Baptism – an Evangelical Sacrament Part 1

Over the coming week, I propose to post some thoughts (in 7 sections) on baptism as an evangelical sacrament. I am reminded that in his lectures on Christology, Dietrich Bonhoeffer made a plea that we, in our theology, would give priority to the question of who over that of how, and that we will always seek to answer the latter in terms of the former. As we shall seek this is crucially important if we are to understand in what sense we can speak of baptism as an ‘evangelical sacrament’, as evangelium sacramentum.

This is because the sacraments of the Gospel find their ultimate ground in the Incarnation and the vicarious obedience and death of Jesus Christ in the humanity which he took from us and sanctified in and through his self-offering to the Father. This means that they have to be understood in terms of the historical Jesus from his birth to his resurrection and ascension, for their content, reality and power are constituted not simply by the saving act of God upon us in Christ but by the act of God fulfilled in the vicarious humanity of Christ, as he was begotten of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate and resurrected from the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. This is to say that the primary mysterion or sacramentum is Jesus Christ himself, the incarnate reality of the Son of the Father who has incorporated himself into our humanity and assimilated the people of God, both Jews and Gentiles, into himself as his own Body, so that the sacraments have to be understood as concerned with our koinonia or participation in the mystery of Christ and his Church through the koinonia of the Holy Spirit. In other words, we can only understand baptism as we look through its rite in water, administered in the name of the Triune God, back to the corporate baptism of the Church at Pentecost which itself stands behind the baptism of every individual, and through that baptism in the Spirit back to the one vicarious baptism with which Christ was baptised, not only in water and the Spirit at the Jordan but also his baptism in blood on the Cross, and hold it in steady focus as the primary fact which gives baptism its meaning.

Thus baptism is to be interpreted similarly to kerygma and yet not so much as to the actual act of proclamation itself, but rather as to what is proclaimed, namely, Jesus Christ himself. Similarly, baptism is to be understood as referring not simply to the baptising of someone in the name of Christ but to the baptism with which Jesus Christ himself was baptised as representative man, as the second, or last, Adam, from his birth to his resurrection, the one baptism which he continues to apply by his Spirit to us in our baptism into him, thereby making himself both its material content and its active agent. So we are baptised into that baptism which itself was Trinitarian.


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