Sunday, May 18, 2008

Reclaiming the Sacramental (Part 1)

My theological journey has taken me places I never thought it would. I grew up Southern Baptist, thinking that the conservative evangelical Protestant branch of Christianity was the truest expression of Christian faith and practice and thus the tape by which to measure all that Christianity truly should be. Granted, I continue to believe in the principles upon which our movement is based, such as the priesthood of the believer, Scripture as our final and unfailing authority, salvation by grace alone through faith alone, and the need to be born again, but I can no longer hold to a view of the Christian faith common among conservative evangelicals that we alone are good, true, Bible-believing Christians who will be saved and that, by contrast, all other Christians, whether they be mainline Protestants, Catholics, or Orthodox, are only “barely” Christian and that they will be saved only to the degree that they understand and live the Christian faith more or less just as contemporary American Protestant evangelicals do. I absolutely reject this uncharitable, limiting, narrow, and false view of worldwide Christianity. This does not mean, however, that there should be no standards or boundaries for what constitutes orthodox Christian faith. What I’m trying to say is that what constitutes orthodoxy does allow for a broad and diverse range of ways to be authentically Christian. Because of the tremendous ways in which I've been blessed by evangelical Christianity, I do remain committed to the movement and plan to follow God into the future from this base of experience, community, and faith, but I also have come to deeply appreciate what other Christians bring to the table. In this process of appreciative awareness, I have been affected in ways that have far surpassed my expectations and brought me to points at which I have been challenged, blessed, strengthened, disoriented, perplexed, and overwhelmed in the encounter, and as a result, my life, my faith, and my entire worldview have undergone some changes. I want to share some of those with you.

For quite some time, I have been curious about and sympathetic toward the Roman Catholic Church. In light of the history and the continuation of misunderstanding, distrust, and animosity that has existed between Protestants and Catholics since the Reformation, it has grieved me that both of these authentically Christian groups have been at odds with one another when they have shared so much in common and served the same Lord. At first, I was na├»ve in this regard, thinking that our understandings of and ways of living out the Christian faith differ only on things that are not matters of great importance. That is not true. There are fundamental differences, many of which Protestants and Catholics believe to be significant enough roadblocks to prevent our full fellowship with one another and our inter-Communion and even to prevent the salvation of the other. On the first count, I agree (the ideas of either Catholics giving up the whole sacramental system for "faith only” or of Protestants taking up the whole sacramental system and ecclesial hierarchy are fundamentalist pipedreams, get real!) but on the latter, even though I disagree with these folks, they still have good reasons for thinking so. As a result, I do not think that Protestantism should try to remake Catholicism in its own image in order to ascribe to it saving significance or that Catholicism should try to do the same with Protestantism. This is dishonest, and it is an indignity to the beauty and glory of each faith group's history and also a minimalization of the less positive aspects in each of our histories. I'm going to propose that we accept one another as being different on some very important matters, so much so that we cannot in good faith become organizationally or doctrinally one, while yet striving to be united in love, faith, and the praise of God, accepting and embracing one another as authentically Christian brothers and sisters who have so much to learn from one another, extending the hand of fellowship to one another, engaging in constructive dialogue and work together, and, in all things, viewing our differences as opportunities to bless one another rather than as occasions for strife and discord.

That being said, I do believe that the Bible and Christian faith is made up of theological propositions that are objectively true. Therefore, distinctively Protestant teachings and distinctively Catholic teachings that contradict one another cannot be simultaneously true. Furthermore, God does not expect us to remain completely loyal to the theological tradition to which we belong when he reveals to us that some of that tradition’s teachings miss the mark. As a result, during the course of my theological journey, I have come to reject some of the most sacred of mainstream evangelical Protestant theological assumptions, particularly that grace only comes to us through purely spiritual means and thus that baptism and the Lord's Supper are purely symbolic and in no way communicate grace to those who receive them.

I must clarify a few points, however, before I attempt to show how these assumptions are not biblical and that they are destructive of reaching the goal of a lived Christianity that is adequately engaged with the world and thus fully committed to making "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.” A few of you reading this may come from evangelical Christian traditions that do believe that baptism and Communion are sacraments, particularly if you're Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, or Anglican/Episcopalian. If you’re from a Restorationist tradition like the Disciples of Christ, the independent non-denominational Christian Churches, or the Church of Christ, you're probably familiar with the idea of baptism being part of the salvation process. I ask you to also open your mind to the possibility that the Lord's Supper communicates sanctifying grace. However, since most evangelicals are from Baptist or Baptist-influenced (at least in regard to ritual and church polity) traditions, the notion of baptism and the Lord's Supper as purely symbolic and commemorative ordinances is by far the most common understanding of these two rites in American evangelical Christianity. Though I have great respect for the Baptist heritage—remember, I grew up Southern Baptist—I honestly have to say that it is unfortunate that Baptists have embraced and spread ideas about these two sacraments that do not match up with what Paul, Peter, John, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, the Wesleys, and the vast majority of Christians throughout history have believed to be true. (In all fairness, the Protestant understanding of baptism and Communion as ordinances originates with the Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli. Zwingli's teachings on ritual weren't widely accepted in the early days of the Reformation, being overshadowed by those of Luther and Calvin. However, Baptist traditions later embraced his idea of ordinances, and as these traditions grew, so did the influence of this teaching.)

The connection this has to my appreciation of Catholicism is that my arrival at a more moderately-Protestant view of baptism and Communion is by way of my engagement with Catholicism. I believe that the spiritual descendents of the Reformation have taken the Protestant tenant of salvation by faith alone much further than the original reformers ever dreamed. I think that a second or third-generation Protestant (meaning a Protestant tradition that later broke off from the original Reformation movements or in turn broke off from these breakaway movements as well) understanding of salvation by "faith alone" must be balanced by Catholic and older Protestant views of these two sacraments’ relations to salvation. The key here is balance. Though I take very seriously the possibility that Catholic teachings about the Church are indeed objectively true, it is my current belief that the Catholic Church overemphasizes the Church's role in connecting believers to Jesus, but to me, this is only a matter of degree and not of substance. Anyway, in Catholicism, the Church is Christ's presence on earth, the Body of Christ in the most literal sense, so the sacraments of the Church are the primary means by which the believer connects with Jesus and receives salvation and the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, I think that second and third-generation Protestants go too far the other direction, insisting that the church (notice that church is now lowercased) has no role in bringing people to salvation beyond declaring the Gospel, and thus implicitly that people can be saved independently of the church. In this understanding, the church is merely spiritual, the “invisible” collection of the redeemed that cannot be directly correlated to the visible institution to which believers belong. I think that this distinction between the invisible spiritual church and the visible institutional church, if not outright artificial, is much too sharp. While it is certainly true that there are some who are part of the institutional church but who are not in right relationship with God, the inverse, that there are genuinely faithful Christians outside of the institution and community of the church is not biblical. I will clarify this by saying that not only is the church in us but we are also in the church. The church and the believers in the church are mutually constitutive of one another. There is no church without believers and there are no believers without the church. For instance, then, the New Testament does not consider those who are not part of the church, have intentionally refused baptism, and, for these reasons, are not receiving Communion to be people who are currently in right standing with God. With all fairness, all faithful Protestants insist that Christians should be part of the church but imply by their understanding of the church and grace that people can live a Christian life and be finally saved without the church.

I propose a middle way between the Catholic understanding of the Church's primacy in communicating grace to the Christian and the mainstream evangelical Protestant understanding of the church as having no direct role in bringing people to salvation. I propose that the church is really the Church. Jesus is present in the Church itself in a way that I am afraid that evangelicals have forgotten. God speaks to us through the Church and communicates grace through the Church. In baptism and Communion, the sacraments that all Christians practice, we are personally and powerfully interacting with the Lord. This is not to say that we do not interact with Jesus personally and individually through faith and the Holy Spirit in prayer. We absolutely do. In fact, I believe that this is a very important way in which we relate to Jesus, but the Church itself and the sacraments it provides are channels by which we can know, receive, love, worship, and unite with God in a very special way. Let's consider Matthew 16:17-20:
Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." 20Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.
This has been an historically controversial passage in debates between Protestants and Catholics about the office of the Pope, but here, I want to direct our attention instead to the matter of the keys of the kingdom of heaven being given to Peter and by extension to the Apostles and the Church built on their teachings. There have been a number of ways that Protestants have explained verse 19, including that the church has the keys to heaven only to the degree that it is the Church's responsibility to spread the gospel of Christ. I agree, but I also think this passage implies much more about the function of the Church. I think this also refers to the fact that the Church opens the gates to heaven in some sense through the sacraments of salvation it administers. I think verse 20 gives us a clue that Jesus is referring to the sacraments here. I had always wondered why Jesus is always so concerned about keeping his identity concealed in the synoptic Gospels. Why did he not urge the disciples instead to proclaim it from the hilltops that he was the Christ? It's not because Jesus wanted to keep the message of salvation in him from people, it's because Jesus always intended to reveal who he is through his death and resurrection. It is at Calvary and the empty tomb that Jesus most clearly reveals himself to be God, and it is in his atoning death and resurrection that he wants to reveal to each of us that he is the Christ, the Son of the living God. That is the mystery Jesus’s sense of mystery about his identity is pointing to. Paul and other ancient Christians also talk a lot about mystery, referring to the sacraments of baptism and Communion as part of the Paschal mystery. They are mysteries caught up in the great mystery of redemption purchased on the cross. They are signs rather than mere symbols of Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection. They confer to a significant degree the graces that they signify, so in baptism and Communion, we receive in an important way the benefits of Christ's death and resurrection. Baptism and Communion are thus sacraments: Sacred, Advangtageous Christian Rites And Mysteriously Effective New Testament Signs. By pointing us to Calvary in verse 20, Jesus shows us that the Church is the guardian of the mystery of salvation, both in the proclamation of the Gospel and in the administration of the sacraments. I don't think it means that the Church has any particularly formal role in and of itself to decide who God will save or damn (God most certainly still saves when the Church miscarries its salvific work), but it does point us to our solemn responsibility to help bring people to salvation and our evangelistic and sacramental roles in that process.

Now, I want to turn to the relevant passages of Scripture regarding the sacramental nature of water baptism. We see baptism in the Gospels, the baptism given by John the Baptist to Jews, including Jesus himself. John's baptism of Jesus, while not Christian baptism per se, clearly pre-figures Christian baptism in that God declares that Jesus is his Son and Jesus visibly receives the Holy Spirit in his baptism. This all correlates to the ideas of the Christian’s adoption by God as his child in baptism, the calling, or anointing if you will, of the believer into the Father’s purposes through baptism, and the receipt of the Holy Spirit through baptism. After his death and resurrection, Jesus institutes Christian baptism in the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20, “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, 20teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you," and in Mark 16:16, "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned." Though the second is of questionable biblical origin, it is certainly orthodox even if not written by Mark himself. Notice that Mark does not complete or close the argument regarding baptism. Though he says that "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved," he does not state the inverse. This passage indicates that salvation comes at least in part through baptism but in no way implies that not being baptized through no fault of one's own contributes in any way to one's damnation. One only guarantees his or her own damnation by rejecting the offer of salvation in Christ.

We must also note that in Mark 16:16 baptism is connected closely to belief. Baptism is known as the “sacrament of faith” in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I think most sacramental Protestants would probably also speak of baptism in similar terms. Ironically, Catholics and most sacramental Protestants baptize infants. How does belief relate to infants? Are these traditions in conflict with Scripture. I really don't think so. I do not agree with the Baptists, the credobaptist Pentecostal/charismatic traditions, or the Restorationist traditions that only "believer's baptism" is valid. If you were baptized as a young child or infant, I do not recommend rebaptism since the dominant teaching throughout Christian history has been that baptism is not to be repeated. Though the household baptisms mentioned in the book of Acts do seem to indicate that the Apostles baptized infants, this is probably not enough biblical evidence in and of itself to affirm this practice (as a rule of thumb, Protestant Bible interpreters require two or three passages in the teaching portions of Scripture to uphold a doctrine; a passage or two in a narrative portion of Scripture is not sufficient evidence to infallibly uphold a doctrine). On the other hand, I don't think the fact that the word for baptism used in the Greek literally means “to immerse” (it also more generally means to wash) or that the overwhelming majority of, if not all, the first-generation Christians baptized in the Bible were adults who had first professed faith in Jesus (a curiously inconsistent usage by non-sacramental Protestants of narrative passages of Scripture to infallibly uphold a doctrine of universally prescribed credobaptism) to be enough biblical evidence to make a particularly strong argument against baptizing babies.

The truth is that we have not been given a New Testament Leviticus by which to construct the Church and its rituals. The New Testament does not give us a rigid legal code that locks us in to specific, exact, right down to the detail ways to structure our ritual worship the way the Old Testament does. Paul, in 1 Corinthians, seems to indicate that there are many matters that God has left up to the reason and common sense of people in the Church to decide. The particular mode of and candidate for baptism may be one of those things that God has given us some latitude in. The only things the Bible and the most ancient of apostolic traditions insist on is that it be done with water (obviously), be done in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that it not be repeated. Also, our earliest extra-biblical source, the Didache, dated to about 110 A.D. and, therefore, according to tradition and even some critical scholars, while the ink on the last writings that ended up in the New Testament was still wet, authorizes the baptism of infants and does not absolutely insist on immersion though it prefers it. If we wanted to get really legalistic about this, we could also insist that both the baptizer and baptizand be naked, as Hippolytus, writing early in the third century A.D., shows that the early Christians baptized in the buff. It is thus not improbable that the baptisms in the Bible were done in the nude too. That’s one possibly biblical tradition that I think we all agree should not be revived!

There are a number of ways to reconcile the baptism of infants to the biblical connection of baptism to faith. Catholics and other Christians with a high ecclesiology—theology of the Church—essentially believe for the recipient of baptism. Also, since Catholics believe that an infant who receives baptism has been born again, this means that she will begin to believe in the Lord as soon as she is able. I personally like a Reformed explanation of how baptism is a sacrament of faith. Baptism is the sign and seal of the New Covenant. God speaks to the heart of the child in baptism, and, just as babies hear and respond to the voices of their parents, they hear and respond to the voice of their Heavenly Father as he speaks “This is my son (or daughter) in whom I am well pleased” to them in baptism. They trust in God when they’re baptized in the same way that they trust in their parents when they hear their voices. As Jesus says in John 10, “My sheep hear my voice, and they follow me.” This also points to the fact that God takes the agency in saving us. He calls to us before we even know to call out to him. It also points to our passivity in baptism. It is not a choice; it is not a work. God gives himself to us in the waters of baptism; he works in us, willing that we believe in him. A Presbyterian friend once told me that his baptism as a baby represented to him God’s calling of him from the time of his birth. Patrick's later conversion to faith in Christ was merely confirmation of this call. I will later explain how adult baptism can be, if not done in a legalistic sense, a passive reception of grace, how it is not a work any more than praying to receive Christ is, and how it does not conflict with the Protestant tenet of salvation by grace alone through faith alone.

I next want to point out that Peter and Paul talk about baptism in the Bible in ways that Baptist- influenced or Baptist evangelicals would be very uncomfortable with. For instance, though there are issues with using narrative passages to formulate doctrine, I think a look at the first sermon and first altar call in the history of the Church is instructive. After being cut to the heart at the words of Peter, his audience asks of him, "'What must we do to be saved?' And Peter said to them, 'Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit'" (Acts 2:37-39). You would never hear such a statement from a preacher in most evangelical churches. Regardless of whether or not this is in context, most evangelical preachers or teachers would never make such a statement.

In Romans 6:1-4, Paul directly connects our death to sin and ascent into new life with baptism:
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4We 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.
Due to the imagery used here, it is highly unlikely that Paul is speaking of a purely spiritual baptism into Christ to which many non-sacramental Protestant authorities point in efforts to negate the apparent salvific implications of baptism put forward in this passage.

Consider also Paul's words in Galatians 3:26-28:

For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
He connects the putting on of Christ and the radical equality of all believers directly to the baptism that they have all received. Also notice the connection to faith here. We become sons and daughters of God through faith. Paul simultaneously holds in full force both the primacy of faith and the importance of baptism in salvation. He doesn't seem to find any conflict between salvation by faith and the salvific implications of baptism. A further note on the context of this passage, the context of Paul's letter to the Galatians is that Paul is correcting the Galatians legalistic dependence on the Law of Moses to save them. Paul does not consider baptism a work of the Law in the same way he does circumcision. Baptism is thus not a meritorious work. It is not a way to earn salvation by pleasing God. We cannot please God. It is only by his own grace that we can please God. Christ's institution of baptism is simply a tangible way of communicating to us the promise of receiving the righteousness of God by which he makes us pleasing to himself.

Paul carries this argument further, showing how baptism is not something we do for God to try to please him but something that God does in us. In Colossians 2:11-14, he writes:
In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.
Again, we see baptism directly connected to Christ's atoning death by which he earned salvation for us all. Notice here how he connects a circumcision of the heart to baptism. Baptism is a circumcision made without hands, a putting off of the flesh. Granted, of course, water baptism is an external event in and of itself, but this is not the whole picture of it. God works inside us in this physical bath. Baptism is thus not just an external witness to an internal reality that has already taken place. Baptism is God's use of water, of matter, to confirm and seal his promise of salvation to us. Mysteriously, baptism somehow carries with it the grace it signifies without itself being an identity with that grace. We must think of baptism's role in our salvation as conferring the promise of receiving the grace rather than conferring the fullness of the grace itself. Baptism is simply God's visible, tangible way of promising to change us internally, to give us the grace of regeneration, of justification, of rightness with God, of washing from sin. Though I would not say that baptism in and of itself can save us, it must still be reckoned as important to our salvation in the sense that it strengthens our faith. The emphasis in this is not on what we do but on what God mysteriously and counter-intuitively does in us.

Salvation is a mystery. It goes against our logic. Sometimes it just doesn't make sense. What is God thinking? Using something physical to help change us spiritually? But, isn't that what the Incarnation is all about? God taking on a material body, coming to a material earth, spiritually saving beings composed of matter, redeeming physical nature, physical creatures, and a physical earth (which he promises to perfect when he returns), the God-man dying a physical death on a physical cross, the God-man rising physically, bodily from the grave, the risen God-man revealing his identity in the breaking of bread (Luke 24:35), Jesus coming in water and blood (1 John 5:6). Isn't it universal Christian doctrine that God's physical work of conception, birth, life, death, and resurrection accomplished the spiritual salvation of his people; isn't it also catholic, orthodox (meaning universally accepted and doctrinally sound) teaching that we will experience eternal life in bodily form; isn't it true that when salvation in all its fullness becomes a present reality that our bodies will be redeemed and glorified together with our spirits? Could we have been saved without the Incarnation? I honestly don't know. God possibly could have redeemed us some other way, but the fact is that he did it the way he did it. In that light, maybe it does make perfect sense that God continues to use matter in saving us, since the basis for our salvation in the first place is the broken flesh and spilled blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be;
world without end. Amen.


Sam Hill said...

Jamie, I enjoyed this thoroughly. You are well aware of my own church background and upbringing in a Baptist church and family. However, after spending two years in a Catholic school and attending mass, I have witnessed two worlds collide and I, too, am constantly pondering the relationship between the Catholic and Protestant schools of thought and how they relate to my spirituality. After a year of college and a summer on the East Coast I now find myself distant in many ways from both, but more than all else I've recognized that they both have much to contribute to my own spiritual journey.

If you haven't already, check out my blog/journal at and I will add your blog address to my page. Take care.

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