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Principles for Christ’s Mission

Posted by Nathanael Szobody on

A few principles drawn from Lesslie Newbigin’s article “Mission in Christ’s Way”.

– The mission is God’s and it has been the same from the beginning of creation.

– The mission is to draw all people into God’s kingdom

– God’s kingdom = Jesus Christ, his words and his actions, past, present and future.

– The mission is grown and sustained by the Holy Spirit alone.

– Our participation in God’s mission is a gift of his grace.

– The mission is an announcement in power, through word and deed, of the facts of God’s kingdom.

– Words without deeds are empty; deeds without words are dumb.

– The method for participating in the mission is best illustrated by Jesus’ hands and side: John 20:20-23 “…he showed them his hands and his side. […] Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.””

Baptism in Colossians

Posted by Nathanael Szobody on

Colossians is a gem of Pauline theology. It contains a distilled version of the central doctrines expounded upon more largely in other Pauline epistles. The theology of this epistle is built upon a hymn quoted in Colossians 1:15-20. It is a hymn that proclaims Jesus as the reconciler of all things “in heaven and on earth” through the blood of his cross. It is a theology of cosmic reconciliation in the cross.

This sort of language is distinct from all previous Pauline epistles and has prompted many scholars to conclude that the epistle was not written by Paul at all but by one of his disciples shortly after his death, who “channeled” and distilled the theology of Paul to meet the needs of the Colossian church (see the International Critical Commentary). Whether it was written by Paul or by one of his disciples this epistle benefits from a synthesis of previous Pauline writings and an extension of the work of the cross to cosmic proportions—a reconciliation of “all things”, a disarming of “rulers and authorities” (Colossians 2:15).

However, thoroughly Pauline is the centrality of the cross. This epistle in no way contradicts earlier Pauline writings, but rather builds upon them, following their very logic and theological priorities. In my opinion this makes Colossians all the more precious from a theological perspective: it is thoroughly Pauline, but also more developed and succinct.

It is also on this epistle that I find the doctrine of baptism most lucidly explained, in relation to the cross, to faith, to justification and to sanctification.

As in all Pauline epistles, there two levels of exposition: the first is the doctrine of Jesus Christ crucified and risen. The second is the manner in which this great doctrine affects and is applied to our life. In Colossians (as in Romans) baptism is the link between these two levels of teaching, allowing us to pass from one to the other.

The hymn in Colossians 1:15-20 has established that Christ is the source of all created power, and that through his death he has once again united all things in himself. There remains therefore nothing outside of his power. The verses that immediately precede and follow this hymn give an immediate application: Jesus has, therefore, the power to forgive our sins and present us blameless before him. But the question remains: how and when does that occur for the individual? It was accomplished at the cross, but when does that cosmic story touch the reality of each individual? The question is answered with precision in Colossians 2:10-13.

Here is my translation of this passage, preserving the Greek sentence structure. While it makes for clunkier English, it helps establish the connection of ideas. For this purpose I have also indented subordinate clauses:

Colossians 2:10-13
10. And you have been filled in him,
            who is the head of all rule and authority.
11.       In whom [him] also you have been circumcised
                 by the circumcision not made with hands,
                 in the removal of the body of flesh,
                 in the circumcision of Christ,
12.            having been buried with him in baptism,
            in whom you have also been raised
                 through faith in the working of God
                          who raised him from the dead.
13. And you,
            though you were dead in sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh
       he has made you alive together with him,
            having forgiven us all sins.

As you can see, he makes a rather complicated statement in 10-12 about how we are circumcised in Christ, and then in 13 he restates it in a more digest form in terms of forgiveness of sins.

The precise role of baptism in 10-12 is clearly a “burial” with Christ. In verse 11: “In him also you have been circumcised […] having been buried with him in baptism”. This is where the work of Jesus on the cross of chapter one, is applied to us. In baptism, Jesus’ death becomes our death. This is described as a circumcision that is not done with hands. How is it a circumcision? By the “removal of the body of flesh”, i.e. death. The parallel is clear. But where circumcision is only a sign, baptism is the real thing; in it we actually died with Christ. The entire body of flesh was put off. What he accomplished on the cross is now ours through that baptism.

While we died to sin and the flesh with Christ in baptism, our new life in his resurrection is not attributed to baptism. Colossians 2:12b continues: “in whom you have also been raised through faith in the working of God who raised him from the dead.” Just as the death of Christ would only be the end of a sad story without his resurrection, so baptism without faith is an empty ritual. But through faith it is the very door to life, accomplished in our resurrection with Christ.

This is another point on which we might detect a very different sort of discourse than in the rest of the Pauline epistles. In Romans 6:1-5, for example, Paul says that we are united with Christ’s death in baptism so that we might be raised with him in the future. But here in Colossians 2:12 resurrection has already occurred: you have been raised with him by faith. Since this epistle sees already in Christ’s death the victory over all things, so in our unification with his death is forgiveness of and complete freedom from our sins (Colossians 1:13-14 and 2:14)—which necessarily and immediately opens to us the doors of life in the resurrection. What is hoped for is so sure because it is already accomplished. If Christ has already risen, and we died with him, have we not also been raised with him? That is the logic of this passage.

The rest of the epistle is built on this logic: Christ conquered on the cross; his death is yours in baptism; so his life must also be yours in the way that you live, free from all other earthly powers, if you continue in faith. Colossians 2:20 says “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of this world..” referring back to baptism. And Colossians 3:1 says “If then you have been raised with Christ…” referring back to the immediate implication of baptism for those who have faith. While baptism is not explicitly the gift of life, it is the personal deliverance from sin in Jesus’ death and thus the necessary path to personally participating in Jesus’ resurrection, just as Jesus’ own death was necessary for his resurrection. Death with Christ in baptism gives us freedom from sin, but that freedom must be embraced by faith for it to be life in Christ.

Toward a Hebrew Reading of the Psalms

Posted by Nathanael Szobody on

How do you read the Psalms? I think a lot of people find them hard to connect with. They are the hymnal of God’s people for millennia, but today we often don’t know what to do with them other than taking the occasional isolated phrase as inspiration for a new praise song.
I think that in regards to the Psalms, there may be real benefit in examining how Hebrew poetry works. There’s a learning curve to reading any sort of poetry; it’s language at its best, so it takes some attention.

The Psalms take you on an emotion journey. Each one starts at one point and takes you to another. The trick is following. Hebrew poetry is suggestive, preferring brevity and ambiguity, whereas our language is propositional, preferring thoroughness of description and precision. That’s why a Psalm can sometimes seem disconnected. Let’s use Psalm 142 to explain:

Psalm 142:1-2 introduce the poet’s emotion:

With my voice I cry out to the Lord;
With my voice I plead for mercy to the Lord.

I pour out my complaint before him;
I tell my trouble before him.

As you can see, each line is meant to be brief. And our English translation has made it longer than in Hebrew. There actually is no “with” at the beginning of the first two lines. The poem literally begins with
My voice, to the Lord I cry;
My voice, to the Lord I plead.
The force of the emotion is precisely in not describing it thoroughly. It’s the minimal expression of a burdened soul.

Psalm 142:3-4 describes the poet’s situation that has given rise to his complaint:

When my spirit faints within me,
You know my way.
In the path I where I walk
They have hidden a trap for me.

Look to the right and see:
There is none who takes notice of me;
No refuge remains to me;
No one cares for my soul.

While verse three begins with a statement of confidence in God, the main force of these two verses is loneliness, and almost despair.

Psalm 142:5 is a transition; it brings the poem back to the very first statement of the poem: his cry to God—and it gives us the content of this cry:

I cry to you, O Lord;
I say, “You are my refuge,
My portion in the land of the living.”

That’s it! That’s his entire cry. Of course, he goes on to pour out his troubles in the next verse, but in verse 5 he is essentially stating his right to do so: God is his refuge! God is his inheritance, so he’s going to make good use of him.

Psalm 142:6-7a are a succession of three pleas, each one followed by the reason for his plea:

Attend to my cry, (1)
For I am brought very low! (reason)
Deliver me from my persecutors, (2)
For they are too strong for me! (reason)
Bring me out of prison (3)
That I may give thanks to your name! (purpose)

This last plea is clearly more hopeful than the previous as it gives the poet’s very purpose for living, for surviving his current circumstances. “That I may give thanks to your name” causes the poet to look beyond his current circumstances and see the purpose for his entire life—and also to hold God to this purpose, calling on him to enable its fulfillment.

Psalm 142:7b is finally a full-blown statement of hope written in the same format at the previous three pleas:

The righteous will surround me, (hope)
For you will deal bountifully with me. (reason)

So the poet has brought the reader from his initial emotion of despair, through current hopeless situation, through his pleas to God, to the final statement of hope, founded on a confidence in God’s purpose for his life.

If I were to rewrite this poem with all the conjunctions and precision that we expect in English it would go something like this:

My voice cries out to the Lord,
My voice pleads to him for mercy
As I pour out my complaint before him
And tell him all about my troubles.

Even though I know that when my spirit faints within me
You are there with me,
Right now all I see is the path I’m on,
Mined with traps all over.
As far as I can see I have no refuge;
No one gives a hoot for my soul!

But yet I still cry to you, O Lord;
And here is my cry: “You are my refuge
My portion in the land of the living.”

Since you are my portion, listen to me!
Because right now I couldn’t be at a greater loss.
Come on and save me if you’re my refuge
Because they are way stronger than me!
Bring me out of prison
So I can have a reason to praise you as I was meant to!
Then the righteous will surround me,
For you will have dealt bountifully with me.

But I’m sure you will agree that this version leaves nothing to the imagination. Indeed, in my attempt to be precise and propositional, I have fundamentally altered the poem’s character. The poem no longer evokes, it explains. It is a closed poem. It is operating more on reason, and less on emotion. Whereas the original stimulates the imagination to enter into the poet’s world by its short and ambiguous but suggestive lines. It makes the reader work a little bit to do so, but also gives the emotional incentive to do so through its minimalist and accessible introduction of gut-level cries. It hooks, and then reals you in to experience its life.

Open your own Bible and give this Psalm another ride. Don’t think too much. Read very slowly, one phrase at a time, and let each phrase sink in. See what cord it strikes in you before moving on to the next. You will likely begin to have some small experience of Hebrew poetry. The more you practice it the better it will get, and you will probably find that the Psalms’ simple genius will begin to shape your own heart’s cry to God.

Peter and Theology

Posted by Nathanael Szobody on

By Paul Szobody

Keeping in mind that the author is a rather uneducated Galilean fisherman, the doctrinal density and biblical breadth of Peter’s epistolary expression is nothing less than stunning. Even granting that Peter probably had a good Jewish boy’s Torah education, his remarkable post-Pentecostal literary inspiration and theological methodology deserves to be reckoned with by theological science.

Take 1 Peter 1:1-9 for example. Peter profoundly employs both Torah terms and soteriological concepts from the redemptive history of Israel in order to speak to Christians of their own spiritual experience in current history. He begins with God’s election by foreknowledge of his Diaspora people, now the Christians living among the pagans, and then moves on to speak of election’s purpose in terms taken from Levitical blood-sprinkling and covenantal obedience, both in reference to the Davidic Messiah. The final outcome will be the eschatological possession of a promised inheritance. Meanwhile though, the sanctified make a pilgrimage through this world as strangers whose faith is put to the test as they sojourn toward the inheritance of the eternal, the salvation of their souls. It is in the context of this pilgrim’s “meanwhile” – between an Exodus of new birth (now associated with Christ’s resurrection) and the final inheritance (personal salvation in terms of an incorruptible, heavenly lot) – that Peter develops in just a few phrases an extraordinary theology of Christian life, in faith, hope, love and joy.

Peter’s exposition is obviously a figural construal of the historical memory of Israel’s experience of redemption from Egypt and resulting sojourn in the desert and/or later Diaspora exile. Evidently, and without any doubt, Peter took (like Paul) the Christian people to be the Israel of God in the end of time. Remarkably, within nine verses, Peter has painted a biblical theology of the whole panorama of salvation history, from eternity past to eternity future! It’s nothing less than breathtaking: perhaps every major soteriological theme is touched upon. And, of course, he will continue to develop and add to this canvas, in a similar fashion, in the rest of his letter; his mentality is impregnated with the spiritual sense and accomplishment in Christ of the historical-redemptive storied events.

Now, this raises a question today as to Peter and theology. Could it be that under the power, sheer quantity and historical influence of the Pauline corpus and language, that Peter – his method and motifs – has been short-changed? Has Petrine language and methodology been sufficiently taken into account in the church’s theological enterprise? This is an important question in light of recent trends and methodological issues in theology. Peter’s style and approach appears to conform to the interests of certain recent proposals.

First, Peter’s method here is narrative in nature and rooted in a figural reading of salvation history. Both “story” as a structural theological approach and historical figural hermeneutics have highly interested theologians in fairly recent years. This should prod them to take another look at Peter, at his language, his conceptual expression and his methodology. Needless to say, for a modern exegesis that may tend to either atomize biblical narrative or to rationalize away the figural hermeneutics of the apostles and patristic exegesis (the so-called ‘spiritual sense’ of Scripture), Peter remains an inspired hermeneutical challenge.

Second, certain exegetes have proposed that there is sufficient internal evidence to suggest that Peter’s first letter is mystagogical in nature; that is, it is essentially catechesis related to Christian baptism. Though this theory is far from universally accepted, it does indicate the strong critical evidence of the baptismal motif in the epistle. As a consequence, the argument may be made for liturgical moorings to Peter’s thought. If so, its mode of doing theology is in harmony both with that of the cradle of Christian theology as well as with certain other modern theological tendencies. Christian theology – in its post-apostolic confessional form – was birthed in the midst of the early church’s liturgy. That is, while praying to the Father, in the name of the Son and by the Spirit, she expounded and developed her understanding of her experienced and confessed faith in the resurrected One: she formulated her Trinitarian and Christological theology (I owe this insight to Robert Jenson). Likewise today, there is renewed interest in liturgical theology and in doing theology from within liturgical history and experience (Geoffrey Wainwright, for one, has especially developed this approach). In this mode, theology is the reflection on salvation history (as witnessed in Holy Scripture and imaged in the church’s liturgy from Scripture) through the existential lens of its figural realization in the christocentric life and liturgical experience of the church.

In reconsidering and resourcing theological methods as well as hermeneutical approaches and doctrinal formulations, perhaps Peter’s epistolary expression might once again prove to be a rock to which the church might theologically build upon.

Definition Please, Evangelicals

Posted by Nathanael Szobody on

Here we are again to talk about the sacraments. Usually when I write on this topic my purpose is to define, redefine, and defend a traditional Lutheran understanding of the sacraments. However, this time I’m going to take the offensive. If I can prod my fellow Christians to think about their own practice in relation to God’s Word than I will have accomplished my goal.

Dear Evangelical Brothers and Sisters,

I have been privileged to worship in many of your churches this year. In fact, I am now attending an Evangelical church in France. I have observed one very positive trend, namely, that the practice of Communion is becoming more frequent in your assemblies. It is now not uncommon for Evangelical churches to have communion every week! My hope is that you will be an inspiration to many Lutheran congregations.

Having said this, the manner in which you go about Communion, or “The Lord’s Supper” gives me less to be enthusiastic about. To better explain what I mean, let us begin with the portion of scripture concerning the Last Supper.

Matthew 26:26-29

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it, he broke it and gave it to his disciples and said, “Take, eat, this is my body”. And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many, for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I will drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

Given the way I have observed communion being done in many Evangelical churches, one would think the passage went something like this:

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it, he broke it and gave it to his disciples and said, “Take, eat [bread] this is my body”. And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them saying, [Then he said]”Drink of it [wine], all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many, for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I will drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

To be thorough, we’ll add this phrase which exists only in Luke: “Do this in remembrance of me”. And while Evangelical do a good job of keeping the remembrance of Jesus’ death alive, they forget what “this” is when Jesus says “do this”. I have put the verbs in bold: Jesus took bread, and after blessing it, he broke it and gave it to his disciples and said, “Take, eat this is my body”. And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many, for the forgiveness of sins.

My point is this: when Jesus says “do this”, these are the verbs we are to do, these are the words we are to say. But in the Evangelical churches I have attended, none of this has been done. I have observed that a pastor or elder stands up and says something to the effect of “We will now have Communion”, and he may give an exhortation to participate in memory of Christ’s death. At this point lay officiants may or may not pray over the “elements” before distributing them. The bread is not taken up by the officiant, it is not blessed, the word’s and promise of Christ concerning the bread and cup are not spoken. The officiant does not even give the bread and cup. Either the congregants come up and serve themselves, or lay persons distribute it.

So here is my question: If you are not doing and saying what Jesus said to do, on what grounds do you presume that you are even having the Lord’s Supper? What are your criteria that make up the Lord’s supper if it is not his own words and actions? I will give you this: in the congregations I have observed, the whole thing is done in great reverence and earnestness. But reverence does not the Lord’s Supper make.

Presence, Providence, and God’s People. A Brief Remark on the Complementary Theological Visions of Robert Jenson and Ephraim Radner.

Posted by Nathanael Szobody on

Contributed by Paul Szobody

When Israel came out of Egypt,
the house of Jacob from a people of foreign tongue,
Judah became God’s sanctuary,
Israel his dominion
. (Ps 114:1-2, TNIV)

This text gives quite a striking assertion. This assertion is profoundly wrapped up in, and prefigures, the full revelation of God’s presence incarnate in his people as his missiological end. It does not merely affirm that God set up his sanctuary in the midst of Judah, nor does it state that his dominion or kingdom is over Israel, but that Judah is his sanctuary (physical tabernacle) and Israel his dominion (or kingdom). That is, the citizenship of the covenanted commonwealth, together, is collectively and corporately his dwelling and the place of his emanating, reigning, blessing (life-giving) presence. This is integrally related to the unfolding biblical theme of the divine “illusive presence” (to use Samuel Terrien’s expression) within humanity that culminates in John the revelator’s eschatological tabernacle composed of living stones of redeemed human beings from every people, tribe and tongue. Furthermore, it also ties together two important insights of two contemporary theologians who have signaled Israel’s history as God’s actual historical life and auto-revelation.

First, Robert Jenson has maintained at the core of his systematic theology that Israel’s narrative is God’s own self-identification in narrative form. That is, God reveals his own self to humanity with and by this particular story of a chosen people: its historical ebb and flow, prophetic events and words and witnesses – this story is God’s Spirit’s own script of what can be known of God. Jenson quotes Melanchthon as a starting point: God is known by his works. Of course this history of God’s works culminates in the evangelical narrative of the Son, the Gospel, as a recapitulation of Israel’s story. Christ is the full and final Word and Work of God, and, in the end, he is the only true Israel who keeps covenant and reveals in the fullest sense the identity of God in fleshed-out human history. In a lapidary echo of Jenson: the true God is the one who brought Israel out of Egypt and who raised his Son Jesus from the dead. Outside of this identification of the triune God, in terms of this historical bi-polar metanarrative, one knows not and has not the true God. For the living God and this story are inseparable.

Now, Ephraim Radner, using 17th and 18th century Jansenist understandings of providence, grace and figurism, takes a strikingly similar line of thought to an insightful, intensely interesting and fruitful development. Israel – her story, institutions, etc. – are by the shaping of providence the very figures of the life of God in Christ. To use Pauline language from Colossians, Israel’s collective life constitutes the shadow whose body is Christ. Howbeit, the church is his body. Profoundly then, Israel’s own historical life is shaped in proleptic reference to the church’s own historical experience. If we want to understand the church’s experience in time, we are to look for it – figured – in Israel’s own experience.

Let’s look at Radner’s thought in more detail. In this hermeneutical matrix, grace is understood, in its broader sense, as an historical force by which God shapes this human story with a teleological intention: he shapes it in intimate relation to himself, into the story that is Christ. The historical dispensation of grace works in human life by the Spirit in a specific form – cruciform. Thus pro-vidence sees ahead and provides the shaping force necessary so that all that constitutes Israel’s story figures the life of God that is Christ in time. Actual Gospel history, the life of Christ, is thus in the middle as a sort of mirror: it absorbs and fills the christic shapes of Israel’s history and then reflects its silhouette into the future of Christ’s body. In linear temporal fashion, the shadowed experience becomes the body’s life. The church “fills up the sufferings of Christ” as she sensibly experiences in the Spirit the shapes and sentiments of Christ’s own life in time. Radner reconstructs this historical vision on a reading both of Jansenius’s view of grace and the practical role of the various “states” of Christ’s earthly sojourn in human sanctification, as expounded by Pierre de Bérulle, founder of the Oratory and the so-called French School of spirituality.

Radner’s theological vision breathtakingly unites Old Testament theology, Christology, Pneumatology, Ecclesiology and Church History: the Spirit of grace works within the human nature of the historical church to form the corporate, sensual life that she is, that is, Christ in time. Through the historical center of the cross and by the means of the Spirit the church ful-fills the outlines of the story pre-figured in Israel’s corporate life, the life that is the physical existence of God in his people. In the specific Jansenist case, for example, Radner interprets the experience of convulsions (in so-called 18th century ‘second Jansenism’) as the Spirit expressing in the members of Christ Christ’s own sentiments in respect to error in his church, abuse of his members, political and theological corruption and profound division. God’s own self-expression is inextricably integrated into the life of his members: they are a living figure shaped by the historical figuration of Israel in Christ. That is, in his sanctuary and domain – where his glory emanates – is made to be spiritually, sensibly experienced the cruciform of Christ’s own life, a shape that appears foolish to the world. To go beyond Radner’s analysis, and to add a Pascalian nuance, the God of Israel hides himself among, and reveals himself by, the places and manners least suspected, if not distasteful, to haughty human pretension. So, as it was in the ebb and flow of Israel’s contorted history in an obscure corner of several world empires, so it is in the church’s own humbling experience in time.

In reference to both Robert Jenson’s as well as Ephraim Radner’s theological work, I find striking complementary methods and visions. Both are doing theology as it should be done: wrought to serve the church and her mission.

“Faith Alone” and infant baptism

Posted by Nathanael Szobody on

A friend recently sent me the following question: “Help me understand the relationship between infant baptism and faith alone. Does the pronouncement happen by proxy-by the believing parents?”

I have two answers. But first I would make an preliminary observation concerning sola fide. The term is intended to exclude the addition of any meritorious work in the scheme of salvation; it is “faith to the exclusion of everything else”. Strictly speaking, sola fide does not intend to exclude the possibilty that one might be saved who has neither works nor faith due to a limited cognitive ability (i.e., infancy or mental illness). “sola” implies a maximum requirement, not a minimum. Since New Testament Pauline theology is written to cognitive adults seeking to understand their new-found faith in regards to the jewish law, we need not take the statements in it concerning the necessity of faith to imply any exclusion of infants from salvation. Having said that, I will present the two answers that seem most immediately helpful.

First, the question reveals a certain assumption. It implies that the definition of faith relies on a cognitive motor. Hebrews 11:1 certainly establishes some fundamental aspects of faith, but I would not for a minute entertain it as an exhaustive definition (and it doesn’t seem to be intended as such). But even if the characteristics of “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” are necessary constitutive elements of faith, I still don’t see a problem. “Assurance” and “conviction” are difficult things to come by for adults. To really have them, it takes a rather child-like characteristic: trust. For this reason Jesus himself tells us we must be as a child to inherit the kingdom of heaven (and in saying so he was not distinguishing a cognitive child from and infant; the point is, you must be un-adult). You have to trust either evidence, a testimony, or a relationship in order to have assurance or conviction. As you likely can guess, I’m going to emphasize the third, without excluding the former two–especially testimony (for, among other reasons “how will they believe if they have not heard?”). While an infant arguably cannot understand, and therefore trust, a testimony or evidence, she certainly can trust a relationship, as is abundantly evident to parents.

Faith takes initiation on God’s part.The Holy Spirit must quicken for one to even believe. As Luther’s Small Catechism states concerning the third article of the Creed:

“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian church, the communion of saints, the
forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

What does this mean? I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in
Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel,
enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”

The Spirit must “enlighten with his gifts”. His gifts are the various forms of his saving Word, communicated in scripture and the sacraments. In baptism, the gospel is “preached”, or rather “applied” in the name of the Trinity. As God’s testimony is more sure than the most beautiful of adult “testimonies” of faith, we believe that when he puts his name on that infant–his Name, in all in the largest sense of the gospel that it communicates–therein is the initiation of a relationship with that child. If indeed that is the case, the child is trusting, as it is in an infant’s nature to do, in God who has claimed her and placed his name upon her. No cognition is necessary for this most primordial form of trust; an infant trusts whomever is holding her. While we wouldn’t necessarily call this “faith” in its fullest sense, certainly it is faith in its most fundamental element: the trusting response to a relationship. We generally refer to it as the “seed of faith”. It is a relationship initiated.

We conceive of faith very organically. The seed of faith is not faith fully formed, it is not yet what it is called to be, just as an infant is not yet (nor will be before eternity) the person she is called to be. The seed of faith, which is the gospel Word administered in baptism, must be watered, nurtured, and eventually pruned, fertilized and supported. A seed of faith that remains a seed as a person grows to adulthood, cannot properly be called faith (the agricultural analogy works quite well on this point). In other words, infant baptism is no incantation. Negligence of its gift is a loss of its benefits. The planting and watering of the seed is indeed the responsibility of the parents.

This brings us to my second answer. No, I do not believe that infants have faith by the proxy of their parents. The idea that one person can have faith on behalf of another is foreign to scripture. What we believe is that the principle of the transmission of faith from parent to child is a constant between the Abrahamic Covenant and the New Covenant. The Apostle paul goes to great lengths in Romans and Galatians to demonstrate that our faith is Abraham’s faith. The economy of salvation is not fundamentally different between the two covenants (we will leave the Mosaic Covenant aside at this point).

At this point we cannot avoid discussing circumcision. But first we must make a few distinctions. Baptism is not equivalent to circumcision, and yet they are closely related by the following articulation: circumcision is the type of which baptism is the reality. This principle is established with remarkable clarity in Colossians 2:11-12. Baptism is a “circumcision without human hands, the circumcision of Christ” i.e. a burial into his death in order to receive his life. In other words, where humans circumcised the flesh, God circumcises the heart in baptism. The picture is in circumcision; the reality is in baptism. We must keep in mind both the similarity in image, but the distinction of substance between these two rites. One is a sign of the promise, the other is the promised gift.

With this in mind, we observe that the sign of circumcision, anticipating baptism, was given to infant males. The sign indicates the will of God: he claims the children of his people, and transfers to them on the eighth day the promise he made to Abraham. The promise is not faith itself; it is the object of faith. As the child grows (male or female) he believes the promise signified in circumcision. The promise always was “spoken” to him in circumcision, but his faith applies his intellect in recognizing it as a promise for him. When the reality comes with Christ, delivered in his gift of baptism, how much more should that reality also be extended to the children, that, as they grow, their faith should recognize with thankfulness the gift of God?

This might offend our evangelical sensitivities insofar as we see faith as a condition for baptism, as the question intimates. The idea that faith is a prerequisite for baptism and must precede it sequentially is born of a certain repetition in Acts of the command “believe and be baptized” or “repent and be baptized”. The first occurrence of the latter formulation appears in Acts 2:38 as Peter tells the crowd “Repent and be baptized, very one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off, anyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” This statement is masterfully crafted for a first-century jewish audience. First there’s baptism for repentance that John had taught (as well, presumably, as other ascetic groups like the Essenes), but Peter adds a salvific import to this baptism: “for the forgiveness of your sins”. However any good Jew is concerned not only for himself, but also that the promise of Abraham be applied to his descendants, beginning with his eight-day-old child. So Peter reassures them, showing that Christ is indeed the fulfillment of the Abrahamic hope: “The promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off…” (reminiscent of “a blessing for all nations”). In this statement alone is confirmed the fact that the transmission of faith from parent to child continues in the New Covenant as it did in the Abrahamic. The difference is that the promise which was signified in the sign of circumcision, is fulfilled with the gift of God’s very Name (= His presence, communion–the very Gospel hope) in baptism. The human response to this gift is faith–a faith whose seed is planted by God’s Word in baptism and nourished by the continual feeding of his Word as that child grows in her cognitive ability to respond.

Islam: A Failure of Christian Unity

Posted by Nathanael Szobody on

How is it that 6th century Arabia, flanked by a christian Ethiopia to the west, a christian Palestine to the north and even a few Christian tribes in its own interior resisted Christianity until Mohammed filled the void finally with a more radical monotheism than either Christianity or Judaism? Mohammed himself gives us a clue in the Qur’an.

In the Sura “Miriam” (Mary), the Qur’an tells the story of Jesus’ birth. It’s quite a different version of the Christmas story than the ones we have in Matthew and
Luke. It includes Mary giving birth under a palm tree in the desert, the palm tree miraculously producing fruit, a stream springing up at Mary’s feet to refresh her, and not least of all Jesus speaking as soon as he was born to reassure a distraught Mary. Mary then returns to her family with Jesus in her arms. When her family sees her child and figures out that she had become pregnant out of wedlock, they begin to interrogate her and ask her how she could have shamed herself so. The infant Jesus again speaks to defend his mother and declare his identity: ” I am the servant of God. He gave me the book and made me a prophet…” What is particularly interesting to me is the postscript to this story. The author writes “This is Jesus, the voice of truth that they are still disputing”. The “they” of this statement can only refer to the Christians of his day.

Indeed, the Christians of Europe, Palestine, and northern Egypt were gripped in a centuries-long conflict on the nature of Christ. Was he really God? Was he really human? If he was really both human and divine did both of those natures take part in his suffering? In his glorification? These questions and others were the object of the early Christian councils. At the time of Mohammed the council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) was the most debated. At this council the Church gathered to denounce Monophysitism, the teaching that Jesus’ human nature was completely absorbed in the divine nature so that he had only one, divine nature. The fallout of this council was that the churches of Egypt and Syria separated themselves from the central church of Constantinople in order to remain Monophysite. There were several Monophysite groups that settled in northern Arabia also.

If the religious portrait isn’t already complex enough add this to the equation: Constantinople was at war with the persians, and between Constantinople and Persia were several Arab tribes who would often accept or reject Chalcedon based on political alliances with or against Constantinople.

Dizzy yet? Mohammed seems to have been as well. In addition to Orthodox and Monophysite Christians, Palestine and northern Arabia were also home to Jacobites (a rather Jewish strain of Christianity), Nestorians ( Christians who emphasized a division in the natures of Christ) and a plethora of hermits who held to varying degrees of any of the above positions– not to mention the several Jewish tribes well established on the peninsula since the first century A.D.

Given the degree of confusion and division concerning the nature of Christ it is not surprising to find the designation of Jesus in the Qur’an as the one “who they are still disputing”. Is this part of the reason that central Arabia remained largely pagan at the end of the 6th century? It is likely. Each group of Christians had its own missionary efforts into the Arabian peninsula, but there could obviously have been no coordinated effort. Indeed christians were literally warring and killing each other over the nature of Christ. Orthodoxy was imperial Byzantine policy, to go against it carried political ramifications. To a Mohammed witnessing the situation from the somewhat removed but mot at all uninformed Mecca in central Arabia, the solution was simple: Jesus is not divine at all because there is only one God; he is only a prophet. Mohammed filled the void left by Jewish and Christian conflict as Arabs rallied to his radically simplified monotheism: “There is no other god but God, and Mohammed is his prophet.”

If Christians entertain any evangelistic hopes for the Muslim world, can they afford to do so as a divided church?

Source for historical information:

CHARLES, Henri, Le Christianisme des arabes nomades sur le Limes et dans le désert syro-mésopotamien aux alentours de l’hégire, Paris, Leroux, 1936.