Wednesday, 9 December 2009

sacraments - merely symbols?

I remember hearing Billy Connolly justifying his use of profanity by saying, "Sometimes 'go away' just isn't enough." I've been thinking along similar lines with respect to the traditional baptistic interpretation of the efficacy (or lack thereof) of the sacraments. Sometimes the language of symbolism just isn't enough.

Taking baptism as an example, I read in the NT epistles that baptism actually 'does' something. Consider the following verses.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We 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.(Romans 6:3, 4 ESV)

...you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor. 6:11)

"...let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water." (Heb. 10:22 ESV)

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ (Gal. 3:27 ESV)

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:4, 5 ESV)

Baptism... now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 3:21 ESV)

These passages seem to suggest that baptism really accomplishes something, leaving many evangelicals to struggle with the sheer lack of qualifying statements in any of these verses. Imagine your average evangelical re-wrote some of these passages. Romans 6 might read "when we were born again, we were incorporated into Christ's death and this is symbolised by baptism." Galatians 3:27 might read, "those who have clothed themselves with Christ, symbolise this through baptism." 1 Peter 3:21 might read "baptism doesn't save anyone." What makes us evangelicals so nervous about the force of these passages?

Maybe these passages are being squeezed to accommodate our soteriologies. Now I know that God is not bound to use water to accomplish his purposes (e.g. Cornelius' household received the Spirit before baptism). Nevertheless, I believe baptism is ordinarily God's means of grace to either accomplish or seal his regenerating purpose.

Another possible reason for this evangelical/baptistic nervousness is unease about God actually using something 'physical' to accomplish something 'spiritual'. This unease is not shared by Mike Horton:
Throughout church history, "baptism" has always meant one and the same thing: The sign (water) and the thing signified (regeneration by the Holy Spirit). But in our day, many who otherwise insist on taking the Scriptures literally and "at face value" will argue that passages such as this one and others, like Titus 3:5 ("He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously . . ."), refer merely to a spiritual baptism and not to water baptism. One must beware of a gnostic dualism that separates spirit from matter, as if it is somehow less than spiritual for God to bring people into his family through a common, everyday liquid. To be sure, there is a danger is attaching superstition to rituals and material signs, but God reveals himself and saves us through matter, not in spite of it. God "became flesh," wrote a book with ink and paper, and confirms it with water, bread, and wine. He does communicate his heavenly grace through the earthly creations that he sets aside by Word and Spirit for sacred use. (God's Grandchildren: The Biblical Basis for Infant Baptism, (c) 1995 Modern Reformation Magazine/ACE)
Robert Kolb, responding to baptist Thomas J. Nettles in Understanding Four Views on Baptism (ed. John H Armstrong), writes:
Finding baptism to be no more than a "teaching tool" (p. 31) seems to me to deny that God is at work, effecting his will to save, not just picturing it, when he comes at us with his word in all its forms - oral, written, and sacramental. Relegating forms of his word to the role of only pointing to heavenly realities seems to me to reflect the ancient Greek philosopher Plato's definition of a great gap between spiritual or heavenly reality and the material created order....Baptism consists of the word of God joined with water. The water is placed within the setting of God's command. (p49)
Perhaps the Bible doesn't share our squeamishness over sacramental efficacy.

8 comments:

John Thomson said...

This blog merits a much fuller response. At this juncture I would simply say that I think it is highly unlikely the following texts refer to baptism.

...you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor. 6:11)

"...let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water." (Heb. 10:22 ESV)

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:4, 5 ESV)

These have allusions to OT texts not related to baptism. It is certainly up to those who argue they are to prove it.

I see nothing in Horton's statement that proves his point that Baptism 'imparts' something. Indeed both he and Kolb make assertions with no back-up. Not a wrong thing to do but hardly convincing. My assertion would be that neither water, nor bread and wine, nor passover meal, nor circumcision have any intrinsic value. Their value is the teaching they give responded to by faith. It can be said of baptism as of circumcision, it is nothing unless accompanied by faith.(Gal 5:6). beyond that, despite Horton's protests, you are into magic.




More perhaps later.

Nick Mackison said...

No one is saying that these things have intrinsic value apart from God's word.

I also think it's worth asking what connotations these statements (to do with washing) had in the minds of C1 readers. Certainly there would be the OT context, but surely their own baptism experience would be more immediate? Or does that get cut our of the equation?

I also think that the baptistic folk make bare assertions as much as Horton et al i.e. that these passages do not refer to actual water baptism. It's up to us to decide who's assertions best accord with Scriptural language!

Michael F. Bird said...

Fellas, this is why I gave up baptist sacramentology long ago. Baptism was reduced to an "outward symbol of an inward experience" whereas I think the NT sees it as also an effective sign of covenantal grace. Likewise, on the Lord's Supper Baptist's tend to teach the doctrine of the real absence of Christ: wherever Jesus is, he's nowhere near the bread and wine, in fact, it is better if he doesn't even turn up to communion just in case we turn Catholic. For me that just doesn't work with the language of "participation" in 1 Corinthians 10. I was taught that the only blessing of the LS was "obedience" which doesn't fly with what we read in the Corinthian letters. At the Edinburgh Dogs conference, I'm told that Henri Blocher gave a good paper on what do we get from the sacraments that we don't get anywhere else (I wish I had a copy). Some Baptists have shifted from speaking of "ordinances" to "effective symbols" but are still reticent to make Baptism and LS an actual "means of grace".

John Thomson said...

Neither you nor Horton may be saying so, though Horton's words quoted seem to suggest he does,

Throughout church history, "baptism" has always meant one and the same thing: The sign (water) and the thing signified (regeneration by the Holy Spirit'

That seems to be a statement about baptismal regeneration.

Horton says that throughout church history baptism has been understood in this way. Certainly Catholics believed in (and believe in) baptismal regeneration as have many Protestants. This is the logic of infant baptism.

Is the infant 'graced' because it receives the sign as a 'word of faith'? Clearly not, surely the implication is the water 'does something'.

Or to come from another tack, is Horton saying someone who is unbaptized is unregenerate, or less regenerate?

Or perhaps another tack: if baptism is more than a visible message received by faith what 'something' does it convey.

If its value lies in its efficacy as a word received by faith then that is what baptists believe. What 'added' virtue do these 'signs' convey beyond this that is not open to the charge of 'magic'?

PS for the Hebrew believers the OT context would be well known, as I expect it would be to Titus.

PPS The Corinthian text suggests three metaphors of salvation, washing, sanctifying, justifying. There is, I think, no good reason to see it as a reference to baptism.

Going to bed now. You've all night to prove me wrong.

Anonymous said...

It is pretty simple guys. If you are not baptised you are not a Christian. The thing that baptism does is to give you a new name... it is your entry into and joining of the church, the body of Christ.

But it is interesting to compare baptism and the Lord's Supper to preaching and teaching of the Word. Human words are used in preaching and teaching to provide a means of grace for all who hear and respond in faith. It is exactly the same with baptism and the Lord's Supper. Human words are used in those two ordinances to provide a means of grace through water and bread and wine.

The issue is always about whether or not the Holy Spirit makes the words and the elements effective.

Hebrews 6:1-3 compared to 6:8 anyone...? ...we are confident of better things in your case... the case where the Spirit works along with the elementary things, the ordinances or means of grace...i.e. the message (the word) and baptism.

Shed

John Thomson said...

Goodness, if MB keeps dropping in were going to start thinking this blog is flying.

I hesitate to resist the sharp minds of the Glasgow chameleon and the Aussie kookaburra but am gratified to see my questions remain unanswered.

The LS is a case in point. It too is a 'physical word' acting precisely like the 'written word'. When accompanied by Spirit given faith it is transformative. That is, it transforms by implanting in our hearts the 'word' or 'teaching' it conveys. In this sense (only but powerfully) it is a 'means of grace'.

Even the spoken word, unless accompanied by the spirit in the power and conviction of saving faith is but a word (1 Thess 1). The word must be 'implanted' to have any saving efficacy (James 1)

Thus the virtue of the LS is what the simple meal signifies (or speaks). It is fellowship with Christ at his home table where he is the focus of the heart and so the food of the soul. It commemorates redemption won and points to redmption completed enacting in the eating (as does any common meal) our fellowship (participation)in the risen Christ and our fellowship (participation) in each other (the bread it appears does not simply signify the literal body of Christ but also the mystical body, that is the church).

As a sidenote, it surprises me that reformed believers who claim to attach more significance and spiritual grace to the LS than baptists celebrate it much less frequently. In this respect Catholic practice seems more consistent.

John Thomson said...

PS I get told my tone is too acerbic. Apologies if it seems so. I intend to be, where I feel sure, gently assertive but always ready to change (though the latter is, I admit, hard).

John Thomson said...

Dictionary definition

chameleon definition

cha·me·leon (kə mē′lē ən, -mēl′yən)

noun

1. any of various Old World lizards (family Chamaeleontidae) with an angular head, prehensile tail, eyes that move independently of each other, the ability to change skin color rapidly, and a long, agile tongue for catching prey