Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Faith, Fiction, and Force in Medieval Baptism Debates

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Faith, Fiction, and Force in Medieval Baptism Debates

Article excerpt

MEDIEVAL Faith, Fiction, and Force in Medieval Baptism Debates. By Marcia L. Colish. (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press. 2014. Pp. xiv, 370. $69.95. ISBN 978-0-813-226118.)

Baptism is not only the initiatory sacrament; it is for Christians of all stripes the indispensable sacrament for salvation-and not only for themselves, but for all of human kind, to whom Jesus commanded his followers to bring the good news and to baptize them. There is, then, a peculiar urgency about baptism that further distinguishes it from the other sacraments. As Marcia Colish argues in this very rich and rewarding book, modern Christian churches, including the Roman Catholic, tend to ignore or downplay the complexity of the historical evolution of this sacrament and especially of the intricate theological issues surrounding it. She rightly seeks to correct such facile assumptions and succeeds brilliantly in doing so. Furthermore, although most of her previous work has been in traditional intellectual history, here she seeks to contextualize the arguments of theologians within the very practical issues in the administration of the sacrament in three large and dis- tinct areas, each with its own particular story. The achievement generally lives up to the ambition. The reading of the primary sources is dose and accurate, and the coverage of the pertinent literature is thorough and up-to-date. Along the way one learns a great deal that is not necessarily expected, such as on the differing approaches of scholars to medieval Judaism (pp. 233-35).

Naturally, there are flaws. The alluring alliterative title is in fact somewhat misleading and confusing. "Faith" refers to what is ordinarily known as "baptism by desire" (as the dustjacket in fact states); "fiction" embraces not only those who pretend to come to the font for deceitful purposes, such as theatrical performances of any sort in which baptism is enacted; and "force" here applies to those persons and groups, Jewish and "pagan," who are compdled to undergo baptism. "Medieval" is also a trifle eccentric, for the period treated ranges from the patristic (especially post-Nicene and Latin) up to the early-fourteenth century. …

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