Friday, January 22, 2010

Baptism, the Lord's Supper, and Theological Method

Over at Jesus Creed Scot McKnight has an interesting post discussing elements of Chris Hall's book, Worshiping with the Church Fathers. The section under discussion is on the sacraments/ordinances, specifically baptism. Near the start of the post, McKnight brings up, what I think is an excellent point that I'd like to develop a little bit more.

How do we understand baptism and the Lord's Supper? Are they sacraments or ordinances? Much of Evangelicalism, at least those with baptist roots, tend to see them as ordinances. They are things that we are commanded to do by Jesus, therefore we do them. The Lord's Supper is an act of remembrance of the Lord's death and baptism is a public declaration of our faith that symbolizes our death to sin and new birth into new life.

Those who see them as sacraments invest them with more meaning. What Hall points out, very helpfully, is that sacramental theology is rooted in the incarnation. God comes near to us in matter (Read Scot's post if you want to know more about the origins of sacramental theology - I am going to go in a slightly different direction here). Thus, for some, baptism and the Lord's Supper go beyond being symbols. They're participatory acts. Christ is present in the elements of the Lord's Supper (some believe he's physically present, others believe it is his divine presence), and baptism is the act where we, in a real sense, participate in Christ's death and resurrection.

Ok, so where am I going with this? I think this case in interesting because it clearly demonstrates two common methods of doing theology. How far are we willing to go 'beyond the Bible' in formulating theology? I think that some of those who see them as ordinances do so out of a desire to be cautious in forming theology. They want to avoid going all that far beyond the explicit statements in the Bible. On the other hand, those who hold a sacramental view are more willing to make connections that aren't explicitly made in the biblical text. In my mind, this shows that there's very little possibility of someone moving from one camp to the other unless they have a shift in the way they do theology (to clarify, I'm not boiling down the debate to an issue of method, I'm simply pointing out how method is partially determinative). Therefore, until we as the church come to an agreement on method, there's little chance for agreement on the nature of baptism and the Lord's Supper. Even then we obviously won't have complete conformity, but at least we would all be playing on the same field.

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