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.

Advertisements

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

Scripture in 1 Clement: Place in Scholarship

This post is part of an ongoing series examining the function and use of scripture in the early Christian writing known as 1 Clement.

Jensen Memorial LibraryThis project investigates how Clement employed composite citations of Jewish and Christian writings, particularly the synoptic tradition, to support his arguments for proper Christian theology and practice. In doing so, this study seeks to fill two gaps in existing scholarship on 1 Clement: the void concerning the relationship between the Gospel of Matthew and 1 Clement and the lacuna regarding the practice of composite citation in early Christian literature. With regard to this first gap, while scholars such as Bruce M. Metzger, Bart D. Ehrman, Helmut Koester, Michael J. Kruger, and Lee M. McDonald comment on the relationship between Matthew and 1 Clement—either advocating or rejecting literary connections[3]—many treatments of 1 Clement and the formation of the New Testament forego careful consideration of this literary relationship. In contrast, the now dated works The Use of the Old and New Testaments in Clement of Rome[4] by Donald A. Hagner and The Influence of the Gospel of Saint Matthew on Christian Literature before Saint Irenaeus[5] by Edouard Massuax offer deeper considerations of the relationship between Matthew and 1 Clement. However, recent studies on 1 Clement often focus on the letter’s rhetoric,[6] its historical role in forming and extending Roman Christianity,[7] and its interaction with other non-canonical Christian literature of the period[8] rather than the 1 Clement’s insights into the formation and authority of the New Testament. This study re-evaluates the claims of Hagner and Massaux in light of recent scholarship and offers a comparative analysis that extends beyond that offered by these authors. Continue reading

Book Review: The Pauline Effect (Strawbridge)

The Pauline EffectWhile the influence of Pauline writings on early Christianity remains widely recognized, few studies investigate the particulars of Paul’s theological and exegetical influence on ante-Nicene Christianity. Beginning this immense task of studying the specific reception histories of Pauline pericopes is Jennifer Strawbridge’s The Pauline Effect, winner of the 2014 SBL-De Gruyter Prize for Biblical Studies and Reception History. This volume examines how Paul and his letters—particularly the texts of 1 Corinthians 2.6-16, Ephesians 6.10-17, 1 Corinthians 15.50-58, and Colossians 1.15-20—shaped early Christian theology and practice. Among the contributions of this volume is the argument that early Christian use of Paul reveals definitive development of Christian formation as “progress from one level of wisdom to another” (4). Continue reading

Montantism and the Authority of (Female) Confessor-Martyrs

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting upon Women and Gender in Early Christianity.

Holy SpiritIn “The Role of Martyrdom and Persecution in Developing the Priestly Authority of Women in Early Christianity: A Case Study in Montanism,”[1] Frederick Klawiter contends that from its beginnings Montanism enabled women to rise to ministerial status through their roles as confessor-martyrs. After offering a broad overview of the New Prophecy and its divisive influence in second century Asia Minor, Klawiter considers why the movement came to be viewed as heretical, suggesting that New Prophecy placed too great an emphasis on martyrdom. This Klawiter connects with the rise of martyr-minsters in Rome (ca. 190 CE), whose integrity before God elevated them to the rank of presbyter. It was this elevated status that Montanists extended to confessors even after their release, as with Alexander and Themiso, who called themselves martyrs even after their release from captivity. Continue reading

Gnosticism, Women, and Elaine Pagels

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting upon Women and Gender in Early Christianity.

GnosticsFor today’s reflection, I outline and reflect on Elaine Pagels’ “What Became of God as Mother? Conflicting Images of God in Early Christianity.”[1] In so doing I argue that while Pagels’ approach to the question of the divine feminine remains an important aspect of early Christian thinking, her characterization of the category “gnostic” remains unhelpful for framing the study of these documents. Continue reading

The Christology Debate

Byzantine JesusThe Early Christian Church spent hundreds of years seeking a definitive answer to the question, “Who is Jesus?” The answer to this all-important question formed the basis for much of Christian theology and practice. Who is Jesus? Is He God? Is He Man? How does Jesus save us? These are the questions that early theologians had to wrestle with and answer in the first centuries of the Christian faith. Continue reading

Book Review: The Gospel of the Lord (Bird)

The Gospel of the Lord, BirdGospel Studies exists as a relatively neglected filed which has long taken a back seat to the study of the Historical Jesus or perspectives on Paul. Yet—argues Michael F. Bird—this realm of study stands ripe with opportunities for research and theological growth. To begin addressing the historical problem of how the life and teachings of Jesus became the four-fold gospel accounts of the New Testament, Bird offers The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014. 394 pp). Driven by four guiding questions—Why pass on Jesus stories? How was the Jesus tradition transmitted? What is the gospel and what are the sources behind the gospels? Why four gospels and why the four gospels that we have?—this historical, literary, and theological study provides offers readers rich perspective into some of the most pressing questions of this important area of Early Christian Studies. Continue reading

The Marcion Problem: Canon and Literature Formation (Part II)

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Marcion of Sinope and his influence of the formation of the New Testament canon.

Joseph Tyson

Joseph Tyson

Joseph Tyson

Following Knox’s perspective is Joseph Tyson’s work Marcion and Luke-Acts: A Defining Struggle, in which Tyson argues argues for a late compositional dating of Luke-Acts as a response to Marcion during the period from 100 to 150 CE.[91] Tyson understands Marcion to have presented an enormous problem for the church with his rejection of the Jewish Scriptures, and that writers such as Irenaeus and Tertullian were pressed into finding symbolic or allegorical representations of Christ in those scriptures whilst simultaneously using the gospel narratives to present him as something unique.[92] Pauline writings and theology became especially problematic for use by the proto-orthodox, as they constituted the core of Marcion’s theological system, and thus the proto-orthodox created Luke-Acts to combat the challenge of Marcionite Christianity.[93] Tyson thus argues for three distinct versions of the Gospel According to Luke: the pre-Marcionite gospel of roughly canonical Luke 3-23, the Marcionite Gospel which likely included the pre-Marcionite version with some significant omissions and minor changes, and the canonical edition with added prologue, infancy narratives, a re-writing the resurrection, and addition of post-resurrection scenes.[94] This proto-orthodox version of Luke-Acts became the primary anti-Marcionite tool in the early church, eventually becoming formally canonized.[95] Tyson, following Knox, argues that both Marcion and the editor of Luke-Acts used a primitive form of Luke’s gospel. Such actions on the part of proto-orthodox writers demonstrate not only Marcion’s unique position of canon formation, but also how his use on new Christian scripture influenced the great Christian community. Continue reading