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’.