Should baptism be considered as full initiation into the Church? What are the liturgical implications of this understanding?
Traditional sacramental models have understood that Christian initiation is undertaken through the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and Eucharist, and is only fully complete after the conferral of all three sacramental actions. However, since the Reformation, and particularly over the last century, there has been a movement towards a baptismal ecclesiology which suggests that baptism, in and of itself, represents full initiation into the Church and the Christian faith. This development, if correct, is of considerable importance; Kavanagh (1978) argues that no liturgical construct of the Church has more impact upon its renewal than its initiatory structure, and therefore any change in baptismal theology and practice has far reaching consequences.
The historical development of initiatory rites has been protracted. Although originally, in the earliest days of the Church, baptism and anointing (the practice of chrismation, later modified into the sacrament of confirmation) happened together in the same rite, the two sacraments were divorced from each other in later Christian practice. For example, in fifth century Gaul and, later, in eighth century Germany, there is evidence that baptism and confirmation were clearly separated into distinct and self-contained liturgical actions. Whilst it is still the practice of the Eastern Church that the two sacraments are performed together in the same rite, in the Western Church, the two sacraments have become separated both liturgically and theologically. A controversy has also historically arisen as to the role of the Holy Spirit in baptism- in particular, whether the Holy Spirit was given at baptism, or whether it was bestowed upon post-baptismal laying on of hands/chrismation, later the sacrament of confirmation (again, this controversy was concentrated within the Western tradition- the sealing of the spirit is considered to be included within the baptismal synaxis by the Orthodox Churches). This theological uncertainty lay unaddressed for some time, however the second half of the 20th century saw unprecedented change, recovery, renewal and ecumenical convergence in the rites of Christian initiation. As a result, the nature of baptism and its relationship with the contemporary Church is of renewed importance. Similarly, in theological and ecclesiological thought, especially in the post-Christendom context, the function and ontological nature of baptism, and indeed rites of initiation generally, have increased in significance. It is therefore important to determine if, and to what extent baptism is full initiation into the Church in and of itself, and its relationship with other traditional sacraments of initiation if this is the case.
It could be argued that baptism should be considered as full initiation into the Church. Firstly, this position appears to be supported by Scripture, which tends to allude to the idea that the faithful reception of baptism alone is necessary for salvation. For example, Jesus implies that baptism “fulfils all righteousness” (Matt 3:15), and similarly, Paul asserts that all who have been baptised into Christ have clothed themselves with Christ (Gal. 3:27). Critically, Jesus also appears to point to baptism as being essential to salvation (e.g. Mark 16:16; John 3:5), whilst not directly mentioning either confirmation or Eucharist as being such, and arguably it was at his baptism that Jesus was consecrated Messiah. Paul goes on to argue that all who are baptised into Christ are baptised into his death, and that Christians are buried with him through baptism (Rom 6:3-5; Col 2:12); consequently it is through baptism that people are able to share in the mystery of the resurrection. There is therefore strong Scriptural evidence to suggest that baptism is the means to fully sufficient and complete membership in the Body of Christ. In the same way, Scripture appears to suggest that the Holy Spirit is being conferred in baptism, and as a result baptism marks an ontological change in the candidate, representing full initiation into the Christian faith. This is particularly evident in the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ baptism. The Holy Spirit appears to descend upon Jesus immediately after his immersion in the Jordan (Matt 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:21-22) and, similarly, Pauline theology seems to suggest that baptism is in and of itself a conferral of the Holy Spirit. Likewise, in Acts 2:38, Peter seems to imply that the Holy Spirit comes directly after baptism. Paul also suggests that, through baptism, the Holy Spirit gives membership into the one body of the Church (1 Cor 12:13). This seems to suggest a strong dependence on baptism for membership of the Body of Christ and participation in the Christological event; baptism is clearly the primary process of entering into ecclesial fellowship. This conclusion certainly suggests a reduction in the initiatory importance of confirmation and Eucharist, and does not appear to suggest Eucharistic dependence on initiation into the Body of Christ, for example.
Secondly, it can also be argued that the concept of baptism as full initiation is supported by much of the Church’s theological tradition, particularly in the Patristic period and, later, theology propagated by those in the Reformed tradition. As fore mentioned, baptism and chrismation were originally placed together liturgically; Augustine, for example, argues that the words of the catechist have their fulfilment in baptism. However, early in the life of the Church, confusion as to what “gifts of the Spirit” entailed- either literal gifts (speaking in tongues etc) or the ability to live by grace and virtue (1 Cor 12:1-14:5) arose and, as a result, the role of the Spirit in baptism became uncertain. If the former is correct, then confirmation’s role as conferrer of the Holy Spirt seems more defensible than if the latter is true; confirmation in this instance is not conferral of the Holy Spirit per se, but rather the conferral of gifts which the Spirit releases and empowers. Reformed baptismal theology was, in part, a reaction to this theological uncertainty, and a response to long-term disagreement over baptismal efficacy and the role of the Holy Spirit. This theology was significantly influenced by the context of the Reformation. For example, in the 16th century, it was generally accepted that baptism was only efficacious for past sins; further action was needed for future sanctification. Similarly, a view supported by some theologians of the 4th century (e.g. Tertullian), was that baptism was to be delayed as long as possible- preferably just before death- in order to ensure no relapse into a sinful state. As a result, Reformation theology clearly sought to state the efficacious nature of baptism, and also the relationship of baptism to the Holy Spirit. This is evidenced in Reformation liturgical rites. For example, the 1537 Institution of a Christian Man (otherwise known as the “Bishop’s Book”) declared that baptism “perfectly incorporated and made the very members of [Christ’s] body”, although it does go on to say that the Holy Spirit is given by the laying on of hands. This publication was superseded by the Thirty-Nine articles, which similarly declared that baptism was a “mark of difference” and a “sign of regeneration”, where “faith is confirmed” and candidates are “adopted as sons of God by the Holy Ghost”. This suggests full sacramental initiation at baptism. The Book of Common Prayer (1662) rite reflects this understanding, and appears to consider baptism full initiation both into the Church by water and the Holy Spirit; the gathering rite includes the line “that he may be baptized with Water and the Holy Ghost”. Likewise, towards the end of the rite, the priest gives thanks that God has deigned to “receive [the candidate] for thine own Child by adoption, and to incorporate him into thy holy Church”. Clearly, the rite considers that full initiation has taken place. This is clarified in the BCP (1662) order of confirmation, which asks confirmation candidates to “renew the solemn promise and vow that was made in your name at your Baptism”, clearly pointing to a baptismal renewal rather than a baptismal addition. This suggests that confirmation is not a rite of initiation in the same sense, although by this time the Church of England had discredited confirmation as a sacrament in its own right. In a more contemporary context, the Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (BEM) report of 1982 broadly agreed that baptism is initiatory in that it confirms entry to the ecclesial community and that it confers the Holy Spirit upon the candidate, and the Anglican Common Worship liturgy also reflects this understanding. In the Common Worship baptismal rite, the prayer over the water declares that “through [baptism] we are reborn in the Holy Spirit” ; the introduction makes clear that “[in baptism] we are washed by the Holy Spirit and made clean”, and in the Commission, the celebrant prays that [the candidates] will knowthe new life of the Spirit. This rite clearly points to baptism being a conferral of the Holy Spirit, and full sacramental initiation into the Church.
 A. Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism: the Rite of Christian Initiation (New York: Pueblo, 1978), 165.
 E. Yarnold, The Awe-Inspiring Rites of Initiation: the Origins of the RCIA [2nd ed] (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994), 34.
 P. Cramer, Baptism and Change in the Early Middle Ages, c.200-c.1150 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 179.
 D. R. Holeton, Confirmation in the 1980s in M. Thurian (ed.), Ecumenical Perspectives on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1983), 70.
 M. E. Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation: Their Evolution and Interpretation (Collegeville [Minnesota]: The Liturgical Press, 1999), 291.
 J. MacQuarrie, A Guide to the Sacraments (London: SCM Press, 1997), 87.
 P. Larere (trans P. Madigan), Baptism in Water and Baptism in the Spirit (Collegeville [Minnesota]: The Liturgical Press, 1993) , 16.
 Cramer Baptism and Change, 191.
 MacQuarrie, A guide to the Sacraments, 61.
 J., Baillie, Baptism and Conversion (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), 27.
 G. P. Jeanes, Signs of God’s Promise (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2008), 60.
 Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation, 335.
 B. D. Spinks, Reformation and Modern Rituals and Theologies of Baptism (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), 160-161.
 Church of England, Common Worship: Christian Initiation: Services and Prayers for the Church of England (London: Church House Publishing, 2005), 69.
 Church of England, Common Worship, 63.
 Church of England, Common Worship, 72.
- Quote paper
- Andrew Lythall (Author), 2008, Should baptism be considered as full initiation into the Church? The liturgical implications of this understanding, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/319474