Fictive baptism

Aaron Denlinger recently wrote a post at Reformation 21 describing his daughter’s recent interest in baptism after seeing a baptism in church. He referred to some stories from church history related by Marcia Colish in her recent Faith, Force and Fiction in Medieval Baptism Debates:

In the early church stories arose of pagan persons who pretended baptism as part of Roman plays enacted on stage in mockery of Christian beliefs. In other words, water was applied to individuals in the Triune name not in the interest of actually conferring the sacrament, but in ridicule of Christian faith and ritual. But, according to Christian legend, the actors undergoing baptism in mockery of Christian practice were on more than one occasion actually converted by the sacrament, and then immediately announced as much to their fellow-actors and audiences, and — without fail — were martyred either by the unimpressed crowds or civil authorities who happened to be in attendance. This apparently happened to one Ardalion in 293, one Gelasinus in 296, and one Porphyrius in 362.

Roman actors weren’t the only ones engaging in pretended baptisms. The fourth-century historian Rufinus tells a story of the Alexandrian Bishop Alexander observing several young boys mimicking Christian baptism on the banks of the river Nile. Intrigued (and somewhat troubled) by the scene, Alexander had the boys brought to him and interrogated them regarding their play. When one boy among them who had assumed the role of “bishop” described to Alexander the words and rite he had employed in baptizing his friends, Alexander concluded that the baptisms administered were in fact valid, and that the baptized boys should subsequently be catechized. The young baptizer (who himself came under care of the church) was no other than Athanasius, the future (real) bishop of Alexandria who championed the cause of Nicene orthodoxy for much of the fourth century.

The stories of actors and children pretending — whether innocently or not — baptisms which, by one judgment or another, proved valid if not effective, figured significantly into later patristic and medieval conversations about the proper criteria for baptismal validity and efficacy. So Augustine, for example, reckoned that pretended baptisms were genuine and that recipients of such, even if genuine faith came later, should not be re-baptized, but denied that such baptisms were ultimately effective (as instruments for those spiritual realities which baptism signifies, such as the remission of sins) until the persons so baptized came to genuine faith and repentance (See Augustine’s On baptism 1.12). This of course complemented Augustine’s position on baptisms administered by profane or heretical persons — such baptisms, according to Augustine, were likewise valid (but ineffectual unless or until the baptized joined himself to the true church). Thomas Aquinas took a slightly stricter view on these matters, arguing that proper intent to receive baptism was a criterion for baptism’s validity (at least for those of sufficient age to intend), thereby raising doubts about the authenticity (and so, by implication, the purported efficacy) of at least those baptisms received by Roman actors.

The age of DeSade

Yesterday, I read Carl Trueman’s post at First Things in which he suggested that we live in an age that fulfills the dreams of the Marquis DeSade:

DeSade’s ideal world is that to which we appear to be heading.   Like him, we deny any intrinsic moral significance to sexual activity whatsoever and thus see it as something which is of no more ethical importance than buying a cup of coffee or eating a sandwich. In such a world, the celibate and the monogamous are increasingly counted as freaks, representatives of a defective, repressive cultural vision. Thus, the social pressure to be promiscuous becomes an integral part of the culture and the withholding of consent comes to be increasingly difficult, the act of social schismatics, freaks, and (to use the favored clichés of the day) the inauthentic, those who do not wish to flourish.

As evidence, Trueman pointed to a piece by Rod Dreher discussing sexual mores on college campuses.

As if to illustrate the point further, a piece appeared at the Huffington Post yesterday in which Noah Michelson criticizes other gay people who don’t want a sexual free-for-all:

I believe sex is a gift that allows us to connect with others (and ourselves) for a night, for a lifetime or just for 25 minutes during our lunch break. I believe sex and pleasure are nothing short of magical and transformative. I believe queer people have been appointed by some higher power to help change the way that our society thinks about sex. And I refuse to believe that just because queer people are increasingly being folded into the mainstream, we should give up fighting for all of the things we’ve been fighting for all these years. The goal has never been to get the same rights as non-queer people so we could be just like non-queer people, even though some, like Caramanno, might argue otherwise. We’re supposed to be leading by example and showing that sex is not scary, sex is not dirty, sex doesn’t need to be with just one partner and in a healthy, happy society, sex should be an important and inspiring way of connecting with one another. If I had it my way we’d have sex shops in every neighborhood right next to the local McDonald’s and we’d talk about sex in every school and we wouldn’t give films with sexual content NC-17 ratings while slapping PG-13 ratings on mindnumbingly violent films.

While Michelson uses spiritual language in an attempt to ennoble his vision, what he actually advocates in this paragraph and the article goes along exactly with what Trueman discusses.

As Trueman points out in this piece and has pointed out before (along with others), the consent of the parties tends to be the cultural standard for judging the morality of sex, yet this may be unstable:

Yet if sex is evacuated of any intrinsic ethical significance, and the culture turns against celibacy and monogamy, the notion of consent itself may eventually become as morally meaningless as the orgasms it is supposed to legitimate.  Indeed, one could even see a case eventually being made in DeSade world for the withholding of sex being considered an act of oppression, like the withholding of a wedding cake or a photo-shoot.

Again, as if to illustrate Trueman’s point, Michelson has no sympathy for Thomas Caramanno’s complaints about, among other things, being groped. This doesn’t go as far as Trueman’s hypothetical future, but the trajectory seems similar.

Warning: The pieces by Michelson and especially Dreher contain implicit and explicit sexual references.

Luther and his critics

On the Freedom of a Christian: With Related TextsOn the Freedom of a Christian: With Related Texts by Martin Luther

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had only read excerpts of On the Freedom of a Christian before, so I was glad to read the whole thing. Luther explains not only the place of faith but also of good works in his theology. The accompanying documents were also helpful. There were lengthy excerpts of criticisms of Luther by his nemesis Johannes Eck and English bishop John Fisher. From another angle, the editor (Tryntje Helfferich) included the revolutionary theologian Thomas Muentzer’s harsh assault against Luther for not siding with the peasant rebels in the mid-1520s, as well as Luther’s call for the nobles to suppress the peasant rebels. The commentary by the editor was helpful, too.

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The classic biography of Luther

Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Classic Biographies)Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland H. Bainton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I can see why this book is considered a classic. Bainton gives great insights into Luther’s times, ideas, and personality, and surveys the incredible amount of work that he accomplished: founding a church, translating the Bible into German (which had a similar effect on German language to the King James’ effect on English), writing catechisms, prayers, tracts, and lectures. He doesn’t shy away from Luther’s flaws, either. And he does all this while writing so that any adult (not just a history buff) could pick up the book and really enjoy it.

I would have liked more focus on Luther’s last years, and I disagreed with some of Bainton’s comments that were influenced by modern liberal theology, but this is definitely a five-star book.

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Denys Turner: how to be an atheist

Denys Turner, writing from what I think is a somewhat theologically liberal Catholic perspective, challenged atheists to truly ask the bigger questions in his lecture (published as a short book) How to Be an Atheist:

So, “how to be an atheist?” it is not easy; you need to work at it. Be intellectually adult, get an education, get yourself a discipline; resist all temptation to ask such questions as you do not know in principle can be answered, being careful to suppress any which might seem to push thought off civilised limits; be reasonable, lest you find yourself being committed to an excessive rationality; and have the good manners to scratch no itches which occur in intellectually embarrassing places — at least in public. Then I shall argue with you on behalf of the child, not in the name of God but in the name of a question which remains about the world, not yet in the name of theology, but in the name, merely,  of an intellectual possibility that you have excluded, not on account of how the world is, which seems a relatively sensible and obvious state of affairs to me, but out of amazement of intellect, and a sort of primal gratitude of spirit, that there is anything at all, rather than nothing, and that there is anyone at all, rather than no one, for whom it exists. For, of the two possibilities there are, that there is anything at all must be by far the more unlikely outcome. If you want to be an atheist, then, it is necessary only to find that the world is to be a platitudinously dull fact (39).

The state vs. civil society

The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and FreedomThe Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom by Robert A. Nisbet

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Nisbet, writing in 1953, provides a powerful framework for understanding the power of the state and its relation to civil society since the French Revolution: as the state has grown, it has reduced and often tried to replace the smaller, often local associations (churches, local communities, families, etc.). He tells the story well, though his chapter on totalitarianism needed more evidence and explanation.

The ISI edition also has a good introduction by Ross Douthat and the response of three other authors at the end. Two of them, by David Bosworth and Jeanne Heffernan Schindler, point out some important weaknesses as well. Bosworth notes that not enough attention is paid to economic and technological change because of the focus on the role of the state, and Schindler presses for a more solid definition of human beings, marriage, and the church based in Catholic teaching.

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Robert Nisbet’s critique of John Stuart Mill

In The Quest for Community, Robert Nisbet argues that the modern state and modern political and economic thought have consistently assaulted smaller-scale social groups and institutions — the family, religious groups, local communities, labor associations — that can mediate between the state and the individual, often in the name of freeing the individual from the limits imposed by these groups. Yet these assaults have resulted in the increasing power of the modern state, which itself tries to fulfill the sense of belonging that these smaller associations provided.

Nisbet also writes that while modern liberal thought treats individuals as autonomous, modern liberals did not realize that much of what they took for granted about individual motivation and behavior was taught by the groups that people belonged to, rather simply existing in the individual. Here is his commentary on John Stuart Mill:

By almost all of the English liberals of the nineteenth century, freedom was conceived not merely in terms of immunities from the powers political government but, more significantly, in terms of the necessity of man’s release from custom, tradition, and from local groups of every kind. Freedom was held to lie in emancipation from association, not within association.

Thus in what is perhaps the noblest of individualistic testaments of freedom in the nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill’s essay On Liberty, there is the clear implication that membership in any kind of association or community represents an unfortunate limitation upon the creative powers of the individual. It is not Mill’s definition of individuality that is at fault. This is matchless. The fault lies rather in his psychological and sociological conception of the conditions necessary to the development of individuality.

Mill is generous in his praise of localism, association, and the “smaller patriotisms” when he is discussing administrative problems of centralization. But in matters pertaining to the nature of man and motivations he is too much the child of his father. For him as for the elder Mill, individuality is something derived from innate qualities alone and nourished solely by processes of separation and release. (page 211 in the 2010 ISI edition)


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