Arriving early at the diocesan office for a meeting, I shuffled through the pile of second-hand books on the free-to-a-good-home table, and skimmed the first chapters of EC Whitaker’s The Baptismal Liturgy (1965, 2nd edition 1981). As “Baptism Matters” has become the title of a roadshow that is making its way around the nation, it was good to be reminded of some of the basics – even if the debate has moved on since 1965. In what sense does baptism matter?
First, baptism doesn’t matter for being part of the kingdom of God. The ASB felt it necessary to include a specific rubric on the point (p280): “Questions of ultimate salvation or the provision of a Christian funeral for an infant who dies don’t depend on whether or not s/he has been baptized”.
The book was only mirroring what we’ve known for centuries: when Christ said to the penitent criminal “Truly you will be with me in paradise today” (Luke 23:43), there was no opportunity to baptize him first. And when he said “The kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Mark 10:14), the Greek means “these little children and others like them”, and the context was not baptism.
Second, the water by itself doesn’t matter: the words are “an equally necessary part of the sacrament”. Whitaker quotes St Augustine’s “Discourses on St John’s Gospel” at length on the point. Discussing Jesus’ words (in John 15:3) “Now you are clean because of the word which I have spoken to you”, Augustine asks why Jesus doesn’t say “You are clean because of the baptism with which you have been washed” instead? The reason must be “that even in the water it is the word which cleanses. Take away the word, and what is the water but (plain) water? … Whence does the water acquire power to cleanse the heart, if not through the action of the word?”
Third, “the word” that matters isn’t the one the minister speaks, but rather the one the candidate affirms. Augustine continues straight into this point: The word is effective “not (just) because the word is spoken, but because it is believed.”
We are used to the importance of the formula “I baptize you …in the name of Jesus” or “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”. But this isn’t in the early western liturgies. Rather (in Hippolytus’ “Apostolic Tradition”) the candidate stood in the water, was asked “Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty”, answered “I believe”, and was dipped in the water (and dipped again after answering each questions). In other words, Augustine means the words the candidate speaks.
Whitaker goes on to cite the case of a man who was prepared for baptism, then had a stroke, was baptized while paralysed, and later died. The deacon asked the bishop if he was truly saved? The question doesn’t make sense if it was the minister’s words that mattered – it only makes sense if the words that mattered were the candidate’s words.
Fourth, it can’t be denied that the Synoptic Gospels go lukewarm about the importance of baptism. Jesus’ ministry starts in a blaze of water, but strangely this fizzles out as he gets going. People like Levi, the Gerasene demoniac, Bartimaus and Zacchaeus are assured of their salvation, but Jesus conspicuously fails to require them to be baptized as they follow him.
At the end of his Gospel, Matthew records Jesus’ great commission to his disciples, which includes baptism – but Whitaker is compelled to point out how strange it is that Jesus gives detailed instructions about liturgy, or that he should “speak in detached terms as one of the persons of the Trinity”.
And how is this verse consistent with other New Testament verses that speak of baptism “in the name of Jesus”? “All these may be resolved if we accept the view that the author was not attempting to quote Jesus but was reflecting the liturgy to which he was accustomed.”
These and other points make me wonder about the title of the roadshow. Yes, there are details that matter, and, yes, baptism matters to a certain extent. But let us not over-egg our bacon.
The Rev John Hartley is vicar of Eccleshill, Bradford, and a member
of Baptismal Integrity