Saturday, October 6, 2012

Post-Baptismal Sin and the Logic of the Lutheran Doctrine of Baptism

I'm reading over again a bunch of stuff on the North African Fathers for my history of Christian thought class at the Institute of Lutheran Theology- and it occurred to me how good it was that people in early Christianity eventually changed their minds about the idea that you couldn't be forgiven post-baptismal sins unless you died as a martyr.   Beyond that fact that this stands in contradiction of the Scriptures and the biblical gospel, it would have been an unsustainable in the post-Constantinian Church.  No one was dying as a martyr anymore and so, how would people ever get forgiven?

But I was also thinking of some sort of sci fi scenario (or alternative history- think Larry Turtledove!) where in modern American Christianity this was still the expectation. Would we have people buying tickets in their old age to go to countries hostile to Christianity just so they could figure out a way to get martyred?  Older southern Baptist ladies spending their last retirement funds to go to Pakistan perhaps?  That would be deeply odd.

The question still remains: How did they come up with this bizarre theology?  Perhaps that isolated passage in Hebrews that sort of sounds like you can't sin after baptism?  Personally, I doubt that that can entirely account for it.

For an alternative theory, here's what I've been thinking. I can sort of see how they came up with this idea based on how one views the function of baptism. If baptism is a definitive break with the power of sin (as doubtless Paul says it is in Romans 6!) how does one conceptualize this while allowing for post-baptismal repentance? It's hard. Why? Because if baptism forgives sins and regenerates, and subsequent repentance does the same thing, how are these things functionally different- and beyond that how is baptism special? It just seems one instance of forgiveness and sanctification among others. Ergo, if it's special and definitive, why not conclude that it's the only instance of forgiveness and regeneration! Again, all the language in the NT about baptism being the definitive break with sin could easily be seen as supporting this.

One can therefore see this logic worked out or modified in different traditions depending on what implications they historically drew from this.  The Roman Catholics and Evangelicals deal with this problem differently.  For RC's baptism is a definitive break with sin and this can't be repeated.  RC's then say that penance repairs the complete reality of baptism- this was the way they ultimately came up with of dealing with the fact that people did sin after baptism in the ancient Church. Of course, this then created the problem of the fact that it appeared that the work of the penitent was supplementing the work of Christ and also that people weren't getting all their penance done on earth before they died (hence purgatory!).  Subsequently the tried to solve the former difficulty by distinguishing between temporal and eternal punishment, and by saying that penance was an entry into the sufferings of Christ rather than supplementing them.   

Likewise, Evangelicals and most other low-church Protestants see baptism as symbolic of initiation into the Church.  If it were a break with sin, it would only be one instance among many.  Consequently, it must not be a real break with sin, but only a symbolic entry into the community and perhaps (if you're Baptist) the public pledge that you're really going to try to live the Christian life now.  The idea of a public pledge of really, really trying to work hard to avoid sin is how they reconcile the language of the NT about the break with sin with the fact that they actually don't believe that baptism does anything. 

In light of this, the Lutheran understanding of baptism and repentance takes on new significance. Baptism is the definitive break with sin.  It is the end and there is no moving beyond it- moving beyond it is moving away from it and is by definition sin.  Hence, repentance does not supplement baptism, but is a return to baptism.  This is all rooted in Christology.  Since baptism is dying and rising with Christ, and Christ is present in all of human history according to both natures (he is confined to neither time nor space- this being due to the genus majestaticum), this presence allows for our continual return to the ever present reality of his death and resurrection through divine word of promise. Other Christian groups who deny the genus majestaticum and therefore Christ's omnipresence according to both nature, don't have that possibility.  For this reason, baptism remains as something that happened in the past.  It can only be repaired in the present through some supplemental act (penance) or naturally degenerates into merely symbolic act of having joining the Church.  The only other alternative would be to return to the position of the ancient Church and deny post-baptismal sin.


  1. I am wondering whether perhaps at least in some cases, "sin" was defined or conceived differently. We tend to think either of Original Sin, or of actual sins. And when thinking of the latter, any transgression of the Law qualifies. Read the Ten Commandments through the lens of the Sermon on the Mount, and we don't go seconds without sinning. But I wonder if some were focusing on texts that thought of this differently. Hebrews seems in context to be speaking of aggravated apostasy. Going back to the synagogue and denying Christ. St. John seems to also have some other kind of definition of sin in mind (1 John 3:9), though many of his statements can also be read in a Pauline way (1 John 1:8). I think the later Catholic readings are definitely better, but I suspect that it wasn't difficult to find textual support for the old African view. That just missed a lot more texts. A strong understanding of Law and Gospel is required to account for some of the apparent contradictions in ways of speaking. The Law is spoken as if it will be the last word on the subject. Without understanding the Gospel as the answer to that, we fall into letting the Law have the last word.

  2. Dear Baptist/evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ,

    I ask you to consider these points:

    1. When God said that he would preserve his Word, what did he mean? Did he mean that he would preserve the original papyrus and parchment upon which his Word was written? If so, then his Word has disappeared as none of the original manuscripts remain.

    Did he mean that he would preserve his word in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek only? He would not preserve his Word when it was translated into all the other languages of the world?

    Or did God mean that he would preserve his Word…the message/the words…the Gospel: the free gift of salvation, and the true doctrines of the Christian Faith? Would God allow his Word/his message to mankind to be so polluted by translation errors that no translation, into any other language from the three original languages, continues to convey his true words?

    2. There is NO translation of the Bible, from the original ancient languages, into ANY language, ANYWHERE on earth, that translates the Bible as the Baptists/evangelicals believe it should be translated.

    No Bible translation on earth translates Acts 2:38 as, “Repent and believe in Jesus Christ every one of you and you will receive the Holy Ghost. Then be baptized as a public profession of your faith.”

    Why would God allow EVERY English translation of the Bible throughout history to be mistranslated or use such confusing language as to suggest that God forgives sins in Baptism? And not only all English translations, ALL translations of the Bible have retained these “mistranslations or confusing wording”.

    Do you honestly believe that God would allow his Word to be so polluted with translation errors that EVERY Bible in the world, if read in its simple, plain interpretation, would tell the people of the world that God forgives sins in water baptism??

    3. Why is there not one single piece of evidence from the early Christians that indicates that ANYONE in the 800-1,000 years after Christ believed that: Water baptism is ONLY a public profession of faith/act of obedience; sins are NOT forgiven in water baptism? Yes, you will find statements by these early Christians that salvation is by faith, but do Baptists and evangelicals really understand how a sinner obtains saving faith? THAT IS THE MILLION DOLLAR QUESTION, MY FRIENDS! Does the sinner produce faith by his own free will or does God provide faith and belief as a gift, and if God does provide faith and belief as a free gift, with no strings attached, WHEN exactly does God give it?

    4. Is it possible that: Baptist-like believers, at some point near or after 1,000 AD, were reading the Bible and came across verses that read “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” and “Call upon the name of the Lord and you will be saved” and established their doctrine of Salvation/Justification first, based on these and similar verses alone, and then, looked at the issue of water baptism, and since the idea that God forgives sins in water baptism didn’t seem to fit with the verses just mentioned, these early Baptists re-interpreted these verses to fit with their already established doctrine, instead of believing the “baptism verses” literally?

    Is it possible that BOTH groups of verses are literally correct?? If we believe God’s Word literally, he says that he saves/forgives sins when sinners believe/call AND when they are baptized? Why not believe that God can give the free gift of salvation in both situations: when a sinner hears the Gospel and believes and when a sinner is baptized?

    Should we re-interpret God’s plain, simple words just because they don’t seem to make sense to us?

    God bless you and keep you!