Sunday, 12 November 2006

Baptism and ecumenical unity

“Baptism is an incentive to promote the work of unification definitely and energetically. In this whole area, theological and pastoral differences have no really profound significance, much less a significance that could legitimate division.”

—Harald Wagner, in Hans Jörg Urban and Harald Wagner, eds., Handbuch der Ökumenik III/2 (Paderborn: Verlag Bonifatius-Druckerei, 1987), p. 149.

14 Comments:

Anonymous said...

Now that's a moot point!

There seems to be almost as much controversy over baptism as over the Eucharist.

Tyler Simons said...

At the very least, the divide between infant and believer baptism implies huge theological differences.

Kansas Bob said...

What a great thought!

What God designed to unify man has used to divide.

Anonymous said...

I would have to agree with the first individual to comment. It seems a bit premature, if not ignorant, to assume that the theological differences various communities of faith have with baptism is not of "profound significance." If infant baptism is sufficient, as our Presbyterian friends would assume, then the emphasis on believer's baptism becomes moot. If it is not sufficient, as our more conservative, non-denominational (but really a denomination of autonomous churches called a "brotherhood") friends would say, then the argument becomes increasingly important.

Maybe I'm just reading the quote incorrectly. If so, please correct my own ignorance.

Deep Furrows said...

Infant baptism aside, the practice of adult Christians getting rebaptized every time they join a new faith community is absurd, at least from a Pauline perspective: cf. Eph 4, etc.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

When I read the WCC document "Baptism, Eucharist, & Ministry," I thought that the section on the eucharist was something Anabaptists and Baptists could sign. The section on ministry seemed problematic with its strong clergy/laity split. But the section on baptism seemed to have been written as if there were no baptistic communions in the WCC--as if they had never heard of the arguments between baptists and pedobaptists.

The ecumenical movement has yet to take seriously the Anabaptist/Baptist challenge to pedobaptist views of sacrament and discipleship.

kim fabricius said...

A few observations.

(1) I am pretty sure that the issue Wagner has in his sights is eucharistic hospitality. His text, I suspect, does not have in mind the division between believer's baptist and paedobaptist churches; rather, it is concerned with table-dividing differences of polity among paedobaptist churches themselves. The subtext would be that for churches that recognise the baptism of sister churches as valid and effective - i.e. acknowledge a common baptism - there should be a common table. To put it crudely: Rome should put its eucharistic money where its baptismal mouth is. It is a question of the theo-logic of I Corinthian 10:17: it is not that there is one bread because there is one body, but just the reverse: there is one body because there is one bread.

(2) There are a variety of theologies of baptism even with the believer's baptist family. And not only, as a matter of fact, can believer's baptist churches co-exist with paedobaptist churches, they can covenant together - as, in my context, the Covenanted Chruches of Wales, where believer's baptist and paedobaptist churces share a common table; they can also unite into a single communion - as in my own United Reformed Church (UK), made up of three churches, one of which practiced believer's baptism.

(3) Certainly the practices of "indiscriminate" baptism and shoddy baptismal discipline are to be deplored. Ecumenical documents having been saying this in no uncertain terms for decades (see, e.g., the seminal Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (1982). "On the other hand" - speaking to themselves, of course, but with wider relevance too - the Anglican and Reformed Churches in dialogue in God's Reign and Our Unity (1984) say that "we must insist that the call for a second baptism rests on a failure to understand that baptism is primarily the work of God in Christ" (pace Karl Barth!).

The fides of the churches is clearly important. Faith and Order discussions cannot be conducted on the basis of theological denial, or even compromise. But because faith is not a package deal, we've got to learn to think out side the box, beginning with seeing, understanding, and respecting the intentio fidei of separated sisters and bothers. Historical-contextual study is important here. Above all, we must grasp the epistemological potential of agape.

Tyler Simons said...

I'm all for Rome putting its Eucharistic money where its Baptismal mouth is, fwiw.

And not only, as a matter of fact, can believer's baptist churches co-exist with paedobaptist churches, they can covenant together - as, in my context, the Covenanted Chruches of Wales, where believer's baptist and paedobaptist churces share a common table.

Okay, but that sounds like different traditions with profoundly different theological understandings of baptism in communion with each other. I guess this hinges on the definition of the word "profound." You seem to imply that it means "worthy of breaking communion over."

I'd try to respond to your last paragraph, but I can't make heads or tails of it. I didn't think I was that dumb.

Tyler Simons said...

Why, then, are theological differences with our understanding of baptism less profoundly significant than theological differences about, say, christology or homosexuality?

Anonymous said...

The Roman Catholic teaching of baptismal regeneration has huge pastoral and theological significance. Pastoral becase the Roman priesthood administers salvation through baptism as if the sacrament is effective ex opere operato. Theological because according to a baptist understanding of the NT, baptism is a symbol of salvation already received rather than the cause of salvation.

Differences between evangelical baptists & paedobaptists should not be a cause of division within Churches or between Churches. But baptismal regeneration is one of the serious issues that divides Protestants from Rome.

kim fabricius said...

Hi Tyler.

In response to your last question: they're certainly not over Christology (not least because Christology is usually an integral element of baptismal theology), while homosexuality is a different, because ethical, issue.

Christology might be a church-dividing issue - a denial of Chalcedon, for example - but I am not aware of it being on the table. And while personally I sometimes feel that the issue of homosexuality is a status confessionis - I am a card-carrying member of LGCM (the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, UK) - eventually I calm down and think that if pacifists can live with non-pacifists in the church, so too can the contending parties over same-sex relationships.

But to come back to the point, that I do not think that baptism should be a church-dividing issue is not because I think that differences in theologies of baptism are unimportant.

Anonymous said...

The baptist/paedobaptist division shouldn't be exaggerated either, since mainline traditions have widely recognized that infant baptism is really an exception to the general rule.

kim fabricius said...

Hi Anonymous.

Such a good point, you shouldn't remain "anonymous"! And it's a particularly germane point in our postmodern missionary context.

Pastor David Hansen said...

The issue, properly defined, is not about paedo-baptism vs. believer's baptism. I don't think that was the issue among the "mainline" reformers, nor is the issue for most contemporary liturgical theologians. Anonymous is right, since RCIA, most have used adult baptism as the THEOLOGICAL norm, even if it isn't the usual practice in a church (contra J. Jeremias).

The issue is, and needs to be focused on, RE-baptism. That is the divide that has kept many baptists out of the WCC - the insistence on the illigimacy of any baptism other than adult. Of course, most who are willing to re-baptize are not concerned about being in conversation with the rest of the church catholic -- and often would not recognize other communions as "church."

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