A Discussion About Extraordinary Grace, Wherein the Grace of Baptism Can Be Given Without Baptism Itself.

A Discussion About Extraordinary Grace, Wherein the Grace of Baptism Can Be Given Without Baptism Itself. December 8, 2010

From Peter Lombard, The Sentences. Book IV. Distinction IV. Chapter 4.1-5.[1]

1.CONCERNING THOSE WHO RECEIVE THE THING, BUT NOT THE SACRAMENT. There are also others, as we said earlier, who receive the thing but not the sacrament.

We are in the middle of a discussion of the sacrament of baptism, and so we must understand that Peter Lombard is saying that there are those who receive the grace of the sacrament (the thing) without actually being baptized with water in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (or, as Lombard states, according to the Father, or the Son or the Holy Spirit with the acceptance of the Trinity implied in the baptism[2] – this being how he explains why some were baptized in the name of Jesus).[3] This confirms, contrary to some extremists,[4] that God’s grace does not have to be treated in a legalistic fashion. God’s grace is capable of overcoming accidental defects, as long as one is truly open to it. Obviously, this is something God, and not us, can know and judge. It is therefore for Christ to decide, and why we can hope for someone’s salvation, without knowing if they will be saved: “anyone judging before Christ is an anti-christ.”[5] We must, of course, accept what is normative, that is, we must be baptized, if we know about baptism, understand its necessity, and are given the opportunity to be baptized. That is, those who know about baptism and are given the opportunity to be baptized, if they reject it, will be dealt with according to their rejection, while those who do not will be treated according to what they do know and how they reacted toward that knowledge.

2. THAT SUFFERING TAKES THE PLACE OF BAPTISM. For those who shed their blood for the name of Jesus, even if they do not receive the sacrament, they nevertheless receive the thing. – IN BOOK 13, ON THE CITY OF GOD. Hence Augustine: “As for all those who have not received the washing of regeneration and die for the sake of confessing Christ, this is efficacious for the remission of their sins as if they had been washed in the sacred font of baptism.”[6] You have no heard that suffering endured for the name of Jesus takes the place of baptism.

Here, Peter Lombard points out a principle well understood during the time of the early martyrs: one can die in Christ, as a martyr for Christ, and even if one had not been officially baptized, one can end up being a holy saint. At this time, many believers waited for baptism, not because they did not understand or appreciate the sacrament, but because they believed it was holy and they should come to it after a proper period of penance and catechesis. In their sorrow for their sins and in their willingness to die for Christ, many attained the thing of the sacrament, that is, the grace given out in baptism, though they did not receive the sacrament itself. By their willingness to die for Christ, they are understood as sharing Christ’s death: what baptism does, they have attained in a special way. It is for this reason, their death, considered a baptism of blood, is effective and leads not only to their salvation, but to their sanctification. We can find many examples of this in the age of martyrs; indeed, it is not only true for those who had been undergoing catechesis, but also for those who have a conversion and die a martyr soon after their conversion of Christ, such as with the Roman Soldier who joined in with the Christians at Sebaste.[7] Thus, St Augustine is not giving us a mere opinion, but the belief of the Church, when he says that dying for Christ can lead to one joining in with Christ and being saved by him. If, as St. Gregory the Great points out, that those before Christ can receive grace so as to have their sins to be forgiven,[8] it should not be surprising that those, after Christ, who die for Christ, shall find Christ rewarding them not only with forgiveness, but with a martyr’s crown.

3. THAT NOT SUFFERING ALONE, BUT ALSO FAITH OR CONTRITION, FILLS THE ROLE OF BAPTISM. — AUGUSTINE, IN BOOK 3, ON BAPTISM. Nor is it suffering alone which fills the role of baptism, but also faith and contrition, where necessity precludes the sacrament, as Augustine plainly teaches, saying: “Blessed Cyprian accepts the example of the unbaptized thief, to who it was said: Today you shall be with me in paradise,[9] as far from trivial evidence that the role of baptism is sometimes filled by suffering.[10] After considering this again and again, I find that not only suffering endured for the sake of Christ’s name may supply the lack of baptism, but also faith and conversion of heart, if perhaps recourse may not be hard for the celebration of the mystery of baptism because of the shortness of time. For that thief was not crucified for the name of Christ, but as punishment of his own crimes, nor did he suffer because he had believed, but he believes while he suffers. It was demonstrated, therefore, in the example of the thief, how powerful, even without the visible sacrament of baptism, is what the Apostle says: With the heart man believes unto justice, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.[11] But the lack is then filled invisibly when it is not contempt for religion that precludes the mystery of baptism, but necessity.”[12] “And baptism may indeed also exist where the conversion of the heart is lacking; conversion of heart, however, may indeed exist where baptism has not been received, but not where it has been held in contempt. Nor ought it to be called in any way a conversion of the heart to God, when the sacrament is held in contempt.”[13] – See, you have here that not only suffering, but also faith and contrition confer remission, where the sacrament is not held in contempt, as is shown by the example of the thief; he was saved without baptism, not by his suffering, but by faith.

We have a few things to consider here.

First, it is clear that baptism is effective, even if there is not perfect contrition – that is, where a “conversion of the heart is lacking.” “But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8 RSV). The grace of the sacrament is given to us through the work of Christ, accomplished for us while our hearts had not been converted. Of course, one is required to come to the sacrament in faith – either explicitly (as an adult) or implicitly (through one’s family if one is received into the new covenant as an infant). But, as we come to Christ as sinners, as people who have not known how to love, it is clear that even a little love, even a little faith, suffices to open us up to him and to receive his grace, a grace which can then work in us, and make what is imperfect perfect.

Secondly, we are shown how a conversion of the heart is effective for salvation. However, it is often asked, if Jesus died and went to Hades, how come did he say that St Dismas, the Good Thief, was to see him in paradise on “this day”? When we look into this question, we find there is not one answer which has been given by authorities. This means, there are different ways which one can read and understand this verse. We can, for example, see Paradise as the Bosom of Abraham, a special “place” in Hades, where the blessed were to reside. Medieval art, for example, shows St Dismas following Jesus in the harrowing of hell, indicating that St Dismas followed Jesus to the place of the dead where the blessed reposed. This goes with the idea that until Christ had been raised from the dead, that is, until Jesus opened up the path to heaven, none of the dead could go to heaven before him, to be glorified before him. Others look at the verse and point out that, once we die, time and the way we view time changes. In this way, even if it is precluded upon Jesus’ glorification, St Dismas would find his own immediate encounter with the risen Christ when he died: for, when he died, he crossed beyond the temporal world and into eternity. However, one could also suggest that St Dismas was given a special grace and indeed did cross over to heaven. Theophilus of Alexandria, for example, suggests this: “The gate of Paradise has been closed since the time when Adam transgressed, but I will open it today, and receive you in it. Because you have recognized the nobility of my head on the cross, you who have shared with me in the suffering of the cross will be my companion in the joy of the kingdom.”[14] If we are to understand it in this fashion (though it is not clear we have to), St Dismas would have encountered the person of Christ according to his divine glory, for even in his assumption of the flesh, the Logos did not abandon his divinity. “The Word remained what he was even when he came among us through his humanity, should keep in himself his transcendence of all and remain above all the limitations of creation.”[15] In this way, St Dismas could have encountered the person of Christ in heaven, even as Jesus was undergoing his own descent into Hades. He would, however, have encountered him according to his pre-Easter resurrection; he would have been with the angelic choirs as they saw and witnessed the drama of salvation and be surprised with the angels at God’s divine plan.

Finally, we are shown that there can be such a contrition and conversion of the heart, one is granted the forgiveness of sins, normally granted by the sacrament of baptism, but without actually receiving the sacrament itself. It must be made clear: one can receive the grace, but we must not presume such a grace will happen (and someone will be saved), nor must we assume it did not happen (and believe a specific person is damned). It is a mystery which is given up to God to know whether or not someone has or has not found such contrition; to be sure, if one has come to it in life and understand baptism, they will not reject baptism but will come to it and receive it — not because they lack the grace of the baptism, but because they will, in love, want to follow the dictates of Christ who has called us to such a baptism.[16] Moreover, while they might be given the grace so that their sins are forgiven, they are expected to make satisfaction for them, while those who receive the sacrament find it suffices not only for the forgiveness of sins, but makes satisfaction for those sins done before baptism – and if one is cleansed from sin by contrition and later are baptized, it is understood that they received the grace of the sacrament in anticipation of their action, just as sinners receive graces from baptism after baptism itself through metanoia and confession.[17]

4. AUGUSTINE, IN BOOK 2 OF THE RETRACTIONS. But some say that Augustine retracted this. He did indeed retract the example, but not his opinion, for he says as follows: “In the fourth book of On Baptism, in saying that suffering can play the role of baptism, I did not provide a sufficiently suitable example by speaking of the thief, because it is not certain that he was not baptized.”

It is generally presumed that St Dismas had not been baptized, though this is far from certain. Thus, St. Augustine came to recognize this and understand why St Dismas was not the best example for what he wanted to say. Much is left in silence in Scripture. He could have been one of many who had come to hear Jesus preach, and been baptized by one of Jesus’ disciples. As a thief, he was an outcast, living outside of the norms of society, and it is one like him that Jesus and his disciples sought. He could even have been involved in rebellion against Rome (which would explain why he would be put on a cross). Nonetheless, outside of this, it is interesting to note that there are legends which suggest St Dismas and Jesus were connected, not just on the cross, but as infants as well: that St Dismas’ family helped the Holy Family as they crossed into Egypt. St Dismas’ father was a gang leader, St Dismas himself had leprosy, and St Dismas’ mother had offered the Holy Family refuge their cave. Mary, it is said, asked for water to wash Jesus, which St Dismas’ wife gave. Because of the kindness and hospitality, her eyes were opened and saw that there was something special with the baby Christ; she took the discarded water which Mary had used and washed her own son, curing him of his leprosy. This miracle was to have an effect on St Disms’ family, preparing, ultimately, for St Dismas’ own elderly meeting with Jesus and recognition of him as the one who had cured him as a child.[18] St. Therese of Lisieux, in her play, “The Flight from Egypt,” knew and used this tradition, and connects the two events in the words of the Theotokos: “Jesus blesses you and thanks you. In exchange for the hospitality He has received in your cavern, He will bring you into His Paradise.”[19]

5. AMBROSE. And so it is clear that some are justified and saved without baptism. Hence Ambrose says of Valentinian: “My belly aches,[20] if I may use the words of the Prophet, because I lost the one whom I was about to bring to new life; and yet he did not lose the graces which he had sought.”[21]

Here, Peter Lombard confirms that it is not merely the view of Augustine that the grace of baptism can be had without the sacrament itself. Those who seek and plan for the reception of baptism are granted their desire, even if they should die before they receive it. Indeed, some might have receive the grace as they wait for the baptism, because of an extraordinary conversion of heart; but even those who do not have perfect contrition, and yet have sorrow for their sins and a desire for baptism will find their desire sufficient if they die before its reception. Thus, we understand this as a “baptism by desire.” [22]

[1] From: Peter Lombard, The Sentences: Book IV. Trans. Giulio Silano (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2010), 21-22.

[2]Book IV, Distinction III, Chapter 4.

[3] Peter Lombard points out one can receive the sacrament and the thing (grace), one can receive the thing without the sacrament, and one can also receive the sacrament without the thing. The last would be, for example, what happens when one acts out a baptism without an intention of baptism (such as done in a play), or if  an adult gets baptized under false pretenses (feigning belief and having none).

[4] Such as Feeneyites in the United States

[5] Saint Ammonas, “The Instructions” in Useful Servanthood: A Study of Spiritual Formation in the Writings of Abba Ammonas. Bernadette McNary-Zak (Collegeville, Minnesota: Cistercian Publications, 2010), 141.

[6] Augustine, De civitate Dei, bk 13 c7.

[7] Forty Christian soldiers were condemned to death by a prelate: they were sent into freezing cold waters, stripped of everything, and told that if they were willing to denounce Christ, they would be free to leave the icy water and receive the warmth of a Roman bath. One Christian lapsed, but a Roman soldier, seeing the sanctity and fortitude of the Christians, converted on the spot, stripped himself of his clothes, and went into the water, taking the place of one who had lapsed. Nonetheless, they did not die in the water: while cold, and nearly dead from such icy conditions, it was decided that their death must be sped up, and so they were taken out of their water, their legs were broken, and then taken to a fire, where they were burned to death. All of them, even the new convert, were remembered as martyrs. “Together let us honour that holy company united by faith, those noble warriors of the Master of all; they were divinely enlisted for Christ and passed through fire and water. Then they entered into refreshment and pray for those who cry: Glory to Him Who has strengthened you; glory to Him Who has crowned you; glory to Him Who has made you wonderful, O holy Forty Martyrs.”

[8] Cf. St Gregory the Great, Moralia Sive Expositio in Iob, bk 4 c3.

[9] Lk. 23:43.

[10] Cf. Cyprian, Letter 73, n22.

[11] Rom. 10: 10.

[12] Augustine, De baptismo contra Donatistas, bk 4 c22 n29.

[13] Ibid., bk4 c25 n32.

[14] Theophilus of Alexandria, “Homily on the Crucifixion and the Good Thief” in Theophilus of Alexandria. Trans. and intr. Norman Russell (London: Routledge, 2007), 65.

[15] St Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ. Trans. John Anthony McGuckin (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), 129.

[16] Of course, there is the possibility of someone who knew about baptism, scoffed at it, and at his deathbed has a change of heart. Here, we must recognize God’s mercy will continue to be effective.

[17] See bk IV dist IV c5, c7.

[18] Allegorically, leprosy is sin, and St Dismas could, in a sense, been pre-forgiven, being washed in Jesus’ water, which could be what gave him the insight needed at recognize and confess Jesus on the cross.

[19] St Therese of Lisieux, The Plays of St Therese of Lisieux. Trans. Susan Conroy and David J. Dwyer (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 2008), 289. St Therese points out that St Dismas’ mother was afraid her son would follow his father in the path of violence. Mary comforts her and prophesies about the future:

have confidence in the infinite mercy of the Good God; it is enough to wipe away the worst crimes when it finds a mother’s heart with complete trust in it.

Jesus does not desire the death of the sinner, but that he should convert and live forever. This child who has just cured your son of leprosy, effortlessly, will one day cure him of a far more dangerous leprosy… Then a simple bath won’t be enough; Dismas will have to be washed in the blood of the Redeemer.. Jesus will die to give Dismas life and, on the same day as the Son of God, your son will enter into the Celestial Kingdom.” Ibid., 289-90.

[20] Jer. 4:19.

[21] Ambrose, De obitu Valentiniani, 29-30.

[22] See the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1258.

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