PRINCIPLES FOR A CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY OF BAPTISM
BY KURT KOCH
According to Kurt Koch, there is the need to renew the original understanding of the Sacraments of Christian Initiation (Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist). This is because he sees it as a condition sine qua non for the restoration of ecclesial dimension of Baptism. Kurt Koch proposes certain principles for a Christian Theology of Baptism which must not be seen in isolation but complementing each other. The purpose of this essay is to discuss these principles under the following headings: baptism as conveyance to Christ, Baptism as participation in Christ, Baptism and Holy Spirit, Baptismal Christian Living, Reception into Christ’ Body, Theology of Baptism, individualising of Initiation, Revitalizing the Ecclesial Dimension. I will then attempt a synthesis by way of a conclusion.
BAPTISM AS CONVEYANCE TO CHRIST
Kurt, in this section of his article, puts stress on the fact that Baptism cannot be effective without the profession of faith. This profession, he says is based on the belief that the living God raised Christ up from the dead. Hence, for this profession of faith, no other occasion comes into question except Baptism. Kurt further emphasized that baptism is an external profession and it is only when it is accompanied by a belief in the heart that salvation is effected in the life of the individual. Thus Otto Michel could not agree more with Kurt when he says that “Profession and belief are as inextricably conjoined as are occurrence of baptism and the doctrine of justification.” In other words, baptism and profession are distinctly inseparable. For Kurt, the sharp distinction between early Christian Baptism and that of John was that it was carried out “in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38, 8:16, and 10:48, 19:5). By the very fact that one is baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ” according to Kurt one is conveyed to Christ which means that one now belongs to Christ entirely and no one else.( Galatians 3:29). Thus, for Kurt, baptism presupposes that the baptized person is made subject to his Lord and he is invited to a personal and intimate relationship with his Lord. This new relationship becomes so fundamental that one can gain entrance into the Kingdom only by this means. Kurt draws on an analogy St. Paul uses to describe the new relationship a baptized person has with Christ. “… A person is altogether like a slave who is ‘occupied territory.’ His first lord is sin, which holds him in captivity. Through Baptism, however, he is brought out of slavery and conveyed to a new lord.” Thus for Kurt, Baptism becomes a public seal showing that the baptized person belongs to Christ and for that matter identified as slave of Christ. According to Kurt, this idea of Paul goes back to the historical evolution of the rite of Baptism as found in the early Church. Having assumed a new status, the baptized person is duty bound no longer to serve gods in this world but to serve the true God and the divine plan of salvation for the world. Baptism according Kurt entails two things namely rejection of the gods and demons of pagan society and an entrance into the Church as the territory of Christ’s kingdom. It also involves an ontological change; a change from the fleshy existence of sin and death to the spiritual existence of being led by the Spirit of God; a Spirit which gives true freedom to the baptized. This radical change of life for Kurt, involves even a rejection of those profession that has to do with pagan worship such as acting, prostitution, astrology, gladiators and the like. For those who belong to Jesus Christ must recognize him as their Lord by renewing their manner of living, but most of all by professing faith. Thus for Kurt, faith and baptism belong inseparably together in the early Church. Baptism for Kurt was preceded by a long process of learning and experience and coaching for a new mode of existence.
BAPTISM AS PARTICIPATION IN JESUS
Kurt again lays emphasis on the fact that baptism is not only a complete conveyance of the baptized person to Christ but also a promise that the newly baptized will be included with Christ in the whole process of salvation. For Kurt, Paul’s understanding of baptism means two things namely a participation in being saved from death and a participation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ even though it remains a future event (Romans 6: 4-5). According to Kurt, Paul interprets the sacramental- liturgical immersion of the candidate in the waters of baptism as an immersion into the unfathomable waters of death and in complete solidarity with Jesus who himself had been immersed into these dark waters. Kurt emphasizes that in baptism, a personal Easter takes place for each individual. This means that the baptized person is taken up into the movement of Christ from death to the life of the resurrection. Hence whoever belongs to Christ through baptism also shares in his suffering and death. This is symbolized by St. Paul when he says that wherever we go we carry in our bodies the sufferings and death of Jesus “so that the life of Jesus can become visible in our bodies” ( 2 Corin 4: 10). This means that in Baptism, our own future death is symbolically anticipated and bound up with the death of Jesus, so that we live with him. For Kurt, baptism is the crucial juncture of the life of every Christian and not bodily death which is in the future. This implies for Kurt that baptism is a fundamental moving forward of death and a sacramental experience beforehand of resurrection since in baptism one dies to sin and is raised to life in Christ by God himself; a kind of rebirth. This means that baptism implies that death awaiting Christians at the end of their lives, in the truest and deepest sense no longer counts, because Christians already live now in the body of the risen Christ and baptism turns out to be a much more serious death in which one whole world is given up and a new world opens up. Kurt emphasizes the vital and inseparable link between resurrection and baptism as expounded in 1 John as a passage from death to life. He sees baptism as a sacramental participation in the eschatological passage from death into life with this new life in the resurrection to be lived in the context of righteousness.
BAPTISM AND THE HOLY SPIRIT
According to Kurt, for Christians, the eschatological baptism of the Spirit is no longer a future event but is considered in the light of Jesus’ baptism which is already evident in the baptism of water. The descent of the Holy Spirit in the baptism pericope reveals Jesus as the bearer of the Spirit. Thus in the Early Church, any baptism made was confirmed by the bestowal of the Spirit and its attendant gifts (Acts 2:38). Thus for Paul, baptism is only effective with the reception of the Holy Spirit (1 Corin. 6: 11). Again, through the imparting of the Spirit in baptism is fulfilled the prophecy of Joel who promised that in the messianic end time, God will pour out his Spirit upon all flesh. The Pentecost experience then, becomes a fulfillment of that prophetic promise (Acts 2:16). Thus for Kurt, what was prophesied by Joel in the Old Testament has now found concrete expression in the New Testament where the Spirit is poured out upon all believers and transforms them into a spiritual people endowed with the Spirit of God. This original participation bestowed in baptism upon all believers is a common sharing of the Spirit by the people of God in the end time. This, according to Kurt, becomes the working document of the Christian Church; that which guaranteed acceptance into the Christian community and because the sending of the Spirit is promised in baptism, later NT theology sees baptism as a new birth or a new creation through the Spirit who bestows everlasting life. R. Schnackenberg sees baptism as “The place where the Spirit is received and the eschatological gift of salvation is bestowed by God. Kurt emphasises again, that the pneumatological dimension of baptism is expressed later in baptismal rites in which besides the laying on of hands, an anointing becomes a symbol of the imparting of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 1:21-23).
BAPTISMAL CHRISTIAN LIVING
According to Kurt, by virtue of our baptism, the Spirit effects new life in us (2 Corin 5: 17-18). He emphasizes the NT perspective that forgiveness of sins is completed in baptism as evidenced in Peter’s Pentecostal sermon (Acts 2: 38). The relationship between baptism and forgiveness of sins laid in the fact that in the NT the baptized person’s sin is forgiven once and for all. It also provides an understanding of the NT exhortation and presupposition that Christians after baptism will lead a life without sin (Romans 6: 11-12). According to Kurt, baptism places certain responsibility on the recipient namely that he is not only required to live a morally upright life, but also he must live a life which is worthy of a Christian; a life which must manifest his new status as bestowed on him by Christ. This is what Kurt describes as a Christian ethic. Thus the newness of life as a gift of baptism becomes the basis for all moral imperatives. In Romans 6 and 12, Paul brings out clearly the fact that the basic duty of living a truly Christian life springs from baptism itself. Baptism is, therefore, seen as a radical service to God and a departure from a previous enslavement to the power of sin. Furthermore, Kurt draws our attention to the fact that baptism requires that we live what we profess in our daily encounter with each other. This results into a community in which people link their lives together, act responsibly for each other and carry each others burdens. This idea of community is what Paul developed when he shows that in Christian baptism all historical and human discrimination are dissolved and is made inoperative (Galatians 3: 26-28). Paul reaffirms the ecclesial dimension of baptism and names racism, imperialism and sexism as posing a threat to Christian baptism. For Paul the decisive character of race, imperialism and sexism are overcome in baptism, which marks the irrevocable beginning of the eschatological reestablishment of a truly ordered and interactive society that lives in peace and justice according to God’s will. The Church should be seen as the conscience of society bound together by the baptismal waters of love, peace, justice and solidarity. Also Kurt stresses the fact that the Christian morality in the sense of following Jesus is essentially the morality of baptism. This is because in baptism not only is the following of Jesus made possible but the lifelong and daily following of Jesus is required. R. Schnackenberg puts it beautifully when he says “Baptism entered into with faith is a call to the following of Christ in time after Easter.” Baptism grants to each baptized person a dignity which can never be taken away, either by his own deeds or by the violent claims of others (W. Huber). Kurt concludes this section by bringing to the fore the fact that baptism is carried out in the perspective of accepting individuals into the Christian community and can, therefore, be understood as the public proclamation of the human right to life. It makes the individual a dignified being and this dignity he draws from God. Baptism, according to P. M. Zulehner is “a profound celebration of human dignity and inviolable freedom.
RECEPTION INTO THE BODY OF CHRIST
Kurt lays emphasis on the ecclesial dimension of baptism when he says that baptism does not only mark one’s adoption of the Christian faith but also an entrance into the church. The ecclesia community then becomes a place where the baptize subjects himself to Christ and receives salvation. By virtue of his baptism, the baptized is duty bound to live as a person who has his new home in the community of the Church namely, he acquires basic residence in the church, and his basic vocation is to be a member of the new people of God. According to Kurt, if baptism incorporates us into Jesus as a Son, then entrance into this Son ship of Jesus is entrance into the larger family of all those who are with the Son ( Church). Thus Joseph Ratzinger puts it beautifully when he says that “Then the new birth from God which happens in baptism is likewise a birth into the whole Christ, head and members. Thus for Kurt, baptism into Christ finds concrete expression in being a member of the ecclesia community and this was evidenced in the Early Church when on the day of Pentecost, about three thousand were baptized and added to the community of believers ( Acts 2: 41). This emphasizes again, that from the very beginning baptism and the Church were inextricably linked. Thus baptism presupposed a Church in which one is incorporated; the Church becomes a salvific actuality. Baptism, therefore, brings out clearly the ‘ekklesia’ dimension of the Church as the community of those called together by God and ‘added’ by God to the Church ( Acts 2: 46-47). The Church becomes visible as a missionary and salvific community which accepts all who believe in Christ and wishes to join through baptism. For St. Paul, baptism and the Church are inseparably linked that his vision of the Church as a body of Christ is grounded in baptism (1Corin 12: 13, Eph 4: 4-6). Kurt sees baptism as the entrance gate to the Church and therefore to the ecumenical church as emphasized by the Vatican ll’s Decree on Ecumenism that “For those who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in some, though imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church” (#3). Kurt draws our attention to the same Decree which emphasizes the fact that there is a sacramental bond of unity between all who are reborn through baptism in so long as baptism is institutionally administered and received in faith. Kurt concluded on this section by re- emphasizing the Church’s Decree on Ecumenism that baptism is the beginning and starting point of four things namely, the achievement of the fullness of life in Christ, a complete profession of faith, a complete incorporation into the event of salvation such as Christ himself willed it to be and finally towards a complete integration into Eucharistic communion. Thus baptism according to Kurt has become a basis for ecumenical dialogue.
THEOLOGY OF BAPTISM
Kurt reiterates once more that baptism which is incorporation into Christ and an entrance into the Church are inseparably linked if we want to understand Christian baptism. Thus he says that “The ecclesiological significance of baptism is in fact to be understood as a concrete form of its Christological significance on the level of historical experience.” This he explain that to be in Christ and with Christ as a gift of baptism presupposes an ecclesial reality since to be in Christ is not different from being part of the body of Christ. He concluded by stating emphatically that since the Eucharist forms the highest point of the baptismal service, baptism into the body of Christ is likewise baptism into the Eucharist.
INDIVIDUALISING OF INITIATION
In this aspect of the article, Kurt draws our attention to the original unity, inner and outer, of the sacraments of initiation of baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist. For Kurt, the sacraments of initiation make one a member of the Church and liberates him from the dominium of sin. He emphasizes again, that the actual initiation into the Church at baptism was originally completed with first communion. A case in point, as put forward by Kurt is the fact that the unity of the sacraments of initiation can be best appreciated against the back drop of the institution of the catechumenate, by which candidates for baptism had to demonstrate the seriousness of their conversion in which the Christian life had to be learnt and practiced. Kurt is of the view that while the Eastern Church has preserved the unity of the sacraments of initiation, in the Latin Church, the baptism of infants has caused these sacraments to be broken down into separate ceremonies. This he admitted to have been caused by an ecclesiastical political situation. According to Kurt, Emperor Constantine’ declaration of Christianity as a state religion meant that in the first decade of the fourth century, it was no longer the ordinary practice of initiating adults into the Church in which the sacraments of initiation were administered to them at the same time. Infant baptism became the order of the day since Christianity now became a state religion to the extent that Baptism as membership in the Church became, as a practical matter, membership in society. Thus this whole concept of catechumens according to Kurt now had little in common with those candidates preparing for baptism. This is because the instructional aspect was missing due to infant baptism which was on the ascendancy. Again, the comprehensive catechumenate for the unbaptised was replaced by the instruction of children after baptism. Added to this fact is that baptism for infants increased, due to the doctrine of Original sin, since baptism was understood as a necessary liberation from original sin. This, for Kurt meant that baptism was directed at the salvation of the individual and the consequence was that the ecclesial dimension was underestimated. Thus Kurt states emphatically, without mincing words that in the course of history, no other sacrament has been individualized and privatized than the sacrament of baptism. For to this day, he decried, baptism has no longer been understood and celebrated as a sacrament of initiation into the church but is now oriented towards the salvation of individuals. This , he says is evident in the fact that parents still bring their children to be baptized though they do not think much about the Church or may have even withdrawn from it. In fact, parents now see baptism as a way of putting their children in touch with the reality of the divine. Kurt concludes this section by stating emphatically that baptism now serves as a vehicle to take the child into God’s world and to ask God’s blessing for the child.
REVITALISING THE ECCLESIAL DIMENSION
Kurt Koch in this section calls for a revitalization of the ecclesial dimension of baptism. He advanced two reasons namely that infant baptism is theologically justified by the fact that “A gift given ahead of time is nevertheless really a gift (J. Ratzinger) and that there is a threat that the meaning of baptism will be destroyed if the Church no longer understand it as a gift given ahead of time and unfolds afterwards, but merely as a rite closed that is still retained only because it lends a certain solemnity and a ritual celebration to the beginning of life. Kurt, is of the view that the Church is duty bound to revitalize the ecclesial dimension of baptism for two main reasons namely for basic theological reasons and because of the Church’s profoundly changed condition. In the mind of Kurt, the Church today is experiencing the end of Constantinian form of Christianity where Christianity was a state religion. He argues that the Church cannot continue to assume that people (infants) who are baptized into the church will automatically grow in the church as part of the socialization process. The church must recognize that people must learn anew the faith and life in the church. The church must also help people to deepen their personal relationship to Christ and thereby experience how baptism extends throughout their lives and has been bestowed as “ God’s rainbow over our lives” ( J. Ratzinger), as a promise of His great “Yes” and as a guidepost pointing to what it means to be a Christian. Kurt Koch thinks that a rediscovery of the catechumenate offers a pastoral challenge and presents an opportunity which the Church should exploit. Kurt sees in the rediscovery of the catechumenate, the restoration of the original order and unity of the sacraments of initiation. Kurt could not agree more with Pope John Paul II who express in his post- conciliar Apostolic Letter “The Bishop: Servant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the Hope of the World” that the Bishops are responsible for Christian initiation. Kurt says that the Pope was convinced that the tradition of the process of Christian initiation especially for adults has proved to be providentially ordained not only for the churches just starting up but also for the countries where Christianity has been established for centuries. Kurt calls for a renewal of the original order of the sacraments of initiation because it restores the ecclesial dimension of baptism. This restoration can only be feasible when adults become members of the Church as a way of rediscovering the catechumenate of the early church. He stressed, however, that a rediscovery of the catechumenate does not deny the validity of infant baptism but it is an endeavor to reunite the sacraments of initiation in infant baptism also. This will bring out the ecclesial dimension of baptism both into the parish church and the universal church as well. Thus baptism proves to be the universal sacrament of the church taken as a whole. To ensure that baptism is experienced this way, Kurt says, is an urgent pastoral duty of our time.
Kurt Koch’ article on the “Principle for a Christian Theology of Baptism” calls for the renewal of the order of the sacraments of initiation of Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist. He thinks that it is the surest way to rediscover the ecclesial dimension of baptism. I think that Kurt Koch has not proposed anything new but that which is already true of the sacraments of initiation in the early church. A critical look at the principles will reveal the fact that they must be looked at concurrently and not in isolation. In fact, one is a build up on the other. I could not agree more with Kurt Koch on this issue since in our contemporary Churches, there has been this tendency of seeing this sacrament as an individual affair and it is gradually taking over the ecclesial dimension of the sacrament. Parents can just walk into the Church and have their wards baptized without the presence of the ecclesial community. The renewal of the original order of the sacraments of initiation can only be possible when adults become members of the Church so that the catechumenate of the early church can be rediscovered.
AGORSOR AARON AGBESHIE