Meditation on Baptism

(I wrote this a couple of months ago, and just found it on my hard drive.)

Poor Peter Leithart is defending himself once again from his suspicious PCA presbytery, and nowhere with more vigor than regarding baptism. In conversation with a friend, the subject came up, and it sparked a thought.

Leithart suggests that even much contemporary paedo-baptist theology presumes something like a “believer’s baptist” perspective, in that the “subject” of baptism “remains the adult convert”: though the sacrament is applied to infants, it is applied in anticipation of that child’s future salvation through personal profession. This raises the perfectly legitimate question of just what function the baptism is then thought to serve: if the sacrament does in fact simply emblematize an existential event, why not place the marker a bit closer to the event itself?

Leithart’s critique points to a further possibility: rather than revising our baptismal theology in terms of an individualist soteriology, perhaps a more radical sacramental theology could be allowed to tutor our soteriology. That is, perhaps we could conceive baptism as a first important step in a journey of salvation, in which grace is mediated to us on the basis of no personal merit. Most fundamentally for baptism, this grace takes the form of the blessings of family and church community, by whose fostering a child acquires the disciplines and habits of worship. In a sense, baptism remains a symbol, but it can equally be construed as the actual channel through which grace passes, as it is the public declaration of church and family that forms the bond—enforceable by shame and rebuke—by which the child will later be catechized.

Of course, as Leithart acknowledges, such a bond is by no means a guarantee of salvation, any more than is participation in the Eucharist. Taken together, the sacraments as a whole are sufficient, but not necessary, conditions for salvation: they form the stage upon which the drama of salvation might be enacted. The sacraments—particularly as the crown of a rich liturgical setting—form a public space conducive to the discipline and habits of faith whose perfection is salvation. Such disciplines are broader than the sacraments themselves, and indeed may be construed as animating them: without fellowship, charity for neighbor and stranger, and a rich devotional life, baptism, table, confession, confirmation, etc, are empty parodies of the Church’s life. Nevertheless, if daily faithfulness puts flesh on the sacraments, the latter provide an eschatological context that renders the former intelligible: the Eucharist is what makes Christian charity different in kind from Buddhist charity, etc.

The more one’s soteriology comes to locate salvation in an existential transaction within the individual, the more infant baptism—nay, even baptism at all, and even notion of a “sacrament”—will become unintelligible, will come to be seen as simply an empty signifier of an interior reality. However, if we understand salvation as the disciplined habituation to life in the Kingdom, and grace as providing the necessary conditions—emotional, mental, or social—for that discipline, then the sacraments can be understood as a real vehicle of divine grace, which opens up the possibility of a transformed life within a redeemed community.

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