Lengthening our Memory 2

Pantocrator.jpgI grew up baptist, and that meant we were big on baptism and it also meant we did not baptize infants. Baptism was for those who consciously believed. The oddest thing about baptism for us was that baptism as an act did nothing to us or for us but was instead understood to be an act of obedience to the command of Jesus. Not so always with the Church. Chris Hall, in Worshiping With the Church Fathers
, examines in his first chp what the fathers believed and practiced and taught about baptism. Studying the history of baptism, and seeing how the Church has taught baptism, lengthens our memory.

This is a rich chp, loaded with original source quotations and sorted out in clean and crisp categories.
Hall begins with a fundamental observation: sacramental theology, which contrasts with what I grew up with and with most low-church evangelicals, is rooted in the Incarnation. That is, sacramental theology claims that God draws near to humans in matter. That is, the invisible in the visible. Why did they believe in sacramental ideas?
The Incarnation — and this shifted and shaped everything for the earliest Christian theologians. God became flesh and this sanctifies matter and shows that God redeems through matter. Thus, they are “concrete, grace-filled, earthy means God employs to communicate central themes of the gospel narrative and the overarching biblical story to the mind and body of a Christian” (25-26).

Hall quotes the famous passage from Justin Martyr that describes the early Christian worship services. But we need not sketch the service — baptism took place within the context of early Christian worship services.
Chris Hall describes how the fathers discussed “water” itself — as that into which the believer plunged for death and resurrection. (I’m not assuming here immersion etc.) Thus, baptism is connected to the cross and resurrection from the earliest days.
But baptism was not an act of magic: there was a fairly widespread conviction that repentance and faith were necessary for the saving benefits of baptism to occur. While there was some dispute on order, baptism was also clearly connected to reception of the Holy Spirit — upon invocation of the Spirit and the purging of the water. Thus, baptism is connected early to regeneration (Gregory of Nyssa).
Which raises the issue of infant baptism. Tertullian was against it, but the majority seem to have thought infants should be baptized and that such a baptism, while it would not save the child, was a purifying and sanctifying act (Gregory of Nazianzus). Augustine, strong as he was on original sin, was strong on the need to baptize infants but he did not equate baptism with conversion of the heart. Augustine also believed in something the Church has not embraced: unbaptized infants who die go to hell.
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  • As minister, I get to baptise babies and adults; but each one, only ONCE 🙂
    Part of the symbolism for me is definitely the idea of crossing a river into a new land – the Kingdom of God.
    My analogy (in South Africa) is that parents escaping Zimbabwe wouldn’t leave their kids on the other side of the Limpopo river and shout back: “You’re too young to decide where to live, we’ll come and get you when you’re old enough to make your own decision!”
    A child born into a Christian home, must be raised in the Kingdom of God as a full citizen… the kingdom doesn’t come through conscious assent; it is always there.
    But I’m a Methodist and that’s (sort of) my Method. I don’t mind if other people see things differently.
    Thanks again for ALL the posts (I read most of them); and comment on some.

  • Mick Porter

    Thanks for raising this – sounds like a really useful book. I spent years in a radical arm of the churches of Christ (i.e. adult baptism, full immersion, for forgiveness, cannot be saved without getting it just right, non-symbolic), and these days have a lot more to do with a wider set of folk who mostly seem to go very hard for the fully-symbolic view.
    It seems to me that baptism is exceedingly rich in symbolism, but in some way effectual too. I love the variety of viewpoints of the Fathers – it shows that we’re not alone in coming to different conclusions! I think Gordon Fee was right when he said that God chose methods of guaranteed ambiguity in his revelation.

  • My daughter and I were just talking about this last night. As I explained it to her, baptism is deeper than just showing that one is making a commitment to follow Jesus (though not less than that). It’s a couple of things. One is the resurrection part that you referred to. In the Jesus story, he only had ONE resurrection. We will also have one resurrection.
    Also, baptism is like adoption. It is saying that yes, I want to be part of this family. In baptism, we are coming back into God’s family.
    In the Grace of the Three in One,

  • Darryl

    Coming from a tradition that has taught baptism as an essential faith-act that is part of the salvation/conversion experience I appreciate this post. We have often been misunderstood to say that the act itself was salvific. However we taught it was not magic, nor was the water magic, nor was the character of the person who performed the baptism: it was about the person’s response of faith.
    Our view tended to be too narrow on the subject at times. But I think we’ve been closer to the truth on this practice than many realize. For me it is an act of faith that demonstrates full trust in God that is part of the salvation experience. Certainly it is more true to the text than quoting some “believer’s prayer” which cannot be found anywhere in text either by way of outright command to pray or a demonstration of someone praying it in the text.

  • In Leviticus and in the time of Jesus, baptism (ritual immersion) was a more frequent experience (cleansing after all types of uncleanness and always before entering temple courts).
    Baptism changed your state from impure to pure. It had a transcendent quality. What you did on earth mattered in heaven.
    Derek Leman

  • Brian McLaughlin

    How does his research compare with that of Ferguson and the book review that was posted last week. It seems that Ferguson in his new book (and the older ones on backgrounds) seems pretty firm that infant baptism and a more sacramental view is a late development. Hall seems to be saying it is early. Are they reading the same sources differently?

  • tscott

    Why did they believe in sacramental ideas? I believe it was a theology that evolved. The early church was being pulled in many ways. Creed, canon, and episcopate were the triple bulwark against the largest heresy Gnosticism. In opposing regimentation to primitive spontaneity, Montanism arose. The sacramental was the “church” response to this.
    Professor H.M.Gwatkin summarized three main results of the Montanist crisis. First a deist conception of God. Second, a distrust of prophetic and charismatic. Third, a contrast drawn between the apostolic age and all subsequent ages. His conclusions may allow too much importance to Montanism, but its positive points are ones the “spirituals”, or may I say “charismatics”, have always made.
    I presently have close friends practicing a modern form of Montanism. Their enthusiasm is welcome, but i don’t think they are as in tune with the “Spirit” as they suppose. They have close friends who practice a daily type of sacramentalism (my family). They don’t think the Lord is channeled as we suppose(vocation, communion, confession, marriage, baptism, death, and may I say service). They think we’re missing it.

  • Scot McKnight

    Brian, I think the issue here is “how early.” Hall knows that the earliest evidence is not clear and that some clearly opposed infant baptism, for instance, though more did not oppose it. Tertullian’s against it but that means at his time some were baptizing infants. Hall’s approach is more a canvassing of theological developments that emerged into later ideas rather than seeking to find what the earliest view was. I hope that’s fair to him.

  • All of us come as infants to be baptized. We are all grossly ignorant of the grace of God regardless if we are 8 weeks old or 80 years old.
    Baptism is not meant to mark the arrival or the pinnacle of the journey but the beginning. When I had my babies baptized it was not to lay claim to anything they have done or would do but to proclaim what God has done and is doing through Christ’s Church.