Tag Archives: Baptism

Baptism and Identity

These days, it seems, we wear our identities on the outside, writ large. We proclaim and display them, manipulate and manage them. It’s become very important to carve out a space for ourselves, to be the somebody we are in such a way that, for others, there’s no mistaking it.

Is this so very different from the way things have always been? Maybe, maybe not. Who we are, as well as our sense of who we are, have always been important. Especially when we’re young and ‘becoming,’ or, ‘discovering,’ who we are.

In the present cultural moment, these things have become more prominent, and curious. On the one hand, a person’s identity in modernity has become a project of the autonomous self, and the technological and cultural milieu encourage the development and display of one’s unique identity. On the other, we’ve seen in the last several decades, a resurgence of ‘group identity’ where belonging to – identifying with – one’s tribe has become increasingly foundational, and thereby a cornerstone in one’s personal uniqueness.

But this, too, is probably the way it has always been: identity as an interplay of the intersecting aspects of one’s life, personal attributes and experience, community, and so on. Perhaps one factor in the present moment is the degree of independence one has in choosing their tribe and identity. Again, this is a luxury not everyone has equally.

Does becoming a Christian complicate or simplify one’s identity? I suspect that this is not an easy question to answer. For some people it will be the former, for others the latter. For many, perhaps, first complication before things becoming simpler. But it could go the other way as well, with the nature of a person’s Christian experience resembling a lifelong wrestle.

Nevertheless, it does appear that Christian identity is ‘a thing’: that, ideally, some features of Christian identity are discernible across time and tradition. To speak like this is to speak normatively rather than with reference to the diversity of Christian experience. It is to suggest that there is, in fact, a Christian ideal to aspire to, in spite of the great and often legitimate diversity of Christian experience and expression that has existed and continues to exist.

More precisely, we can speak of Jesus Christ as he is set forth in the Scriptures of the Old and the New Testaments as the archetype and exemplar of Christian identity. He is the pattern, the standard, and the goal. A Christian is one called to follow Jesus, to be conformed to Christ. It is evident that this will involve a hermeneutical exercise—who is this Jesus to whom I am called to conform?—and therefore inevitable variety and diversity in Christian experience and identity formation.

Yet such variety will occur within a somewhat bounded field: while many forms of life and identity may find their place within the field—from ancient Christian asceticism to modern evangelical Christianity to forms of Christian mysticism—not everything will. The New Testament writers clearly saw some forms of life and identity as contrary to life in Christ. It is also the case that we cannot always discern where the boundaries lie, or to shift the metaphor, what distinguishes the wheat and the weeds. Careful theological reflection and pastoral discretion are required, along with humility and generous hospitality as the posture we adopt when considering these matters and engaging in dialogue.

These days, it seems, we wear our identities on the outside, writ large. Hopefully this is the case with Christian identity, that we might truly be the Christian we are in such a way that, for others, there’s no mistaking it.

I have reflected on some of these issues in a new article recently published at Religions entitled “The Role of Baptism in Christian Identity Formation.” The abstract for the article is:

The construction of one’s identity in late modernity is sometimes viewed as a project of the autonomous self in which one’s identity may shift or change over the course of one’s existence and development. For the Christian, however, one’s identity is both a divine gift, and a task of ecclesial formation, and for both the gift and the task, Christian baptism is fundamental. Baptism represents the death of the self and its rebirth in Christ, a decisive breach with the life that has gone before. Baptism establishes a new identity, a new affiliation, a new mode of living, and a new life orientation, direction, and purpose. This paper explores the role of baptism in the formation of Christian identity, finding that Christian identity is both extrinsic to the self and yet also an identity into which we are called and into which we may continually grow. The essay proceeds in three sections. It begins with a survey of recent philosophical reflection on the concept of identity, continues by reflecting on the nature of Christian baptism in dialogue with this reflection, and concludes by considering in practical terms how baptism functions in the process of conversion–initiation toward the formation of mature Christian identity.

“Slow Conversion”

A brief article I wrote has been published in the Western Australian Churches of Christ journal On Mission Journal. My article is on the idea of Slow Conversion, based on the Patristic practice of the catechumenate, and is a ‘practical’ adaption of my longer recent article on baptism in the Pacific Journal of Theological Research.

I am also happy to report that at least three other articles in the issue are written by Vose Seminary graduates or students, Amit Khaira, Molly Lewin and Terry Nightingale.

Re-Thinking Baptism

The new edition of the Pacific Journal of Theological Research is now available. I am very pleased to have been part of this issue. It began when I was asked, over a year ago now, to speak at the induction of my friend, Steve Ingram, as the Chair of the Council of Australian Baptist Ministries. Given that so many leaders of the Australian Baptists were to be in the room, I chose to speak on what I considered a significant issue for the future and health of the church. Afterwards, the journal editors agreed to publish the essay, and indeed to devote a themed issue to the topic if we could find additional essays—which we did!

The issue includes my essay in addition to some very good essays by Bill Leonard of Wake Forest University in North Carolina, Anne Klose of Malyon College in Brisbane, and Frank Rees, former principal of Whitley College in Melbourne. It is well worth reading.

Baptized in the Spirit 6 (Frank Macchia)

Baptized in the SpiritHaving outlined his approach to ecclesiology, Macchia continues his discussion by considering three classic biblical metaphors for the church in their relation to Spirit-baptism: the church as the people of God, the body of Christ, and the temple of the Holy Spirit. The Baptism with the Holy Spirit serves to distinguish the old and the new people of God, forms the church as the body (and bride) of Christ, and continually adds new members to it. The Spirit-filled body and temple is a missional entity, testifying in the world to an alternate—eschatological—reality.

The Spirit-filled temple reaches in priestly ministry and prophetic witness for the four corners of the earth in order to foreshadow the coming new creation as the final dwelling place of God. … The church as the temple of the Spirit becomes the harbinger of the sanctification of creation into the very image of Christ as God’s dwelling place to the glory of God (204).

Turning from the classic metaphors to the creedal marks of the church, Macchia identifies a variety of ‘marks’ which have been used by various groups in Christian history to describe the nature and activity of the church. He suggests that all these various marks are mutually supporting and informing lenses through which the classical marks—the church as “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic”—have continuing relevance. Macchia views the marks as describing the eschatological people of God, and therefore as a vision to be pursued and embodied by the church in the present, in discipleship, service, and witness.

The classic marks are not replaced by these other ‘marks’ but are qualified and read through these others as lenses. The marks as eschatological gifts of the Spirit bestowed by Christ are also goals in which we are constantly to be renewed and toward which we strive (209).

Understanding the marks in the light of Spirit-baptism provides interesting insight into the nature of the church. The unity of the church is not uniformity or the formation of one “world-church,” but communion in the midst of an increasingly diversifying plurality of Christian experience and expression, though within a common confession. The tongues of Pentecost bear witness to this dynamism, so that “the unity of Pentecost is thus not abstract and absolute but rather concrete and pluralistic” (218). This is a unity that “respects and fulfills the scattering and diversification of peoples from Babel. Otherness is not denied but embraced in this differentiated and complex unity of the church at Pentecost” (218). Thus the church embraces the tensions of diversity, respecting others and avoiding uniformity or conformity.

The holiness of the church is secured by the Holy Spirit who mightily indwells it as the presence of a holy God who transforms his people. The church is sanctified through the gospel, its members through their incorporation into the holy community, and by being set apart for a holy task. They are continually being transformed as they live in accordance with Word, Spirit and the community.

Macchia understands catholicity in terms of “fullness” rather than universality, and discusses the term in a sense analogous to his discussion of unity. The Spirit blesses the church with a rich variety of spiritual, historical, denominational, and cultural gifts, no one group or church being the true fullness all on its own. Here Macchia also discusses the ecumenical challenge, as well as what he calls the “Catholic claim.”

We cannot discuss catholicity in avoidance of this Catholic claim. It must be taken seriously. We must ask whether or not we are guilty of gazing so intently on the pneumatological constitution and eschatological fulfillment of catholicity in the new creation that we are blind to the christological institution of the church and its historic continuity as the visible body of the faithful. I believe that Küng is right that there is historical validity to the “mother church” idea. The Roman Catholic Church has a certain “parental” role in the family tree of the Christian church in the world (227).

He continues, however:

Suffice it to say here that the “mother” Catholic Church belongs herself to a heritage in the outpouring of the Spirit to which she is as accountable as any of us and on which she can, in my view, lay no privileged claim. We as her children and grandchildren respect her role in history in passing on to us a precious heritage in the form of witness. But our reception of this witness draws us to the same source from which she has received it and must continue to receive it. There are thus limits to how far one can stretch the metaphor of her maternal role in relation to us (228, original emphasis).

A Spirit-baptized view of apostolicity understands it in terms of leadership and mission. Apostolic succession is a characteristic of the whole church and not simply one office in it. “If Pentecostalism is anything,” says Macchia, “it is ‘apostolic’ by intention. Its original mission was dedicated to the ‘apostolic faith,’ and many Pentecostal churches around the world since then have raised the banner of ‘apostolic’ quite high” (229). The whole church shares the original faith, experience and mission of the earliest apostles and the churches they founded (230). Just as the Spirit led and gifted the original churches, so the Spirit continues to supply the church with guidance and gifts for its contemporary mission.

Macchia concludes his ecclesiological reflections with consideration of the sacraments, and “marks” more specifically associated with the Pentecostal churches—charismatic fullness and preaching. Sacraments and spiritual gifts are means by which the Spirit’s gracious presence is mediated to and experienced in the church and the world. Water baptism can only be understood in relation to Spirit-baptism: the two are inseparable, even if in one’s experience, one is not conscious of this relation (249). Macchia thus maintains the unity of Spirit and water baptism, while still allowing space for distinction between the two in terms of one’s experience. So, too, the heart of the sacramental meal is the epiclesis in which the Spirit’s presence and work in invoked. Too often, however, the liturgy “does not linger over this. It does not wait for this to happen” (253). Macchia therefore argues for a more interactive liturgy whereby participants are encouraged to “open up to deeper experiences of divine infilling than they might be prone to have if sitting in isolation on a pew” (254).

We should shift the focus from the transformation of the elements to Christ’s participation by the Spirit in the communal act and our communion with him and one another by means of the same Spirit (255).

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:6-7

JamesJames 2:6-7
But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

James’ hearers have dishonoured the poor. While the NRSV refers to the poor in general, it is perhaps better to follow other translations which read, “You have dishonoured the poor man” (Humeis de ētimasate ton ptōchon), thus reading the aorist verb as a reference to the treatment of the poor man in the little story of verses 2-4. The very man who is poor and has been treated so shamefully has been chosen by God! In their treatment of the poor man, then, the congregation has set itself in opposition to the God who chooses the poor of this world. The verb (from atimazo) is used in the Old Testament for those who despise their neighbour or crush the poor (Proverbs 14:21; 22:22). Not only have they dishonoured the poor man, they have done so by aligning themselves with the rich. You have done this, says James; You!

There follow, then, in quick succession, three rhetorical questions, each of which presupposes a positive answer: are not the rich those who oppress you (Ouk hoi plousioi katadunasteuousin humōn)? Is it not they who drag you into court (kai autoi helkousin humas eis kritēria)? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name (Ouk autoi blasphēmousin to kalov onoma)?

The verb katadunasteuō, “oppress” or “exploit” is used elsewhere in the New Testament only in Acts 10:38 to refer to the activity of the devil. It is common, however, in the Old Testament prophets who use it to describe the oppression of the poor, especially the widows and orphans, by the wealthy (cf. 1:27; see, for example: Jeremiah 7:6; 22:3; Ezekiel 18:7, 12, 16; 22:7, 29; Amos 4:1; 8:4; Habakkuk 1:4; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5). Here in James, one particular way in which this oppression occurs is by the rich “dragging” (helkō) congregational members before the courts. For Vlachos, the word suggests violent treatment, whether physical or legal (74). In both cases the verbs are in the present tense, which suggests that these actions are current and ongoing.

Verse 7 provides additional description of the rich and reveals that they are not Christians: rather, they blaspheme “the good name that was invoked over you” (to kalov onoma to epiklēthen eph’ humas). Like the previous verbs, this one is also in the present tense, suggesting present and ongoing action. While the term typically referred to verbal abuse, insulting language, or slander when directed toward a person, when directed against God or things considered holy, it denoted irreverence or impiety (Vlachos, 74). In this case the rich blaspheme the good and excellent name of Jesus (cf. verse 1). Davids (113) and McKnight (201-202) both associate this invocation of the name of Jesus with the believer’s baptism, when, being baptised in his name, they become bearers of his name. Davids also notes that the phrase “to call a name upon” someone was a Septuagintal phrase denoting possession or relationship. The NIV captures this idea by translating the phrase “the noble name of him to whom you belong.” Vlachos notes that the preposition epi used with the accusative indicates a downward direction, implying that the name of Jesus now rests upon those who are baptised (75; cf. 1 Peter 4:14-16).

It is evident in this passage that James’s hearers are themselves poor, being contrasted with the rich. Who are the rich in this passage, and why would James’s congregation seek to curry favour with them? We have already seen that the rich are not Christians, but may be either Jews or gentiles. Judaism was a legal religion in the Roman Empire whereas Christianity was not. Not only were the Christians poor, they were also socially and legally marginalised.  Perhaps the poor Jewish Christians aspired to the greater wealth and privileges of their non-Christian compatriots. Whatever the actual historical and social dynamics, however, their own treatment of the poor man as well as their obsequious deference toward the rich aligned them with the very people who were oppressing and abusing them. For James, that the blasphemer and abuser was more welcome in the church than the poor beggared belief. They not only dishonoured the poor man whom God had chosen, they were choosing those who persecuted the poor and who blasphemed the honourable name of him who had called them. They have, in effect says Davids, sided with the devil against God (112).

Baptism in Gilead

Marilynne RobinsonIn 2005 Marilynne Robinson won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction with her magnificent Gilead. It is a gentle, beautifully-written story, the memoirs of the elderly Reverend John Ames, written for his seven-year old son, retelling his life, his beliefs, his fears, his hopes. This is a deeply human story of life in a slower time (the 1950s, but recalling a family history extending to the mid-nineteenth century). But slower does not mean simpler, for issues of war and slavery, courage, sickness, and family difficulty loom large.

So do matters of love, friendship, faith, ministry, and theology. As a reader I was caught by Robinson’s theological vision woven throughout the book, but in such a way that it does not overwhelm the story. Using the story, she reflects on all the issues mentioned above and more besides. See, for example, her meditations on the value being human:

There is nothing more astonishing than a human face … Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it… (75)

When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation? (141)

So, too, Robinson’s meditations on baptism and the Lord’s Supper surface from time to time. For instance:

There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running … It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth … it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing… (31-32)

It may be that “blessing” is Robinson’s primary word for describing the action of grace in the sacraments, and indeed the entire function of ministry. We minister in order to impart blessing (cf. Rom. 1:11). Baptism and blessing belong together in Robinson’s luminous world, and come together in a particularly humorous passage:

We were very pious children from pious households in a fairly pious town, and this affected our behavior considerably. Once, we baptized a litter of cats. They were dusty little barn cats just steady on their legs, the kind of waifish creatures that live their anonymous lives keeping the mice down and have no interest in humans at all, except to avoid them. But the animals all seem to start out sociable, so we were always pleased to find new kittens prowling out of whatever cranny their mother had tried to hide them in, as ready to play as we were. It occurred to one of the girls to swaddle them up in a doll’s dress – there was only one dress, which was just as well since the cats could hardly tolerate a moment in it and would have to have been unswaddled as soon as they were christened in any case. I myself moistened their brows, repeating the full Trinitarian formula.

Their grim old crooked-tailed mother found us baptizing away by the creek and began carrying her babies off by the napes of their necks, one and then another. We lost track of which was which, but we were fairly sure that some of the creatures had been borne away still in the darkness of paganism, and that worried us a good deal. So finally I asked my father in the most offhand way imaginable what exactly would happen to a cat if one were to, say, baptize it. He replied that the Sacraments must always be treated and regarded with the greatest respect. That wasn’t really an answer to my question. We did respect the Sacraments, but we thought the whole world of those cats. I got his meaning though, and I did no more baptizing until I was ordained…

I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing… (26-27)

For other, better accounts of this book, see the reviews by Nathan Hobby and Ben Myers.