"Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." - Jerome

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

What Baptism is...and is not


Modern times have seen a decrease in the priority placed on the sacraments and especially baptism within Protestant churches. We have a fear of being Roman Catholic, where we perceive a faith in the sacraments as man's deeds performed before God, rather than a trust in Christ. The Lord's Supper becomes a sacrifice, performed for meritorious gain. And baptism becomes a work performed to "Christianize" someone by religious performance and ceremony.

In reaction, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have seen a de-emphasis on sacraments. Many churches only occasionally have the Lord's Supper, perhaps quarterly, perhaps only in an evening service, and without much ritual and an explanation of what the supper is NOT. Some churches do not perform baptisms anymore, or perform them outside of the church for the benefit of the person connecting their experience of conversion immediately with baptism.

Such a situation led Peter Leithart, a profoundly intelligent scholar, to write a small (and problematic) book called "The Baptized Body." So much time had been spent saying what baptism doesn't do, Leithart wanted to ask "What does Baptism do to the baptized?" What Leithart wants to know is what baptism objectively does to every single baptized individual.

Leithart's conclusion thesis is that baptism admits the baptized to the visible church, and that that visible church is the body of Christ, and therefore, every baptized individual:

1) Is united to Christ as a member of his body

2) Is married to Christ as part of his Bride

3) Is granted a share in the cross

Leithart always wants these consequences to be part of the effect of baptism. The problem is these things are not granted by ritual ceremony. This belief is called "ex opere operato" or "in the doing of the doing," or "by the very act." However, I would contend that these benefits require reception.

Calvin compared baptism and the promises given in it (the offer of the gospel) to pouring water over vessels. If the vessels have an opening of faith, the promises and grace fill the vessels. If the vessels have no opening, then the vessels are merely drowned in water. The gospel effects of baptism occur for the elect, not the non-elect.

Leithart does admit that cursing and judgment can occur after baptism, but he applies to those who are united, married and sharing in the cross by baptism. Does baptism first perform a positive work (union with Christ) then condemning (in their apostasy)?

The comparison of baptism to the word here may be appropriate. Under the preached word, does the preached word always have the desired effect of softening and conversion? Does everyone who hears become converted? Or does the same word go out, and to some it is received and to others it is rejected? The same Spirit accompanies the word to both people, one to soften, the other to harden. Yet the preached word does not first ALWAYS convert and then in some later harden. So too, baptism does not ALWAYS unite and marry the recepient then only to condemn some later.

We do well to restrict the invisible church, the true elect, as known only to God and as the recepients of the benefits of baptism as the Westminster Confession does (25:1) and assign to the visible church the status of mixed community or kingdom that encompasses both elect and non-elect in the church as Scripture also does in Matthew 13 (and the WCF does in 25:2).

So what does baptism do? It always serves as entrance into the visible church. Yet, what else it does depends on what the Spirit desires to do through it. To those who are granted faith, baptism is seen as the place where the promises of God were extended, and the laver of regeneration exhibited. To those who reject the faith, baptism is the place where they rejected the offer of substitution in the baptism that Christ spoke about:

Luke 12:49-50: "I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!

For the faithful, Christian baptism is their being united with Christ and His baptism, while for the unfaithful, their baptism of judgment and fire still awaits. Void of faith, their baptism did not unite them to Christ, through Whom salvation from the baptism of judgment is offered. Yet, for the faithful baptism is their salvation in Christ, since for them the baptism of judgment was already suffered by Christ on their behalf.

The Lord assures the faithful:

"Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you."

-Isaiah 43:1-2

7 comments:

Andrew said...

3 questions on this post:

1. What is the purpose of baptism? - all you've said is that it brings the elect and unelect into the visible church but condemns one to hell and is merely a symbol for the other (as baptism is superfluous - only election matters salvicly), so my question is, what is the purpose? because it's just cast as the exact same as the doctrine of election, if you're elect then you're elect, if you aren't you aren't, baptism does nothing to effect that at all.

2. How does the gospel open the vessel of faith if a child can't have faith, and you as a Reformed Christian baptize a child?

3. Does the Presbyterian Baptismal Liturgy say: "I baptize you in the name of the father and of the son and of the holy ghost. OR condemn you to hell. One of the two... but either way come to church each week and please give generously, welcome into the body of Christ...maybe. cross your fingers...", because that would be entertaining enough for me to go to Presbyterian baptism just for fun.

Andrew said...

Sorry, I meant to ask a fourth question as well.

4. What do you think the Nicean Fathers meant when they wrote: "We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins"? Was it Calvin's understanding? Or was the Church already apostate in it's affirmation of a dead ritual for salvation by that point?

thanks Jared, really not meant to be hostile, just honest theological questions I had for you. I know you have quite a few for my church as well.

Jared Nelson said...

Always love interacting on theology Andrew. You can tell me where Catholic doctrine might be different, but here's my best try at a classical Reformed answer (i.e. not necessarily American Reformed laymen in the pews, but what is in their Dogmatics and Catechisms affirm to the best I can explain):

1. The purpose of baptism – So what is the purpose of a sign of the covenant? It is a guarantee of an agreement. Paul says of circumcision that it was a sign “of the righteousness that comes by faith.” (Rom 4:11) The purpose of it is to extend the offer of the agreement/treaty. It offers benefits for the fulfillment of one stipulation: faith.

One might become fatalistic in regards to the doctrine of election, but we should not. There is a true offer of the gospel to man, and man is responsible while God remains sovereign. How does that work? I don't know. Both are affirmed and I affirm both of them. The offer is a true offer, “if you believe, you will be given righteousness by faith.” Even if no one were to believe, it is a true offer and that God provides faith to those who don't deserve any offer of the gospel is a mystery that theologians from Calvin to Thomas Aquinas don't pretend to have an answer to.

But a sign becomes a help to faith and assurance. One might question, is this really an offer made to me? The sign affirms that, indeed, the promise of salvation is held out, specifically, to you as a baptized subject.

2. The Holy Spirit grants faith by grace. The gospel is preached, and the spirit converts. Broadly speaking, Aquinas would say much the same: Summa 22ae, Q6. Art 1. - “For when a man gives his assent to the things of faith, he is raised above his own nature, and this is possible only through a supernatural principle which moves him from within. This principle is God...who moves us inwardly through grace.” [“principle” in philosophical parlance is the efficient cause]

I think you are asking the question, though, is that if a sacrament requires reception, why baptize infants? Several answers –

a. they have need of grace [they are born in sin] and the sacrament acknowledges the helpless state of sinful man apart from grace from the first minute of life.

b. The offer is not limited in time (one may benefit from baptism at a later date and continually benefits from reflecting on their baptism. You see parallels in Acts where some had recieved the Spirit before baptism, some during, some after)

c. we don't necessarily know if the child has faith or not, we can't see regeneration and the Holy Spirit may very well have regenerated him and we must wait for the evidence later.

d. We are obedient to Peter in extending the promise to our children (Acts 2:38-39)

Jared Nelson said...

3. No, the Presbyterian liturgy doesn't display the judgment element of baptism, but I believe both Presbyterian and Roman Catholic liturgies meantion just that in regards to the Eucharist, especially if 1 Cor 11 is used:

1Co 11:27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.
1Co 11:28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.
1Co 11:29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.

I do not believe it is a point of contention between Catholics and Protestants (though you may very well educate me on this) that a sacrament can be a means of judgment for those who take it without faith. I think if you told your priest that an atheist came in and took the sacrament in mocking, that priest would say he drank judgment on himself. The rock may be a foundation or a point of stumbling (Romans 9:33)

The same principle is seen in the offer of the gospel in preaching, right? If one hears the gospel and responds in faith, we say that the preaching of the word was the means of their salvation (Romans 10:14-15). We can truly say that the word preached was the means and not election by itself in the abstract using no means, correct? I mean the same for baptism.

But when the word is proclaimed we are warned “Heb 3:15 As it is said, "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion."” Our model there would be Pharoah who hardened his heart, but ultimately we are told that God hardened his heart (Ex 9:12). The word was a means of hardening for Pharoah. I'm merely applying this to baptism as well, as it is a “washing with water by the word.” (Eph 5:26) If the hardening can be an effect of the verbal word, why not the visible word (the term Augustine uses for a sacrament).

4.The Nicene Fathers meant FIRST: they acknowledge against others like the Donatists that baptism is valid because of the institution of Christ, not the moral status of the one administering it. SECOND: they believe with Scripture (Acts 2:38/22:16) that baptism is the means of salvation God uses to mark, distinguish and effect the salvation of Christ's church. They definitely were not apostate, but orthodox, pious, saintly men of the God defending the faith from impious heretics.

But you should already know I despise talk of the church vanishing from the earth at some point in history since it would put to shame Christ's words to Peter. Hell did not prevail. Glory to Christ.

Andrew said...

Your kindness and honesty are a constant encouragement in the usually harsh and polemical Reformed Blogosphere.

You explained things very well, but I guess the issue we continually come back to is does infant baptism metaphysically do something to the soul of the child. (in evangelical terms "save").

I agree with you on sacraments being a sign of judgment in some cases. But here's the issue, you say baptism gives grace to a sinful child. BUT the issue is that you believe it only gives grace to the elect, and that the reprobate receive no grace. Ergo, baptism is only useful for the elect.

I know you were just trying to flatter me, but you know much more about Catholic theology than I, and I would simply say that the creed states 'baptism for the forgiveness of sins', without any clause about election. Because we don't believe in perseverence of the saints, we can therefore hold that baptism does forgive sins, but that those who lack the faith and resist grace gravely have incurred damnation.

In my opinion that is what the Nicean Fathers meant, perhaps we will never know.

Thank you that some Reformed people haven't fallen into a latter-day saints style "great apostasy" theology, as so many anabaptists have.

Jared Nelson said...

A thought and a question, Andrew:

Thought: The only other place I know a sign of the covenant spoken of in relation to an unbeliever is Romans 3:1-4, which seems to say that the sign shows the faithfulness of God to bestow salvation if faith is present as he ends up concluding with "the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe." (Romans 3:22) That's partly what I base my batpismal theology on...

Question: You said you don't believe in perseverance of the saints, but I do wonder Andrew, since you seem pretty Augustinian in many things, like in your view of sin, how you take passages like: Php 1:6, or Romans 8:35-39, or John 10? Do you disagree with Augustine on perseverance of the saints? Isn't it a little scary with your view of sin to put the determining factor in your faithfulness rather than God's?

Andrew said...

Personal Thought: Yes it is very scary to think that my Salvation effectively rests in my hands and not in God's faithfulness. I don't know what God thinks about me, I still wonder if I'm in the Apostate Whore of Babylon at times and wonder if I'll be in Heaven because of my theology. So yes, Sola Fide, is certainly an easier gospel psychologically.

Theological Response: Theologically I would say that God is always faithful, and that those verses teach God's faithfulness to those who ask for forgiveness. But if I faith to ask for forgiveness and I'm in grave sin, then I am counted out by many other verses as well. (You've dealt with Arminians, you know the verses).

And I think Hebrews 10 completely unequivocally stomps out the doctrine of the perseverence of the saints.

But yes I hope God has given me the gift of persevereance. It's not that I don't believe in the perseverance of the saints, it's that I don't believe I can be sure if I'm one of the elect or not. But that problem exists in Reformed theology as well, you just don't talk about it alot I've found.