Learning Luther: Baptism in the Large Catechism

Editors’ Note: The Virginia Synod is encouraging pastors and laity to read Luther’s writings through the year 2015/16 via these reading guides by Paul R. Hinlicky. The synod has kindly agreed to let us reproduce them here month by month.

This month we turn to the section on Baptism in the Large Catechism, in the Kolb & Wengert edition of The Book of Concord, pp. 456–467.

Baptism is the sacrament of reception into the community of Christ. As with the Lord’s Prayer, Luther stresses that Baptism is God’s Word, neither law nor promise but gospel imperative, the new creative command. As such it is not a self-invented rite or religious practice, but revealed from above on the banks of the river Jordan when the Lord emerged from the waters. The theophany there of the Father above speaking His beloved Son on whom He sends His Spirit for battle with the unholy spirits inaugurates the reign of God. With Jesus’ Easter victory, baptism is henceforth performed in the Triune name to “snatch” believers from the “jaws of hell” and deliver them safely into the kingdom of Christ. Baptism thus comes to us as the frontline of the reign of God; it happens to us as dying with Christ and in Him rising to newness of life. It a specific form with a specific function of God’s “external” word that comes to the self from outside of the self to transform the self by uniting with Christ and endowing with His Spirit.

Luther’s polemic is aimed accordingly against the new “sects” and “sectarians” who reject sacramental baptism as an “external thing,” a mere ceremony that washes the body but cannot reach and touch the desires of the heart. Luther, however, surely agrees that the “heart” is the place in the world where the change of regeneration has to occur, if a child of fallen humanity is truly to be converted from the seat of her desires into a Christian. The Spirit imparts fides ex corde, faith from the heart, faith that transforms desire by re-focusing it on the one, true God, the only eternal good. The baptized, consequently, seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness. They prayer to their heavenly Father, Thy kingdom come! Thy will be done! They learn to have no others gods.

To illustrate this penetration from the outside into the heart of human desire, Luther employed some images which can become misleading if taken too far. One that became famous (if not notorious) in the nineteenth century was the image of the “kernel and the husk,” so that the exterior wrapper, the “husk,” could be removed and discarded in order to get at the nutmeat. Luther’s point is that God hides Himself in His revelation, in bread and wine and water and words of human witness, just as in the humanity of Jesus Christ. God hides Himself in this way to approach humanity body to body, embodied, to “be there for us” as one of us in space and time is there for another, somewhere in particular. Hence for Luther, the kernel and the husk cannot be separated; they come together as a “package deal,” so to say, holistically acquiring in turn the baptized, “body and soul.”

That God hides Himself in this way to gain us body-to-soul has, for Luther, two further implications. First, faith must have an object to which to cling, and second, faith remains faith, not sight, in just this reliance on a worldly object that promises extraordinary things. To say that I am elect or chosen may be true, but it has no objective form like saying, “I am baptized.” In the latter case, something happened visibly, something tangibly occurred in the world. This something that was done cannot be undone. It bears facticity. Yet living by faith in the word of promise that came by way of an ordinary human act in the world, until the glory of the Lord is revealed on the last day, purges desire. Idols are exposed. False faith is disillusioned. Righteousness increases. Love grows. All this in the sense of the purification of the self, attested in Luther’s familiar words: “Take they goods, fame, fortune, child and spouse, they yet have nothing won. The Kingdom ours remaineth.”

Baptism is divinely commanded, then, to effect deliverance from sin, death, and the devil. It is the bath of rebirth or regeneration that does what is says and says what it does. Luther stresses this performative nature of the regenerating Word, “I baptize you in the Name…” against the “sectarians” who have turned Luther’s own teaching of “faith alone” against the external Word of the sacraments. The abuse of the kernel and husk image in 19th century had its precedent in those contemporaries of Luther who regarded him as still half-mired in papist error for retaining sacraments as an external prop over against a purely mental Word taken by faith alone.

In Slovakia during the nineteenth century, for example, some au courant Lutheran pastors would baptize by dipping their thumb in water and making a damp sign of the cross on the infant’s forehead. In this way, they dramatized their anti-Catholic point that it is the Word alone that effects anything, that the water is a next-to-incidental addition to the Word. Luther hardly thinks this way. Careful reading of his exposition in this part of the Large Catechism shows that the sign of water for him is immersion. Drowning the old Adam/Eve, as Romans 6 teaches, is the very thing signified in the sacramental action or visible Word, which is the specific form that the gospel command takes in inaugurating anyone into the battle of the reign of God.

What does that say about contemporary practices of sprinkling? Luther quotes Augustine’s dictum that the Word is added to the element and thus a sacrament is made. Surely, “sprinkling” or “dipping” are “valid” applications of an element, water, if we want to get legalistic about it. But do they properly signify as immersion (“dunking”) signifies: death, drowning, being crucified with Christ? Or do we shy from even wishing to signify that?

But Luther says this water has become an “eternal water” by virtue of its sacramental union with the living and eternal Word of God, the second person of the Trinity, incarnate for us as the Lamb who was slain. Thus this sacramental water for spiritual drowning is capable of being grasped by the senses as something that comes upon one from outside the self, available not to introspection but rather, so to speak, to “extraspection.” Faith depends on this objectivity that the Word acquires in the bath, which addresses its promise to the baptized personally: you who here die with Christ will likewise rise with Him. Thus the certainty of faith rests on a historical event: Baptizatus sum! “I am baptized,” i.e. obtained, won, claimed by Christ and sealed by His Spirit, dead to sin but alive to God.

Luther adds an excursus on the practice of baptizing infants. The basic thought here is the old dictum, Abusus non tollit usum. Abuse does not disqualify right use. But what is right use? Let us well note that Luther concedes that baptism is abused in the indiscriminate, not to say promiscuous baptism of infants who are presented for the sacrament for the wrong reasons and/or motives (see his lament about this in the Baptismal Booklet in the Small Catechism, Book of Concord, pp. 371–375). Why else would he innovate in the catechetical tradition by adding section on baptism, if not to instruct and thus properly prepare? It would be a great advance for us today if we could come even this far to acknowledge that baptism is abused in the indiscriminate practice common among us. Pastors who baptize infants of parents without taking the time and the care to instruct them in what they are doing, in the hope of “drawing them in,” are trafficking with the Word of God.

In his own day, Luther justified infant baptism because the Holy Spirit had confirmed this practice for a thousand years by making Christians out of these baptized infants. In this way, Luther once again indicates that he does not understand himself to be rejecting Catholicism but rather reforming it. Even more central to his theology, however, is the thought that faith does not create baptism, but receives it. Baptism creates and forms faith. Thus, even if an unbaptized adult comes to faith, the faith to which this person comes is faith ordered to baptism, i.e. to the public act of reception into the ecclesia by dying in Christ to sin to rise to His newness of life as signified in sacrament.

Because this is what baptism properly signifies, Luther rightly infers, re-baptizing is not permitted, inasmuch as it effectively declares the original baptism false, along with the ministry that performed it and the church that sponsors it. Rebaptism is thus the ultimately schismatic act. I would go so far as to suggest that Luther would have tolerated a practice of adult baptism, provided there was no rebaptism. But in his time the two notions of restricting baptism to adults and rebaptism (of those “falsely” baptized as infants) were wrapped together in a single knot. Positively expressed, his view was that the church as a community brings the child to the bath in the trust that the Spirit will work faith, and so we are to preach and teach the child’s baptism to it so that the Spirit can so work through this word of personal address. In this way, we retain the substance, the treasure, the kernel in the husk.

Luther concludes his defense of infant baptism by considering some objections. Daily return to baptism is precisely how real progress in the Christian life occurs. Luther expects growth in the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love throughout life. So what if the old creature predominates and this progress does not occur, or is not visible? That may mean several differing things: the battle is fierce, or baptism is being resisted, or we do not see all that is going on. Thus the mutual consolation and conversation of the sisters and brothers is needed. A good pastor or fellow Christian will discern and counsel wisely. They will call out resistance, noting that the power to repent of one’s resistance to baptism, moreover, is nothing but return to baptism. For baptism is not only the Spirit’s announcement of one’s new identity in Christ but the Spirit’s endowment of power to live this way with gifts for enriching the community of Christ.

Baptism remains forever; it is the rock of personal certitude in faith. The idea that baptism is good only for remitting the sins committed up to that point in life, going back to Jerome, makes baptism next to useless for life after post-baptismal sin. Baptism having been made useless, Jerome had to invent another sacrament, penance, as the emergency lifeboat available after the wreck of the ship. From this all the “slaughter of conscience” followed that was mandatory confession and prescribed works of penance—for Luther, a pastoral disaster. But the entire life of the believer is one of repentance, turning to the returning Lord, a turning that begins with and ever returns to sacramental baptism until the sign is fulfilled in the resurrection of the body.

Paul R. Hinlicky is Tise Professor of Lutheran Studies at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.

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