Friday, October 9, 2009

Quaestio Disputata: On Baptism in the Name of the Trinity

The following is a creative exercise I submitted as a short paper in my Systematic class. It is in the form of the quaestio disputata from the scholastic medieval period, known best from Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica. I enjoyed doing it, and I thought I might share it here.

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Question. Whether the use of the words “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is essential for baptism in the name of the Trinity?

Objection 1. It seems that it is not, because the purpose of baptism is sacramental initiation into the community of God’s people, effected by God’s power through human beings. Analogous to the Donatist controversy, the efficacy of the sacrament is in neither the righteousness of the person nor the particular words spoken, but in the act itself in concert between God and community. The exact name used is incidental to the task.

Objection 2. Further, the name of God is not limited to “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Rather, the glory of God is manifest in the multiplicity of divine names: Yahweh, El Shaddai, Elohim, Lord, Adonai, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, Word, Savior, Lamb, and many more. To refuse the use of these names is in fact to silence the extraordinary variety of titles, metaphors, and names found in Scripture for the one true God. For what reason would we so curtail our speech, especially for something as important as baptism?

Objection 3. Further, the early Christians of the first century had a diversity of practices regarding baptism, and certainly baptized many persons merely “in the name of Jesus” (cf. Acts 8:16; 10:48; 19:5; Rom 6:3; 1 Cor 1:13; Gal 3:27).1 Thus citation from Matthew 28:19 is not exclusively authoritative because, as a consensus of scholars agree, this is a later theological development retrofitted to the risen Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples. The disparate possibilities available for first century use should inspire and legitimate our own today.

Objection 4. Further, strict allegiance to the traditional phrasing unhelpfully perpetuates exclusively masculine language for the Trinity, a problem profoundly in need of modern redress by the church. “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” should not be dismissed, but rather supported and supplemented by other, more inclusive, biblical and theologically creative names for the triune God. God is God, and God is triune, just as much in the alternate names found in Scripture and tradition as in the customary formula.

On the contrary, it is indeed essential for men and women to be baptized in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for Jesus directly commands it in the Great Commission. Furthermore, it is the irreplaceable and given name of the triune God revealed in Scripture, and the nature of the practice itself uniquely requires the proper naming of the divine persons acting as one in baptism.

I answer that Jesus’ words are clear: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20a).2 This dominical teaching does and must take precedence as the preeminent command for the church’s practice of baptism. The initial practice of the church of baptizing “in the name of the Lord Jesus” not only presumes the triune God in naming Christ as Lord,3 but precedes the “new living conditions” among the nations, “where the belief in the one God was no longer the self-evident foundation undergirding confession of Jesus and baptism into his name.”4 As we will see below, the God at work in baptism must be named.

Similarly, arguments about later redaction or addition to Matthew’s Gospel are irrelevant in this case, for the question concerns (1) the practice of the church,5 which as a community (2) believes in the inspired coherence and authority of Scripture in the life and faith of God’s people. Basic for Christian theological discourse is a willingness to hear God’s voice uniquely and authoritatively (though never solely) through the medium of Scripture—and in these words at the conclusion of Matthew, we hear just that regarding baptism in the name of the Trinity.6

The other side of this question concerns not God’s name, but baptism. And here again Scripture’s primal baptismal story is revealing: Jesus comes to John in the desert to be baptized, and when he comes up from the water the Spirit descends on him as the Father speaks from the heavens, “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:16-17; parr. Mark 1:9-11; Luke 4:21-22). Within Jesus’ own baptism—the beginning of a new sort of baptism, intentionally and directly differentiated from that of John prior to Jesus’ ministry7—we see a glimpse, enacted in time, of the triune life of Father, Son, and Spirit: the Father sending the Spirit and speaking love over his Son; the Son humbly submitting to baptism as a human being and receiving the gift of his Father’s love in the Spirit; and the Spirit as gift, love, and movement between the two. This story—reported in all three Synoptic Gospels—is the paradigm for the church’s practice, and reveals the mutuality and interplay of the triune persons in the act of baptism: both that all three act together (and thus must all be called upon) and that it is precisely as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that they so relate to one another and act. It is no accident that Matthew frames the entire adult life and ministry of the incarnate and risen Jesus as beginning in triunely coordinated baptism (3:16-17) and concluding in the commissioning of the disciples to baptize others in the triune name (28:19-20).8

Thus in the practice of baptism, God acts in and through the church to welcome and receive human beings into the life of the triune God and into the life of God’s people. God the Father speaks his word of love and forgiveness over the new believer, who, with Jesus plunged into and plucked out of the waters of cross and tomb, stands before the Father as his beloved child, as the gift of the Holy Spirit descends as seal and foretaste. This happens as the one authorized by the community receives the confession of faith and baptizes in the name of the one now to act and already acting: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We name with words the mystery enacted before our eyes yet also invisibly.

The essential reason why we do this, and how we know what is “really” going on, is that it has been given to us. The language of revelation is finally the language of gift, and the who, what, why, how, and when of this practice—namely, the contours and grammar of baptism—have been given to us by God as inextricable grace.9 It is difficult, in this sense, to comprehend why we would—rather than why we could—alter the grammar we have been given. Scripture is not fighting the current at this point: the practice, tradition, and theology of the church10 affirm the same.11 An important facet of this givenness is that, in sacramental fashion, the content of what is revealed cannot be distinguished from the medium or act of its being revealed.12 Thus, as with the naming of the persons of the Trinity as they act together in baptism, so the mode of revealing the triune persons is not separate from their having been revealed as such. That is to say, as the Father reveals the inner life of the one God through the incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Son in and by the power of the Holy Spirit’s guiding, sanctifying, and healing presence, what is revealed—namely, the eternally mutual life of the divine community of persons—is not thereby open for analogical adjustment or metaphorical reinterpretation. As Robert Jenson notes, this is the name of God, and in particular for this practice: “When the phrase appears as a personal proper name in the mandate of baptism and elsewhere, the use is enabled and prompted by the phrase’s special ability to identify the one to be named, in the fashion of many originally descriptive personal names.”13

Of course, this discussion leads invariably to the question and challenge of metaphor and gender.14 The issue of metaphor is central, for the triune name “uniquely identifies the particular God of the gospel, recounting at once the personae and the basic plot of the scriptural [the triune phrase], name and narrative description not only appear together, as at the beginning of the Ten Commandments, but are identical.”15 Like “I am Yahweh, who brought you up out of Egypt,” metaphorical description and narrative summation become personal name in “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Thus suggested replacements like “Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier” not only falter for being inevitably modalistic, but also for failing to identify the triune God by his self-revealed name.16 Similarly, baptism “in Jesus’ name” or “in the name of the Trinity” fail to name either the fullness of the triune God’s action or that action’s personal character.

The question of masculine language for “Father” and “Son” has no simple answer, and the concerns are legitimate. God’s self-revealing of his own life as Father, Son, and Spirit, and the way this stands as God’s personal name in and for the church, offer no “way out” from the traditional phrase, but this does not entail that in worship, teaching, and ordinary speech—that is, in areas outside of the baptismal formula—the traditional triune name must be used to the detriment or silencing of all others. It simply means that here, in this all-important practice, what has been graciously given and lovingly commanded by God is, quite simply, nonnegotiable.

Therefore, the name used for God in baptism is not incidental to the task, for it is precisely in the proper—or better, prayerful—naming of the true and particular God present in the act, that that God’s power is made manifest.

Therefore, as the personal name of the Christian God is indeed “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” the multiplicity of metaphors and titles in Scripture do not apply as potential or legitimate replacements within the practice of baptism.

Therefore, the dominical command of Matthew 28:19 is exclusively (and, we must add, graciously) authoritative for the practice of baptism, inspired as it is by the Spirit and spoken by the risen Lord himself in commissioning the church for its mission.

Therefore, while Christians must think and work through the legitimate concerns raised by women and others about traditional language reinforcing patriarchal or domineering status for males, the triune name cannot be discarded or replaced due both to its revelatory givenness and to its uniquely personal identification.

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[1] See Lars Hartman, ‘Into the Name of the Lord Jesus’: Baptism in the Early Church (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997), 147-50.
[2] All citations taken from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted.
[3] Joe R. Jones, A Grammar of Christian Faith: Systematic Explorations in Christian Life and Doctrine (2 vols.; Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), 666-67.
[4] Hartman, ‘Into the Name’, 151. We should note also the Gospels’ and Acts’ emphasis on baptism “with the Holy Spirit” (Matt 3:11) and Paul’s on baptism “by one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13).
[5] Ibid., 150n.13: “this formula is also found in Didache 7.1, 3; Justin, Apology 1.61; Ireneus, Adversus haereses (lat.) 3.17.1; Tertullian, De baptismo 13, De praescriptione haeriticorum 7.20.”
[6] See the brief discussion in Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society, trans. Paul Burns (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1988), 36.
[7] For more on John’s baptism, see Hartman, ‘Into the Name’, 9-27.
[8] See Allan Coppedge, The God Who is Triune: Revisioning the Christian Doctrine of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007), 35.
[9] See J.A. DiNoia, “Knowing and Naming the Triune God: The Grammar of Trinitarian Confession,” in Speaking the Christian God: The Holy Trinity and the Challenge of Feminism, ed. Alvin F. Kimel, Jr. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 165. See also Colin Gunton, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Toward a Fully Trinitarian Theology (New York: T&T Clark, 2003), 206-209.
[10] By “the church,” I mean generally the unified peoplehood in Christ of all those bodies of confessing and baptized Christians, whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant, who affirm in faith and practice, explicitly or implicitly, the content of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed.
[11] See Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, The Triune God (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 46n.29: “The fathers saw very clearly the relation between the baptismal mandate and experience and the use of the name in Christian life.... Indeed, this was the foundation on which the ancient church developed the Christian understanding of God.”
[12] See Thomas F. Torrance, “The Christian Apprehension of God the Father,” in Speaking, 120-43.
[13] Jenson, Triune God, 45.
[14] For further discussion, see Jones, Grammar, 149-232, esp. 158-66.
[15] Jenson, Triune God, 45-46.
[16] See DiNoia, “Knowing,” in Speaking, 169-173.

1 comment:

  1. This is a wonderful exercise, Brad. I think it's a great idea to use various systematic structures in this way; methodological exploration of this sort only helps us to think through theology more effectively.

    And apart from the fact that you actually construct a scholastic argument, you construct it very well. I appreciate the tightness of your argument. At the same time you seem to expand a bit more in your response section than Thomas might in the Summa (though I'm no Aquinas expert), and I think this is a helpful innovation: you seem to use traditional forms well without being unhelpfully stuck in them.

    Thanks a lot for posting this. I think it would be great for theology classes to assign a paper like this periodically, just to get students thinking in a different sort of mindset about their work. I imagine it would help them in their own work, as well as help them immensely in their reading skills as they tackle classic disputation literature.