Our Musty Christian Incubators

ThielickeLast night, I was reading a chapter of Helmut Thielicke’s How the World Began, entitled ‘Man – The Risk of God’. Sometimes, when you’ve been turning over thoughts in your mind and reflecting on them in prayer, you pick up a book and read something that just hits you like a train – because it puts your own reflections into words. The issues raised in this chapter are, in my view, pressing ones for the Reformed church. Thielicke’s words (from the 1960’s) have the ring of the prophetic…

We Christians, therefore, have not only to sing hymns; we must also pay attention to culture. God wants this too. But we cannot pay attention to culture if we are narrow-minded, stupid Christian philistines. Then we hand over the theater, music, literature, and politics to the so-called children of the world, and our somewhat belated agitation and concern that they may play hob with it, that they may make a cult of Eros or an atomic witches’ sabbath of it, is completely out of place. “Is the plot of history to turn out in such a way,” asked Schleiermacher in another connection, “that Christianity will go with barbarism, but science— and art—with unbelief?”

I believe that the church of Jesus Christ has not yet really grasped just what has been entrusted to us and the wealth that has been given to us. Often it seems to me that we Christians flounder about between heaven and earth, as if, down underneath, we had lost both, and therefore present a rather lamentable figure to the children of this world. We keep thinking about all the things “we can no longer do” as Christians, instead of enjoying the riches of creation and then accepting with open hands what God wants to give to us. Is God, then, a mistrustful miser who locks everything away from us so that we cannot get at it? Is he not rather the Father who is always giving with full hands and unparalleled generosity, always pouring out his gifts? I am afraid that the germs of a neopagan culture are being cultivated in our musty Christian incubators.   How the World Began, 68

Thielicke puts his finger on it. A truly Reformed theology does not (or should not) ‘flounder around between heaven and earth’. I’m afraid that Christianity often does present a lamentable figure. We denigrate our creatureliness, as if God wanted us in heaven rather than on the earth. And then our anaemic gospel becomes a shadow of what it ought to be, and makes little sense to those who live as creatures in God’s much-loved world. Our musty Christian incubators need to be opened to the fresh air of God’s purpose to redeem all of His creation through Jesus the Messiah.

Do Not Be Afraid

unknownLife continually throws up situations that make us anxious. We all know this. Yet, we don’t often share that basic human reality. Often, we are anxious about the future, about its hidden paths and unknown challenges. When Jesus addresses anxiety, this is the facet of life he focusses on: what will I eat? What will I drink? What will I wear? (For those into grammar, the verbs are subjunctives in the Greek, indicating the real possibility of not eating, drinking, wearing). But Jesus is clear: do not be anxious.

Isaiah 43:1-5 is a passage that also speaks comfort, this time in the face of danger.

Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine! When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; And through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, Nor will the flame burn you.

This passage, addressed to the People of God, raises so many questions. Many of the People of God have been drowned and burned, with many of these being martyrs. And yet, the Word itself still brings powerful comfort: Do Not Be Afraid…I will be With You. Over the past weeks, I keep returning to this: Do Not Be Afraid. Most recently in Haggai 2:5. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes (in Life Together):

Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work.

We live in the face of an unknown future; in the face of our insecurity; in the face of the dangers of the world; in the face of our enemies…this is The Way the World Is. It is our common human experience. Anxiety and fear seem entirely appropriate! And yet, into This World there comes this jarring word: Do Not Be Afraid. Walter Brueggemann captures this in his prayer ‘Salvation Oracles’, which begins by speaking the names of the threats we face: terror, cancer, loneliness, shame, death – ‘the list goes on’…

And in the midst of threat of every kind / you appear among us in your full power,

in your deep fidelity, / in your amazing compassion, / You speak among us the one word that could matter:

“Do not fear.”

And we, in our several fearfulnesses, are jarred by your utterance.

On a good day, we know that your sovereign word is true. / So give us good days by your rule,

free enough to rejoice, / open enough to change, / trusting enough to move out of new obedience,

grace enough to be forgiven and then forgive.

Walter Brueggemann, Prayers for a Privileged People, 83

The Elephant and the Baptists

elephantNow, even though I’m a Presbyterian ex-Baptist, I try to stay out of debates on baptism. The arguments usually go round in circles, with people speaking past each other, defending positions, not usually seeking understanding. They’re not generally conducive to fruitful fellowship. However, two things make me wonder if this laissez-faire approach is the correct one.

First, some Presbyterians seem to find delineating a satisfying account of the practice of infant baptism alarmingly difficult. They take on board Baptist memes and try to incorporate them into their view, resulting in something of a dog’s breakfast. Second, some Baptists certainly do not adopt a laissez-faire attitude. They proselytise according to the Gospel of Believer’s Baptism. I don’t mean proselytise amongst the lost, the un-churched. I mean amongst the Presbyterians (or Anglicans), who they re-baptise into their own churches. Don’t get me wrong, over the past weeks I have enjoyed some wonderful fellowship with some wonderful Baptist friends in the unity of the Spirit – as it should be. But, some other Baptists seem to be very much on the attack.

Arguments tend to revolve around whether children should be baptised, or around how much water should be involved. But there is a more fundamental issue. An Elephant. In the Room. The apostle Paul expresses the foundation of Christian unity like this:

One Body and One Spirit…One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism. One God and Father of All…    Eph 4:4-6

As Christians, we own the unity of God, the divinity and Lordship of Jesus as the Divine Messiah; we believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ; we affirm the creeds of the church. We have One Lord and One Faith. And, we have One Baptism. There is one sign of entry into the Church; that is, the baptism practiced by the apostles themselves. One Baptism. Baptist theology has a different understanding of the baptism practiced by the apostles than do the Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Reformed, Anglican, Lutheran, Orthodox, Methodist or Congregational churches. The Baptists stand on their own in this regard. And most, if not all, of the former churches recognise each others’ baptism. This was certainly one of the fundamental tenets of the Reformers in their practice: they would not re-baptise someone who had been baptised in the Roman Catholic church. There is One Baptism. Presbyterians retain this tenet today.

And so we come to the Elephant. Baptists do not recognise One Baptism. Many of them would insist on re-baptising any professing Christian who had been raised in a believing family in any other (non-Baptist) church before allowing them to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in their churches. This is essentially their declared judgement that these people are not, in fact, part of the Church of Jesus Christ. It declares other churches’ sacraments invalid, and comes close to declaring other churches themselves as invalid. With the Baptists, there is an ecumenical impasse. There is a fundamental problem. It’s not a problem of how much water you should use, or even simply a problem of whether children should be baptised. It is a fundamental problem of Christian Unity. To declare a church’s baptism as invalid, to insist on re-baptism, is to strike at the heart of Christian Unity. One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism – this is not the view of the Baptists. And that’s why the Reformers regarded the Baptists in their day as a radical sect. Not a church, a sect.

My appeal is not for Presbyterians to change our attitude to the Baptists – we recognise Your Baptism, we count you as brothers and sisters. My appeal is to the Baptists – that we might receive the same respect from you, that you might recognise the validity of Our Baptism (and that of every other part of Christ’s church), the validity of our sacraments, the validity of our church itself (for it is that fundamental).

One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism.