Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Back to baptism

I’m coming to the last section of Jenson’s Systematic Theology, vol 2. I’m looking forward to it in more ways than one because it is on eschatology.

But, I’ve just finished reading pages 304-05, and they got me thinking about baptism again. Jenson basically discusses the catechumenate. This is defined in The New SCM Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship as ‘a period of formation, prayer and discernment in the Christian life’ in preparation for baptism. The practice goes back to the earliest days of the Christian church. Sources from the late first (Didache) and the mid-second century (Justin Martyr) apparently refer to pre-baptismal formation of converts.

Introducing his short discussion, Jenson notes something that has always niggled me – the New Testament appears only to describe baptisms immediate upon confession of faith. Pre-baptismal preparation or instruction in the New Testament seems to me to be ‘evangelistic’ in the strict sense. Profession of faith/repentance is followed by baptism, usually within hours of believing and accepting the gospel message. No further instruction, no moral guidance, no classes about the nature of church membership, no extended periods of prayer and fasting. (Of course, the command to be baptised is included in the evangelism.)

Why, then, did the early church decide to introduce a third class of person alongside the two basic classes of believer and unbeliever? Where do we find biblical wisdom for the catechumenate?

These questions need to be addressed by credo-baptists and paedo-baptists alike. In baptist circles I suspect that very few children are baptised. Yet, most credo-baptists that I know came to faith as children, and they remained unbaptised until their late teens. Many paedo-baptist churches hopelessly confuse church membership with profession of faith. ‘Church membership classes’ take the form of a soft and liberal catechumenate. Would-be church members are tested to find out if they are credible, and they are told about reading their Bible, praying, and giving money to good causes, especially the church. Baptism is almost a side issue. But the culmination of becoming a member of the church is baptism. If you have been baptised you are a member of the church. As far as I can see, baptism is the only rite of initiation known to the church in the New Testament.

Radical recovery of Christian discipleship requires a radical re-think of Christian beginnings. If baptism signifies and seals our union with Christ (Rom6: 3,4; Col2: 11,12), then no believer should delay baptism. If the reality of union with Christ is not present, then baptism should not be considered. Call me a fundamentalist if you want, but the New Testament does not suggest otherwise.


flowerstarkles said...

I enjoyed reading this! I also believe the New Testament is very clear on baptism when one comes to faith - and there is to be no delay!

Dave said...

The Didache shows possibly why a prolonged period was needed. In most of the NT cases the people had knowledge of God, whereas as time moved on it was necessary to allow people the chance to see what being part of the community was about, after a period of time baptism was entered into...the difference is they were taught the 'way of life' and not just a 6 week course on what baptism means.

Ben Myers said...

Glad to hear you're reading Robert Jenson's Systematic Theology -- it's one of my favourite recent works.

If you feel like tackling a bit of Barth as well, it would be well worth reading his little volume (226 pp.) on baptism: Church Dogmatics IV/4 Fragment: Baptism as the Foundation of Christian Life. This is a beautifully written and profoundly exegetical book, and it has some very provocative things to say about the relationship between faith and baptism. I disagree with some of Barth's argument in this volume -- but I think it's still among the most beautiful things he ever wrote.