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A Theology of Baptism

I’ve chosen this title deliberately, despite the fact that to many, it is decidedly off-putting. I was in my early teens when an ancient priest, he must have been at least fifty-five, handed me a copy of CB Moss’s “The Christian Faith” and said “Read it.” He then remarked that the simple statement “God loves me” is a theological statement. I remember his saying that when a person sneezes, and we reply “God bless you”, whether we know it or not we are doing and applying theology. Even then, to many, perhaps most, not  excluding that teen age boy, theology seems a cold and legalistic exercise. In our thoroughly sentimental church, legalism implies coldness, lack of sympathy or compassion and probably an exclusive temperament. Think for a moment if one’s doctor, in prescribing a vital medicine, said, “Take them if you feel good about it.” Such a physician would be useless. Of course I don’t want to take the wretched pills, particularly when I consider the possible side-effects. If I’m told to eat small meals regularly – regular means by rule or law – does the rule cancel the advice? But we will return to the meal idea later.

I’ve just moved. I am looking for a local bank or credit union. I’ve been surfing the web to discover what I must do to open an account and transfer money from my present bank. I’ve discovered that I have to qualify, and there are rules to be observed and followed. In America I have to get a new license to drive upon changing states. It’s an irksome and frustrating system. Part of the process is reading a highway code. The main purpose of the rules is to make sure I drive safely, for my own protection and that of others who propel themselves from place to place in lethal chariots fueled by an infernal combustion engine. Law is necessary, even if one wishes that lawyers were not!

In this sense theology is necessary, if for no other reason than for my well being and that of the community we term the church. It is a pity that one has to preface an essay on baptism with such a preamble. As far as I am aware and can conclude, what we term baptism is under two assault in the contemporary church. The first stems from sentimentalism. It is proposed that the necessity for baptism as an entrance to the other sacraments is exclusionary and thus legalistic and oppressive. It is exclusionary, we are told, because it erects a barrier between the seeker and God’s love. It is oppressive because it creates a class of people, the unbaptized, excluded from receiving holy communion simply because they haven’t undergone a ritual ceremony. This second point is only cogent if indeed there’s nothing much to baptism, it’s a church rite that can be got round to in due course once a person has been included fully into the worshipping community; has been loved and made welcome.

Sensing that such a practical devaluation of what baptism has been perceived to be, some are now actually seeking to create a theology to justify moving baptism from its role as the act of incorporation into the Body of Christ. It is proposed that as God, in creating women and men in God’s image has already claimed the human race as God’s own,  “behold it is good.” Of course this is no new revelation, or even bad theology. It’s a beginning. Such an acceptance teaches us to honor all human beings.  As we are predisposed to prejudice, as we seem to need to create categories of human beings, some to embrace and some to reject, the wonderful ideal that all humans are part of God’s act of love in a good creation is vital. So far, so good. However surely that isn’t the whole story. If  it were, all rites which demonstrate God’s goodness, God’s love should be accessible to all people. Yet, as we have just noticed, we are prone to practice segregation. Doesn’t that idea lead us somewhere? Something is obviously wrong. God created us, and that is good. We refuse to share that goodness with others. That is bad. Bad is a theological concept with devastatingly bad implications. This creation, made good by a loving God, is capable of dreadful inhumanity; failure to be human. Failing to be fully human is a failure to mirror the image and likeness of God.

Christians have explained this failure, this disowning of the nature created in his image, by the Doctrine of the Fall. The dusty old Articles of Religion, more theology, remarks that we are “very far gone from original righteousness.” “Righteousness” doesn’t mean acting in a righteous way, (it is not the same as self-righteousness)  it means living, being images of the creator God. In short we are flawed. The Creeds, those tables of contents outlining what a Christian believes, assert that baptism is for the remission of sins. Remission, or forgiveness usually means ‘loosing away’ or ‘sending away’ and thus making whole. In short because we have something which needs to be ‘loosened away’ or ‘sent away’ we are unable to be fully human, or if you will God-like. Of course baptism is about incorporation, adoption, being Spirit-filled, but all these actions of God to usward, require our being restored to wholeness.

Let’s pause here for a moment. For at once the thought occurs that if we perceive ourselves to be restored to God’s love, we also assert, or seem to, that we are in some manner more valuable or better than those who have not been made new. Part of Jesus’ beef with his own people was that in their owning to be a chosen race, a special people, they had become exclusive, racially superior -see how they viewed the Samaritans – and not like those ‘dogs’ the Gentiles. Being made different surely leads to self-righteousness and prejudice? How may we, to use the words of the Baptismal Covenant, “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” if we perceive that we are unlike the unbaptized? Now follows a litany of all the prejudice and bigotry practiced by Christians towards others. We may leave aside the hatred exhibited by non-Christians towards Christians. Two wrongs don’t make a right. In the world today many of us are perhaps more sensitive to this glaring problem than has always been true. We begin to explain this problem in much the same manner as those Christians who after the Reformation noted that many baptized Christians didn’t behave like Christians, ergo baptism is merely a ceremony, required by Jesus for some unknown reason, but ineffectual. In order to advance another view, it is often necessary to devalue that which had been taken for granted, that baptism works. To those Christians conversion seemed to be the answer. Our modern reformers posit the idea of the Goodness of God in creation, as a replacement for a robust theology of Baptism.

In his opening words to his treatment of “The Body and Blood of Christ”, in his OF THE ECCLESIASTICAL POLITY Richard Hooker, our first great Anglican theologian wrote: “The grace which we have by the holy Eucharist doth not begin but continue life. No man therefore receiveth this sacrament before Baptism, because no dead thing is capable of nourishment. That which groweth must of necessity first live. If our bodies did not daily waste, food to restore them were a thing superfluous. And it may be that the grace of baptism would serve to eternal life, were it not that the state of our spiritual being is daily so much hindered and impaired after baptism. In that life therefore where neither body nor soul can decay, our souls shall as little require this sacrament as our bodies corporal nourishment, but as long as the days of our warfare last, during the time that we are both subject to diminution and capable of augmentation in grace, the words of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ will remain forcible, “Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.”

In Baptism we are “born from above”, loosen and unbound of sin, and made part of God’s advance party here to claim back the world for God. Once re-born, we are strengthened for service by the Eucharist, because we continually fall, exclude, hurt and destroy other human beings, and offend God in so many other ways. So Baptism doesn’t make us better, although it provides a remedy for the ‘disease’ with which we suffer throughout life. It empowers us to be servants of God. The Eucharist isn’t a shared meal to grant some kind of vague blessing from God to all creation, a gratuitous act of loving kindness or inclusion. The Eucharist is the food to be taken regularly by those sent as servants, not superiors, to act for God in love in the world.  By receiving Christ, after acknowledging our faults, we acknowledge that we are part of God’s chosen ambassador-corp, on a mission for God. Is such a vision legalistic theology, or empowering loving grace?

2 Responses

  1. […] CWB an “assault on the church.” Fr. Tony Clavier, over at Shreds and Patches, provides a short theology of baptism in response to the […]

  2. […] Tony Clavier has also weighed in with a posting entitled “A Theology of Baptism.”  In that posting, Fr. Tony puts his finger on one of the core problems of the […]

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