Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Baptism and the Process of Christian Initiation

Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Baptism and the Process of Christian Initiation

Article excerpt

1. Common baptism or common initiation?

The affirmation that all Christian people share a "common baptism" has become an accepted departure point in ecumenical conversations and documents. A recent Faith and Order paper on baptism (emerging from the consultation held at Faverges, France, in 1997) declares, for example, that:

   Through our common baptism we are all brought into Christ, and this forms 
   the basis of our ecumenical engagement with each other: because Christ has 
   claimed us, we have no right to reject one another ... Since we as 
   Christians are all incorporated into the crucified and glorified Christ, 
   nothing--not even the churches with their centuries of division--can 
   separate us from one another. (1) 

In face of this moving plea it may seem wilfully obstructive for at least two worldwide Christian communions--the Orthodox church and the Baptist churches--to be doubtful about whether one can, in fact, speak so easily of a "common baptism" at the present stage of the history of the Christian church. However, one is bound to observe that even churches which wholeheartedly acclaim a "common baptism" as the means of union with Christ and with each other have not always been able to move on from this point to other areas of mutual recognition. Here "common baptism", a shared baptismal identity, has not proved the foundation for building visible union in such areas of ecclesial life as ministry and eucharist. In this paper I want to suggest that there may be more potential in exploring a wider context of commonality--not simply an appeal to a common event of initiation (baptism), but rather to a common process, or pattern, of initiation in which the moment of baptism plays a part. This, as I want to show, was the dominant mood of the earlier Faith and Order paper Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (BEM), despite its apparent slogan of "our common baptism" through which "Christians are brought into union with Christ, with each other, and with the church of every time and place". (2)

Indeed, the idea of a process of initiation is not only a potential basis for unity, but is one major reason why the appeal to a "common baptism" seems less than adequate. Orthodox churches find the event of initiation to be larger than the event of baptism itself, which is to be regarded as only one moment in three closely linked sacraments of initiation. One Orthodox response to BEM, for instance, asks for a clearer statement of "the relation between baptism, chrismation and the eucharist which are constitutive of the Christian initiation". (3)

Baptists also reckon with a process of initiation. Within their own practice of the baptism of believers, as with the baptism of adults in all Christian communions, there has to be some kind of process between the moments of conversion and baptism. The first directing of conscious faith towards Christ will be initiated by the grace of God, and must be accompanied by an act of the Holy Spirit bringing the believer into fellowship with Christ. As New Testament scholar James D.G. Dunn notes, in the thought of the apostle Paul "the Spirit is the beginning of the salvation process"; whatever relation this had in temporal sequence to water-baptism, "it was by receiving the Spirit that one became a Christian". (4) If we also want to affirm that believers are "incorporated into Christ" through water-baptism, the "beginning" of Christian life must therefore be an extended process or journey, and not a single point. This is even more evident in the case of children who, in Baptist churches, may come to a living faith of their own years before they are baptized. There would be no need to conceive of a process of initiation, of course, if baptism were simply regarded as a public witness to what has already taken place in the believer's life. This is characteristic of Pentecostal thinking, and that of some other evangelical churches; but a strong and continuing stream within the Baptist tradition has regarded baptism in a sacramental way as an encounter between the faith of the believer and the transforming grace of God. …

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