Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Bucer on Baptism

I just got back from a week-intensive course down in Columbia, SC with Hughes Oliphant Old. The course was on Baptism in the Reformed Tradition. One of the Reformers we looked at was Martin Bucer. Bucer was a pastor in Strasbourg for a number of years, mentored Calvin for the few years he was there, and later spent time in England as Cramner was preparing to publish the first edition of the Book of Common Prayer. Old pointed us to Bucer's Grund und Ursach as one of the most important works of Bucer on his reforms of worship and the sacraments. The translation of this work is titled Basic Principles by Ottomar Frederick Cypris. We also looked at Bucer's commentary on the Book of Common Prayer translated by E.C. Whitaker.

Several things that I found interesting:

1. In Grund und Ursach Bucer insists that there are in fact two baptisms spoken of in the New Testament. He defends this claim from the words of John the Baptist which distinguish his baptism of water with Christ's baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire. He also notes that Jesus repeats this same idea just prior to his ascension in Acts 1. Bucer says that John, the apostles, and the Church throughout the ages baptize with water, but the baptism with the Spirit is only performed by Christ. He follows this up with a brief overview of the passages which speak of baptism throughout the rest of the New Testament, identifying which baptism is being spoken of in each. So for instance, Bucer says that the baptism to which Peter invites the crowd in Acts 2:38 is a the spirit baptism of Christ, "that is, admit that you are in need of repentance and be baptized in the name of Christ, that is, with faith through the name of Christ you will receive forgiveness of sins, and then you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." Likewise, 1 Peter 3:21, Ephesians 5:26, and Titus 3:5 are references to the baptism of Christ. Bucer explains that "if one reads concerning pardon or forgiveness of sins, it should be ascribed to the baptism of Christ."

2. As noted above Bucer argues that John's baptism was the same as our water baptism. Therefore, with regard to the much argued text in Acts 19:5 where disciples of John are said to be (re)baptized, Bucer strains the Greek to suggest that there is a significant difference between being baptized "with" the baptism of John and being baptized "into" (Gk. "eis") the baptism of John. The latter, which is the language of Acts 19:5, Bucer insists, means that they did not have a full understanding of what John taught. They "had not been baptized with the baptism of John but only, as the text says, into the baptism of John, just as if the baptism of water were sufficient in itself. For this reason the Apostle had to point them to Christ and therefore he also allowed them to be baptized into Him." (emphasis his) Otherwise "they would have had a greater knowledge of Christ and His baptism, which is done through the Spirit." Bucer points out that John clearly preached concerning the Spirit and yet these disciples did not know anything about the Holy Spirit.

3. Bucer cites Romans 6:3-4 and Galatians 3:27 to emphasize the fact that Christ cleanses people through faith in his death and resurrection. It is not absolutely clear but appears that Bucer means for his readers to understand baptism in those passages to refer to the inner, spiritual baptism that Christ alone performs. At the same time, Bucer at one point says that "he who is baptized correctly confesses that he is a child of anger, thoroughly unclean, but believes that Christ will cleanse him from all sins." This almost sounds like he's referring to the "correctness" of water baptism. And again later, he says that "the enlightened achieve this faith through baptism. And therefore, to the external baptism we should ascribe the forgiveness of sins as nothing more than a symbol." Likewise, with regard to the words of Ananias to Paul, "Arise and be baptized and cleansed from your sins and call on the Name of the Lord," Bucer says that Ananias "referred not only to the baptism with water alone, but rather through it to the baptism of the Spirit." This sounds rather close to the language of Westminster regarding the "spiritual union" in sacraments bewteen "the sign and the thing signified" where the names and effects of one may sometimes be attributed to the other (WCF 27.2).

4. One of the challenges that the Reformers faced was the popular understanding of many in their day that baptism was absolutely necessary for salvation. Thus, it became increasingly common for midwives to baptize newborn infants moments after birth to ensure that the grace of baptism had been conferred and salvation secured. The Reformers generally rejected this practice and while they insisted on the importance of baptism as soon as possible after birth, simultaneously maintained, as Bucer says, that "God does not limit his mercy to water."

5. The other extreme that the Reformers faced came in the form of the Anabaptists who rejected the baptism of infants. To this, Bucer points out not only the household baptisms in Acts, but also the swiftness of baptism in the New Testament. He notes that the Philippian jailor was baptized immediately after hearing the gospel and could not have had much understanding. We could point to the Ethiopian eunuch in this same regard. Likewise those who came to the baptism of John surely had a fairly limited understanding of the Kingdom that John was proclaiming. Bucer says that the disciples even baptized people like Simon the magician who had no faith at all, and the disciples themselves are said to have had only "childlike faith." Bucer says that since we do not know who God has chosen and who God has rejected, "we should refuse no one whose godless life is not immediately known to us, whom we could no longer consider to be a little lamb." Bucer basically says that we should baptize anyone who asks or is willing who does not show obvious signs of being in open rebellion or high-handed sin. He closes his case for baptizing children by saying that children are to be baptized "regardless of the fact that with some the water is wasted, as it was wasted on Simon the magician and many others." He seems to being saying that Anabaptists are making too big of a deal about baptism since it is merely a sign or a symbol. He asks, "Why make such a fuss about over a lot of water? . . . And even if we should baptize some billy-goats whom Christ would not have baptized through His Spirit, all that is involved is a lot of water and prayer." Again, he says, "for we prove most diligently that baptism with water does not save, but only the spiritual baptism of Christ, which is its true meaning, and for which one we should pray."


Steven W said...

Have you checked out David Wright's stuff on Bucer? He translated the Common Places and tracks Bucer's progression from Lutheran to Zwinglian and back fairly nicely.

Toby said...

Hey Steven!

No, I haven't seen Wright's stuff yet. But thanks for the heads up. I'll track it down.