19 July 2007

baptismal theology and catholicity - introduction

When the Protestant Reformation burst from the streams of medieval theology, it was not a wholly new thing.

Certainly some aspects were novel developments of the existing trajectories of Christian tradition, shaped in various ways by late medieval developments and reactions to and within them. But other aspects of the Reformation represented a retrieval of ancient and medieval Christian thought - traditions that had been forgotten or fallen into disuse or had become overshadowed by later developments. Moreover, the Reformers were bringing the tools of current humanistic studies to their project of recovering the Gospel with clarity and freshness for their own context.

As such, the Protestant Reformers and later divines in general took care to maintain agreement with the great tradition of the Christian church as an expression of biblical doctrine, particularly where that tradition represented a wide consensus across the writings of various Fathers, creeds, liturgies, and theologians. We might question whether or not the Protestant theologians always understood that tradition aright or whether they took liberties with that tradition to conform it to their own understandings. Nonetheless, they were consistently reticent to reject widely attested teaching and forms of theological expression from within the great tradition of the Christian church.

One area of ongoing interest to me is the Protestant reception of catholic baptismal theology and practice. The New Testament speaks of the sacrament of baptism in very direct language: forgiveness of sins, washing away sin, receiving the Holy Spirit, dying and rising with Christ, putting on Christ, engrafting into Christ, washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, and so on. And the early Fathers picked up on this language and unfolded it further, against the backdrop of various typological anticipations within the Old Testament and in light of their own biblically-grounded liturgical practice.

Various questions, of course, naturally arose from this sacramental realism - particularly as the church grew, established itself within cultures, and infant baptism became increasingly normative. Moreover, there were a variety of questions to think through and address: how to assess the baptismal experience and identity of both those converts who live in faith and those who later fell away from the faith, how to explain those baptized as infants whose later lives produced no visible fruit or, alternatively, what to say about those baptized individuals who died in infancy before they could begin to self-consciously live out their baptismal identity in faith.

Numerous early Fathers addressed these questions in a variety of ways, rooted in Scripture and in the practices of ritual and prayer that defined the people of God. In the medieval period these discussions unfolded further, building upon the legacy of the Fathers, developing a more precise theological perspective and attempting to resolve several of the more sticky problems presented by the realistic language of the New Testament with regard to baptism.

When we consider the baptismal theology of the Protestant Reformers - and their attempt to retain a historic, catholic sacramental grammar - we must do so against this background. It will not do simply to pour our own understandings into their language or to retroject the categories of later debate, though this has often occurred in subsequent discussions.

In posts that follow, then, I will examine several key patristic and medieval texts that were later taken up into Protestant discussions of baptism. I will do this in hopes that we can clarify just what is - and is not - intended by the historic language of Christian prayer and theology with regard to sacrament of baptism.