Tuesday, January 22, 2008

More Bucer on Baptism

What is quite striking about Bucer's theology of baptism is the differences between his Grund und Ursach (c. 1524) and his commentary on the Book of Common Prayer (c. 1549). As Steven pointed out in the comments below, it is generally recognized that there was considerable development in Bucer's baptismal theology throughout his ministry. Initially, he studied under Luther, then under Zwingli, and towards the end of his ministry was again working closely with Luther. In his early ministry, he faced the greatest hostility from Roman Catholics and (apparently) misunderstood Lutherans. Later, he faced the growing pressures of the Anabaptist movement.

Here are a few selections from his Commentary on the Book of Common Prayer:

1. Discussing the proper days for the baptism of infants, Bucer recommends having baptisms on feast days when the entire church is most likely to be present This is desirable so that the people of the church may be reminded of their own baptism and "the covenant of salvation [foederis salutis] which he undertook in his baptism." Furthermore, it is fitting that fellow members of Christ "should be present in good numbers when one of their children, born to eternal death, is to be born in the church to everlasting life and taken into the number of the sons of God. In this way they may pray God for that benefit and at the same time confer [una conferant] it upon him through the minister in the company of Christ's church..." Bucer goes on to say that at the same time, the infant and those witnessing the baptism are received into one another, being mutually bound by the "obligations of Christian fellowship." Presumably, Bucer has the "covenant of salvation" previously mentioned in mind here. Finally, on the same subject, Bucer says that these things ought to be taught to the ministers performing the baptisms since many of them are more interested in all the extra trappings and theatrics than "for the things which belong to baptism and rebirth [regenerationis]." Of note here is that while regeneration and baptism are distinguished, there appears to be little (if any) separation in time. Clearly, the "covenant of salvation" is contracted in the rite of baptism, but the congregation is also to pray for "that benefit," which presumably is "life everlasting" and adoption as a son of God, and that benefit is in fact to be conferred upon the infant by the minister "at the same time." Obviously, Bucer is not qualifying and distinguishing the "sign" and its "effects" with the same scrupulousness evidenced in the earlier writings found in Grund und Ursach.

2. Bucer comments on a later section and agrees that baptism of infants should be sought from a minister and it ought to be done so in a timely fashion. He also says that they ought to make their request "respectfully" since "unless men show the greatest respect for the mysteries of Christ they receive them to their judgment." This seems to be quite a bit different from the earlier sentiment where Bucer suggested that improper baptisms or baptisms of non-elect were just "wasted water," nothing but "water and prayer." Here, there is not merely the risk of getting wet and wasting a few words; here Bucer says that one risks judgment if proper respect is not offered the "mysteries of Christ."

3. Bucer says that there is no need to retain the older practice of baptizing infants at the door of the church. Bucer seems to think that this part of the ceremony was meant to underline the fact that infants are conceived and born in sin. Bucer says that while this is true and in fact explicitly recognized by the prayers and very act of baptism, the fact that the children of the faithful are "holy" should also be emphasized and "therefore [they] have the right to be taken into the church and to be sanctified in baptism." For this reason Bucer favors bringing the infant all the way into the church, into the midst of the gathered assembly. He says that baptizing at the door is among those "theatrical actions" which merely complicate the ceremony, and "the proper duty of Christians is to worship the Lord in spirit and in truth, and to do nothing on any occasion, least of all at the holy mysteries of our redemption and rebirth [regenerationis] to eternal life, which is imprudent and careless..." Preserving this simplicity and performing the baptism in the midst of the people will increase the common understanding of the sacrament and "reverence for this first and greatest [huius summi, et primi] sacrament" will be restored. It is rather striking that Bucer calls baptism the "first and greatest sacrament."

4. Against the consecration of baptismal water, Bucer insists that "baptism is the sacrament of washing away sins ... because the Lord gained it for us not only by his baptism in the Jordan but also and much more by the baptism of the cross." And Bucer explains that "although water is used in baptism to confer [conferendam] the washing away of sins, yet this effect is not the work of water but of the Lord Christ." Later, commenting on another section with regard to the same idea, he explains that sacraments are not material elements which may be charged (consecrated) with some kind of power that is then transferred to people, but rather "sacraments exist in their use, they are actions, by which the Lord gives remission of sins and the communion of himself to his people, not to water, not to bread and wine: and these gifts are made when these signs are set out and received in conjunction with his word and in obedience to his commands." Clearly, Bucer has continued to preserve some of his old baptismal theology in so far as the action of the sacrament is dependent upon the work of God and not some quality resident in the sacramental elements.

5. Finally, it is interesting that towards the end of Bucer's comments on baptism, where he focuses his attention on catechesis and confirmation, he suggests that many confirmations result from merely parroted answers to questions and not necessarily true professions of faith. While he says that these children ought to be prayed for and given access to the common prayers and praises of God's people (regardless of "their age and degree of faith"), until they are obviously displaying "the fruits of the spirit, the giver of new birth [Spiritus Regeneratoris fructus, lit. "the fruits of the Spirit of Regeneration"]." He explains that they should not yet make confessions of faith since "the covenant of salvation [foedus salutis] is established by God by people who understand it and desire it..." Again, with regard to children/catechumens Bucer insists that they ought not be permitted to the Eucharist or "full communion of Christ" those who show by their lives either an abundance of the works of the flesh or a lack of the fruits of the spirit and ought to remain among the catechumens "until the Lord directs them to receive fully the rebirth [regenerationem] which he offered them in baptism and to make progress in their behavior [vita]." Here, Bucer comes closer to reestablishing some of those older distinctions, but they appear to be in some tension with his other comments in this document. Perhaps the most obvious is the "covenant of salvation" language. Earlier he identified entrance into that covenant as occurring at baptism, and explicitly at the baptism of infants. Here he says that the covenant is with those who have sufficient understanding to make an intelligent and meaningful profession of faith. Likewise, it is unclear how regeneration/the new birth is conferred in baptism on the one hand but also merely offered to be received fully at some later point in life. Bucer says that this distinction between the "undoubted people of God and those who in effect declare that they are not yet of his people [i.e. children/catechumens]" will not be harmful to the state or society since "this distinction is commanded by God, who cannot command anything which is not beneficial..." Bucer then cites 2 Cor. 6 and Matthew 18 for the need for church discipline as well as Lev. 26, Acts 2 and 5, and 2 Thess. 3 in support of his claim. And yet one wonders how baptism can be a means of uniting the infant to the people of the church, being received by those already in communion and regarded as a "son of God" and at the same time still be considered "not yet of his people."

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