Thursday, November 30, 2006


This week in systematic theology we talked about baptism, which of course I don't have a lot of specific experience with. It was interesting to hear more about the theological meaning behind baptism and that sort of thing, and sparked questions for me.

First of all, as Quakers, we don't do baptism physically--but do we replace it with anything? Do we practice it in a spiritual sense at all? My husband said that at his meeting growing up they have little kids come up and they ask for baptism of the Holy Spirit, and kind of dedicate that child to God and commit as a community to be a helpful part of that child's spiritual growth. My home meeting has baby dedications, where babies or young children are dedicated to God and the community pledges to help them grow up in God. These are similar to infant baptism, I guess.

This brings me to the next question: what's the point of baptism, and are we as Quakers fulfilling that in some other way? Some theologians say the point of baptism is an initiation into the community of faith, being grafted into the Vine of Christ as part of the family of God. Calvin compares baptism to circumcision in Judaism, where babies (at least male ones) are brought into the covenant with God before they're old enough to make that conscious choice. It's an act of faith by the community, and it shows that community's intention.

I never really understood infant baptism before, and if I believed in baptism I would have been more for believers baptism, where the person makes a conscious choice and professes that before God and others. But Calvin's point makes some sense. And he also says that since the use of water is just a ritual and doesn't do anything (he actually says that, which I could agree with whole-heartedly!), baptising an infant is something that can help retain the mystery of the sacraments, because the child can't think of this as some magical formula that's going on, but the child can experience the presence of God.

Tillich makes some interesting points as well. He says that the sacraments are symbols which help us experience the infinite in unconscious ways. We can't just experience the Spiritual Presence (as he calls God) through intellect, we need tangible stuff, the stuff ordinary life is made of, and anything can be a sacrament (provided it doesn't go against what we believe). Here he sounds almost Quaker, in the historical sense, where Quakers used to say that all of life is a sacrament, and that we should live sacramentally, seeking to experience God through all things rather than just in special moments presided over by a priest.

But I think Tillich adds to the Quaker understanding, at least in the way we don't practice sacraments today: we forget that humans are very tactile and symbolic beings. What do we do that actually connects us to the divine through physical symbols? How do we allow God to impact us unconsciously through our bodies, not just our minds? Have we made ourselves too intellectual and not spiritual enough, no matter how mystical others call our religion?

So the things I picked up from all this as the important concepts in the ritual of baptism are: in the case of infant baptism, dedication to God and initiation into the community of faith; for believers baptism, professing belief before others and making a conscious choice to follow Christ; for baptism in general, having a physical experience with which to connect the spiritual reality of the presence of God in one's life.

How do we do this as Quakers? Do we do anything to state out loud our commitment to God? Do we get our physical selves involved in our spiritual life, and is this important? Although we talk about the important thing being the baptism of the Holy Spirit, do we expect this as a reality for each person, do we look for it, and do we do anything to acknowledge when it happens? How are we living our lives sacramentally as a community of faith?

Funny story about Quakers and baptism:
My grandpa was in Israel a while back with a bunch of his students, and they came to the Jordan River on their tour bus. Some of the students wanted to be baptized in the Jordan (since that's where Jesus was baptized). So they asked if anyone on the bus was an ordained minister who would be willing to baptize people. He spoke up and said, "Well, I'm a Quaker, and Quakers believe we're all ministers, so as far as Quakers ordain people, I'm an ordained Quaker minister--of course we don't actually do water baptism..." The students decided that was good enough and so he baptized a bunch of people in the Jordan River!


Anonymous said...

That IS a rather funny story -- thanks for sharing it. (and all the other insightful thoughts here, as well)

Laura :)

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Hello again, Cherice!

You write, "First of all, as Quakers, we don't do baptism physically--but do we replace it with anything?"

Yes we do: we replace water baptism with the baptism of the Spirit, into faithfulness to the Spirit and into the power and authority of Christ.

Robert Barclay wrote at length about this in his Apology for the True Christian Divinity (1676-78), Proposition XII: Concerning Baptism:

"As there is one Lord, and one faith, so there is one baptism; which is not the putting away the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience before God, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And this baptism is a pure and spiritual thing, to wit, the baptism of the Spirit and Fire, by which we are buried with him, that being washed and purged from our sins, we may walk in newness of life: of which the baptism of John was a figure, which was commanded for a time, and not to continue for ever. ...

"...The controversy in this, as in most other things, stands betwixt us and our opposers, in that they oftentimes prefer the form and shadow to the power and substance....

[who oppose the Quaker position] account those truly baptized with the one baptism of Christ, who are not baptized with the Spirit (which in scripture is particularly called the baptism of Christ) if they be only baptized with water, which themselves yet confess to be but the shadow or figure. And ... they account not those who are surely baptized with the baptism of the Spirit baptized, ... unless they be also sprinkled with, or dipped in, water: but we, on the contrary, do always prefer the power to the form, the substance to the shadow; and where the substance and power is, we doubt not to denominate the person accordingly, though the form be wanting."

For early Friends, much hinged on how one interpreted various crucial phrases. For example -- to quote Isaac Penington -- "Now, for that place Mat. 28:19, where Christ expressly commandeth baptizing, it is a question very weighty, and worthy duly to be considered, what baptism he there commandeth. ...

"It is said,
'Go teach, baptizing'; but it is not said, baptizing with water, but 'in the name', or rather (as the Greek is) 'into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.'

"Now, to baptize with water is one thing, and to baptize into the name is another...."
(Penington, Life and Immortality Brought to Light through the Gospel... [1671])

I'll let George Whitehead continue the argument: "H[enry] G[rigg, a Baptist opponent of the Quaker movement] asserts from Mat. xxviii. 19,20, 'The baptism here spoken of is that of water,' p. 23. 'To baptize with the holy Spirit, is the alone work of Jesus Christ; and it never was in the power of any apostle or disciple to do it.' p. 24.

Answer. ...The baptism of water ... is not mentioned in the command; but rather it appears to be a spiritual baptism which the disciples were empowered to administer, in that they were to teach, baptizing them eis tu onoma, into the name, &c., which onoma imports the authority and power of Christ, and sometimes Christ himself, and sometimes reverence and worship. See T. C.'s Lexicon. The man [Grigg] is very rash in concluding that it was never in the power of any apostle to baptize with the Holy Spirit. I ask him if the true ministers were not endued with power from on high, to turn and convert people from darkness to light, and from satan's power to God? And if so, what is this short of the Spirit's baptism? (George Whitehead, Lux Exorta Est: or the Light Sprung Up in the Despised Quaker... [1673])

Samuel Bownas gives us another piece of the picture: "When Peter, at the house of Cornelius, began to speak, 'the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning,' said Peter; from which it is plain, that teaching by direction of the Spirit being prior to baptism, the baptism of the Holy Ghost was the consequence of such teaching." (Bownas, An Account of the Life, Travels and Christian Experiences, entry for 1701) From this it seems clear that the early Friends understood the baptism of the Spirit, not as something transmitted by a laying-on of hands or other ritual, but as something that descended on people as they heard the Word preached, accepted it into the hearts, and were brought to God by it.

You go on to ask, Friend Cherice, "This brings me to the next question: what's the point of baptism, and are we as Quakers fulfilling that in some other way?"

Penington, in the essay I quoted from earlier, says that the point of baptism is as a "cleansing" or "washing" of the self, a purification of the heart from sin and wrong-doing, or in other words a return to the state of innocence. Barclay, similarly, in the very passage I quoted earlier, says that the point of baptism is "that being washed and purged from our sins, we may walk in newness of life." Joseph John Gurney, in an 1840 entry in his Memoirs, says that the point of baptism is "as an introduction to the hopes and citizenship of the Christian believer". And John Wilhelm Rowntree, in his The basis of the Quaker faith (1902), describes the baptism of the Spirit as "the inward change, the inward purification, the spiritual fact and not the outward symbol". I think these passages suffice to show the drift of Quaker thinking on this subject.

I do hope this material is helpful to you in your researches.

cherice said...

Hi Marshall,

Thanks for your insights and quotes. They're very helpful.

I know the Quaker answer that we don't baptize, the Spirit baptizes us, and we can't force that with a ritual. And yet, the question is, do we still expect baptism by the Holy Spirit? How do we recognize it when it happens?

Also, is there something important about rituals that we are missing out on? I definitely agree with people who say our physical selves need to be connected to our spiritual selves, and having rituals and sacraments can be part of this connection for many. But as Quakers, do we have anything that helps us physically embody and expect and receive the Holy Spirit, since we don't have a ritual of baptism? Do we have anything that helps us to receive people into our community and reminds us to be people who hold them in the Light and help them to deeper faith as we are called? Is there something in the physical sacraments that helps people do this, or that potentially could help, and that we're rejecting by rejecting the physical elements?

I agree with the Quaker idea that water baptism isn't a necessary step in receiving the Holy Spirit, and this is well attested in scripture. But I think we should also think about what the helpful things are about having physical symbols for the inward things that are going on in our lives, and how we can encourage the outward expression of our faith in positive ways without getting stuck in dead rituals.

Marshall Massey said...

Hi, Cherice!

You write, "I know the Quaker answer that we don't baptize, the Spirit baptizes us...." It's interesting to compare that statement with the quotation from George Whitehead that I included in my previous comment. Your "Quaker answer" seems to have been a position that early Friends explicitly rejected. They were quite clear that Quaker preachers do baptize their hearers in the Holy Spirit, by means of their preaching.

And in answer to your follow-up question, "How do we recognize it when it happens?", their answer would have been, "The convincement experience is our experience of it happening, and we recognize it by the signs that a person is undergoing, or has undergone, convincement." Remember that "convincement" did not mean "persuasion"; it meant feeling oneself "convicted of sin and righteousness" by the Holy Spirit -- i.e., weighed in the balance by the ultimate moral Authority, the Almighty Judge, and seen clearly, sins and all -- and feeling oneself compelled to change one's whole way of life in consequence. One could not experience such a thing unless the Holy Spirit washed over oneself and overcame one's resistance.

Yes, liberal Quakers do not have much of this today, as your summary of the dominant liberal Quaker position ("we don't baptize"), and the estrangement of liberal Quakers from the convincement experience, combine to demonstrate.

But instituting a ritual, a water-baptism-counterpart, as a substitute for convincement, would be precisely the sort of apostasy from the Spirit that early Friends testified against at the cost of their lives.