Baptism Now Saves You: Some (More) Prolegomena

Jan 6th, 2010 | By | 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 merely critical exegesis, is to apprehend the doctrinal content of Sacred Scripture through the mind of the Church. Critical exegesis, left to itself, focuses exclusively on the mind (i.e., the intention) of the human author of Scripture insofar as this is revealed by a careful reading of the text, considered solely in relation to the social and cultural context in which the author wrote. By contrast, 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. Thus, while the tools and insights of critical exegesis can be helpful, they are not sufficient for either good hermeneutics or sound doctrine.

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 urge the following points against the idea that any text of Sacred Scripture teaches that the sacrament of baptism effects any saving change (ontological or relational) in the person who is 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.

Included in this list are the principle objections that were the topic of conversation in the aforementioned thread on baptism. You can read the exchange of arguments beginning here.

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.

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  1. Thanks for the introduction. Looking forward to your thoughts on the various texts.

  2. That the New Testament, as historically understood by the Church, teaches the salvific necessity of baptism seems so clear and obvious to me that I never quite know how to respond to those who deny it. In the end all I can say is “go back and read the New Testament again–and keep re-reading it until you see it.” But I know that is probably not a helpful answer. :)

    Perhaps one stumbling block to seeing the salvific necessity of baptism is its apparent arbitrariness. Why this ritual? I suggest things are made clearer if we remember that baptism is initiation into the Church and the eucharistic mystery. Baptism saves because the Church saves, and the Church saves because the sacramental and mystical life of the Church is nothing less than the life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Hence the ancient aphorism: extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. In the words of Fr Georges Florovsky: “Outside the Church there is no salvation, because salvation is the Church.” Belonging to the Church is not an arbitrary legal requirement. It is not a work in addition to union to the risen Savior. The Church is salvation because the Church is the body of Christ in which we partake of the Body and Blood.

    Needless to say, this assertion does not mean that only the baptized may be saved, but it does mean that all who are saved are ultimately saved in and through the Church.

    To assert the salvific necessity of baptism, therefore, is simply a way of asserting the salvific necessity of union with Jesus, the second person of the Holy Trinity.

    The assertion of the salvific necessity of baptism immediately raises the question of faith. Isn’t faith in Christ sufficient? But the New Testament does not permit a divorce between faith in Christ and baptismal incorporation into the Church. Faith is ordered to baptism. Conversion is fulfilled by submission to baptism and sacramental admission to the Holy Eucharist. When seen in this light, the words of the risen Lord suddenly make sense: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:17).

  3. Father Kimel,

    St. Peter’s remark about baptism is wonderfully rich when read in light of the entire First Epistle. “Baptism is truly a paschal sacrament,” as witnessed by the Paschal liturgies of the ancient Church, the Easter Vigil of the Roman Rite and the Holy Saturday Vespers in the Byzantine Rite. Reading 1 Peter, I begin to understand the liturgy–and vice versa!

    I too am unsure exactly what to say to someone who denies that baptism now saves us, as in actually saves us, such that Peter’s words are unequivocal. Peter is affirming what baptism actually does. And it is even more difficult to know what to say to someone who simply denies that the “baptism” in this verse is the sacrament of baptism. I have tried to figure out the basic assumptions that motivate such positions (both in this post and a previous thread). I guess I will try to say something more in the upcoming posts.

    Of course, discursive reasoning from the letter of the text is not the warp and woof of orthodox doctrine. How reductive, and dry, is the effort to make it so. Participation in the Church’s mysteries is a vital part of coming to know the truth. You have probably read Alexander Schmemann’s Of Water & the Spirit: A Liturgical Study of Baptism. This is the work of a theologian!

  4. IR,

    This post is really just a map of the disputed territory. I am also looking forward to wandering through the terrain.

  5. I’m a Catholic and the verse I’ve had trouble dealing with the most is 1 Cor 1:17 “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel”, the Quakers and Salvation Army folks like this one. I think that would provide 1 passage against the Catholic view. But I’ve been wrong many times before, and am only posting to figure out how to deal with that text.

  6. Hey Andrew C.,

    For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (1 Corinthians 1:17)

    Here are a couple of things to keep in mind regarding that verse:

    (1) Paul had a high view of baptism.

    Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14* I am thankful * that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius; 15 lest any one should say that you were baptized in my name. (1 Corinthians 1:13-15, RSV)

    In these verses, Paul associates the sacrament of baptism with the crucifixion of Christ (which he latter associates with the Gospel, see 1:17b). What he is trying to avoid is any peculiar association of the sacrament with his own name. We are baptized into Christ, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

    (2) Paul is not contrasting the sacrament of baptism, per se, with the Gospel. Rather, he is emphasizing what particular action he personally is commissioned to do; namely, to preach the Gospel.

    Paul had been entrusted with special revelation directly from God. His mandate with respect to that message was therefore unique to him. Once the will of God had been made known by the word spoken by his servant Paul, any authorized person could administer baptism to those who responded to Paul’s Gospel. In this sense, Paul was not sent to baptize. Baptism unites us to Christ in his death and resurrection, and is therefore part and parcel of the saving reception of the Gospel. But the physical act of performing baptisms, while obviously necessary, and which Paul occasionally performed, was not an action peculiar to his apostleship.

    Even when it comes to that action that is particularly associated with Paul, i.e., preaching the Gospel that has been revealed to him, the Apostle is careful to distinguish the power of that message from any merely human wisdom or eloquence. The latter, while not opposed to the message, do not constitute its power. In the same manner, while human beings actually administer the sacrament of baptism, the name or character of the minister does not constitute (or even affect) the power of the sacrament.

  7. St John Chrysostom’s exegesis of these verses from 1 Cor 1 is instructive. He rightly sees that the Apostle is addressing the problem of schism and party factions. At no point is he questioning the efficacy of baptism or diminishing its importance (“God forbid,” says St John). But what is important is not the minister of baptism but the One whose Name is invoked in baptism:

    For Baptism truly is a great thing: but its greatness is not the work of the person baptizing, but of Him who is invoked in the Baptism: since to baptize is nothing as regards man’s labor, but is much less than preaching the Gospel. Yea, again I say, great indeed is Baptism, and without baptism it is impossible to obtain the kingdom. Still a man of no singular excellence is able to baptize, but to preach the Gospel there is need of great labor.

    Who in the early Church read the verses in question and inferred the salvific nonnecessity of baptism?

  8. Didnt know where to post this. Hope one of the scholars of this site can help. I found this in The Catechism of St. Thomas Aquinas:

    ERRORS CONCERNING BAPTISM

    There have been certain errors concerning this Sacrament. The first was that of the Solentiani, who received a baptism not of water but of the spirit. Against them the Lord says: “Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”[15] The second error was that of the Donatists, who re-baptized those who had been baptized by the Catholics….

    Google has failed me in finding any other mention of this man other than St. Thomas’ catechism. Is he known by another name? Where can I find more info on his heresy? It seems he may be the fist heretic to come up with a “spiritual” view of baptism (no water, no words). Any ideas?

  9. […] http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2010/06/the-church-fathers-on-baptismal-regeneration/  and this http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2010/01/baptism-now-saves-you-some-more-prolegomena/  Baptismal regeneration isn’t exclusively a Catholic view anyway, Anglicans, Lutherans and many […]

  10. […] so that we could participate in His divine nature (2 Peter 1:3-4). This is why the sacrament of baptism has regenerative effects: in it we die with Christ and rise out of the waters born again into new […]

  11. Hi! This is my first time posting on this site. I’m trying to understand, a little better, the Catholic position on baptismal regeneration.

    Here are my scattered questions concerning this doctrine.

    1) Do you permit extra-sacramental grace? That is, can one receive Christ and all his saving benefits upon hearing the gospel apart from baptism?

    2) Are the regenerating affects of baptism necessarily annexed to the time of administration? The tradition with which I’m most familiar, Reformed Presbyterianism, permits extra-sacramental grace and does not inseparably tie the benefits of baptism to that moment. That is, baptism might “kick-in” later.

    3) Is the final justification at all related to the “initial” justification conferred in baptism? Or, are the two so dichotomized that there is really no relationship?

    4) This is a question that might not be related, but it has always bugged me. In old-school reformed soteriology double imputation is pretty important. That is, my guilt from Adam has been counted to Christ’s account and he accepts responsibility for my sin. In return, God counts Christ’s righteousness in fulfilling the covenant of works to my account. I know you’re familiar with the texts, but I’ll mention them for my own sake.; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Galatians 3:10-14, and Romans 3:21-31. I’m sure that there is a host of responses possible concerning Catholic exegesis due to your lengthy history as a church, but whatever response you may choose to give would be appreciated. Thanks.

  12. Warren C,

    Thanks for the questions. I am sorry that it took longer than a month for me to approve your comment, but its been a long time since I posted anything on this website, and so a corresponding long time since I have checked to see if any comments were pending on my blog posts. I will try to formulate some answers to your questions when I have the first opportunity. In the meantime, others should feel free to chime in.

  13. Warren C,

    Here are some answers to your questions about the Catholic doctrine of baptismal regeneration:

    1) Do you permit extra-sacramental grace? That is, can one receive Christ and all his saving benefits upon hearing the gospel apart from baptism?

    These are two different questions. The answer to the first question is yes, if by “permit” you mean “recognize”. The answer to the second question depends upon circumstances. Normally, adult catechumens believe in Christ before or while they are preparing to enter the visible communion of the Church via Baptism. These catechumens are not considered to be “unsaved”; however, Baptism confers saving benefits. In the extraordinary circumstance that such a believer in Jesus (i.e., one who is preparing for Baptism or one who would have been preparing for Baptism had he or she known of its necessity, such as the thief on the cross who believed in Christ) dies before being baptized, he is considered to be saved by the grace of God through the “baptism of desire” (cf. the article on “Baptism” in the Catholic Encyclopedia, under the sub-heading, “Substitutes for the sacrament”). Some theologians have stated that one saving benefit that is not received by the “baptism of desire” is the sacramental character that is conferred by Baptism, which, along with the sacrament of Chrismation (Confirmation), renders the baptized person capable of fully participating in divine worship as a member of the Body of Christ.

    2) Are the regenerating affects of baptism necessarily annexed to the time of administration? The tradition with which I’m most familiar, Reformed Presbyterianism, permits extra-sacramental grace and does not inseparably tie the benefits of baptism to that moment. That is, baptism might “kick-in” later.

    The Catholic Church teaches that the sacraments have their effect ex opere operato, that is, from the “work being performed” (i.e., the sacrament being administered). The word “annex” is far too weak, as expressing a secondary and / or extrinsic relationship, to adequately express the relation between the sacraments and their proper effects. However, St Thomas Aquinas, among others, teaches that “insincerity” hinders the effect of Baptism, and that that effect is produced when the insincerity ceases (Summa theologiae, III, 69, 9-10 [link]). So there is a sense in which some of the effects of Baptism “kick-in” after the administration of Baptism, though these effects are still given in Baptism, as being intrinsic to it.

    3) Is the final justification at all related to the “initial” justification conferred in baptism? Or, are the two so dichotomized that there is really no relationship?

    Yes, all of the sacraments are ordered to our final justification, beginning with Baptism, which lays the foundation for our new life in Christ by making us a new creation in Him.

    4) This is a question that might not be related, but it has always bugged me. In old-school reformed soteriology double imputation is pretty important. That is, my guilt from Adam has been counted to Christ’s account and he accepts responsibility for my sin. In return, God counts Christ’s righteousness in fulfilling the covenant of works to my account. I know you’re familiar with the texts, but I’ll mention them for my own sake.; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Galatians 3:10-14, and Romans 3:21-31. I’m sure that there is a host of responses possible concerning Catholic exegesis due to your lengthy history as a church, but whatever response you may choose to give would be appreciated. Thanks.

    Clearly you intended to ask a question here, but there is not a question in the above paragraph. Perhaps you are looking for a Catholic perspective on the texts you referenced? I could give a synopsis of such, but first want to make sure that that is what you meant to ask.

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