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.

MHT: Select Bibliography

Below is a select bibliography for the series I’ve been running for the past month on Method and Historical Theology. Any additional readings and resources that you have found useful would be appreciated.

Select Bibliography

Acton, John. “Inaugural Lecture on the Study of History.” In Essays on Freedom and Power. Edited by Gertrude Himmelfarb. New York: Meridian, 1956.

Berkofer, Robert. “The Challenge of Poetics to (Normal) Historical Practice.” Pages 139-157 in The Postmodern History Reader. Edited by Keith Jenkins. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Bloch, Marc. The Historian’s Craft. New York: Vintage, 1964. Continue reading

Method and Historical Theology: Conclusions

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting on the appropriate approach to and method for historical theology.

Method and Historical TheologyThe perspective I have been outlining in this series does not to suggest that those who are not Christians cannot participate in historical truth, but rather the acknowledgement that wherever truth may be found is belongs to the Creator. Accordingly, all truly valuable work—be it academic scholarship, gardening, blacksmithing, or preaching—must stand in accordance with theological truth and be governed by it. The oft repeated dictum that theology involves “faith seeking understanding” is vital for this type of endeavor, for it reminds us that, although we make claims to the truth, the Truth is ultimately beyond our human capacities to fully understand. Conclusions, then, are necessarily tentative in the sense that the full Truth will only someday be revealed to us. Christians live in the tension of “already” and “not yet,” that Christ has come, but that He will come again in glory. Continue reading

MHT: Operating Assumptions

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting on the appropriate approach to and method for historical theology.

Jesus - History and TheologyBuilding upon the methodological principles I have been outlining, I wish to briefly offer some of the operating assumptions of my work in historical theology. Historical theological study must always engage other voices and perspectives—there is no such thing as a “stand alone” presentation of the past. Engagement with other voices is generally most fruitful when assumptions and methodologies—those structures standing behind historical constructions—are engaged. History is different than the “lived past”, although historical theology can partially, perspectivally, and humbly speak about the past. The historical past, when invoked in the present, is always influenced by the purposes of the present. This is not to say that meaningful perspectives on the past cannot be offered, only that the context of the present influences any appeal to the past. Historical theology requires an ordered and academically rigorous approach, willing to investigate and engage truth claims of all types and origins, including those undertaking study of the Christian past. Texts remain the primary basis for historical theological work, and are to be considered within their broad historical, theological, social, linguistic, and literary contexts. Finally, historical theology must be understood as the integration of history and theology, the rigorous intellectual methodology of the study of the past—complete with its problematizations of language and context—combined with the humble practice of seeking understanding of a transcendent God and His action in the world. Continue reading

MHT: Applying Historical Theology

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting on the appropriate approach to and method for historical theology.

Apostolic FathersWhat does a methodology invested in both history and theology look like? First, this perspective suggests an examination of the past for the sake of the future. This means conceiving of historical theology as a tool box for investigating, understanding, and applying the points of connection between history, Biblical exegesis, and the traditions of the Church. Christian dogma cannot be justified by tradition, history, exegesis, or experience alone; instead, all these forces should converge to support the great mission of the Great Church.[58] Second, this method suggests that historical theology must become engaged with ecumenical concerns, not disregarding the boundaries of historic and current theological differences, but transcending those discussions for the sake of common causes. In particular, historical theology which affirms a dialectical interpretation of change may help differentiate between theological difference and theological error, allowing for divergences between Christian bodies to be understood as complimentary rather than contradictory.[59] Similarly, a historical theology rooted in history and theology has value for interreligious dialogue. For example, the theological similarities between Augustine and the Advaita Vedanta philosopher Ramanuja[60] offers rich opportunities for Hindu-Christian dialogue on conceptions of God and reality. Continue reading

MHT: Integration of History and Theology

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting on the appropriate approach to and method for historical theology.

types-of-theology1A final—and supremely important—methodological point for the study of historical theology engages the relationship of history and theology. Existing scholarship often takes a historical or contextual approach to the study of history. And while there is nothing wrong with this approach, it lacks something, especially in situations where assumptions of philosophical naturalism critique how history cannot transcend a single person or perspective. As was indicated above, historical consciousness first arose within the context of Christian theology and history. After the Enlightenment, however, this influence of theology on the study of the past waned. The idea that history and theology are distinct and irreconcilable fields of study is challenged by a historical theological approach that takes seriously the methods of history and the invigorating influence of a God involved in human history. In this perspective, history comprises a cooperative agent in Christian theological study, and events and changes in the course of history must be examined and accounted for by both history and theology. History and theology are co-dependent in Christian historical theology, for Christian knowledge cannot distain history, nor can history reject Christian knowledge, but must acquire the “collective experience of Christ verified and realized in us.”[55] Continue reading

MHT: Principle of Context

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting on the appropriate approach to and method for historical theology.

Context is KingThe fourth important factor in the study of historical theology involves a wide investigation of contexts. While Berkofer somewhat problematizes a context furnished by “thick description,”[50] the type of context sought here does not involve the assimilation of historical contexts to recognizable patterns, but the engagement of the past—as much as possible—on its own terms, using its own language and grammar. This need for context applies not only to historical events, but also judgments and evaluations of history; in the words of Acton, historians themselves should be “guilty until proven innocent.”[51] Continue reading

MHT: Principle of Order

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting on the appropriate approach to and method for historical theology.

OxfordThe third methodological foundation for historical theology incorporates aspects of an ordered approach to the study of the past. This is the great legacy of the Modern era on the study of history: a scientific approach to history should be consistently, broadly, and objectively (as possible) applied. History is not apologetics, though it may be employed for apologetic purposes. One should not fail to subject one’s own religious beliefs or practices to the consequences of historical methodology,[43] although, as Schaff notes, this is not quite the same thing as assuming that all viewpoints are equally problematized by historical study.[44] Especially important is nomenclature, which must be appropriately descriptive, adequately precise, and sufficiently flexible to address that which is being studied. Marc Bloch found that history often received its vocabulary from its object of study and that this phenomenon must be critically evaluated as another form of historical evidence to be weighed.[45] He points to the term “Middle Ages” as a prime example of this: the term clearly implies a form of judgment on the period between the wisdom of the ancients and the return to learning in Renaissance. Metanarrative tools should also be used in the study of history, not as universally informing worldviews, but as tools for observing and understanding history. Continue reading

MHT: Perspectivism

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting on the appropriate approach to and method for historical theology.

Bernard Lonergan

Bernard Lonergan

To satisfy both the postmodern critique and need for epistemological clarity, I suggest epistemological and methodological perspectivism. Perspectivism acknowledges the limits of the historian and their information, the selectivity of historical presentations, and the variability of the context and selections which historians are able to employ. In the words of Bernard Lonergan, perspectivism admits that different standpoints exist and are “(1) not contradictory, (2) not complete information and not complete explanation, but (3) incomplete and approximate portrayals of an enormously complex reality.”[40] Continue reading

MHT: Principle of Clarity

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting on the appropriate approach to and method for historical theology.

The Thinker Auguste RodinEpistemological clarity constitutes the second vital component for historical theological work. This necessity arises out of awareness of the postmodern critique of knowledge. As noted above, the postmodern challenge argues that historians can only engage the past from their own necessarily limited and linguistically constructed perspectives, thereby limiting the applicability of any claims to assertions of relative perspective. The work of Foucault, Lyotard, and Berkofer rightly critiques assumptions of narrative meaning at work in historical reconstructions, that all perspectives are necessarily limited. However, less persuasive is the critique of narrative that accompanies the postmodern metanarrative. Recognition that everyone relies on worldviews which contain certain epistemological assumptions does not necessitate that those worldviews (and epistemologies) are invalid. Rather such recognition requires awareness of those assumptions and how they operate. Continue reading