief however, the early Church viewed Jesus not as a simple messenger of God, but worshiped Him as the Son of God.[4] This is especially evident in the writing’s of Irenaeus, who refers to Jesus as “the Word, the Son of God.” [5] Continue reading

SSP: Why Study Patrick’s Scriptures?

This post is part of an ongoing series on the Scriptures of Saint Patrick of Ireland.

“If we wish to sound the real depths of this great spiritual masterpiece, then, it is not enough to read it; we are advised to come to know, not only the sources, but also the context of its biblical quotations and significant biblical allusions, of which Patrick makes highly effective use in his Confessio.[1]

Major Roman Cities MapBefore proceeding to consideration of the historical Patrick, let us pause to briefly consider the value in studying Patrick’s Bible and his use of scripture. From a historical perspective, coming to better terms with Patrick’s Bible provides insights into the Bible on the edge the Roman Empire during the fifth century. Not only does Patrick offer a unique case study in the midst of a difficult time for the Western Roman Empire, but the situation in Ireland may prove paradigmatic for understanding the form, shape, and influence of the Christian Bible in other “border of the Empire” contexts. Continue reading

Women in the Apostolic Fathers: Bibliography

This post is the final in our series on Women in the Apostolic Fathers. For a complete copy of this paper, please email me at prahlowjj [at] slu.edu.

Ancient Syriac ManuscriptAncient Sources

Acts of Thecla. Edited and translated by Jeremy W. Barrier. The Acts of Paul and Thecla: A Critical Introduction and Commentary. WUNT 2, 270. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009.

Apostolic Constitutions. Edited and translated by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Cox. Ante-Nicene Fathers: Volume 7: Fathers of the third and Fourth Centuries. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951. Continue reading

Women in the Apostolic Fathers: Conclusions

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Women in the Apostolic Fathers.

Apostolic FathersThrough consideration of several pericopes from the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, this study has argued that these authors conceived of women as having properly ordered roles in the Christian Church, roles which could include familial and visionary functions. In First Clement, biblical women were employed as examples for the congregation at Corinth. Second Clement reinforced the Pauline idea that the relationship between Christ and the Church was akin to that of husband and wife, both of whom contain fleshly and spiritual components. The epistles of Ignatius and Polycarp reveal an emphasis on church order and ecclesiastical hierarchy which affects how all Christians—both women and men—should live their lives. These epistles also demonstrate that women held positions of some standing in certain Christian communities, including groups of “virgins called widows”, house-holding women, traveling (diaconal?) women, and individually outstanding women. In the Shepherd of Hermas, women serve as revelers of God’s truths, images of the Church herself, and teachers of women and children. Continue reading

Women in the Apostolic Fathers: Visionary Women in Hermas (Part III)

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Women in the Apostolic Fathers.

Shepherd of Hermas, Vision 2.4.1-3[1]

Ἀπεκαλύφθη δέ μοι, ἀδελφοί, κοιμωμένῳ ὑπὸ νεανίσκου εὐειδεστάτου λέγοντός μοι· τὴν πρεσβυτέραν, παρ᾿ ἧς ἔλαβες τὸ βιβλίδιον, τίνα δοκεῖς εἶναι; ἐγώ φημι· τὴν Σίβυλλαν. πλανᾶσαι, φησίν, οὐκ ἔστιν. τίς οὖν ἐστιν; φημί. ἡ ἐκκλησία, φησίν. εἶπον αὐτῷ· διατί οὖν πρεσβυτέρα; ὅτι, φησίν, πάντων πρώτη ἐκτίσθη· διὰ τοῦτο πρεσβυτέρα, καὶ διὰ ταύτην ὁ κόσμος κατηρτίσθη. 2. μετέπειτα δὲ ὅρασιν εἶδον ἐν τῷ οἴκῳ μου. ἦλθεν ἡ πρεσβυτέρα καὶ ἠρώτησέν με εἰ ἤδη τὸ βιβλίον δέδωκα τοῖς πρεσβυτέροις. ἠρνησάμην δεδωκέναι. καλῶς, φησίν, πεποίηκας· ἔχω γὰρ ῥήματα προσθεῖναι. ὅταν οὖν ἀποτελέσω τὰ ῥήματα πάντα, διὰ σοῦ γνωρισθήσεται τοῖς ἐκλεκτοῖς πᾶσιν. 3. γράψεις οὖν δύο βιβλαρίδια καὶ πέμψεις ἓν Κλήμεντι καὶ ἓν Γραπτῇ. πέμψει οὖν Κλήμης εἰς τὰς ἔξω πόλεις, ἐκείνῳ γὰρ ἐπιτέτραπται. Γραπτὴ δὲ νουθετήσει τὰς χήρας καὶ τοὺς ὀρφανούς. σὺ δὲ ἀναγνώσῃ εἰς ταύτην τὴν πόλιν μετὰ τῶν πρεσβυτέρων τῶν προϊσταμένων τῆς ἐκκλησίας. While I was sleeping, brothers, I received a revelation from a very beautiful young man, who said to me: “The elderly woman from whom you received the little book—who do you think she is?” “The Sibyl,” I replied. “You are wrong,” he said; “it is not she.” “Who then is it?” I asked. “The church,” he said. I said to him, “Why then is she elderly?” “Because,” he said, “she was created first, before anything else. That is why she is elderly, and for her sake the world was created.” 2. And afterward I saw a vision in my house. The elderly woman came and asked if I had already given the book to the presbyters. I said that I had not. “You have done well,” she said. “For I have some words to add. Then, when I complete all the words, they will be made known through you to all those who are chosen. 3. And so, you will write two little books, sending one to Clement and the other to Grapte. Clement will send his to the foreign cities, for that is his commission. But Grapte will admonish the widows and orphans. And you will read yours in this city, with the presbyters who lead the church.”

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Women in the Apostolic Fathers: Visionary Women in Hermas (Part II)

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Women in the Apostolic Fathers.

Shepherd of Hermas, Vision 1.2.2-4.1[1]

1.2 ταῦτά μου συμβουλευομένου καὶ διακρίνοντος ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ μου βλέπω κατέναντί μου καθέδραν λευκὴν ἐξ ἐρίων χιονίνων γεγονυῖαν μεγάλην· καὶ ἦλθεν γυνὴ πρεσβῦτις ἐν ἱματισμῷ λαμπροτάτῳ, ἔχουσα βιβλίον εἰς τὰς χεῖρας, καὶ ἐκάθισεν μόνη καὶ ἀσπάζεταί με· Ἑρμᾶ, χαῖρε. κἀγὼ λυπούμενος καὶ κλαίων εἶπον· κυρία, χαῖρε…. 3.3 μετὰ τὸ παῆναι αὐτῆς τὰ ῥήματα ταῦτα λέγει μοι· θέλεις ἀκοῦσαί μου ἀναγινωσκούσης; λέγω κἀγώ· θέλω, κυρία. λέγει μοι· γενοῦ ἀκροατὴς καὶ ἄκουε τὰς δόξας τοῦ θεοῦ. ἤκουσα μεγάλως καὶ θαυμαστῶς ὃ οὐκ ἴσχυσα μνημονεῦσαι· πάντα γὰρ τὰ ῥήματα ἔκφρικτα, ἃ οὐ δύναται ἄνθρωπος βαστάσαι…. 4.1 Ὅτε οὖν ἐτέλεσεν ἀναγινώσκουσα καὶ ἠγέρθη ἀπὸ τῆς καθέδρας, ἦλθαν τέσσαρες νεανίαι καὶ ἦραν τὴν καθέδραν καὶ ἀπῆλθον πρὸς τὴν ἀνατολήν. 1.2 While I was mulling these things over in my heart and trying to reach a decision, I saw across from me a large white chair, made of wool, white as snow. And an elderly woman came, dressed in radiant clothes and holding a book in her hands. She sat down, alone, and addressed me, “Greetings, Hermas.” And I said, still upset and weeping, “Greetings Lady.” … 3.3 When she finished these words, she said to me, “Do you want to hear me read?” I replied to her, “Yes, Lady, I do.” She said to me, “Be a hearer and hear the glories of God.” I heard great and amazing matters that I could not remember. For all the words were terrifying, more than a person can bear…. 4.1 Then, when she finished reading and rose up from the chair, four young men came and took the chair and went away to the east.

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Women in the Apostolic Fathers: Visionary Women in Hermas (Part I)

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Women in the Apostolic Fathers.

Shepherd of HermasPerhaps no other piece of early Christian literature gives women such prominent and significant roles as does the Shepherd of Hermas.[1] Of course, the visionary character of Hermas allows commentators to conclude little about the meanings of the visions and even less about the lives of real Roman women. Nonetheless, an investigation of some women in Hermas reveals the revelatory authority that females could have for some early Christians. Continue reading