28 January 2004

first book of homilies

I've agreed to do a local seminar on baptism in the context of biblical and reformational theology and am looking forward to it. The format will likely be two talks with lunch in between and lots of time for questions and discussion.

I'm planning to focus on biblical materials in the first talk and historical theology in the second talk. While it will be necessary to outline a general theology of baptism, much attention will be given to various ways in which scripture and reformational theology have expressed a nexus between baptism and new life in Christ ("regeneration" broadly construed), involving the remission of sins.

Though I had been doing quite a bit of historical study on this in recent months already, I've been particularly interested of late in the theological thought of early Anglicanism, the pre-Westminster Scots theologians, and the continental Reformed (particularly in France and Switzerland).

In that light, two items. In the mid-1500's Archbishop Thomas Cranmer wrote, collected, and edited a book of homilies to be read in the churches in order to inculcate reformational doctrine among the English people. It is difficult to determine which of these came expressly from his own hand and which were composed by others (and perhaps edited and revised by Cranmer). Nonetheless, the homilies all received his approval.

The First Book of Homilies contained one entitled "On the Salvation of Mankind" in which justification, atonement, and baptism are interrelated. It states:...infants, being baptized and dying in their infancy, are by this sacrifice [Christ's oblation and passion] washed from their sins, brought to God's favor, and made his children, and inheritors of his kingdom of heaven. And they which in act or deed do sin after their baptism, when they turn again to God unfeignedly, they are likewise washed by this sacrifice from their sins, in such sort, that there remains not any spot of sin, that shall be imputed to their damnation. This is that justification or righteousness which St. Paul speaks of, when he saith, "No man is justified by the works of the Law, but freely by faith in Jesus Christ."It is good to note here that Cranmer, as with his early Lutheran and Reformed colleagues, saw no tension between a justification that was by "faith alone" and "apart from the works of the Law" and the efficacy of baptism as the event in which Christ is offered and received by faith.

Thus the homily continues,we must renounce the merit of all our said virtues, of faith, hope, charity, and all other virtues and good deeds, which we either have done, shall do, or can do, as things that be far too weak and insufficient, and imperfect, to deserve remission of our sins, and our justification, and therefore we must trust only in God's mercy, and that sacrifice which our high Priest and Savior Christ Jesus the son of God once offered for us upon the Cross, to obtain thereby God's grace, and remission, as well of our original sin in Baptism...It is clear, then, that the homily is not attributing any virtue to faith itself--much less baptism, considered merely as a rite or deed--instead receiving and resting upon Christ as he is offered to us in the Gospel, a Gospel which we savingly believe upon in baptism.