In a previous entry, we ended on the question of whether a denomination that includes many Protestant streams that see baptism as either a sign of incorporation into a covenant community or as sign of previous regeneration can honestly claim baptism is a sacrament within its bylaws.
The gulf between views of baptism as imparting a gift from God (sacramental) and outward sign of covenant community (Zwingli, Congregationalist) or a sign pointing to an inward act of faith that has already transpired (Baptist, Anabaptist, Pentecostal/Charismatic) becomes even broader when we begin to discuss the ontological meaning of baptism.
on⋅to⋅log⋅i⋅cal [on-tl-oj-i-kuhl] Pertaining to the branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature of existence or being.
With the rediscovery of Aristotle during the High Middle Ages, long buried categories of accidents and substance reshaped philosophical thought among Roman Catholic scholastics.
It was at this time, for example, that transubstantiation — the belief that the bread and wine of the Eucharist become in substance the body and blood of Jesus even though in outward form they are still perceived by the senses (accident) as bread and wine — gained popularity.
Just as the sacrament of Eucharist brought ontological change in the very being of the elements of bread and wine, the sacrament of Baptism brought ontological change to the very being of the person being baptized.*
In reaction to the Protestant Reformation and Zwingli’s teaching of baptism as a sign, the Council of Trent formulated the phrase "indelible mark" to describe the change believed to be effected by God’s grace. This understanding and the phrase "indelible mark" are still found in the Roman Catholic catechism today.
So is there a way to bring together the idea of a change brought about by baptism as a sacrament with the idea of signs that point to incorporation and/or regeneration?
The Methodist tradition has done so through the adoption of historical statements that bring together traditionally opposing points of view, holding them in dynamic tension:
- Baptism is not only a sign of profession and mark of difference whereby Christians are distinguished from others that are not baptized; but it is also a sign of regeneration or the new birth. The baptism of young children is to be retained in the church. (The Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church, Article XVII)
- We believe Baptism signifies entrance into the household of faith, and is a symbol of repentance and inner cleansing from sin, a representation of the new birth in Christ Jesus and a mark of Christian discipleship. (The Confession of Faith of The Evangelical United Brethren Church, Article VI)
So while we’re taking the opportunity to reimagine baptism, perhaps it is worth asking the following questions as a part of our ongoing dialogue:
- Does God grant any special grace to the baptisand?
- Do we believe baptism effects a change in the very being of a person?
- Do Aristotelian categories make much sense as a way of defining reality in the world today?
- Is there anything meaningful that we can take from the idea of sacrament as a gift from God?
- Are the understandings of baptism as incorporation into the Church or as a sign of a decision useful to our dialogue?
It appears that at least for now, we may have a lot more questions than answers. And learning to live in the questions has been one of the hallmarks of our growing faith.
*In this understanding of the sacraments, ordination causes an ontological change in the person who is made a priest.