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Baptism as Christianity's Transformative Process
There is some form of religion in every human culture; though not all are theistic in the manner of Christianity.
Whether or not God exists, religion certainly exists, and it behooves us to inquire why and how it works for people. If some trauma occurs in your life, for example, a loved one dies, and you expect the question "Why?" to be answered by religion or religious people, you are bound to be disappointed. In my experience, answers you tend to get are bad ones, and the only honest answer is: "I don't know". Religion can, however, help you make the transition through grieving to acceptance. It can help you with any kind of transition or personal transformation. The art, the ritual, the community in religion provide invaluable support when your life is in transition (which is to say: all of the time).
The two central rituals of the Christian Church are baptism and communion. Baptism, in particularly, is about personal transformation. How the ritual relates to life's changes, however, is not immediately obvious.
Baptism is only performed once, but has a symbolic meaning which is repeatedly recalled or remembered. Baptism stands for all of life's transitions, and is recalled by Christians in connection with all the changes in life's way, and also annually around the time of Easter, as the individual Christian's connection with the Passion of the Lamb: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
As an initiation ritual, baptism symbolizes the passage from ignorance to wisdom. There is always teaching or preaching associated with it, particularly in the original models in Scripture. Consider the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:26-40). The Apostle Philip (on a tip from an angel) meets the Eunuch (a government official) on the road, reading the Book of Isaiah the Prophet. Philip explains the secret meaning of the prophecy: it is about Jesus. The Eunuch, seeing a body of water, says: "Look, here is water. Why shouldn't I be baptized?" And Philip baptizes him, and disappears, but the Eunch goes on his way rejoicing.
In other cases, the teaching demands critical self-knowledge: recognition of a less-desirable aspect of one's self that one would transform into something better: unbeliever to believer, sinner to saint. Modern understandings of life's transitions might include: addiction to recovery, or grief to acceptance.
The Pauline metaphor for this transition from Old Man to New Man was Jesus' death and resurrection. See Romans 6:6, Ephesians 2:15; Ephesians 4:22; Colossians 3:19. The old self "dies" and is reborn out of the water as a new self, just as Jesus died on the Cross and rose from the Tomb. This metaphor applies equally well to the minor losses of life, the ordinary shipwrecks and troubled waters, as it does to the big issues of eternal salvation or a personal commitment to Christianity. The loss of a job, the loss of innocence, the loss of a loved one: all the little deaths in life, can be related to Baptism and its symbolic reassurance of rebirth: re-emergence from the waters.
The symbolic equation of death and ritual dunking seems to have present, at least poetically, from the very beginning, in the first Gospel, which scholars now generally agree was the Gospel of Mark. There is a poetic parallel in the Mark's language describing Jesus' Baptism (Mark 1:10-11) and Jesus' Death (Mark 15:38). In both passages there is a "rending" or tearing: after Jesus is baptised by John, "he saw the heavens open", and after Jesus expires on the cross, "the veil of the temple was rent in twain". The Temple veil depicted the heavens (moon and stars), and the opening of the heavens and the rending of the veil are both described with the same word in Greek: σχιζειν(schizein).
The Controversy over Infant Baptism
There are in Christendom today basically two kinds of baptism: infant and adult. The sects which retain infant baptism tend to be in the majority where they are located, such that baptising an infant is equivalent to admitting the child into the community. Prior to the Reformation, Baptism meant admission to the pan-European community of Christendom. Catholic and Orthodox sects practice infant baptism: baptizing babies shortly after they are born, often in connection with a name-giving ceremony. Early Reformation sects (i.e. Lutherans, Anglicans) follow the Catholic practice of infant baptism. Baptism in these sects equates to a citizenship ritual in nations where there was no division between the established Church and the State, such as Scandanavia and the Lutheran principalities of Germany. The Reformed Church in Switzerland following Jean Calvin, the Puritans in England after Oliver Cromwell and the Presbyterians in Scotland under John Knox, all retained the practice of infant baptism.
Later Protestants, however, rejected infant baptism and favored adult baptism. Adult baptism is generally the practice favored by minority religious sects, who cannot identify the greater "community" with their sect, but to the contrary wish to distinguish themselves from the "unsaved" majority. Roger Williams and the Baptists of Rhode Island colony, for example, were banished by the Puritans for preaching against infant baptism. In Massachussetts Bay Colony, such preaching was against the law. Indeed, it was the Baptists of the Virginia, in their constant struggles not to be outlawed or taxed by the majority Episcopalian sect, who fought for and achieved Constitutional recognition for the doctrine of religious tolerance. The split over infant baptism was therefore the impetus for the American legal tradition of separation of church and state.
The difference also goes to the root of the understanding of what baptism means, theologically. The older sects take an objective and magical view of baptism: that the washing of the baby with water and reciting the words "works", regardless of the beliefs or mental state of the people involved. The more recent sects emphasize a subjective transformation, i.e. the belief of the person being baptized, and regard the washing as merely a symbol.
Luther generally avoided subjective explanations for religious phenomena: he was very much a medieval and not a modern thinker. He was conservative in this respect: retaining the Catholic practice of baptising infants, and following the intellectual tradition of the Augustinian order of monks in which Luther was trained.
St. Augustine formulated rather extreme dogmas on baptism, in his struggle with the heretical Donatist movement which insisted that the efficacy of ritual depended on the qualifications and character of the priests or bishops who performed the ritual. During a pagan persecution in North Africa, by the Emperor Diocletian in 305, Christians were required to give up their holy scriptures to be burned. Those who refused were killed. Shortly thereafter, the Empire converted to Christianity, and those who had capitulated during the persecution to save their own skin (called "traditors" or collaborators) were forgiven by the Roman church, but not by extreme partisans in North Africa. These extremists became known as Donatists. They proclaimed that any rituals, including baptisms, performed by "traditors" were ineffective and had to be re-done. The Church disagreed. From then on, "re-baptism" has been regarded as heresy.
In this tradition, Luther believed that what made baptism "work" was not the faith of the person baptised or the person performing the baptism. Indeed, as a person prone to neurotic levels of self-doubt, Luther viewed the doctrine that baptism depended on human capacities as terrifying. How can one ever be certain of God's love is if it depended on merely human inspiration? Luther instead insisted that what makes Baptism work is the Word of God. Now when Luther used the term "Word of God" he meant several things at once. First, here he meant a specific Scriptural passage, known as the "Great Commission", where Jesus instructed his disciples to go and baptize. He also meant, however, the Word as the Gospel: the Good News, the news that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son to die for us and for our sins; the news that we are redeemed from the inexorable eternal damnation of God's law by Jesus' sacrifice on the Cross. Finally, when Luther says "Word of God" he means to imply, particularly for the learned, Jesus as "the Word", the Logos, the second person of the Trinity, the bridge between Heaven and Earth, between Being and Becoming, between the divine Godhead and the temporal world. At whatever level you interpret "Word of God", however, the point is that divine intervention makes baptism work, not the repentence of the person baptised or the merit of the person performing the ritual.
Either way, in Baptism some change is supposed to occur, and all Christians seem to agree that the change is permanent. Whether you do it as an adult or it is done to you as a baby, you get baptised once in a lifetime. Communion, by contrast, is done regularly, typically once a week. You don't go to the priest and ask to be sprinkled with holy water every time you are grieving or seek forgiveness. The application of the ritual of baptism to any current problem in life is made from memory, either from your own memory of an adult baptism and your personal commitment to Jesus, or from your community's memory of your infant baptism and admission into the community of believers.
The Small Catechism of Martin Luther
Part Four: Holy Baptism
Translated by Robert E. Smith (1994)
The Sacrament of Holy Baptism:
The Simple Way a Father Should Present it to His Household
I. Q. What is Baptism?
A. Baptism is not just plain water, but it is water contained within God's command and united with God's Word.
Q. Which Word of God is this?
A. The one which our Lord Christ spoke in the last chapter of Matthew: "Go into all the world, teaching all heathen nations, and baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and of the Holy Spirit.''
II. Q. What does Baptism give? What good is it?
A. It gives the forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the Devil, gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, just as God's words and promises declare.
Q. What are these words and promises of God?
A. Our Lord Christ spoke one of them in the last chapter of Mark:"Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; but whoever does not believe will be damned.''
III. Q. How can water do such great things?
A. Water doesn't make these things happen, of course. It is God's Word, which is with and in the water. Because, without God's Word, the water is plain water and not baptism. But with God's Word it is a Baptism, a grace-filled water of life, a bath of new birth in the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul said to Titus in the third chapter: "Through this bath of rebirth and renewal of the Holy Spirit, which He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ, our Savior, that we, justified by the same grace are made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This is a faithful saying.''
IV. Q. What is the meaning of such a water Baptism?
A. It means that the old Adam in us should be drowned by daily sorrow and repentance, and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, in turn, a new person daily come forth and rise from death again. He will live forever before God in righteousness and purity.
Q. Where is this written?
A. St. Paul says to the Romans in chapter six: "We are buried with Christ through Baptism into death, so that, in the same way Christ is risen from the dead by the glory of the Father, thus also must we walk in a new life.''
This text was translated in 1994 for Project Wittenberg by Robert E. Smith and has been placed in the public domain by him. You may freely distribute, copy or print this text. Please direct any comments or suggestions to Rev. Robert E. Smith of the Walther Library at: Concordia Theological Seminary. E-mail: email@example.com Surface Mail: 6600 N. Clinton St., Ft. Wayne, IN 46825 USA Phone: (260) 481-2123 Fax: (260) 481-2126
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