Baptism Now Saves You: Some (More) ProlegomenaJan 6th, 2010 | By Andrew Preslar | Category: Blog Posts
The Catholic Church dogmatically affirms that Sacred Scripture indeed teaches the salvific efficacy of baptism, where “baptism” refers to the sacrament in which a person is washed with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and “salvation” refers to the bestowal of gifts whereby a person becomes a Christian, including the seal and indwelling of the Holy Spirit, union with Christ, justification, regeneration, and divine filiation (cf. the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1213-84).
In a recent thread on this website, I responded to the opinion that baptism is not thus efficacious unto salvation. I made little effort to interpret any of the key baptism passages. My idea is that the plain sense of the baptism passages overwhelmingly supports the Catholic view of baptism. The purpose of my remarks in that thread was summarized as follows:
The thing I was trying to do was to establish the possibility that, given what we know elsewhere, the key “baptism” passages can refer to the sacrament of baptism. Thus, we have a greater range of interpretive options in those passages than is often allowed by non-sacramental sola fideists. It is the data found in [the baptism] passages themselves that renders my analysis of the various faith passages more plausible than not.
Of course, my interlocutor has a very different assessment of the “plain sense” of the baptism passages. What I want to do in this post is take a closer look at the broad contours of the different interpretations of these passages and the different systematic considerations that inform those interpretations, so to better understand why such sharp disagreement exists and persists concerning the the meaning of the following texts (among others): Mark 16:16; John 3:5; Acts 2:38; Romans 6:3-4; 1 Corinthians 6:11; Galatians 3:26-27; Titus 3:5-7; 1 Peter 3:21.
Elenctic Theology and Exegesis
In an elenctic (disputative) analysis of the biblical data on baptism, the following considerations tend to shape the debate, as it ranges from text to text: Is baptism to be understood in the sense of sacramental or ethereal baptism, or both? Is salvation to be understood in the sense of initial salvation and the gifts that this includes or salvation in some progressive sense, not involving the gifts given in initial salvation, or both (i.e., initial salvation plus some additional benefit bestowed in baptism)? Is the efficacy of sacramental baptism to be understood in the sense of an instrumental cause of initial salvation or an effective testimony (sign) and seal of initial salvation, or both?
Various combinations of these options are found in various interpretations of a given text. Of course, a good biblical theologian will be sensitive to any other dimensions of baptism that are suggested by a careful reading of the texts. I certainly am not implying that the alternatives listed above are exhaustive or mutually exclusive, though the latter is sometimes supposed by some interpreters, e.g., either Spirit-baptism or water-baptism. This sort of thing, reading Scripture with an eye to doctrinal categories and disputes, might seem a bit cramped, but such discomfort is an unavoidable side-effect of appealing to Scripture as a means of resolving doctrinal differences.
Most Christians agree that salvation has a beginning, a process, and an end, though not all agree on how these stages, including the various saving benefits enjoyed at each stage, are related. “Initial salvation,” at least, as I am using the phrase, includes an inward, supernatural transformation of the individual, but does not thereby exclude other dimensions, both social and legal, of initial salvation, e.g., acquittal, adoption, covenant membership. Some interpreters, on the other hand, concede that baptism confers some extrinsic-relational benefits, but would not include any ontological change of the baptized as among the effects of this sacrament. (Examples of ontological change effected by baptism include imposition of the sacramental character and the infusion of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love [CCC 1812-29].) It is usually affirmed by all parties that an ontological change, that is, a modification in the substance of an individual, is of the essence of initial salvation, considered in its fullness. Part of the dispute about baptism concerns whether all of the gifts of initial salvation are given in baptism, or only some, or none. For those who take the middle road, there is the question of which gifts of initial salvation are given in baptism: just the extrinsic-relational gifts, just the extrinsic-relational gifts that do not affect our standing before God (if there be such gifts), or a combination of extrinsic-relational gifts and some (though not all) of the gifts involving an ontological change in the baptized.
The unavoidability of imposing doctrinal and even philosophical categories upon our texts in the course of appealing to those texts as a way of resolving our doctrinal differences does not imply that such readings are bound to be eisegetical and anachronistic, so long as the categories are not arbitrarily imposed. A non-arbitrary and responsible use of this sort of doctrinal or confessional hermeneutic will insist that those categories not explicitly found in a given text at least have some real and not too remote association with that text, will be sensitive to the context, and will yield results that are logically consistent with the text. The goal of such a hermeneutic, as distinct from critical exegesis, is to apprehend the doctrinal content of Sacred Scripture through the mind of the Church. Critical exegesis, in the quest for the meaning and significance of a text, focuses exclusively on the mind (i.e., the intention) of the human author insofar as this is revealed by a careful reading of the text, considered in relation to the social and cultural context in which the author wrote. The ecclesial-hermeneutical approach, which includes though is not limited to so-called “canonical” hermeneutics, is predicated upon the idea that Sacred Scripture, in addition to being the words of men, is the word of God, inspired by the same Holy Spirit that guides the Church into all truth.
Once Upon an A Priori …
Some baptized Christians deny that any “baptism” text teaches that sacramental baptism is the instrumental cause of initial salvation, especially in any sense of salvation that involves the “transforming” gifts and a right relation to God. Other baptized Christians interpret at least some “baptism” texts as teaching that sacramental baptism is the instrumental cause of initial salvation, inclusive of the “transforming” gifts and a right relation to God.
Non-sacramentalists sometimes argue the following points, as against the idea that any text of Sacred Scripture teaches that the sacrament of baptism effects a saving, ontological change in the baptized:
1. Some Bible texts clearly state that we are not saved by works. But baptism is a work, analogous to circumcision. Therefore, it is impossible that any passage in the Bible teaches salvation by baptism.
2. Many texts clearly state that we are saved (justified, born again, given eternal life) by faith, making no mention of baptism. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the baptism passages are about initial salvation. Or, if they are clearly concerned with initial salvation, then they must be using “baptism” as a metaphor for (subjective) faith or the (invisible) work of the Holy Spirit.
3. Some scriptures clearly state that a person was justified, or received the Holy Spirit, before being baptized. Therefore, the dispensing of these gifts is not tied to baptism, and it would be redundant for them to be bestowed in baptism, after being previously given. Those passages which link salvation (the gift of the Holy Spirit, justification, regeneration) to baptism are not, therefore, teaching that initial salvation is in any way caused by baptism. The relation must be non-causal (e.g. signifying and sealing those gifts that are received by subjective faith alone).
4. Furthermore, baptism is an external event, and as such is remote from faith, which is an internal event. Therefore, we cannot interpret the sacrament of baptism as an act of saving faith.
5. Our Lord attaches some spiritual significance to foot-washing. But it is not reasonable to suppose that foot-washing confers initial salvation. Therefore, it is not reasonable to suppose that baptism confers initial salvation, simply because some spiritual significance is associated with that rite.
6. Some Bible texts explicitly distinguish baptism with water and baptism with the Spirit. Therefore, there is an obvious biblical basis for interpreting passages in which baptism confers some spiritual benefit as the latter sort of baptism, and not baptism with water.
7. Many texts use obviously metaphorical language as a means of teaching us about salvation. This includes using “water” or “sprinkling” or “washing/cleansing” in a metaphorical way. Thus, there are clear precedents for the interpretive stance that sees some references to “baptism” as metaphorical, and therefore at least potentially exclusive of the sacrament of baptism.
These are the principle objections that I was addressing in the aforementioned thread on baptism. You can read the exchange of arguments beginning here. For ease of reference, I have gathered together my own comments in that thread, added headings to indicate content, and placed them on this page. Part of the purpose of those comments was to point out how certain theological presuppositions, derived from other texts, were driving my interlocutor’s interpretation of the baptism texts.
Of course, sacramentalists bring their own arguments and pre-understandings to the baptism passages. These include:
1. Our Lord clearly instituted the sacrament of baptism as a prominent part of the Apostolic mission to “all the nations” (Matthew 28:19). If the key baptism passages actually refer to something other than the sacrament, and if it is vital to detach spiritual baptism from sacramental baptism, then the New Testament writers were in some important instances remarkably cavalier in their use of the term. The prominence of baptism in the Christian community, and its close association with the believing reception of the Gospel make it extremely unlikely that references to baptism, water, and washing in connection with the gifts of initial salvation are simply metaphors. Metaphorical uses of “vine,” “door,” “rock,” etc., are in a different category, because no sacrament uses these substances. But the fact of water baptism makes for an important interpretive difference when it comes to watery passages.
2. The relationship between the Old and New Covenants is characterized both as type to anti-type and anticipation to fulfillment. St. Thomas Aquinas, in one of his beautiful poetic compositions, the Office of Corpus Christi, wrote of the Holy Eucharist in connection with the old rituals:
The typic Lamb consumed, the legal Feast complete,
The Lord unto the Twelve His Body gave to eat….
At this table of the King, our new Paschal offering
Brings to end the olden rite; here, for empty shadows fled,
Is reality instead; here, instead of darkness, light.
Any interpretation presupposing that the efficacy of the sacraments of the New Covenant is no greater than those of the Old Covenant makes for a relatively flat reading of Sacred Scripture, such that the significance of the Incarnation in the history of redemption is greatly diminished. Our Lord certainly did not come to destroy the law, but he did come to fulfill the law, to institute a better Covenant. The rite of Baptism fulfills, perfects, elevates and abolishes the rite of Circumcision; it does not perpetuate it in essence. Baptism is not simply New Covenant Circumcision.
3. The Church Fathers interpreted the New Testament as teaching the salvific efficacy of sacramental baptism. (See the article, The Church Fathers on Baptismal Regeneration.) There is no competing view. Any interpretation of Scripture which sets aside the consensus patrum must assume that, on a matter pertaining to the Gospel, the Holy Spirit abandoned the whole Church, which was then given over to dogmatic error until the rise of Zwingli, Calvin, and the Anabaptists. This assumption has untoward implications, which are discussed in the article on ecclesial deism.
4. The authority of the Catholic Church constitutes sufficient reason for holding, with the full assent of faith, the doctrine of baptismal regeneration.
The Proof is in the Pudding?
There is a deep (and ironic) division between baptized Christians over the nature of baptism. So far as I can tell, even an exegetical superman could not resolve this matter by the tools of his trade. The word of God is rare good ballast for an empty belly, and a good commentary is like a fork. But being full is not in this case a purely exegetical satisfaction. Of dogma, the proof is not in the (private) interpretive pudding. Long experience has shown that critical exegesis is inadequate to resolve doctrinal debates, especially on matters that are held to justify separation from other Christians. However, it does not follow that Christians with conflicting views on baptism cannot profitably read the baptismal texts together, in the prayerful hope that each party will be open to the truth of the word of God. We simply need to discuss our paradigmatic differences along the exegetical way. For Catholics, rightly understanding Sacred Scripture essentially involves adherence to Tradition and submission to the Magisterium. That is itself a paradigmatic difference from Protestantism that is worthy of some discussion, as has been our habit at Called to Communion.