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.

Belief, belonging, and behavior in the ancient Christian church

Change of Conversion and the Origin of ChristendomChange of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom by Alan Kreider

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While reading Kreider’s contribution to Constantine Revisited, I noticed that he had written this short book on the church’s changing conception of conversion over the first six centuries of Christian history. Kreider argues that the pre-Constantinian church differentiated itself from the non-Christian world by bringing its members through a rigorous process:

  • evangelization
  • catechesis that taught believers how to behave like Christians (interestingly, before they were considered fully a part of the Christian community) and give up careers considered to be sinful – including those, like soldiering, that involved killing enlightenment in Christian beliefs in preparation for baptism
  • administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper to new converts, which meant that they belonged to the Christian community (in the 300s, mystagogy was added as a stage that explained baptism and the Lord’s Supper)

Kreider argues that the conversion of Constantine that brought more members and a new relationship with the empire meant that the church struggled to teach distinctive beliefs, behavior, and belonging to its members.
From a historical perspective, it’s a fascinating study. It does raise some questions, though. What would have been the right way to handle Constantine and the increased numbers? How were children of believers handled with this model in place? Does participation in government really always mean participation in “the world” in a sinful sense?

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Quick thoughts on Ehrman’s “How Jesus Became God”

How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from GalileeHow Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee by Bart D. Ehrman

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I knew where Ehrman was coming from before I read it, but it was still pretty disappointing. He’s a gifted writer and can explain his points clearly, but I was hoping for something more scholarly than popular. It seemed to me that writing for a popular audience allowed him to float over other scholarly perspectives on early Christianity if he wishes. I would have liked to see him interact with Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses that makes an extended academic case for the presence of eyewitness testimony in the gospels, but that perspective is never considered. Ehrman also seemingly approaches Christian sources, especially the New Testament sources, with the attitude that if an author does not mention something that appears somewhere else (especially in the birth or resurrection accounts of Jesus), then that author never heard of it or disagrees with it.

Perhaps the disappointment is my fault for not knowing that it was a popular rather than academic book. Also, Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is, I think, the only academic work of New Testament scholarship that I’ve ever read, so I’m hardly an expert on what needs to be responded to and what doesn’t. I did think that Larry Hurtado, whose work Ehrman uses in the book, provided some thought-provoking praise and criticisms here.

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Leithart rises to Constantine’s defense

Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of ChristendomDefending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom by Peter J. Leithart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Leithart’s arguments are always thought-provoking. He synthesizes scholarship about the conditions from which Constantine emerged and about his life and rule in order to argue against the notion that the church “fell” when Constantine converted. Especially in view is John Howard Yoder’s writing about this subject, which Leithart considers more sophisticated than most other criticisms of Constantine’s effects on the church. Leithart shares with Yoder the idea of the church as the true city, the city of God’s people, but Leithart’s understanding is very Augustinian, opposing Yoder’s pacifism and his sense that the church mostly capitulated to Roman and Germanic influences.

Leithart really emphasizes the significant inroads against pagan sacrifice and pagan religions made under Constantine, as well as the more Christian public space that he helped to create and highlighted the importance of the replacing of constant pagan sacrifice with the finished sacrifice of Christ. I also enjoyed learning a bit about Lactantius.

Leithart also points out the significance of the Antonine Constitution of 212. To get more tax revenue, the emperor Caracalla made all non-slaves citizens of Rome, mostly to get everyone on the tax rolls. I had always seen this presented as the final stage in the gradual expansion of citizenship that the Romans had allowed since their early days of conquest in Italy. The Romans saw citizenship as something that could be expanded, in stark contrast to the refusal of Greek city-states to extend it even to other Greeks.

Leithart highlights a different effect, though. The Antonine Constitution made the empire one city (as opposed to “a commonwealth of cities,” to use Peter Brown’s phrase) with all of the religious significance that entailed in the ancient world. This meant that religious dissent was treasonous, and set the stage for the empire-wide persecutions of Christians by Decius, Valetinian, and Diocletian.

All of this means that Leithart has a lot of interesting things to say, especially toward the end, about modern church-state relations.

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Eyewitness gospels

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness TestimonyJesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony by Richard Bauckham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was the first whole book of serious gospels scholarship that I’ve read. Bauckham deploys textual scholarship; knowledge about the art of writing history in the ancient world; Christian writings from the New Testament and 2nd century; and studies of memory, testimony, and the transmission of oral traditions to argue for the pervasive influence of eyewitness testimony in the writing of the gospels. He posits the model of the careful guarding of traditions that were passed on to Christian communities against the view of form criticism, which holds that little historical information can be found in the gospels. Bauckham’s views of Scripture are on the conservative end of the spectrum, though he does not hold to inerrancy of the Bible or the traditional views of the authorship of the gospels of Matthew and John.

I agreed with the main thrust of the book’s argument, so I can’t be a good judge of its persuasiveness. I can say that it was a fascinating look at the gospels and the world in which they were written.

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Kruger on the canon

Last year, Michael Kruger, president and New Testament prof at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, wrote a series of blog posts called “10 Misconceptions about the NT Canon.” Here is a list of the posts:

  1. The Term “Canon” Can Only Refer to a Fixed, Closed List of Books
  2. Nothing in Early Christianity Dictated That There Would be a Canon
  3. The New Testament Authors Did Not Think They Were Writing Scripture
  4. New Testament Books Were Not Regarded as Scriptural Until Around 200 A.D.
  5. Early Christians Disagreed Widely over the Books Which Made It into the Canon
  6. In the Early Stages, Apocryphal Books Were as Popular as the Canonical Books
  7. Christians Had No Basis to Distinguish Heresy from Orthodoxy Until the Fourth Century
  8. Early Christianity was an Oral Religion and Therefore Would Have Resisted Writing Things Down
  9. The Canonical Gospels Were Certainly Not Written by the Individuals Named in Their Titles
  10. Athanasius’ Festal Letter (367 A.D.) is the First Complete List of New Testament Books

None of the entries is very long. My favorites were 2, 7, and 8, and I found 10’s analysis of a document from Origen interesting if not totally convincing.

Kruger argues in the second post that Christians’ belief that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament, that he brought a new covenant, and that the apostles spoke for him would logically propel them to think that the NT was the completion of the story. Here’s what he said about the new covenant:

2. The earliest Christians believed that Jesus inaugurated a new covenant.  We must remember that the Jews of the first century were covenantally oriented. N.T. Wright has observed that “Covenant theology was the air breathed by the Judaism of this period.”[5]  And it is clear that the earliest Christians were also covenantally oriented, as they saw Jesus as ushering in a new covenant (Luke 22:20; cf. Matt 26:28Mark 14:24; 2 Cor 3:6; Heb 7:22, 8:8).  What implications does this belief have on canon?  The answer lies in the very close connection between covenants and written texts.  It is well-established by now that the very concept of ‘covenant’ (or treaty) was drawn from the ancient near eastern world where a suzerain king would often make a treaty-covenant with his vassal king. And here is the key: when such covenants were made, they were accompanied by written documentation of that covenant.  It is not surprising then that when God made a treaty-covenant with Israel on Sinai, he gave them written documentation of the terms of that covenant.  Indeed, so close was the connection between the covenant and written texts, that Old Testament language would often equate the two—the written text was the covenant!

If this is the background of early Christian understanding of covenants, then the implications are easy to see. The earliest Christians were themselves immersed in the covenantal structure of the Old Testament and thus would have understood this critical connection between covenants and written texts.  Thus, if they believed that through Jesus Christ a new covenant had been inaugurated with Israel (Jer 31:31), it would have been entirely natural for them to expect new written documents to testify to the terms of that covenant.  In other words, this Old Testament covenantal background provides strong historical reason for thinking that early Christians would have had a predisposition towards written canonical documents and that such documents might have arisen naturally from the early Christian movement.  At a minimum, the covenantal context of early Christianity suggests that the emergence of a new corpus of scriptural books, after the announcement of a new covenant, could not be regarded as entirely unexpected.

This appears to find confirmation in 2 Cor 3:6 when Paul refers to himself and the other apostles as “ministers of the new covenant”—and Paul makes this declaration in a written text that bears his authority as a minister of the new covenant.  Thus, one could hardly fault the Corinthians if they understood Paul’s letter as, in some sense, a covenant document.

In the seventh post, Kruger writes that the Old Testament, the New Testament books long recognized as authoritative (“especially Paul’s major epistles and the four gospels”), and the rule of faith could determine orthodoxy. Here’s what he says about the rule of faith, with his footnotes appended below the quote:

c. The “rule of faith.”  The authoritative apostolic tradition in the first century came to be summarized and known by a number of names such as the regula fidei (“rule of faith”), or “the canon of truth”).  This summary was used as a key weapon in the early church’s battle against heresy by church fathers such as Dionysius of Corinth, Hipploytus, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen.  The rule of faith was a particularly effective weapon because it was oral (in a mostly illiterate world), it was relatively brief (and therefore easily employed), and it was widespread (and thus available to a broad range of churches). The rule of faith did not contain new teachings or doctrines that were not found in the Scriptures, nor was it unduly separated from the Scriptures as if they were two entirely independent sources for orthodox teaching.  Instead, it was understood to be “a summary of Scripture’s own story line”[4] or “the principle and logic of Scripture itself.”[5]  Or, as Irenaeus put it, the rule is “the order and the connection of the Scriptures.”[6]

[5] John J. O’Keefe and R. R. Reno, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 120.

[6]Haer 1.8.1.

Hat tip: Justin Taylor