Friday, December 7, 2007

Baptism and Social Contract

Baptism in the middle ages, according to Leithart, meant more than religious rite. It served the dual function of entry into the church and "civil registry". He brings this up to demonstrate the important connection between religion and society that existed until the 1600's. Baptism had a clear sociological import.

Why is this significant? Leithart contends that modern political theory, with its Lockean view of human nature as "hard atoms", makes a strong view of baptism difficult to maintain. In this individualistic political environment, we are "I" before we are "We" and even then we are "I" first - the individual is in the major key. Here, the deep and abiding sociological implications of baptism become more difficult to imagine.

Leithart counters this with an interesting sociological observation from sociologist Rosenstock-Huessy. We don't start as an "I". It's just not our experience. We all begin as "You". We don't develop as isolated individuals. Rather, we come to know who we are by what others (mom/dad/grandma) say to us. He says, "Our children only speak in the first person after they have been addressed in the second person . . . infants develop a sense of personal identity because we talk to them using names they didn't choose."

The importance of this point will be clearer in a bit. Suffice for now to say, if who we are defined by this relational interaction, then the implications of baptism come to the fore. In the rite of baptism our heavenly Father speaks to us and what he says forms who we are.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

A Helpful Addition to “Baptism and the Real Me”

I’ve been reading through “Priesthood of the Plebs: a theology of baptism” by Peter Leithart. One section in that book sheds a bit more light on my last post “Baptism and the Real Me”. These lengthy quotes from "Priesthood of the Plebs" give the background understanding of personhood that makes room for his assertions in “The Baptized Body”. In the second quote I inserted a definition for ‘accident’ just to make sure everyone would understand. Also, the bold is my doing.

“A ‘narrative’ conception of personal identity is helpful here. At the social level, any particular baptism is, as MacIntyre implies, an event in the history of baptism, which is to say, a moment in the church’s story (1989): 100; cf. Jones 1987: 53-69). Baptism immerses a person in that history. Identities are formed at the intersection of various narratives of which one is a part (of family, community, nation and so on), so that when baptism embeds one’s story in that of the church, his identity is objectively modified. To “I am an American, or Scot, or Chinese” is added “I am a member of the Christian priesthood”; one’s “forefathers” now include not only Washington, Robert the Bruce, or Mao but Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the story that once began, “my father sailed to the Cape of Amsterdam”, now begins, “my father was a wandering Aramean.” At an individual level, identity is bound up with the events of one’s life and his (selective) memory of those events. Roles acquired and significant actions done become part of my “record”, a story that marks my difference from others and traces the continuity of my life through time. Objectively, baptism makes me a priest, and this becomes an episode in the story of who I am. Subjectively, the baptismal narrative into which I am submerged may break violently against the story that, before baptism, identified me, forcing what may be a painful revaluation of my past and producing a revised self-image (Stroup 1981: 95).” (Pgs 168-169)

He goes to say, “what makes me uniquely me, is a combination of roles, stories, actions and events of my life; the individual and his world are not hermetically sealed from one another, but mutually defining. Thus, while it is true that I am a husband, it is equally important to see that I am a husband. “Husband” is not an accident [def. nonessential attribute or characteristic of something] inhering in an unmarried self but one of the roles that makes up my identity. Importantly, I am a husband because I have gone through the ceremony of marriage. Operative ceremonies, thus, by placing us in new roles, vesting us with new clothes, and imposing new sets of obligations and rules, effect an “ontological” transformation, a change in who we are, who we think we are, and who others think we are. Baptism clothes us as priests, and these clothes remake the man.” (Pgs 169-170)

Chapter 1 cont'd - Baptism and the Real Me

The question that ended the last post could be put another way.
1. What effect is God producing in the water rite of baptism?
2. How are baptized people invariably changed by this rite because of God’s action?
3. Does God always produce some kind of result in this rite?

Some other more specific questions are these:
1. Do we treat our baptized children as elect only when they make a profession?
2. Do we treat them the same way we treat adults who have made a profession and are then baptized?
3. Do we speak to our baptized children like they belong to Christ?

Hopefully, that last set of questions puts this whole discussion into a practical, pastoral perspective.

I don’t know that I am ready to articulate my thoughts on this quite yet. It’s probably safest to continue listening to the false assumptions Leithart tries to deal with in this section and then draw out any blind spots in ours or, for that matter, Leithart’s thinking.

So – we’ll look at his next the next topic - man and personal identity. NOTE: The quotes in this post come from pages 4-7.

Here Leithart begins to work through questions about personhood. He’s looking at how we understand or define the self and what it means to be a person. We have to think through the definition we offer and what’s underneath that answer.

Leithart suggests that modern individualism has done a number on our understanding of personal identity, but the Bible gives the corrective. He says, “Baptism is about personal identity”. He says this because he believes that Paul was not just “playing pretend” in Romans 6. There, Paul “teaches that a Christians “self image” is grounded in and shaped by the fact of his baptism”. But that not everyone would agree with this is evident.

He draws out an interesting similarity between Catholics and Protestants - both groups agree that the "real me" is “hermetically sealed in my body”. How does Leithart get there? The basic disagreement between the two groups revolves around whether there is or is not something in the water. The presence or absence of that supernatural something makes all the difference in the world. Protestants say, 'There's nothing in there". Roman Catholics say, "Yes there is". Yet in this disagreement both agree on this - an external rite does not change an individual.

Leithart offers a third option – the external and physical rite might actually change who we are. He deals with the false assumption that we can compartmentalize the inner and outer so tidily. He points to 1 Sam 30.12, Prov 22.15, and Ps 19.7 to show that the bible says that the inner IS changed by external things. Further, scriptures use of bodily organs as a way of describing the inner man shows that it conceives of the inner physically. All this to say that – “What makes me uniquely me includes what happens to my body”; there is no distinction between inner and outer, no impermeable membrane between. “The inner and outer are two dimensions of united human life”.

The final examples Leithart offers on this makes his point clear. Stations in life change by rite. Priests become priests through ordination rite, husbands through ceremony, and presidents through inauguration. We would not say that any of these lurk within the body of the individual. The same is true, in Leithart’s understanding, for those who receive the rite of baptism. The baptized are just that ‘baptized’. They are new people with a new name, a new identity, and new future.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Chapter 1 - Starting Before the Beginning

I only cover the first section of this chapter. It has no heading and I may have summarized too much for this to be considered a review, but I hope I have given enough that you will be able to think about what “Leithart said”. This covers pages 1-4. A quick note, the word 'efficacy or efficacious' is used a lot here. It means producing or able to produce the desired effect.

Leithart maintains that we have to begin our discussion about baptism somewhere else – our presuppositions and assumptions. We cannot neglect the ideas we already have about “God, man, the world, the church, salvation, rituals and signs”, because these will inevitably shape how we think about baptism (or even the Lord's Supper - those are sacraments).

He offers an example first – Rom 6.1-7. Leithart says that while Paul seems to speak about baptism here, many commentators disagree suggesting he means, instead, what baptism points to. This raises three questions in Leithart’s mind:

1. Why use the word baptism if he does not mean that?
2. How do commentators know he does not mean water?
3. What assumptions drive the interpretation that Paul is NOT talking about baptism? Why doubt he speaks of water?

To No. 1 – First, he says of course we need to know what the word means in context (comes back to this in chpt 2). But he goes on to say that the argument seems to turn on the “distinct but not separate” relationship between the sign and thing signified. I think Leithart offers a helpful concern here. This can turn any passage about sacraments into something other than the sacraments. In other words, passages about water, bread and wine never really are about water, bread or wine but about things they point to. The result - when Peter said ‘Baptism now saves you’, that was just a “colorful way of saying ‘Christ now saves you’.”

To No. 2 – The answer sounds like No. 1. Everyone knows Paul is not talking about water, because water does not do the things Paul says are being done here. Then why use baptism? Because the sign and thing signified . . .

Leithart’s point – No. 1 and No. 2 seem to go round and round. There is an assumption underneath all of this. That in spite of the fact that our standards say sacraments are an effectual means of salvation – commentators and theologians alike keep saying ‘there is nothing in the sacrament per se that saves’. So, you have to conclude Paul cannot be talking about water. Otherwise, you’d have to attribute power to the sacrament. If you do that, you are accused of being a ‘Sacerdotalist’. That is the state of things as Leithart sees them

Now before say that the Westminster standards also say that there is no power in the sacrament itself (WCF 27.3), just hear Leithart out.

Leithart explains the problem with all this. He thinks that this discussion of whether sacraments are efficacious in themselves is doomed to fail. Why? He gives a couple of false assumptions. 1. There is such a thing as a “sacrament in itself”. 2. There are things, other than sacraments, that do have “efficacy in themselves”.

Leithart responds, if baptism is a sign authorized by Christ, and if it is validly administered, then it is never just water. It is a ‘rite’ of entry into the community of the People of God. It is NEVER mere water.

Leithart uncovers a further assumption that no reformed person would ever hold to. Why would we talk about sacraments being efficacious in themselves, when we know that NOTHING is efficacious in itself? Nothing in all creation is autonomous from the Creator. Water has power to do whatever it does in nature because God’s providence continues to maintain it. Underneath all this is one reality – ONLY THE TRIUNE GOD HAS EFFICACY IN HIMSELF.

This last point I think drives us to a good place. I think Leithart is trying to move past the metaphysical arguments about grace and the elements that form the backdrop of some of the concerns when the Westminster Standards were written. I think the assumption he wants to drive home is that the Triune God is always active in the sacraments. So, they are never just bare ‘things’. The Triune God, who alone is efficacious in himself, always does something in sacraments. What is he doing efficaciously?

We will next at presuppositions about man under the heading ‘Baptism and the Real Me’.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

An Important Preface from the Preface

“What is at the heart of the Federal Vision? I cannot speak for all those wearing the FV logo, but in my view the Federal Vision is centrally about the issues I address in this book: Baptismal efficacy, to be sure, but more importantly and fundamentally, the nature of signs and rites, the character of the church as the body of Christ, the possibility of apostasy. At its heart, the Federal Vision is about ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church . . . As I see it, the Federal Vision’s central affirmation is this: without qualification or hedging, the church is the body of Christ. Everything the Federal Vision says about baptism, about soteriology, about apostasy flows from that affirmation.” (pg. ix, emphasis original).

This blog is not about the FV. That needs to be said at the outset because I don’t want to mislead those (if anyone) reading this. Rest assured, there will be other books talked about on this site. I just happened to begin with this one.

But it is important to acknowledge that this paragraph marks the direction of the book. Leithart is defending some of the presuppositions held by those holding to major statements of the FV. What is most striking about the quote is the acknowledgement of the ‘heart of the FV’ - ecclesiology.

I grew up as a Southern Baptist . . . I served on staff at a Southern Baptist church. Like many other Southern Baptists who crossed over to PCA or some other reformed denomination, I wrestled most with the doctrine of baptism. AND like many other Baptists wrestling with baptism – specifically infant baptism – I realized that meant wrestling with my understanding of church. The continuity between the people of God in the OC and NC opened up a whole new world of thought about the scriptures. Perhaps this is why the concerns raised by those in the FV are my concerns as well. I am interested to think through just how much we can say about the historical-visible church.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

My First Book

I will start with "The Baptized Body" by Peter Leithart. Hope to post soon.

The Beginning

I will finish working at the bank on August 1. That is great news for all sorts of reasons, but there is one related to this blog . . . reading. I've wanted to try this for some time . . . not reading . . . I'm getting ahead of myself. This blog is a public reading journal - so to speak. I will outline, question, enjoy and learn outloud. The benefit of doing that here is getting to hear other voices as often as they'll speak up. I think this will also help me stay motivated. Anyway, we'll see.