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Analogies to Baptism

by Peter J. Leithart

copyright © 1998

Every attempt to understand the Christian sacraments makes use of comparisons or analogies with other rituals, events, or customs. Calvin and those who followed him, for example, spoke of the sacraments as “seals,” and compared them to the “seal of approval” that an official impresses on a document. Thinking about the sacraments by drawing analogies goes back to the New Testament, where Paul compares baptism to the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea (1 Corinthians 10) and Peter compares it to the flood (1 Peter 3).

It is very important, however, to make sure that the analogies that we use to explain the sacraments are good ones. Sometimes, bad or limited analogies have been pushed too far and lead to serious theological errors. Hugh of St. Victor, like many other medieval theologians, compared the grace of the sacraments to medicine, and added that the external sacrament was merely the “bottle” that contained the medicine. Using this analogy, he concluded that God could have arranged things to give grace (the “medicine”) without using any external means (the “bottle”). This sounds correct, until we realize the implications: This tends to make the sacraments are superfluous. (Thomas Aquinas, correctly, insisted constantly that God does nothing superfluous.) And if the sacraments are superfluous, perhaps we don’t have to make use of them or take them seriously. Hugh pushed his analogy of medicine so far that it undermined the whole use of sacraments.

The problem with many analogies that have historically been used for sacraments is that they are static. They don’t capture the fact that performing the sacraments involves action. To say that the Lord’s Supper is a “picture” of Christ’s death is a “static” analogy: we don’t do anything with pictures; we only look at them. In thinking about baptism, I have been using a couple of analogies that I think are superior because they capture the active or dynamic aspect of baptism. They emphasize that baptism is a rite to be performed. And they emphasize that baptism actually does something.

The first of these analogies is marriage. The performance of a baptism is analogous to the celebration of a wedding ceremony. After the couple has exchanged vows and the minister pronounced them man and wife, a new reality has been created. The man and woman are no longer what they were before the rite; before the rite they are still single but after the rite they are married, in covenant with one another. So also, after the words and gestures of baptism, the subject is no longer as he was before the rite; the baptized person is now in covenant with God. He or she may not remain faithful to that covenant but still a covenant has been made. John Chrysostom spoke of baptism as a “nuptial bath,” preparing us for our marriage to Christ, and an analogy between baptism and marriage is hinted at in Ephesians 5:26, Ezekiel 16:6-14, Ruth 3:3ff.

The second analogy is with ordination. A man who has hands laid on him becomes an officer of the church; like marriage ordination actually effects a change in the man’s status. After ordination, the minister has new responsibilities, privileges, and is under a new set of rules. Likewise, baptism “ordains” the baptized into a new position, giving him new responsibilities and privileges. That baptism involves ordination to the “general priesthood” of the church is indicated in Hebrews 10:19-22, and implied in Galatians 3:27 (“clothing”) and 2 Corinthians 1:21-22 (“anointing”).

copyright © 1998

Peter Leithart is an ordained minister of the Gospel in the Presbyterian Church in America. He received an A.B. in English and History from Hillsdale College in 1981, and a Master of Arts in Religion and a Master of Theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in 1986 and 1987, respectively. In 1998 he received his Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge in England. He is Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature and Librarian at New Saint Andrews College. He has written many books on theology, the Bible, and literature. His dissertation on baptism will soon be published.

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