Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Baptism and Rene Descartes

This past Sunday marked my last sermon in a series on the "five-finger" exercise. That meant a sermon on baptism--the big enchilada where Churches of Christ are concerned. If you're interested in the entire sermon, you can find it (give it a few days) at

Here, I just want to talk about one point I made in the sermon. The idea that being a Christian without the experience of baptism is a fairly recent phenomenon. To my knowledge, it is only a recent development (within the last 150 years?) that baptism has been seen as optional or even unnecessary. Before that, people argued about the mode or proper subject of baptism, but not about its necessity. So, why this recent development.

As with all problems I experience in life, I blame Rene Descartes. I am kidding, mostly. It's not Descartes himself, but a legacy that exalts the interior of the individual as the place of ultimate reality. Decartes' dictum, "I think, therefore, I am," captures a prevalent impulse that locates what is most real within the individual conscience. The real action takes place, not external to me or even involving my body, but within me. So, we say things like "baptism is the outward sign of an inward reality." What's important here? The interior of the individual. And who am I as an individual? The sum of my thoughts and feelings. Baptism is only important as it relates to those, which means sometimes it is not important at all.

This exalting of the interior of the individual corresponds to understandings of language, symbols, and rituals that also characterize the Enlightenment and certain "modern" notions. Symbols only point to reality, they don't participate in it. Words only point to what is real. Rituals, like baptism, are "mere rituals" or "only symbolic" of greater realities. And because all the real action happens inside me, what's real doesn't need to be mediated to me through a sign or language or ritual, it comes to me directly.

It is not surprising, in light of this, that evangelicalism in North America, the reigning champion of this view of the individual, would diminish the importance of baptism. Lest we are too hard on evangelicals, however, it is important for those of us within Churches of Christ to recognize our own affinity with this view of life and the sideways way we attached it to baptism. The same impulse, for instance, that privileges the interior of the individual in relation to baptism also allows an individual to feel justified in switching congregations if they are personally dissatisfied. Or, this impulse is present in the primary ways we evaluate worship. "I enjoyed that today." Or, "That didn't connect with me at all." We spend an inordinate amount of time and energy thinking about how our worship will connect with the interiors of individuals.

Part of the Enlightenment impulse related to the individual also had to do with notions of progress and self-mastery. The appeal of baptism for many early Stone-Campbell leaders was precisely because it was something we could do to guarantee our salvation. Ironically, it was a way to guarantee our standing before God apart from tradition--a naked (no, not literally) encounter between the individual and God.

I want to put baptism in a different light. Like all things, if it is saving, baptism is something God does through the mediation of others--community, water, Spirit, death and resurrection of Jesus, etc. Second, symbols and rituals do not only mimic or point to realities, they help to create them. They are not simply substitutes for something more real. They accomplish something in ways that other, perhaps more straightforward, accounts of things can't. Baptism does something real that is greater than whatever it is going on inside of us. Finally, the measure of all things is not the interior life of the individual. We are persons and have identities not because we are self-conscious, but precisely because we are conscious of the other. As individuals, we are not the measure of the meaning of life. The saving work of God on our behalf comes through our bodily participation in a community called into the realities of the work of Jesus. Baptism enacts this very reality. 


Tim Russell said...

I personally enjoyed reading this on an individual level.

Mark Love said...

Thanks, Tim, for honoring my otherness by reading this post.

Don Hildenbrand said...

Mark, as someone who has "left the fold" of the CoC, and experienced a few other theological traditions, and been ordained in one, I don't think the debate is whether or not baptism is "necessary" or "optional". The debate, as I see it, and as I've experienced it, is over whether or not the "act" of baptism is what saves. Personally, I believe it does not, but I would never counsel someone to to NOT be baptized. Just as I would never counsel someone to NOT go to church, engage in communion, pray, or read the Bible, These things are all PART of the Christian Experience, but they are not THE Christian Experience. I think baptism is a very important part of that life/experience, but without the inner change that comes prior to the moment of entering the wah-wah, all we get is... a wet sinner. That's my 2 1/2 cents worth anyway.
I certainly do enjoy reading your thoughts. I guess we've all come a long way since Eastside in the 70's... ;-)

Mark Love said...


The ability to distinguish between somethings as part of the Christian experience (church, communion, prayer, reading Scripture) and something else AS the Christian experience may be pointing to exactly what I have in mind. I'm wondering what that might be for you? Where would the real thing be located?

We are indeed a long time removed from the Eastside days.


Don Hildenbrand said...

Mark, for me, the "real Thing" would be, in a word, faith. And I'm not talking about the "I kind of sort of believe" kind of "faith, but an all encompassing trust in the goodness and grace of God as expressed through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. In my oh so very humble opinion, baptism, for example, has to be preceded by faith...indeed, it is faith which wakens in us the knowledge that baptism is a command from God, and awakens in us the desire to follow that command. Again, in my oh so humble opinion, when does "salvation" happen? In my wee mind, not at the moment of baptism, but at the moment of faith.
But then, I've matured a bit since my early twenties, (I hope!) and, rather than trying to "prove" that baptism isn't necessary, I've come to realize that those on different sides of the issue are really just seeing two different sides of the same coin. The good news is... we're really all on the same side! The winning one... ;-)
The bottom line, as someone once told me, is that, when we all get to heaven (hmmm...sounds like a song!)you will notice 3 types of people... 1)People whom you're surprised aren't there. 2)People you're surprised ARE there. 3)People who are are surprised YOU'RE there!
I'm ready and willing to be surprised, and I think part of the surprise will be that we've ALL missed the boat somewhere theologically, but that, at it's essence, we were all saying the same thing... (talking about Christians...) It's all about faith, baby!
OK, enough senseless rambling... exit, stage left!

Anonymous said...

So, is what you are saying is that the purpose of baptism is to join a social group? Like the local church? Does baptism have anything to do with my sin? I have been reading a Bible. I am convinced I am a sinner before God. And I am convinced that Jesus died and rose for my sins. I really believe that. But I don't know how to contact Him, I don't know how to get to that forgiveness. I am not worried about the group right now. Maybe I should be. But I am lost. And I don't know what you are saying that can help me. What can I do to have God forgive me to have these sins gone?

I ask 10 preachers, I get 10 answers. This was the most confusing.

Mark Love said...


Several possible responses here. First, yes, I'm asking you to join a social group--the life of Father, Son and Spirit. Second, baptism is definitely about sin, but your sin is not only a transgression requiring a different legal verdict. Sin is also a power, a disposition, and salvation as a result requires that this power be broken and this disposition, or mind as Paul calls it, be reversed. If sin as a power is rooted in the belief and practice that "I am my own," that the self is primarily the sum total of my inner dispositions, needs, desires, etc, then the only way to overcome that is through the recognition of something outside of yourself as having a prior claim on your life. You need the other. And since you lack the power to do this simply by an appeal to your will, you need a power outside of yourself and human will to make this all effective. Finally, if the power is son is made effective because of the looming reality of death, then death must be overcome and a new form of life must take hold of us. The only way to bring all of this together that I know is through the life of God expressed through Jesus Christ, and particularly his death and resurrection. Baptism holds all of these realities together. So, you might want to be baptized only for forgiveness or for washing away your sins (and baptism is certainly a remedy for that), but God has something more and much larger in mind that is not first about you or your personal guilt.

I am sorry about the confusion. I am sure that you could find people who are clearer about these matters than I am. I was only reiterating one point made in a sermon. Had I started with your scenario, I would have answered far differently, though with no guarantee of greater clarity.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, that didn’t make much sense. Perhaps I have made too much out of the sin and guilt thing. Pretty old fashioned concept. The therapists agree. I should just learn to let it go. That whole bloody cross narrative sort of made me feel uneasy. I’ll take your advice and look elsewhere. Till then: A good beer, some good music, some good friends...Thanks for your help

Don said...

I agree that the confusion between Dr. Love and Anonymous arises from Rene Descartes, but not for the reason Dr. Love says. Postmodernist epistemology arising from Descartes provided a secure basis of human knowing without reference to an absolute. A God centered epistemology was displaced with a definite “I” (think therefore I am). It was only a matter of time before the limitations of this “I’ became apparent: different “I”s think different things. This Campbell rejected and turned to scripture as the authoritative and absolute truth of a transcendent God.

It is Dr. Love who has embraced Descartes with his philosophical explanation and diminishing of baptism completely devoid of scripture. Many centuries before a Roman Jailor, convicted of sin, asked the selfish question, “What must I do to be saved?” The plea was brought about by the conviction of true, personal guilt before a transcendent, righteous God. It is Love following Descartes that “exalts the interior of the individual as the place of ultimate reality.” The ultimate reality is the Cross. That is where the “real action” has taken place. And a believing, repented sinner obediently contacts the blood that dripped from that cross.

Whether Campbell’s conclusions were right or wrong, he approached the scripture as understandable truth. Campbell rejected Descartes’ implications that truth began with man. The answer for a believing, repented person to the question, “Do I need to be baptized?” is the same as for those who first asked: “Yes.” A preacher of the Gospel should be able to answer a question like that with a “guarantee of greater clarity.” Peter did. Paul did. Jesus did.

Mark Love said...

Don, you can call me Mark. And maybe anonymous will benefit more from your explanation. I would simply say that I think a generous reading of my post would see that I'm trying to strengthen both views related to baptism and the centrality of God to the whole enterprise (This post was one part of a bigger sermon on Romans 6). You may think I've failed, but I think I should at least get credit for trying.

Francis said...

Baptism does seem to me to be an individual decision. It is not a communal bath.

Mark Love said...

Francis, and all others...I am not denying the personal side of baptism. I am rather critiquing a view of reality that says what counts most is the interior of the individual. Biblical notions of salvation insist, in my opinion, that this cannot be the case. Again, I think that this rather recent view of things (ontology eclipsed by epistemology), one that most of your posts seems to accept, has served to diminish the importance of baptism for many even if it didn't for you. My argument has the benefit of a historical correspondence. Again, not until recently did some Christians come to view baptism as optional or unnecessary.

And, I would say in light of this and as rebuttal to the modern exaltation of the individual that baptism is a communal bath. You are buried with Christ in baptism and you receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and you are joined to the people of God. And unless you are Robert Duvall in The Apostle and baptize yourself, then someone is in the water with you--someone who has done this before you, someone I think who represents the faithful. And this involvement of the divine persons and other humans--this participation in something larger, in divine realities-- is what makes it saving. (I assume that none of you believes that you are cleaning yourself in baptism).

All that to say...

Dickson said...

Seems to me that it would be much simpler and more effective to answer Anonymous' question by giving the same kind of information that Jesus gave his apostles, "He that believes and is baptized shall be saved."(Mark 16:16)

Or by giving the same reply that Peter gave to the crowd on Pentecost, "repent and be baptized for the remission of sins." (Acts 2:38)

It seem to me that Bible answers are usually better than those given by philosophers. I think Paul thought so too. "I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." (I Cor 2:1-2)