Bap­tism mat­ters?

The Church of England - - CLASSIFIEDS / FEATURE - By John Hart­ley

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

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