Believe and Be Baptized (Baptism in Depth)

Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch

Part of a series on Baptism in Depth. Get ready, y’all! I have a burst of inspiration, and thoughts coming out my ears — both to finish my thesis and to share on Baptism.

The Acts of the Apostles, the continuation of St. Luke’s Gospel narrative recounting the earliest history of the Christian Church, is the clearest record we have of the faith and practice of the Apostles. With that in mind, we look to it as a clear window into the Apostles’ understanding of Baptism.

The most important observation we can make about the Apostolic Church and Baptism is that in every single case of Christian conversion in the Book of Acts, Baptism immediately followed the believer’s having faith in Christ — as if believing and being baptized were a part of the very same thought and action. In this we hear an echo of Jesus’s words: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16). For the earliest Christians, believing and being baptized were inextricably connected.

Benjamin West, St. Peter Preaching at Pentecost

St. Peter Preaching at Pentecost, by Benjamin West (1738–1820) (Wikimedia).

We see, from the very first apostolic proclamation of the Gospel, that Baptism was connected both to believing in Christ and to repenting of one’s sins. To the people’s question of what they should do, St. Peter answers, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). The purpose Peter names of being baptized, we should note, is for the forgiveness of your sins; and the outcome is to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41).

Numerous other cases connect faith and Baptism necessarily: In St. Philip the Deacon’s preaching to the Samaritans, we see that “when they believed … they were baptized” (Acts 8:12). When the Ethiopian eunuch believed, he exclaimed immediately, “See, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptized?” (Acts 8:36). In St. Paul’s ministry in Corinth, we find that “many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized” (Acts 18:8).

Paul and Silas and the Philippian Jailer

In fact, the act of Baptism was so closely connected to the act of believing that baptism implied belief: In a number of cases, Scripture does not specify explicitly that the converts believed, only that they were baptized. When Paul preached to Lydia, the text tells that “the Lord opened her heart to give heed to what was said by Paul. And … she was baptized” (Acts 16:14–15). Likewise with the Philippian jailer, we read that “[Paul and Silas] spoke the word of the Lord to him and all that were in his house,” urging him to believe, and “he was baptized at once, with all his family” (Acts 16:32–33).

At the very least, we can say that Baptism was a necessary part of salvation in Acts: for no one became a Christian without having been baptized. Baptism was the next step to having faith, the necessary response, no doubt a central part to apostolic preaching, and the completion of the answer to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” As I will show next, in a closer examination of Baptism in the thought of St. Paul, not only did Baptism imply having faith, but having faith came to imply Baptism.

Pope Benedict ordered change in baptismal liturgy before resigning

B16-baptism

A post that’s relevant to our recent focus here on Baptism just came across the feed.

From the Deacon’s Bench:

The Sunday after the Epiphany is the Sunday of the baptism of Jesus. And on each of these Sundays, year after year, Benedict XVI administered the first sacrament of Christian initiation to a certain number of children, in the Sistine Chapel.

Each time, therefore, he had occasion to pronounce the formulas supplied by the rite of baptism in effect since 1969. But two of the words in this rite never entirely convinced him.

And so, before renouncing the chair of Peter, he ordered that they should be changed in the original Latin, and as a result in the modern languages as well.

The current baptismal liturgy reads in Latin, Magno gaudio communitas christiana te (vos) excipit, “The Christian community receives [or welcomes] you with great joy.” But in Pope Benedict’s judgment — and I quite agree — that doesn’t quite capture the fullness of truth that the Church of God subsists in the Catholic Church. Even Protestant churches are “Christian communities.” But this is the Church that Christ founded and gave to us.

In practice pope Joseph Ratzinger, as a sophisticated theologian, wanted that in the baptismal rite it should be clearly said that it is the Church of God – which subsists fully in the Catholic Church – that receives those who are being baptized, and not generically the “Christian community,” a term that also signifies the individual local communities or non-Catholic confessions, like the Protestants.

The alteration is slight but profound: from now on, at the end of the rite of reception, before signing with the cross the forehead of the child or catechumen, the priest will now say, Magno gaudio Ecclesia Dei te (vos) excipit, “The Church of God welcomes you with great joy.”

Read the whole original article by Sandro Magister, or the full piece at the Deacon’s Bench.

Types for Baptism in the Old Testament (Baptism In Depth)

Baptism of Christ, from Mariawald Abbey

The Baptism of Christ, stained glass from Mariawald Abbey, by Gerhard Rhemish, The Master of St. Severin, Germany (Victoria and Albert Museum).

Part of an ongoing series on Baptism In Depth.

An important context for understanding what Baptism is and how the New Testament Church viewed it can be found in the Old Testament types (Greek τύποι, ‘examples’, ‘figures’) which New Testament authors saw to foreshadow Baptism. The two most important types for Baptism which the Apostles themselves understood are the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea with Moses, which St. Paul explores in 1 Corinthians 10:1–6, and the miraculous salvation of Noah and his family from the Great Flood, to which St. Peter alludes in 1 Peter 3:18–22.

Paul presents the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt as a type of Christ’s salvation in several respects:

I want you to know, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same supernatural food and all drank the same supernatural drink. For they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless with most of them God was not pleased; for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things are warnings for us, not to desire evil as they did.

Paul sees the manna, “bread from heaven,” and the water from the rock, as symbols of the Eucharist, the “supernatural food and drink” of Christ the Rock’s own Body and Blood (as Christ Himself illustrated in John 6:48–51). In the pillar of cloud which led the Israelites through the desert (Exodus 13:21–22) and the crossing of the Red Sea led by Moses (Exodus 14:15–31), he observes the basic elements of the Sacrament of Baptism — the Holy Spirit and water (cf. Titus 3:5). Paul sees that in their passage through the desert and through the sea, the Israelites were “baptized into Moses” — as in Christian Baptism, we are “baptized into Christ” (Romans 6:3). Just as in the exodus, the Israelites passed from bondage into the Old Covenant, and were bound to Moses and to the Law, so do we, through Baptism, pass from being dead in sin to new life in the New Covenant, and are incorporated into the Body of Christ. (Saint Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians, The Navarre Bible [Dublin; New York: Four Courts Press; Scepter Publishers, 2005], 83.) Baptism, therefore, is a passage, an entrance into the life of Christ. Paul similarly understands Baptism to be “the circumcision of Christ,” initiating us into the New Covenant of Christ as circumcision initiated the Jews into the Abrahamic covenant (Colossians 2:11–14).

Passage of the Jews through the Red Sea (1891), by Ivan Aivazovsky

Passage of the Jews through the Red Sea (1891), by Ivan Aivazovsky (WikiPaintings).

Peter similarly understands Baptism to be a passage:

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him. (1 Peter 3:18–22)

Noah's Ark (1966), by Marc Chagall

Noah’s Ark (1966), by Marc Chagall (WikiPaintings).

Just as the Flood represented death for the great mass of sinful humanity, and Noah’s Ark provided safe passage and salvation for Noah and his family — so Baptism in water represents death to sin and burial with Christ (Romans 6:3-5), and through water we are saved. Baptism now saves us, not as a washing of literal dirt from our bodies, but as a deeper, spiritual cleansing (cf. Ephesians 5:25–27), and an appeal — Greek ἐπερώτημα, a question, request, appeal — but containing the idea of a pledge or commitment (literally συνειδήσεως ἀγαθῆς ἐπερώτημα εἰς θεόν, an appeal to God of or from a clean conscience). These verses may reference and quote from an early baptismal liturgy. (The Catholic Letters, The Navarre Bible [Dublin; New York: Four Courts Press; Scepter Publishers, 2005], 85.)

The imagery represented by both of these types is clear: that of salvation from bondage and death, and a passage into a new life. Next time we will examine how Baptism was practiced in the life of the Early Church — and how this reflects the Apostles’ theological understanding of the Sacrament.

Does Baptism Regenerate? A Look at the Times It Didn’t (Series on Baptism)

The Baptism of Prince Vladimir (1890), by Viktor Vasnetsov

The Baptism of Prince Vladimir (1890), by Viktor Vasnetsov (WikiPaintings).

(Part of an in-depth series on Baptism. Part 1. Part 2.)

When we left off, we were examining the Baptist view of Baptism, that it is merely a symbol, a sign of a work of grace that has already taken place in the believer by faith, an ordinance of the Church, not necessary for grace or salvation, but ordained by Lord and done in obedience to Him.

This understanding seems to derive not so much from the interpretation of any particular passage of Scripture that would indicate Baptism was purely symbolic, but a general interpretation of all passages of Scripture pertaining to Baptism as symbolic. The whole argument that Baptism is not sacramental and does not in itself accomplish regeneration in a believer appears to rest on three cases in which believers were apparently regenerated prior to and apart from Baptism: (1) the repentant thief on the cross (Luke 23:39–43), (2) Saul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), and (3) the fall of the Holy Spirit on the gathered Gentiles at the house of Cornelius (Acts 10:24–48). But do these cases represent the ordinary working of the Holy Spirit, or were they exceptions? To answer this, let us delve into the Scriptures.

The Repentant Thief

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43)

The Crucifixion, by Vincenzo Foppa

The Crucifixion (1456), by Vincenzo Foppa (Wikimedia).

So the thief repented, which we know was a work of grace. And we know that the thief died, and that when he did, Jesus welcomed him into His kingdom. In this sense, he certainly received salvation without the necessity of Baptism in water. But does this case demonstrate definitively that the thief was regenerated, his sins washed away and his soul born again in Christ, the way Christian believers ordinarily are, prior to his death? Perhaps he was; perhaps he wasn’t; but this passage doesn’t indicate it.

The Catholic Church believes that Baptism by blood — in which one suffers death for the sake of the faith — can bring the fruits of the Sacrament of Baptism. Whether this is what happened here or not — it is self-evident that if ever there were an exceptional case of salvation in the Gospels, it was that of the repentant thief, who was saved at the very divine fiat of Jesus.

Paul on the Road to Damascus

The Conversion of St. Paul, by Nicolas-Bernard Lepicie

The Conversion of St. Paul (1767), by Nicolas-Bernard Lepicie (Wikimedia).

Now as [Saul] journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” …
Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized. (Acts 9:3-6, 17-18)

In the case of Saul, we see that Jesus intervened directly and tangibly in his life, stopping him in his tracks and turning his life around. But it is not at all clear here that Saul was regenerated or received the Holy Spirit prior to his Baptism.

In fact, elsewhere we find reason to believe that he was not. In the second telling of Saul’s conversion, as Paul presents his defense before the Jews, different words are given to Ananias:

“And one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, came to me, and standing by me said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And in that very hour I received my sight and saw him. And he said, ‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Just One and to hear a voice from his mouth; for you will be a witness for him to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’ (Acts 22:12–16)

We see, then, that Saul’s regeneration was not accomplished the moment he met Jesus in the road. He had to be baptized in order to wash away his sins and receive the Holy Spirit. Not only that, but it couldn’t wait — it was of the utmost urgency and necessity.

The Gentiles at the Home of Cornelius

The Baptism of Cornelius, by Francesco Trevisani

The Baptism of Cornelius (1709), by Francesco Trevisani (Wikipedia).

While Peter was still saying this, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can any one forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days. (Acts 10:44–48)

Here these Gentiles do receive the Holy Spirit prior to their Baptism — hence the Jews’ amazement! They have been, indeed, regenerated apart from Baptism. But if Baptism were not essential, why is it the very first thing Peter thought of when he witnessed this miraculous manifestation? And is this situation the rule, or another exception? Do any other cases support its being an ordinary occurrence?

We don’t have to look very far, in fact, to find a counterexample:

While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them; and they spoke with tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve of them in all. (Acts 19:1–7)

Here we likewise see Gentile converts, who had not yet been baptized with Jesus’s Baptism, but only with “John’s Baptism.” They had “believed” and were apparently “disciples” of Christ — and yet had they really heard the full Gospel of Christ, if they had not even heard there was a Holy Spirit? We observe several things:

  1. These believers had not yet received the Holy Spirit — and the first thing Paul asked them was “Into what, then, were you baptized?” Paul’s implication is clear: if they had been baptized properly into the Baptism of Christ, they should have received the Holy Spirit.
  2. If they had been baptized into Christ, they also should have heard of the Holy Spirit — suggesting that despite St. Luke’s reference to being “baptized in the name of Jesus,” the Apostles did in fact baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19), the traditional Trinitarian formula which the Church has always observed. [The Oneness Pentecostals, for example, seize on this verse and several others in the Acts of the Apostles to insist that they should baptize only “in the name of Jesus,” contrary to orthodox Christian practice.]
  3. These disciples received the Holy Spirit only after their Baptism, not before, when they profess to have “believed” (even if their understanding appears to have been incomplete). Clearly, then, mere “faith” or belief was not sufficient for their regeneration. This invalidates the above example from Acts 10.

The conversion of the Gentiles at the home of Cornelius, then, appears to have been an exceptional case, a demonstration of the power of God to save and regenerate even Gentiles, specifically to convince Peter of their inclusion into Christ. The manifestation coincided with Peter’s vision of Acts 10:9–16, a similarly direct intervention and revelation, and clearly itself an exception from the mode in which believers were generally saved. Once these Gentiles had believed, Peter urged them to Baptism as the essential next step, for their incorporation into the Body of Christ, the Church.

Believers Baptized but not Regenerated?

Almost as a counterpart to the previous example, here’s one more, presenting an opposite problem: these believers had been baptized, but had apparently not received the Holy Spirit.

Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to a city of Samaria, and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the multitudes with one accord gave heed to what was said by Philip, when they heard him and saw the signs which he did. For unclean spirits came out of many who were possessed, crying with a loud voice; and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. (Acts 8:4–7)

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit; for it had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. (Acts 8:14–17)

St. Philip the Deacon

St. Philip the Deacon (oca.org)

Now, this does appear to present a complication. Had these people really been baptized and not regenerated? This poses an equal problem to both the Baptist and Catholic views. To the Catholic, it would seem that Baptism had not regenerated them; to the Baptist, it would appear that believing in Christ had not regenerated them!

Again, we observe first of all that the expectation was that these believers would have received the Holy Spirit at their Baptism; because they had not, the Apostles Peter and John had to make a special trip. But there is even more going on here than first appears. Clearly, when Philip (this is Philip the Deacon, not Philip the Apostle) brought the Gospel to Samaria, the Holy Spirit worked through him miraculously, exorcising unclean spirits, healing the lame and paralyzed. That the Holy Spirit came upon these people with such wondrous manifestation as they believed and were baptized does indicate, in fact, that they were regenerated, born again in Christ — they did receive the Holy Spirit. So why did Luke say they had not?

In the interpretation of the Catholic Church, what we are witnessing here is an early example of the Sacrament of Confirmation. Because this was yet early in the development of the Church and of Christian doctrine, St. Luke didn’t know quite how to describe what was happening. But yes, the Samaritans had been baptized in Christ and had been regenerated, and had received the Holy Spirit in some measure. But they had not received the Holy Spirit in His fullness, in the full anointing of Pentecost. Because this was one of the first times a missionary who was not an Apostle had preached to people unto conversion, it was probably just as much a surprise to Philip and to the Apostles as it is to us, that these new believers did not receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit. As the teaching of the Church developed, it was understood that the Sacrament of Confirmation could only be conferred by a bishop (a successor of the Apostles) or by a priest to whom the bishop specifically delegated it. In the previous example from Acts 19, when Paul “laid hands” on the newly-baptized believers, this too is understood as the completion of their baptismal grace in the Sacrament of Confirmation.

Conclusion

In conclusion to what I realize is a really long post — but one which I hope has been revealing and helpful — I do not believe that these four examples, unusual and early cases of conversion and regeneration, support the Baptist position, that Baptism is purely symbolic and unnecessary for salvation. Even these examples, when examined closely, indicate strongly that Baptism was necessary and efficacious in accomplishing the grace of Christ, through the working of the Holy Spirit. Next time, I will explore in depth some of the many other references to Baptism in Scripture, which likewise support a sacramental understanding.

The Baptist View of Baptism: Symbol or Sacrament? (Series on Baptism)

Painting of infant baptism from the Catacombs

A painting of the baptism of a child from the Catacombs of Rome.

(Part of an in-depth series on Baptism. Part 1.)

In this and ensuing posts I will examine in particular the view of Baptism held by Baptists and other evangelicals in their tradition: that Baptism is not sacramental but merely a symbol. I want to make every effort to be fair and consider the Baptist arguments in full; so I would very much like any comments supporting the Baptist view. I am curious, and will listen and not argue.

The first major difference of opinion among Christians regarding Baptism is whether or not Baptism actually does something — whether Baptism regenerates us; whether it is efficacious in applying the grace of God through faith, as Catholics, Orthodox, and some Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, and Reformed believe; and among evangelical Christians, the Churches of Christ.* I will call this the “sacramental” view, though I know not everyone embraces that term — what I mean is that we believe in baptismal regeneration.

* And well, I am starting to get lost in the denomination soup of who believes what. I think I may need to order the newest edition of the Handbook of Denominations in the United States after all, as mine is now over a decade old!

We Catholics define a Sacrament as an outward sign that symbolizes as well as actually accomplishes an inward grace: in the case of Baptism, the washing with water brings about the washing away of our sins; being placed under water represents our burial with Christ and rebirth in His Resurrection (Romans 6:3–5). We will return to this later.

The Baptist View: Origins

Believer's baptism

Beliver’s baptism (From here).

On the other hand, in what I will call the “Baptist” view — since in modern evangelicalism, it seems to have descended from the Baptists — Baptism is understood as merely a symbol, a sign, a public profession of the grace and regeneration that has already taken place in the believer’s life by faith alone. In addition to Baptists, my Pentecostals and many other groups of evangelicals follow this understanding. The symbolic view of Baptism appears to be Zwinglian in origin, though the history of the Baptists themselves is more difficult to follow. Historians are divided about their origins, some claiming influence from the radical Anabaptists. But the belief was stated clearly as early as the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith:

Baptism is an ordinance of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, to be unto the party baptized, a sign of his fellowship with him, in his death and resurrection; of his being engrafted into him; of remission of sins; and of giving up into God, through Jesus Christ, to live and walk in newness of life (Romans 6:3–5; Colossians 2:12; Galatians 3:27; Mark 1:4; Acts 22:16) (1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith §29.1).

[Many thanks to ReformedOnTheWeb for the links to early Baptist confessions of faith, without which I would have been lost without a map.]

Ulrich Zwingli, by Hans Asper (ca. 1531)

Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531), by Hans Asper (ca. 1531) (Wikimedia). I really like this portrait of Zwingli more than any other I’ve seen.

Like so much of the movement of the Reformation, the rejection of Baptism’s sacramentality and of sacramentality in general seems to have been in part a reaction against the “sacerdotalism” of the Catholic Church, that the work of God’s grace was only administered through the hands of priests. Many other proponents of sola fide, justification “by faith alone,” including Luther himself, even though they rejected the sacerdotal priesthood, affirmed that the sacraments of the Church, in particular Baptism and the Eucharist, were the “means of grace” through which the Holy Spirit worked. But this thread of Protestant thought rejected the Sacraments in the view that they were “works” — and that justification “by faith alone” excluded the idea that any other action was necessary for salvation. This seems, more than anything else, to have been the origin of the interpretation.

In Scripture

The Apostle Paul

The Sunday school Paul returns!

I have searched high and low for an argument from any particular verse of Scripture that is used to support the Baptist view, and found only this: Rather than any specific verse that supports a purely symbolic understanding, the view stems from a general interpretation of all Scripture referring to Baptism as symbolic.

Is this justified? Certainly Scripture describing Baptism, especially in the words of Paul, is rich with symbolism. Paul describes Baptism as burial with Christ in death and resurrection in His new life:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:3–5)

We Catholics agree that Baptism is symbolic; but it isn’t only symbolic. In actually accomplishes the grace it represents: we, buried with Christ, are raised from being dead in sin and given new life in the Holy Spirit.

Beyond this interpretation, the only basis I have found for the belief that Baptism is purely symbolic, and thus not necessary for salvation, rests on the fact that in three noted cases in the New Testament, the regeneration of sinners seems to have been accomplished apart from Baptism: (1) the repentant thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43), (2) Saul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), and (3) the fall of the Holy Spirit on the gathered Gentiles at the house of Cornelius (Acts 10:24–48).

Next time, I’ll take a close look at these passages and consider what support they give to the Baptist view. Are they indeed indicative that regeneration is apart from Baptism and Baptism is not necessary for salvation? Does the rest of Scripture support this view? For now, I will step back — partly because I would dearly like the input on my Baptist friends, to share with me whatever other support they find in Scripture for their views, and partly because this post is just far too long already.

Is Infant Baptism an Unscriptural Practice? Part 1: Understanding Baptism

Infant baptism, in stained glass (From St. Peter's List).

Infant baptism, in stained glass (From St. Peter’s List).

So, my last post, in addition to being fascinating exegesis, had a point. I didn’t even realize the point at the time, but our dear brother Eugene has brought up an important question that just happens to fit with the direction I was moving in. May we thank the movement of the Holy Spirit! As it turns out (I didn’t intend it initially, but caught myself before I spent four hours writing a tome!), this is a topic worthy of more than one post, so here begins a series.

Many evangelical churches reject the practice of infant baptism (or “paedobaptism”) as an unscriptural practice, especially those who derive their thoughts on Baptism from the Anabaptist tradition — the Baptists today (who are more descendants of the Calvinist tradition than of the Anabaptists, except for this view), the Churches of Christ, and many others who have descended from the Second Great Awakening in America. I will argue, from Scripture, that the baptism of infants is not only scriptural, but an apostolic and essential Christian doctrine, taught and practiced since the earliest days of the Church.

Bible

This argument goes to the heart of our understanding of what Baptism even is: for according to one’s understanding, the baptism of infants either becomes critical or it becomes nonsensical. For many Protestants, understanding Baptism is reduced to only their personal interpretation of the Scriptures; but for a truthful view, we must look not only to the Scriptures, but to how the earliest Christians understood the Scriptures. This is not an argument about sola scriptura. Even proponents of that view must admit that Scripture is written in a language we don’t innately understand, in a culture very different from our own. How we understand the words of Scripture, in our language and in the context of our own culture, might be quite wrong, if we presume concepts and views that neither the biblical authors nor their recipients would have understood. The correct interpretation of Scripture, as even most learned Protestants have acknowledged, is to strive to understand as fully as possible the language and cultural context in which culture was written.

St. Irenaeus

St. Irenaeus (ca. A.D. 120–200).

And the way to do that is to look to writings outside Scripture. Hardcore proponents of sola scriptura recoil at the very idea; for it is “Scripture alone” that we need as our rule of faith. But consider even that statement: “Scripture alone is our sole rule of faith.” Even relying on Scripture as one’s sole rule — the authority on which matters of doctrine and practice are founded — does not dismiss the importance of other writings. Many Protestants read and reflect on the teachings and commentaries of the great Protestant leaders of the past — Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Spurgeon, and many others — drawing great inspiration and edification from them. Are they using their words as a “rule of faith”? No, they say, but merely as helps in understanding the rule of faith. And the matter of reading the writings of the Early Church is absolutely no different: Even if one does not accept that the Church Fathers speak with authority, their words can be a great help in understanding Scripture — for they were the earliest disciples of the Apostles; the ones to whom the Apostles themselves would have explained their writings. They are the ones in the best position to help us understand Scripture — both by speaking the language and understanding the culture in which Scripture was written, and by having received their understanding of Scripture from the Apostles themselves, or from the Apostles’ disciples; and they are the best ones to show us how the Early Church believed and how they put those beliefs into practice.

Believer's baptism

Beliver’s baptism (From here).

So, with these thoughts in mind, we will continue to the next leg of our journey: What is Baptism? The two major views that I will explore are the traditional, catholic understanding, which is my own: that Baptism was established by Christ a the Sacrament, an outward, physical action that represents and actually accomplishes an inward spiritual reality, by which He washes away our sins, infuses us with His sanctifying grace, regenerates us and gives us a new birth in Him, unites us with His Body the Church, and gives us the gift of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; and the view of many evangelical Christians, called “believers’ baptism” or “credobaptism”: that baptism is only a sign or ordinance that merely symbolizes the spiritual reality that our sins have been forgiven and that we are united to Christ; that it is only for believers, those who have actually come to a mature understanding and faith in Jesus Christ, as a public profession of their faith for them to make before God’s people, the Church. Stay tuned!

(See also the rest of my series on Baptism and on the Sacraments — which, I kind of petered out on; sorry. I will pick that up again after my thesis is in the can. I covered Baptism, Confirmation, and some on the Eucharist — but the Eucharist was a lot to chew!)

Is Baptism the Circumcision of Christ?

Baptism tapestry

A baptism, from an early Renaissance tapestry.

Is Baptism the “circumcision of Christ” that Paul was referring to in Colossians 2:8-15? It is a question that has far-reaching implications. Here is a little Scripture study I whipped up a few days ago.

See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fulness of life in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him. (RSVCE)

8a. “See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition [τὴν παράδοσιν τῶν ἀνθρώπων, lit. the traditions of men]…” — this is the exact phrase that Jesus used in Mark 7:8. In the context of Paul’s teachings against the heresy of the Judaizers — that it is by faith that we are saved, not by circumcision or by other observances of the Torah, as the Judaizers preached (Romans 3:28, Galatians 2:16, Ephesians 2:8-10, etc.) — and its resolution at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) — and in the context of the rest of this passage regarding circumcision, Paul’s reference is clear: He reminds the Gentile Christians of Colosse that it is faith, not the bodily circumcision of the Jews, that saves them, as some were no doubt still teaching.

8b. “…according to the elemental spirits of the universe [κατὰ τὰ στοιχεῖα (stoicheia) τοῦ κόσμου], and not according to Christ.” — Paul is speaking here against the teachings of the Stoic philosophers, which were then in vogue — and which were just as empty as any other “traditions of men.”

9–10. “For in him the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily [σωματικῶς (somatikos)], and you have come to fulness of life [lit. you have been filled up] in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.” — How are we filled up?

Murillo, Baptism of Christ (c. 1665)

Baptism of Christ (c. 1665), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

11a. “In [Christ] you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands — by putting off the body [τοῦ σώματος (somatos)] of flesh [τῆς σαρκός (sarkos)]…” — We are filled up with life, by Him, in whom the fullness of deity dwells bodily, he circumcising us with a circumcision made without hands — by putting off the body of flesh. Clearly this circumcision, though it is made without hands, has something to do with our bodies, and with Christ’s Resurrection and bodily life.

11b–12a. “…in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with him in baptism” — It is important to note that there is no “and” here in the Greek, nor is there a semicolon (the biblical Greek manuscripts had no punctuation). Rather, Paul leads directly into a participle, συνταφέντες (suntaphentes), “having been buried.” A more literal translation of this verse is [see the NASB, known for its literalness, which translates it this way] “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh by means of the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with Him in Baptism…” The Greek is absolutely clear, even if the English fails to get the point across. The “circumcision of Christ” is Baptism.

12b. “…in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.” — We died and were buried with Christ in Baptism, and are raised together with him through faith in the working of God. Compare Romans 6:3-4: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” — Putting it all together: We are filled up with life by Christ, through a circumcision made without hands, the circumcision of Christ, by which we put aside the body of the flesh, the body of the flesh having been buried with Christ in Baptism, and we being raised to a new, regenerated life in Him.

As if it weren’t already crystal clear enough, Paul continues to emphasize the point:

Baptism, Catacomb of St. Callixtus

A third-century representation of Baptism from the Catacomb of St. Callixtus, Rome.

13a. “And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh [τῆς σαρκός (sarkos)], God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses…” — We were dead in the uncircumcision of our flesh, and we were made alive together with Him, through Baptism (in which we are “raised together with Him”), having forgiven us all our trespasses (cf. Acts 2:38a, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins“). By this circumcision of Christ, which is Baptism, He redeemed us who were under the Law (Galatians 3:27, 4:1), we are now circumcised in our hearts — so that, just as the circumcision of Abraham marked Jews as sons of Abraham, the circumcision of Christ (Baptism) marks us as sons of God (Galatians 4:4-7).

13b. “…having canceled [lit destroyed, obliterated] the bond [lit. certificate of debt] which stood against us with its legal demands [lit. ordinances]; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” — Christ obliterated the demands of the Law, the debt we owed under the covenant of Moses, to its ordinances and legalistic observances. Therefore we are no longer under Law (Torah), but under grace (Romans 6:14).

So yes, explicitly, this passage rightly calls Baptism the circumcision of Christ.

And a question for further thought: If circumcision was given to infant boys on the eighth day, and Baptism is the “circumcision of Christ” — should it not also be given to infants?

Whatever Happened to the Eucharist? Why Don’t Evangelical Protestants Celebrate It?

El Greco, The Last Supper (c.1598)

The Last Supper (c.1598), by El Greco. WikiPaintings.org)

The major topic that prompted me to delve into a series on the Sacraments was wondering why Evangelical Protestants* don’t celebrate them. How can a people who profess to base their faith on Scripture alone ignore the very things — in fact, some of the only things — that Jesus told us explicitly to do? Baptism and the Eucharist are the only two of the Seven Sacraments that Evangelical Protestants have preserved in any form — but even these are relegated to the status of marginal, symbolic acts in very many cases. I’ve already written a bit about Evangelicals and Baptism.

Now, in considering the Eucharist, the perfectionist and scholar in me wants to offer a thoroughly researched and documented treatise on the theology of the different Protestant interpretations of the Eucharist, but this topic is now pressing and I thought I would give you instead a few preliminary thoughts. The Wiki provides a decent overview if you like that kind of thing. (And good Lord I had no idea it was this complicated and fragmented and daunting.)

* I am going to start capitalizing “Evangelical Protestant” as a proper noun (even though it’s incorrect! incorrect! by the Chicago Manual of Style) to distinguish Evangelical Protestants, the ones I grew up with and complain about from time to time, from other kinds of Protestants to whom my criticisms might not apply, such as Lutherans. I do this for the sake of not confusing or alarming my dear friend.

Fra Angelio, Institution of the Eucharist (1442)

Institution of the Eucharist (1442), by Fra Angelio.

Compared to the rest of His teaching in the Gospels, Jesus gave us few direct, unambiguous commands. Among them are some of the last words he gave us before departing this earth: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mark 28:19) — an explicit imperative to baptize — and His words at the Last Supper: “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). One would think that the Apostles and the Early Church would place great emphasis on these things. And in fact they did: they were the very basis of early Christian worship, as St. Justin testifies.

The Witness of the Apostolic Church in Scripture

One would also think that Evangelical Protestants, professing to live and worship by the Word of God in Scripture, would place great emphasis on celebrating these essential Christian sacraments. For coming to faith in Christ is always, as a rule, followed immediately by baptism in Scripture. Likewise for the Eucharist: for it is clear from Scripture that the Apostolic Church celebrated it frequently, if not at every gathering:

Dürer, Last Supper (1510)

Last Supper (1510), by Albrecht Dürer.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. . . . And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts. (Acts 2:42,46)

On the first day of the week [i.e. Sunday, the Lord’s Day], when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight. (Acts 20:7)

The word translated “as often as” in 1 Corinthians 11:25–26 is simply ἐὰν (eàn), most literally ifif you take the cup, do this — whenever you take the cup — but implying that it is something that will be done. It only makes sense in the context as an implication that it will be done frequently:

“Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:25–26)

Most crucially, Jesus tells us that He is the Bread of Life (pun intended):

“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst . . . . Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (John 6:35,55–56)

The gyrations to which Evangelical commentators must go in order to evade a sacramental interpretation of Baptism and the Eucharist in these passages is rather uncomfortable to see.

The Reality in Many Evangelical Churches

Grünewald, The Last Supper (Coburg Panel)

The Last Supper (Coburg Panel) (c.1500), by Matthias Grünewald. (WikiPaintings.org)

But as my new Protestant friends have just recently attested, and as I myself saw in my wanderings, many Evangelical churches seldom celebrate the Eucharist at all — as infrequently as once a month or even once a quarter. Some have even dispensed with it altogether. It blows my mind how the celebration that Scripture plainly indicates was the central act of early Christian worship can have become so irrelevant, to people claiming to follow in the same tradition — how far down and far away the acorn has fallen.

I struggle to understand it. I would be happy if the leadership of one of these churches stopped by and explained the reasoning. But the very idea of dispensing with the Eucharist must rest on the assumption that Baptism and the Eucharist aren’t sacraments at all, but merely symbols or “ordinances.” This idea certainly wasn’t present in the theology of the better-known and revered Protestant Reformers such as Luther and Calvin, who both fully affirmed the sacramentality of Baptism and the Eucharist, and the Presence (however that Presence is understood) of Christ in the Eucharist. It was Huldrych Zwingli who first rejected the idea of the Sacraments, though it’s unclear to me (as yet) how this idea made it into modern Evangelicalism, which largely flowed out of the Second Great Awakening. The rejection of sacramentality seems to have followed in the death of any sense of the sacred at all.

Tintoretto, The Last Supper (1594)

The Last Supper (1594), by Tintoretto.

These modern Evangelicals want to avoid any suggestion of doing something “religious” or “liturgical” or “ritualistic” or — God forbid — Catholic. The idea of “sacraments,” in the Evangelical mindset, suggests that some “works” other than mere belief in Christ is necessary for salvation. The notion that “faith alone” saves, taken in this sense, rejects any idea of sacramentality before it can even begin. If we assume from the get-go that nothing else is necessary for salvation — something Scripture never shows — then any other idea, even if plainly stated in Scripture, is short-circuited.

These churches make a token of practicing Baptism and the Eucharist occasionally, just because they are plainly commanded by Christ. But they have no real meaning or efficacy. If something is merely symbolic, it must be unimportant and unnecessary. It becomes a mere “symbolic act of obedience” — read, “We do this just because He said to do it.” If it doesn’t do anything — if it in itself isn’t necessary for salvation, and doesn’t further the Kingdom of God — then why should we bother doing it? I often get the feeling that these churches feel that the Eucharist is merely gets in the way of the more important work of the church, preaching and teaching and evangelizing.

Eucharistic adoration

Not that those things aren’t important. For how are the lost to hear the Gospel without a preacher (Romans 10:14)? But the Early Church, and the Church throughout history, has understood that, as St. Paul says, the Bread and the Cup are a participation — a communion — in the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:16). Through the eating of His Body and the drinking of His Blood, we abide in Him and He in us (John 6:56). It is a “remembrance,” but it is a remembrance in the same way the Passover was a remembrance of the Old Covenant: a re-presentation, “as often as you take it,” of the salvific sacrifice of Christ, our Passover Lamb — the New Covenant that saves us and sets us free. How can anyone shuffle that off as merely a quarterly “symbolic act of obedience”?

When Church is Good

Giotto, The Last Supper

The Last Supper (1306), by Giotto. Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua.

Every week when my parents get home from their church and I get home from my Mass, they ask me “how church was.” Growing up Protestant, this was a common way of talking. “Church sure was good.” “That was a good service.” Just yesterday, they came home telling me how “good” their church was. Now, as a Catholic, I’m struck by how foreign this mode of speech has become, and I’m never quite sure how to respond.

They mean, of course, that the sermon was good, edifying or inspiring, or that the worship was stirring or emotional. Which are good things. That’s why Protestants go to church — to hear good preaching, or experience good worship, or have good fellowship.

Eucharist

But that’s not why Catholics go to Mass. We go to Mass for the Eucharist — to partake in the intimate communion of Holy Communion; to share in the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ; to receive Him in person, in our person and in His person. And that is always good — beyond good; it is divine.

So asking a Catholic if “church was good” is like asking if Jesus is good. Why yes, of course it was good. The homily could have been dull, and the music could have been grating; but Jesus was there in the Eucharist. He came to meet me, to touch me and be with me. How can that be anything but good, wonderful, awesome, overwhelming? Evangelicals like to brag that their faith is not a religion, but a relationship, and yet they only experience Christ in the abstract in their services, through their singing and someone else’s preaching.

Poussin, Institution of the Eucharist (1640)

Institution of the Eucharist (1640), by Nicolas Poussin.

It strikes me, too, that I never really understood what “Communion” was about as a Protestant. Who is it that we were supposed to be having “Communion” with, and in what way? I guess many Protestants think of it as a meal in common, a symbolic gesture of unity, a sign that the church is together in following and serving the Lord. They are sitting down to a meal, symbolically, with each other and with Jesus. But the very term Communion evinces something much deeper and more intimate, and I can now see why many Protestants shy from it, calling it instead only the Lord’s Supper. But St. Paul himself testifies to what it is:

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a communion [Greek κοινωνία (koinōnía), often translated participation or sharing] in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a communion in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
(1 Corinthians 10:16–17)

The Eucharist: The Source and Summit of Our Faith

Juan de Juanes, La Última Cena (ca. 1562)

La Última Cena (ca. 1562), by Juan de Juanes. (Wikipedia)

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all. Yeah, I’m a little late on that one, but it’s been a busy and stressful few weeks. I’m still trying to settle back in at home, and re-situate my books and my life, and make progress on my thesis.

I’ve been stressing, too, you know, about the next post in my series on the Sacraments: an introductory post on the Eucharist. How can I do such a subject justice in a single brief post, or even in a dozen? It’s had me bound up for weeks, researching fervently and never feeling worthy. So I finally decided to sit down and give you, rather than the ultimate, perfect, authoritative post, a human and personal reflection.

Eucharistic adoration

We Catholics say that the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the whole Christian life.” (Second Vatican Council [1964], Lumen Gentium III.11.1, lit. totius vitae christianae fons et culmen — those words are a lot richer than they come across in English: fons is the fount from which the blessings of our faith flow; culmen means the very peak, the summit, the apex, the culmination). As a Protestant growing up, I had no notion of this — we rarely celebrated Holy Communion in the churches I was a part of — and even early in my conversion, after I’d begun attending Mass, I couldn’t comprehend it. I used to think as a Protestant that the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist was merely a pious superstition, one inconsequential to the substance of the Christian faith and message: what does it matter whether He’s really there or not, as long as we believe in Him and follow Him? What is the big deal about the Lord’s Supper? Why make Communion the central act of the Christian life — the very reason for going to church? Don’t we have better things to focus on, like edification through preaching and teaching, and fellowship and support through community, and ministry to the lost and hurting? As I heard Mass, as I witnessed it and stood in the presence of the Eucharist, though unable to partake, a glimmer of the truth began to dawn on me; but it wasn’t until the very moment of my First Communion, the first time I came to the Eucharistic table and experienced it for myself, that the full reality, the full mystery, hit me and overwhelmed me.

van der Weyden, Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (1450), center panel

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (1450), by Rogier van der Weyden. The center panel, showing the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith.

The Eucharist is the source and summit of the whole Christian life because it is Christian life itself. In the Eucharist we have the very Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, really and truly present. In Holy Communion we share in His full humanity and His full divinity; we partake of His eternal life itself — the love and the life of God delivered to us directly, not just spiritually but corporeally and viscerally. We are united with Him more intimately than we can ever be united with anyone else, in the flesh as well as in the spirit; united with the very Body of Christ, in Communion not only with Him but with all the saints and believers who have been united with Him over the ages, in the Church on earth and in His eternal kingdom. The Eucharist is our font and our apex because from it flows all else: all the grace by which God forgives us and saves us; all the faith and hope and love with which He imbues us; all the power and authority and ability He gives us to turn from sin and follow Him, to pursue His righteousness, to love and minister to others. All the preaching, all the teaching, all the ministry, all the fellowship are subsumed to the Eucharist because without the Eucharist we could have none of those. It is the source of our life; our very food from heaven.

In the grace of the Eucharist, I find so much strength, but at the same time see how truly weak I am, how desperately I need Christ, how I am nothing without Him. Where before the Lord’s Supper was “no big deal” to me, a nice symbol and memorial, now not only my faith, but my entire life orbits the Eucharist. I know I cannot live without His Presence; the Lord’s Day is the center of my week; my soul and my body ache to be departed from Him even the few days in between. What is this miracle, what is this mystery, what is this treasure God has given us?

The Protestant will ask, can you support that biblically? And yes, Jesus states it plainly (John 6:22–71):

I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. … I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.

Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. Somehow, by some tragic blindness, Protestants interpret this passage as symbolism and metaphor. But the universal witness of the early Church attests to the belief of the earliest Christians in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and of its centrality to the Christian life. For Christian life is about communion with Christ — even Protestants should admit this — and it is only in the Eucharist, the Most Blessed Sacrament, that we have the true and full Communion with Him that His Body was broken for; that He gave to us for all time.