baptism and berry

Back when I was listening to Phillip Cary’s lectures on Luther, I was intrigued by Luther’s theology of baptism, which contrasts starkly with routine Protestant appraisals of this rite.

Much like in dealing with the Eucharist, Luther doesn’t want to back down from saying that something radical (and radically transformative) occurs in baptism. He therefore is—by some Protestant adversaries—maligned with advancing the despicable doctrine of “baptismal regeneration.” These accusations arise from selections in Luther’s 1528 Sermons on the Catechism (the “Catechism” meaning, for Luther, the Apostle’s Creed and other basic church beliefs and practices), such as the following:

If baptism is water with the Word of God, what is its purpose, work, fruit, and benefit? It saves those who believe, as the words say [Mark 16:15-16]. A child is baptized, not in order that it may become a prince; it is baptized in order that it may be saved, as the words say, that is, in order that it may be redeemed from sin, death, and the devil, that it may become a member of Christ, and that it may come into Christ’s kingdom and Christ become its Lord.

As with all things, Luther is wont to remind us that although the “person who should be baptized” (elsewhere he says the person “worthy of baptism”) is “the one who believes.” In other words, faith is the criterion—lest baptism become a “good work.”

But the power in baptism does not lie in faith; that would leave its “saving” up to us. No, the power comes from the Word of God (“in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit…”), with which water is coupled in the rite. Indeed, Luther loves to repeat: “baptism is water with the Word of God, not water and my faith.”

Now, this puts Luther in an awkward position vis-a-vis infant baptism—a practice against which other leaders of the Reformation were firmly poised. Luther ends up having to say that, although infants might not believe, they are saved by baptism because Luther can see in them the Holy Spirit.

[Infant baptism is true.] How do you know this? I see the wonderful works of God, I see that he has sanctified many and given them the Holy Spirit. Therefore you tell [the adversaries speaking against me] that children are truly baptized and say: I prove it by the works [of God].

But really Luther’s conviction boils down to an unmistakably Cartesian logic:

I know that infant baptism pleases God; I know that I was baptized as a child; I know that I have the Holy Spirit, for this I have the interpretation of the Scriptures themselves.

In other words, having already decided that baptism is the sacrament by which the Holy Spirit is endowed, Luther reasons backwards from “I have the Holy Spirit” to “I was baptized as an infant” and then finally to “infant baptism must be true.”

This is not the only glitch with Luther’s theology of baptism. But it is the most back-breaking for Lutherans and other Protestants alike. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by one particular theological implication of this take on baptism: it works.

Well, that depends on what I mean by “works.” But think about it this way. If someone is raised in the church, baptized by believing parents, and told throughout their childhood (and, hopefully, their entire life) that they are a beloved child of God who possesses the Holy Spirit, imagine how that affects the way they live their life. Regardless of if they have faith in their heart, this person will most often come to embody the attitude and lifestyle of a child of God—simply because this is how the most formative sources of identity-construction in their lives (their parents and their community) regarded them as such.

OK. We’re already getting into deep waters, here, but let me say a few more things. Firstly, granted that

1) one’s identity can be cultivated as a “beloved child of God” without having to be baptized; and

2) calling a thing a duck doesn’t always make it a duck,

there’s still something significant about the practical identity-construction consequences of infant baptism and the implications it has for a strong sacramental realism. And if you know me at all, I’m into both of those.

Time to switch gears. The REAL reason I wanted to write about Luther’s theology of baptism is that it connects well with a point Wendell Berry made in an address at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (definitely not fans of infant baptism!) entitled “Christianity and the Survival of Creation.”

After declaring that the ecological crisis has been caused, in large part, by the “discrepancy between biblical instruction and Christian behavior,” Berry asks if we ought to look to another religion (his example is Buddhism) for ecological renewal. His answer (“no”) appeals to a conception of initiation similar to Luther’s baptism, but translated into the social sphere.

[T]here are an enormous number of people—and I am one of them—whose native religion, for better or worse, is Christianity. We are born to it; we began to learn about it before we became conscious; it is, whatever we think of it, an intimate belonging of our being; it informs our consciousness, our language, and our dreams. We can turn away from it, or against it, but that will only bind us tightly to a reduced version of it. A better possibility is that this, our native religion, should survive and renew itself so that it may become as largely and truly instructive as we need it to be. On such a survival and renewal of the Christian religion may depend the survival of the Creation that is its subject.

Wendell Berry.

Berry’s category, “native religion,” functions much in the same way that the baptismal rite does for Luther. It initiates one into a lifelong identity. For Luther, if you were baptized as an infant, you might as well start behaving like a proper Christian, because you’re not going to become anything else behaving otherwise. This assumes sacramentalism in a strong sense.

Similarly, Berry believes that since most Americans’ (and, presumably, most of the Western world’s) native religion is Christianity, they ought to start behaving like it, especially as concerns the environmental crisis. This position also assumes a strong sacramentalism.

I’m not sure where I stand on infant baptism, but I pretty much think every word Wendell Berry utters is true.

Is it wrong to want to believe something for its benefits in another realm of thought?


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