Monday, April 28, 2008

"Holiness...our watchword and SONG..."?

This morning my dad and I drove the hour or so from Xenia, Ohio, where I serve as worship pastor of a mid-sized Nazarene church, to Circleville, Ohio. The purpose of this pilgrimage (and my father's trip from Tennessee to Ohio) was the Holiness Summit being held on the campus of Ohio Christian University. I don't have much time to offer a full-fledged review of the proceedings, but something occurred to me that I thought we might bat around while this summit is still in progress. (Who knows, I might end up with several posts out of this thing!)

The few hundred of us gathered, having been led in singing by Nazarene evangelist Gary Bond, were then exhorted, first by Louie Bustle and then by Stan Toler. The theme, of course, was the importance of the message of holiness. As I listened to what was said - and perhaps even more significantly, as I observed those around me - I began to sense that the impulse underlying this summit (and the other one to be held out west in September) was all deriving from a complex of concerns that might be summed up in a statement something like this one: Our doctrinal distinctive of holiness/entire sanctification is becoming increasingly obscured and is in danger of being lost altogether - we must become passionate once again about proclaiming the message of holiness in no vague or uncertain terms.

And as we sang "The Cleansing Wave" (Phoebe Palmer, 1871?), I had a thought that I've had before, but became even more pressing in this context - and I pose it to you as a question: What is the relationship between our holiness preaching and our holiness hymnody? I'm not necessarily asking that we vote on which is more important, although I do believe that how we sing our faith is at least as important, has at least as much shaping influence upon our spirituality, our theology, our conception of God (etc), as the faith as we receive it in the preached word.

To put the question a bit differently, I guess what I'm left wondering is this: Can we revitalize the message of holiness in preaching alone, or does this task demand also a re(dis)covery of holiness songs, or indeed the creation of new holiness songs? I just don't see how the average CCM hit that's soaring to the top of the CCLI charts reinforces the message of holiness that has historically been so central to our tradition - in fact, I see many a song that would contradict this message (were the message being proclaimed). I have yet to discover any contemporary songwriters or composers of church music who give any indication of sharing our theological perspective, which makes it difficult. We (I!) should really be writing this stuff ourselves, for our purposes, but in practice, it's a whole lot easier to just sing the latest Chris Tomlin song than take the effort of creating something new. I hope I'm not confusing the issue, but I guess I remain unconvinced that the real problem is what we're preaching - in fact, I still hear holiness being preached from the pupit. What I don't hear is us singing it very often, if at all.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Baptism...and Regeneration? Or, Baptismal Regeneration?

On the whole, therefore, it is not only lawful and innocent, but meet, right, and our bounden duty, in conformity to the uninterrupted practice of the whole Church of Christ from the earliest ages, to consecrate our children to God by baptism, as the Jewish Church were commanded to do by circumcision.
-- John Wesley, Treatise on Baptism, Nov 11, 1756
It would be foolish of us, I think, to ignore Wesley's entreaty here. That baptism with water is an instituted sacrament of the Church, commanded and instituted by Christ himself in the Scriptures, and that the baptism of infants is certainly not denounced in the Scriptures (even allowing for Wesley's interpretation as above that it is commanded)...this all should be undeniable to us. And that we ignore this in the Church of the Nazarene, continually denying it by the deferral, or even at times complete omission of the Baptism of those infants who are dedicated, seems to at least indicate that we have fallen from the path of our specific tradition. Whether the particular, and I would say increasing, practice of dedication without Baptism (even later in one's life) is a fall from the larger catholic (small "c") tradition is, I think, simply irrefutable.

I do have some issues of course with some of Wesley's historical conclusions (as I expressed in comments on a couple of Rev. Todd Stepp's posts) -- particularly with his generalizing view on the "universal" nature of the practice of infant baptism in the early church. But, I think that we can continue to wrestle with Wesley on these issues without compromising agreement with his above sentiment. In other words, I think we can baptize our babies in faith -- on their behalf! -- that the Holy Spirit is truly falling upon this little one because though we continually find ourselves to be faithless, God is nonetheless and steadfastly faithful.

I think you are right, Brannon, to really focus in the issue on "regeneration" -- on just what kind of "new birth" happens in Baptism (and how that's related to the regeneration in the Spirit on which Wesley hangs so much). This seems to me to be the crux of the matter (and particularly how this also relates to original sin for Wesley -- recall that Wesley's longest, "systematic," theological treatise was on Original Sin). I'm not so certain that the "confusion" Pastor Steven has referenced isn't at least somewhat attributable to Wesley on exactly this point, though. I know I've harped in the past on here that we shouldn't just accept Wesley prima facie, and so I want to be very careful that I not either, on the one hand, blindly defer to Wesley's authority simply because he's...well, our spiritual forefather, or on the other hand, let that push me too far into a revisionist mode (and I'm certainly not accusing anyone else of this -- this is all for myself).

No doubt Wesley would want to distance himself from the dichotomy presented in the title to this post. He would want to say that the entire early Christian witness described baptism as a "regeneration," a "new birth"; so, Baptism and regeneration aren't to be strictly divided (and he certainly rejects this in the case of infants -- who were the prime recipients of Baptism in the Church of England in Wesley's day). Nevertheless, he would also reject that baptismal regeneration is "guaranteed" in the "outward" washing of Baptism. In the case of adult baptisms, Wesley will even go so far as to say, "But whatever be the case with infants, it is sure all of riper years who are baptized are not at the same time born again" ("The New Birth," my emphasis). But, as I read this, this seems to present an ambiguity in Wesley's thoughts on Baptism and regeneration -- perhaps even an aporia. I'm pretty convinced that the Pietist influence on Wesley -- particularly that of Philip Jacob Spener -- and specifically the need for a distinct "conversion experience" separate from Baptism -- is the real culprit of this ambiguity. Clearly, Wesley was wrestling with both (a) those who exhibited all sorts of sinfulness and wickedness after having been baptized; and (b) those who claimed there was no new birth but in Baptism (and this was a specific problem for Wesley precisely because of (a)).

As his thoughts on sanctification begin to develop -- which stressed more and more that sanctification was a process of regeneration, leading one from being but a "babe" in Christ to a "mature" adult (based on 1 John) -- he seems to have distanced himself more and more from the more "ecclesiastical" CoE definition of regeneration as the new birth by the Spirit, which takes place in Baptism (Gayle Carlton Felton doesn't buy this argument, but I am equally unconvinced by her counter-arguments that Wesley is completely consistent on these points). I would say this is a prime reason for his rejection of the Augustinian understanding of the efficacy of the sacrament as ex opere operato. I have already stressed my objections to Wesley's rejection of Augustine on this point over at Todd's site (I think in the comments to post number IV).

Now, I certainly understand why Wesley comes to such a conclusion: again, it is decidedly a result of backsliders who, though baptized, continued along paths of awful sinfulness and wickedness. In his sermon, "The Marks of the New Birth," Wesley makes this clear:
Say not then in your heart, 'I was once baptized, therefore I am now a child of God.' Alas, that consequence will by no means hold. How many are the baptized gluttons and drunkards, the baptized liars and common swearers, the baptized railers and evil-speakers, the baptized whoremongers, thieves, extortioners?...For ye are now dead in trespasses and sins. To say, then, that ye cannot be born again, that there is no new birth but in baptism, is to seal you all under damnation, to consign you to hell, without help, without hope.
Recall that Spener also believed that regeneration did in fact take place in Baptism, but that because of backsliding, a "second regeneration" (later to be called by nearly all Pietists, "conversion") was necessary (could this not also be a contributor to 19th century American Holiness interpretations of Wesley on the "Baptism in the Holy Spirit" as the so-called "second work of grace"?).

I really tend to think that Wesley holds to something very close to Spener here. But, I really must ask: Is it, first of all, Scripturally warranted to talk about two "new births" -- first in Baptism, and then some "second" experience (Bernard Holland will actually use the language of "a new atonement"!)? But, secondly, why even continue to baptize if there is another new birth required?

Now, Wesley has come up with some (fairly) good answers to these questions -- especially insofar as his account of Christian perfection, or sanctification, is a dynamic process (rather than a sort of "once-for-all" fix or something). First of all, as Brannon has already hinted, Wesley says that Baptism effects "the washing away of the guilt of original sin, by the application of the merits of Christ's death" (Treatise on Baptism, II.1). A very Augustinian answer. This applies equally to infants, Wesley says (holding to an Augustinian view of the "propagation" of original sin, over against the "imitation" view held by Pelagius and the Pelagians). But, Wesley's developing views on sanctification were already demonstrating that the washing away of the guilt of original sin is not at the same time the washing away or cancellation of "actual" sins. So, Wesley will say that infants still need the washing away of the guilt of original sin -- since they find themselves condemned under the Fall of Adam -- but because they not only can but most often will fall into all kinds of actual sins (and perhaps "long continued wickedness"), a regeneration -- akin to Pietist and Moravian "conversion" -- is necessary for their spiritual development once they become adults.

So, technically, Wesley would say, there are not two new births, but merely one, which takes place on what Melvin Dieter calls a "continuum" or process or development of sanctification (I would find this to be pretty tricky, though). And we continue to baptize because Baptism washes away the guilt of original sin (but also as a sign of the covenant/promise that God has made with us in his Son Jesus Christ, and the by the power of the Spirit). While I also have pretty big reservations along with Brannon as to the guilt incurred simply from being born (the implication of Augustine's propagation theory of original sin -- though I think it's still better than Pealgius' view to the contrary!) -- Wesley does have Scripture on his side here. And this is really strange to me. Wesley talks about Baptism as "regeneration" almost all across the board, but rarely does he use the actual pervasive New Testament language: the "remission of sins" (there is of course nothing about "original sin," and certainly nothing about the "guilt" incurred because of such original sin). So, to repeat Brannon's question in a somewhat different way: If Baptism is for the remission of sins, first of all, how can one properly describe infants as sinful and in need of the removal of such? (we have seen Wesley's answer -- even if an unsatisfying one); but, also, if one must "repent and believe," or "confess" one's sins in order to receive such remission, then how could infants be baptized, having neither the capacity for repentance or belief? Wesley's answer is simply that this didn't stop Jews from circumcising their infants! But, if the Baptism of adults hardly ever results, according to Wesley, in "new birth" (even though it does in infants -- but, note: it is almost always completely obliterated by the "age" of "actual sin" -- usually nine or ten), then what exactly is it for in infants? In other words, why would the baptismal covenant be so disparate between infants and adults? Is it not the same covenant?

I think I find myself here finally departing -- or at least taking one big step away from -- Wesley. The early Christian answer to that last question, How could infants be baptized without the faith necessary for repentance? is really quite simple -- and it is actually behind Wesley's own answer (though unwittingly, I think): the faith of the (god)parents/sponsors and the community literally stands in for, makes up for the lack of faith on the part of infants. This seems to be the way to answer how infants could be circumcised without repentance as well. But, this is a point I think that really has to be taken seriously. There is something about Baptism itself, the early Christians believed, that offers the grace of salvation to the one being baptized, that one was truly freed from the sinful situation one found oneself in (within the context of a "believing community" -- central to the early Christian rite was the learning and reciting of the Creed). The problem of backsliding doesn't take away from that gift, though. St. Paul faced a similar situation as Wesley when writing to the Romans (in rhetorical mode of course, as usual)...after describing in chapter 5 how grace has abounded all the more than sin in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, he then asks, "What then shall we say? Shall we remain in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? For do you not know that all who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been buried with him in his death?" (sorry if I botched that -- it's from memory). Because Baptism in fact does engraft us into the very death of Christ so that we might "walk in the newness of life" of his resurrection, we should then live like it.

But, isn't this really just what Wesley wants to say about "regeneration," "new birth" (in the sense of a conversion experience)? If you were baptized, Wesley asks in "The New Birth," then why do you now live like this? But, see, Wesley thinks that because such "backsliding" has taken place, the baptismal regeneration has been washed away. Bernard Holland puts it in striking terms: "the baptismal covenant is so irretrievably broken by actual sin that it requires not renewal but complete remaking: and this remaking he looked for in adult regeneration." St. Paul says nothing of the sort, though. Paul tells us: because Baptism has initiated you into a new life (which is the rhythm of the Eucharist -- something Wesley omits from discussion of Baptism!), you should stop acting as though you have not been baptized. But, the grace granted by the Holy Spirit is not "irretrievably broken" because one falls back into sin. Paul is reminding us that Baptism initiates us into something, that we are completely dispossessed of our "old humanity [anthropos]" and given over to the new life of the body of Christ in the weekly rhythms of sending and gathering together at the table of the Lord's Supper. Infants are invited into this new life because the "unity" that takes place at the table is cosmic in nature, it appropriates the redemption of the entire creation, anticipating the great messianic feast to come. Thus, the faith of the church makes up for this little one, because remembering their own baptism in the consecration of the infant is a remembering of the extent and scope of God's grace, mercy, and hope and expectation. This is far too long. I gotta shut up now.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Infant Baptism for (Wesleyan-Holiness) Dummies: Extending the Conversation

[1] The context for this post is Rev. Dr. Todd Stepp's fourth entry in a series of posts on infant baptism. If you really want to make sense of my thoughts here, please read his post and the comment thread, and heck, while you're at it read the first three posts, too. (part I, part II, part III). I was trying to formulate a response, which began to consist mostly of my working through a series of questions for my own edification, and as my entry grew and grew, I realized it would be in very bad form, blogospherically-speaking, for me to hi-jack his thread with my musings and pontifications. So, they shall henceforth constitute a new post here (where I can get away with it). These are really just some jumbled thoughts after reading his post - all of his posts, really - and reading some of the discussion already underway. So - seriously - if you don't take the time to get the context, this might not mean much. Or it still might - who knows? But as many of you know, I do always love a good back-and-forth about infant baptism, so here we go!

[2] First, let's all agree to stop dividing up grace. It's all grace. GRACE GRACE GRACE. I have honestly never seen the value in trying to make sense of the sheer madness and prodigality of God's grace by diagramming it into regenerating, justifying, sanctifying, etc...and I know that makes me a bad Nazarene, but I don't care. (Your thoughts? When we young whipper-snappers have our chance to rewrite the Manual, do you think we'll change all that stuff - if indeed it survives even that long?)

[3] Also, I think something needs to be said about original sin in any discussion of baptism, especially of the infant variety. If we follow many of the church fathers, perhaps St. Augustine most of all, we regard every child born as inheriting the guilt of Adam's Fall (the original sin). In this view, it is legitimate to say that in baptism, a child is "born again" or cleansed of any guilt of or responsibility for original sin. We all still, as children of Adam, suffer under the effects of the Fall - we get tired, hungry, ill, we will die one day - but we do not bear the "spiritual" weight of Adam's sin (if I can put it like that). So, a distinction must be drawn, then, between original sin (Adam's sin) and the carnal nature (or depravity or however you want to term it). That proneness to wander, that tendency toward self-sovereignty, is still with us, and it must be dealt with - it's ultimately either going to be God or Me on the throne. By the grace of God and the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit, I can be free from this love of self, and be filled with love for God and for my fellow creatures - this is what we call sanctification.

[4] Now, here's where things get murky for me...if we reject the notion that every generation since Adam has been held guilty - by God! - of Adam's original sin (because let's face it, that's not a God that any of us wants to believe in or worship - one who would damn us to hell just for being born an offspring of Adam!), then do we still have grounds for the idea that infants are "born again" in baptism? Is there not, as has been discussed, a grace already extended to us all, independent of any application of water? And if this new birth by water isn't "necessary" in the grand equation of our redemption to alleviate the guilt of original sin, well, why bother in the first instance? "Because Jesus said so," I know, I know - but that's why some evangelical denominations call baptism and the Lord's Supper not 'sacraments' but 'ordinances' - not because they "mean" anything or impart any grace in the life of the believer, but just because Jesus commanded us to "do this..." And I'm really not satisfied with that!

[5] So where does that leave us? I'm with Flannery O'Connor when it comes to the sacraments in general: "If it's just a symbol, then to hell with it." Either baptism (or indeed the Eucharist) is an essential part of God's redemptive process, or it isn't. If it isn't, well then, we might as well dispense with it altogether, save perhaps some nostalgia for a more primitive form of Christianity. But if it IS - wow...if the sacrament(s) truly are means whereby God imparts grace to a human life...well, shouldn't we want that grace, whatever it's "function," in whatever modality we might receive it, to be all over not only ourselves but even the youngest born into the Body of Christ?

[6] It seems to me that much of our problem stems from placing the emphasis on the individual's experience of baptism - what am I doing when I present myself for baptism? (i.e. public declaration of an inward transformation already effected, or whatever) - rather than on what God is doing in baptism (i.e. conveying His lavish grace on us). This preoccupation with the individual is why many in our denomination can't accept infant baptism: "you're taking away that child's choice about whether or not they want to be baptised! (me: you're darn right I am!)...they won't even remember it! (me: they will if we tell them about it) doesn't mean anything, because they can't understand it (me: God help us all if a condition of grace is our ability to comprehend it.)..." But in all these things, the emphasis is on the individual, not on God.

[7] What does God want? What is His dream for humanity? To save us; to fill us with His Spirit; to pour His love all over us; to have intimate and eternal communion with us. How does He accomplish this? Well, lots of ways, but there is certainly a biblical as well as a historical and theological basis for the belief that one sure-fire and time-honored way He accomplishes this is through water baptism (it was in Jesus' own baptism by John in the Jordan, after all, that God's Spirit in-dwelt him and kick-started his earthly ministry). So, do you think we should perhaps follow Jesus' own example and seek the outpouring of God's grace - even the outpouring of God's Spirit! - in water baptism? Absolutely. (We just might get more than we bargained for!)

[8] So maybe this distinction between the new birth "by water" and the new birth "by the Spirit" might be useful (I'm still wrestling through this one, so forgive me here...). Can an infant be reborn by the Spirit, or does there have to be some kind of personal "receptivity" for the Spirit's outpouring to be efficacious? I'm not sure. On one level, who among us is more "receptive" than an infant - they can't do ANYTHING for themselves. All they ARE is receptive, to whatever those who care for them wish to do! (There might be something to might also have a connection to Jesus' statement about how if you want to enter the Kingdom, you must do so like a child...) Now, on the other hand, if an infant CAN'T be reborn of the Spirit (so, of water: yes...but not of the Spirit), well then why did an Anglican priest say at my son's baptism 10 months ago, as he made the sign of the cross in oil on my son's forehead, "Andrew, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ's own forever"?? (Honestly, I don't know how you could get ANYTHING other than baptismal regeneration out of that!) Does my son still need to come to understand and accept for himself the grace that has been imparted to his life in baptism, and take for himself the vows that parents and godparents took on his behalf in his baptism? Absolutely! (and here insert plug for strong catechesis and the importance of some kind of public ritual for confirmation or the reaffirmation of baptismal vows - maybe then we can, for the love of God, stop re-baptizing people!) Do these words spoken in this sacramental rite mean that my son is powerless to reject the grace of God? Is this some kind of thinly veiled eternal security? Absolutely not. He retains his free will to put self back on the throne, just as we all do. But can I be confident and safely say that, by virtue of Andrew's baptism, God is already working in his young life in a special way - a way unique to those who have been subjected to infant baptism? Without a doubt. Just try and convince me otherwise.

[9] Maybe we could conceive of it like this (and I make no claim for whether this is helpful or not): when an infant is baptised, he is reborn of water...this is nothing less than salvation: justification, regeneration, and adoption all rolled into one (remember, "sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ's own forever"!). When that child matures to an age when he can on some level respond to the love of God - when he "accepts Jesus" - thus begins the process of sanctification, which might be described as "entire sanctification" when that individual experiences the new birth in (or baptism of, or filling with) the Spirit. Then, growth in grace toward a mature character, etc, etc.

[10] Now, when a child is not baptised in infancy, but grows to a point of maturity later in life (any time after that ambiguous "age of accountability" we're so fond of talking about), it is possible that this individual may have an encounter with Jesus and receive "salvation" (justification, regeneration and adoption), prior to being baptised. This moment of salvation, as when the baptised infant "accepts Jesus," also begins for this individual the process of sanctification , which may or may not lead to what the individual would describe as a "crisis moment" but WILL, we expect, reach a moment of receiving the new birth of the Spirit, and that sanctification process will reach an entirety or completeness never before known to that individual. [This paragraph has been edited for clarity.]

[11] It is possible that this, too, might occur prior to water baptism. But still the injunction stands that one must be born of water and the Spirit - and so we pray that this individual is part of a Christian Body that is faithful to administer water baptism to all who profess faith in Christ Jesus as Savior and Lord. Because let's face it - you can't argue with scripture, and scripture says "water and the Spirit" - so, in the end, if they remain unbaptised, the only way this "saved and sanctified" person is going to make it into the Kingdom is (and now we've come full-circle) by the grace of God alone.

[11] So is water baptism necessary to salvation? Well, no. But yes. I mean, yes it is necessary - absolutely necessary, for every single person. But then again, no: I really believe God will not condemn or turn away one who knows Jesus as savior and has been sanctified by the Holy Spirit, but who was unfortunate enough to have been part of a Christian Body who has not faithfully heeded Jesus' commission to "go and make disciples...baptising them"!!! Here I fault the church (not the big-C Church, the Church catholic, but the little-c church, the church in it's often messed-up, often broken locality - although Hauerwas and others might be quick to remind me that the only Church there is is the church in it's messed-up, broken locality), and we should give thanks for a gracious God, who loves and accepts us even when the Church blows it for us. Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Kyrie eleison.