Monday, March 12, 2007

Sacred water cannon

I have never been a big fan of theology. When I have had to listen to theological debates, I have often felt supremely frustrated. Can't I just go and follow my Christ. Does all this really matter?
Last night I was reading John Calvin, and a discussion of baptism. It really surprised me when he said of the means of baptism (I paraphrase here) "We should really stop bickering, this doesn't matter." I told this to Paul, and his response was "Calvin said that? I thought he was all about bickering?" So we decided to call the belief of Calvin "sola bickeres"

Now before you Presbyterians (or other reformed traditions) are all on the attack. Please let me say that I admire many things about Calvin, if I did not I would not have been reading his work. But if you have read his work, you must admit that he is overly opinionated and able to reach grand conclusions from tiny statements in scripture.

So for all of you non-theologians who are really bored by my religion-minded blogs, I apologize. And for all of you theologians who are way smarter than me, I apologize. This is just me trying to muddle through things in my own way. I promise to include an amusing (to me anyway) anecdote at the end of the discussion.

Anyhow, I've been thinking about baptism a lot.

Does the method of baptism matter? I think I'm going to go with Calvin on this one and say no. I found an interesting passage about this in the Didache (dating to the second century) which said that it was best to baptize in living water (e.g.) a stream, but that any water would work, and that if immersion was not possible then pouring was acceptable. So immersion is preferable, but other baptisms are not considered any less effective. The Free Methodist Church teaches that the person being baptized (or parents in the case of a child) may choose which method they prefer.

Second, what is baptism anyway? I asked this to Paul. He said "You know it's that service at church when they dunk someone in the water." I gave him the look and he shrugged at me and said "An outward sign of an inward change?"

This sounds a lot like the baptist view point. According to the baptists (and some other denominations), baptism is merely symbolic. No actual grace is conferred through the act of baptism.

Then I wonder: Why get baptized at all? Since when did Jesus ever command us to do something that accomplished nothing and was merely symbolic?

Our churches official doctrine on baptism is that it is a sacrament, and therefore a method by which God confers grace onto the believer. It is also the symbol of belonging to the new covenant of atonement, just as circumcision was the rite of the old covenant. Because children are included in the new covenant, they may be baptized as infants. However, in our church very few people have their children baptized, instead we dedicate them to God. The dedication ceremony is very similar to a baptism in some senses. It focuses on the parents commitment to raise the child in the Christian faith. Moreover, as parents we are giving our children to God, understanding that they are gifts from him and that we will do our duty to teach them according to his ways. Then, the church also pledges to stand by the child and to help in his Christian upbringing.

Then when the child is old enough to understand, he may choose to receive the sacrament of baptism.

The more I research these ceremonies and the Catholic understanding of baptism, the more convinced I become that the baby dedication has come to be "Baptism without water" and that baptism for the dedicated child is standing in the place of confirmation.

You Catholics who understand these sacraments as actual conveyors of grace, may be cringing at all of this. And you may perhaps be wondering how a dedication could possibly have the same effect as a baptism. I'm sure the church would say that it did not. But I will also remind you that the Catholic church does say that although we know God works through the understood sacraments, that He is God and he is not tied to these sacraments (I am really wondering why I did not right the page number and exact quote for that down). The Catholic Church also teaches a "Baptism of Desire" in which the desire for baptism produces the fruits of baptism (water or no).

In my research I have found very little defense for the Baptism of adults only and very much for infant baptism. An interesting note about choice baptism advocates is that they tend to believe that a child has no guilt of sin until the age of understanding (and therefore no need of forgiveness). As a mother, I will vouch that my children can know very well right and wrong long before they are old enough to understand the theology of baptism. And at the same time they can know and understand that Jesus loves them is their helper. Should I deprive them of the benefit baptism affords?

I will also say that I do not believe that baptizing a child is a guarantee of salvation. And no matter how much I might will it, their is only so much I can do to bring about the salvation of my children. But with God's help I will claim his promises.

And as a mommy I ask myself: What would happen if we do have the children baptized. The church, I am sure would not have seen such a sight in quite some time!!! Can you imagine?

For now, Paul still has great qualms about infant baptism. And since he is the spiritual head of our home I will follow his lead. And I will trust in his decisions, knowing full well that God's grace is much more powerful than any sacrament can contain.

And now for that story I promised.

Yesterday in Sunday School we had this great conversation about how believing in Jesus causes us to have a water canon shooting out of our stomach. This was an excellent follow-up to the previous discussion about being cannibals and eating Jesus. At least I have to hope maybe the high schoolers are actually getting something out of Sunday school.

Anyway, since baptism is supposed to be with living water, all we need is to find a person with living water and have him stand over the children.

It makes me think of the time Abigail and I went for a walk and the fire hydrant on the corner was open (for no apparent reason). It gushed and gushed water and Abigail was soaked from head to toe. (I was only soaked up to my waist). In retrospect, I would have let her play even longer, since opportunities like that are rare.


Kathy said...

Per one of my high school religion classes, Catholics consider Baptism "dying with Christ and rising with Him to new life." "Baptism washes away original sin -- sin of the world and our inclination towards it. It helps to wash away our vulnerability to the sin of the world." I remember one discussion we had on the subject included that by Baptism we officially become part of the Church community, and this gives us a support network of sorts in following God. (One analogy we were given was think of a herd of elephants. When danger comes they form a circle with the young at the center to be protected. Likewise being a part of the Church through Baptism helps to protect us from sin.) Catholics believe in "One baptism for the forgiveness of sins," meaning that a person is only baptized once (provided it was a valid baptism).

Another interesting note on the matter of sacraments and when they are received would be the Orthodox Catholic Church. Long before the Protestant Reformation, the Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Roman Catholic) churches split when, to make a long story short, the bishop of Rome and the bishop of Constantinople excommunicated each other. The Eastern Church still practices receiving the sacraments of initiation in the following order: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist. Further, all of these sacraments are received at the same time by an infant being brought into the Orthodox Church. In the Western Church, typically if you enter as an infant you receive Eucharist before Confirmation (the former being in 2nd grade and the latter varies by parish). For those entering the Church at the Easter Vigil, Confirmation does come first.

I would have to agree with your statement that the dedication ceremony sounds similar to baptism. The Catholic Church does in part use the "age of understanding" as a rationale for when a child should first attend the Scarament of Reconciliation (aka Confession or Penance depending with whom you are speaking). But that is a discussion for another time.

Hopefully at least part of the above makes sense.

It sounds that you have some very interesting discussions in the teen Sunday School class.

M LO said...

Well, this may come as a big surprise to you (not really), but I believe in infant baptism, and it sounds like you have put out some very good arguments for it yourself in your latest post. If baptism is really a sacrament, if it does convey grace, if it does wash away sin, if it is not merely a public manifestation of conversion (all of which are contested by some denominations), then why not let your children have that sacrament. I think Catholics take the argument for infant baptism from Acts when Peter says, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him" (2:38-39). And of course, I don't think scripture ever mentions restricting baptism to just adults. We also take it that children were baptized through the several references in the Bible where it is said that entire households and families were baptized, not just the people in the household who were of a certain age.

Your point about baptism taking the place of circumcision is well noted. Infants were circumcised as their parents wanted to bring them up in the Jewish faith. True, some adults were circumcised, but only when they converted to the faith. I don't think one's parents ever postponed such a thing until the child was older. Likewise, it is inferred that Christian parents should baptise their children when they want to bring them up in the Christian faith.

This is the Catholic stance, at least from my understanding, as it has been taught to me and from my own study.

But I guess the argument really comes back to the first point. What do people believe about baptism? If one believes that it is a sacrament that conveys grace and takes away sins, then infant baptism is the way to go. If one believes that it is just a symbol to mark conversion, then it seems the parents would hold off.

I'm sure the decision is tough for those parents who have to make it. I suppose the only thing to do is read more and pray. As you said, one can never put bounds on the way God works.