28 May 2014

Baptism and Faith

exodusIt hadn’t struck me before the last few days just how significant the opening verses of 1 Corinthians 10 are for ecclesiology. As Paul emphasises the need to ‘run in such a way as to get the prize’, he draws the Corinthians back to the story of Israel in the wilderness. He deliberately conjoins the language of the Christian church with the story of Israel…

For I don’t want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea – and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea… 1 Cor 10:1-2

Paul uses the language of baptism to draw his parallel, evoking the story (and placing the Corinthians within the story) of the wilderness generation. Paul is a master rhetorician as well as a master theologian. And this is not merely rhetoric, but theology.

Baptism into the Church is being drawn in parallel with belonging to Israel in the Old Testament. Why? Because for Paul, the Corinthians do actually belong to Israel; they are grafted into this ancient olive tree in Christ. The story is their story. Paul is very consciously saying ‘those who do not know their own history are destined to repeat its mistakes.’

This is not only Paul’s theology of the church, but also his theology of the sacraments. Baptism here is not the baptism of individual faith, but baptism into the people of God: all were baptised into Moses. This is critical to Paul’s point: not all of those baptised into Moses were pleasing to God (v.5). In the same way, the Corinthian Christians who are toying with idolatry need to know that it is their faith in Christ, not their baptism which is the ground of their security.

In describing Israel in this way, using the language of the Church (the language of baptism), Paul is describing the mixed nature of the Church as the People of God. Within it are those of faith and those without. It is this truth that is expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith (chapter 25, emphasis added):

The visible church, which is also catholick or universal under the gospel … consists of all these throughout the world that profess the true religion, together with their children.

Thus baptism, as the means of entry into the visible church, cannot be fundamentally based upon the faith of the one who receives baptism (WCF 28.4).

Oscar Cullmann in Baptism and the New Testament understands Paul’s link between baptism and the exodus in 1 Cor 10:1-2 as demonstrating that baptism follows the paradigm of God acting first and man responding. Indeed,

[t]he whole point of the connection of this event with Baptism is that afterwards, really and temporally afterwards, the response must follow―and this even when faith was already present before Baptism. This sequence of events: act of God―response of man―is normative. What happened to all (πάντες) the members of the people, namely, the miracle of God, is opposed to what happened to τινες, whom that miracle did not suffice to save, since they did not respond to it with faith but incurred the guilt of the sin mentioned there (p.49).

Thus, for Paul baptism is an act based not primarily on faith, but on God’s covenant promises. These promises are not just to individuals or to families, but to a whole community. In the case of the baptism of the children of believers it is a sacrament based on God’s promise, not first and foremost on the parents’ promise. It is God’s promise that demands a response. And it is a sacrament that involves a community, the Church. The sacrament demands a forward-looking response in life together, the response of faith. This is true for children of believers and for those from outside the Church whose faith has led them to baptism in the first place.

If we don’t respond to our baptism with faith, we will be disqualified from the prize.

14 May 2014

Two Callings

twoways2Some time ago I read a thought-provoking article from the Expository Times entitled, ‘A Taxonomy of the Pastor-Theologian: Why PhD Students Should Consider the Pastorate as the Context for Their Theological Scholarship’. The author, Gerald Hiestand, argues for the revival of the ecclesial theologian, a minister who is engaged in the academic theological task and publishing work from within the context of ministry. This is distinguished from the well-known models of the local theologian (a theologically-minded minister of a local congregation) and the popular theologian (a minister publishing work at a popular level). It’s written from an American evangelical context, but is nevertheless more generally applicable.

Anyway, whilst sorting out some stuff , and as I approach the time for submitting my thesis, I happened across it and the following caught my eye:

Many PhD students feel pulled between the life of the mind and the life of the church. They love study, writing, reflection, and theological scholarship. They have the desire and gifting to serve as theologians to the wider evangelical community. But at the same time they have a heart and calling for pastoral ministry in the local church. Sadly, our current context compels such individuals to choose between these two callings. Yet this need not be—history has proven otherwise. Both the church and evangelical theology itself is in need of individuals who are willing to unite the life of the mind (and pen) with the pastoral vocation. Both pastors and professors must once again hold out the local church as a viable social location for theologians—not only for the sake of a particular local church, but for the sake of theology itself.
‘A Taxonomy of the Pastor-Theologian,’ Expository Times 124/6 (March 2013), 271.

1 May 2014

Living on the Next to Last Word

Dietrich BonhoefferIn the early hours this morning, unable to sleep, I picked up Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. What I read didn’t help me sleep! It was one of those moments when you read something that seems to connect at so many levels with your own recent meditations.

It is only when one knows the ineffability of the Name of God that one can utter the name of Jesus Christ. It is only when one loves life and the earth so much that without them everything would be gone, that one can believe in the resurrection and a new world. It is only when one submits to the law and one can speak of grace, and only when one sees the anger and wrath of God hanging like grim realities over the head of one’s enemies that one can know something of what it means to love them and forgive them. I don’t think it is Christian to want to get to the New Testament too soon and too directly… You cannot and must not speak the last word before you have spoken the next to last. We live on the next to last word, and  believe on the last, don’t we? Lutherans (so-called) and pietists would be shocked at such an idea, but it is true all the same. Letters to a Friend, Advent II

There is so much to reflect on here, being at once a word about Christian hope, truth and experience, and a word about hermeneutics – how to read and understand the Bible. Bonhoeffer’s words speak into evangelicalism’s tendency towards Christomonism. He points to the God who has spoken words before the last word: words of creation, of blessing, of promise, of judgement, of hope. The last word can only be understood in the light of these words. It is an irony of today’s church that a zeal to see the Messiah everywhere in the Bible leads to a certain blindness to who the Messiah truly is.

I was particularly struck by these words: ‘It is only when one loves life and the earth so much that without them everything would be gone, that one can believe in the resurrection and a new world’! That statement is to me like a banner high in the wind! A love like that arises from a true vision of, and love for, Jesus the Messiah! Bonhoeffer is correct that the pietist does not understand this. And that is why so many Christians baulk at the idea of loving life and loving the earth in this way. Bonhoeffer’s words express the true hope of God’s word, and are a call to the grand vision of Reformed Christianity.