Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Sprinkle, sprinkle, dunk - is it all just a lot of bunk?

Well, I finished out my semester of reading Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion. For those of you who do not know, 2009 marked the 500th Anniversary of John Calvin. One day my kids will ask me what I did to celebrate the 500th year of our friend, John Calvin, and I will happily tell them, "Why Son and/or Daughter, I read his Institutes of the Christian Religion." It will be a special moment, let me tell you. This is my last essay on the subject, but most likely not my last blog entry on the man and his ever present theological tendencies in my life. Enjoy.

Baptism, that dip in or sprinkle of water, has divided many Protestants through the centuries, often leaving confusion and hurt feelings behind rather than clarification and unity. In my own life, the view of baptism has produced a chasm of sorts between my extended paternal family and myself. There is not a lot of room for a coalition between the different denominations and views of baptism, which is why I firmly believe the sacrament will always remain a mystery in this age. The goal of this paper is to look at Calvin’s view of baptism, seek to understand it more and respond to the theological implications that Calvin is producing because of his view of baptism.

Calvin begins his discourse on baptism by saying that it is “the sign of the initiation by which we are received into the society of the church.” By his initial statement, one might supposed that Calvin is going to affirm some sort of Anabaptist symbolic action on the part of the sacrament. However, Calvin will move away from this view as he unfolds and adds many-tiered meaning onto baptism. Baptism serves our faith as well as our confession before man. Everything in this action that man performs seems to be focused on the reception of man, and is not in any way an action of faith towards God. It is not done on our part as a sign of our affirmation, but is done as a sign of God’s affirmation. Calvin writes, “it is like a sealed document,” this invoking the language of the sealing of the forgiveness of sins that the Holy Spirit does in the faith of the elect.

Baptism means nothing without faith, faith is not possible without the revealed Word of God, and both of these things are meaningless unless the Holy Spirit has enacted in the life to bring about true, saving faith. What Calvin has described as baptism up to the point of 4.15.2 is pretty straightforward language, and agreeable among practically all the views of baptism among the Reformers. From this point on though, his language and description of the action becomes a rather confusing mixture of a saving action and a response to a saving work of faith.

He begins his next section by dealing with the timing of baptism. Baptism was not to be done at the end of one’s life as a catchall for the sins that had been committed throughout life. Calvin writes, “But we must realize that at whatever time we are baptized, we are once for all washed and purged for our whole life.” Now, I do realize that Calvin is responding to the notion of saving your baptism until the end of your life, but he begins to use the language of time in this argument; that is, that at some point and time, namely when one is baptized, at that point in time, there was an expiation of sins. At the time of baptism and through baptism, “Christ’s purity has been offered us in it; his purity ever flourishes; it is defiled by no spots, but buries and cleanses away all our defilements.” This is a big step away from baptism being merely done to serve our faith and our confession; it is also a vast change of language between being proof of a sealed document to now having purity offered in it.

A few sections later, Calvin shifts back to the language of sign. He writes, “Through baptism, believers are assured that this condemnation has been removed and withdrawn from them, since (as we said) the Lord promises us by this sign that full and complete remission has been made, both of the guilt that should have been imputed to us, and of the punishment that we ought to have undergone because of the guilt.” Baptism is now a sign again of the saving action of God that was worked in faith, not actually in and through this sacrament. It is through this sign that we can look for the promise that God has given us in His Word. The action, the sacrament, remains the action of God, not of man, and points us to Christ’s saving work on the cross and the promise of eternal life.

The sign is where “we publicly profess” and “openly affirm our faith.” However, Calvin also believes that it is far more than a mere profession. He writes:

“For inasmuch as it is given for the arousing, nourishing, and confirming of our faith, it is to be received as from the hand of the Author himself. We ought to deem it certain and proved that it is he who speaks to us through the sign; that it is he who purifies and washes away sins, and wipes out the remembrance of them; that it is he who makes us sharers in his death, who deprives Satan of his rule, who weakens the power of our lust; indeed, that it is he who comes into a unity with us so that, having put on Christ, we may be acknowledged God’s children. These things, I say, he performs for our soul within as truly and surely as we see our body outwardly cleansed, submerged, and surrounded with water.”

While the language and description are beautiful, this is where I begin to have a hard time understanding where Calvin is getting his definition of baptism. While the Bible does indeed tell us of baptism, and even provides a few sentences on the subject and what it could possibly mean (and more importantly what it probably does not mean), I have always thought that it was the explanations provided by great theologians and thinkers that have confused the mystery all the more for the common man.

First, the language; if we are “outwardly cleansed, submerged, and surrounded with water” than why would we ever think that sprinkling a few drops of water is any sort of acceptable way of performing the outward sign? If we are confessing a death, shouldn’t there be a submersion as an active symbol? We have come to an age where it is far more important to agree to disagree on the little things rather than divide into another sect of Protestantism (which I do whole heartedly agree with), but if we are going to recapture some of this language and symbolism, which points back to the time of the early church, then maybe there needs to be a re-visitation on how the sacrament is administered.

Secondly, Calvin’s description of the saving act of Christ though faith is stunning, beautiful and thought-provoking. It is far too little that we use language like weakening of “the power of our lust.” Instead, it is common to merely say that we have sinned, God has forgiven us, and there is a moment that we were saved. The language of sin and forgiveness is left up to the theologians and writers of books; the community is left with clich├ęd phrases that leave us questioning if the person is truly saved. I am not sure what it will take to rid the Christian community of mere phrases and confessions, possibly a study of the Psalms much like the work that Calvin did in studying the poetical book.

I do believe though that if we, as the body of Christ, can recapture this language, then the action of baptism that is practiced largely throughout the Protestant world as a believer’s or confessional baptism would have more meaning to the Christian. They would again be able to see it as the symbol of death; of surrounding oneself with a cleansing water and emerging the new man or woman, wholly washed of the sins, the lusts, the flesh that so easily entangled the former life. This would be something to remember; this action would again be something to cling to in the times of temptation. The cool water could remind the Christian of the refreshing life that is now theirs.

Despite my love for Calvin’s polished pen, I am left with confusion about the specific timing of the nature of enacting faith and the action of baptism. Calvin, like Luther, reminds us to look back to our baptism in times of temptation or when the urge to sin is upon us. Our baptism seems to be the time when our faith is affirmed, not only then on the part of our action in proceeding with the sacrament, but somehow the faith is sealed because of this action. The sealing all belongs to God, Calvin argues, so there is no room for any sort of Pelagian work on the part of the human participant. However, the difference between the saving work of faith and the symbolic sacrament of the faith seems to be convoluted in the language Calvin uses. As quoted earlier, that it is the “time we are baptized” that “we are once for all washed and purged for our whole life.” That somehow through this sign, God is proving what he is inwardly doing or has done.

This leaves me questioning, does one have to be baptized? And if so, is the baptism when faith is complete and not before sealed by the Holy Spirit? If so, I have seen far too many discrepancies of this sacrament in my life. Recently in our home church, there was a baptism service. One man that was being baptized shared his testimony in which he had been saved, received faith, or given his life to Christ (depending on the language of faith) about 25 years earlier; 25 years earlier! He was now getting baptized. When he is tempted in sin, should he look to the moment of baptism as when his faith was symbolically sealed, or should he look to that moment 25 years earlier when he was on his knees repenting to the Lord for his sins and saying that he believed that Jesus was his Savior? If I was a betting woman, I think I would say that he should probably remember the moment on his knees; this seems to have been the point when everything changed in his life, when faith was evident because of the process of sanctification seen over the past 25 years, not some plunge in a tub of water. While Calvin might have something to offer the present church in way of our language of faith, sin and salvation, I am not sure that his theology of baptism will help the greater church that is not wholly clear on what they are participating in, since the issue of time between the action of faith and the action of baptism is far greater than it was in his day.

Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), vols. I & II.

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