Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sacramental preterism

Bryan Cross did a recent post on “The Church Fathers on Baptismal Regeneration.” Several things stand out:

1. Patristic Perspicuity

He acts as though the church fathers are perspicuous. Even though they wrote in a different time, place, language, and culture, he seems to think there’s no barrier between the ancient author and the modern reader. We don’t have to ask basic questions like the genre of the writing, the occasion and purpose of the writing, for whom, to whom, and against whom a church father was writing, or his intellectual milieu.

But if the church fathers are perspicuous, why not Bible writers? Who needs the Magisterium?

2. Biblical Perspicuity

And, as a matter of fact, he also acts as if the Bible is perspicuous. For he has a section in which he tries to prooftext baptism regeneration of the Bible. He doesn’t cite magisterial interpretations of his prooftexts. He simply takes it for granted that he, as a Catholic layman, knows exactly what they mean.

3. Spooftexting

Let’s run through is examples:

“In Genesis 1 we see that the Spirit hovers over the water in creation. Similarly, the Spirit descended when Christ was baptized by John. And in the same way the Spirit descends upon the waters in our baptism.”

Notice the blatant equivocation. Gen 1 doesn’t describe the Spirit “descending” on the waters. But even if it did, there’s no parallel between that event and the baptism of Christ, for the Spirit descended on Christ, not the waters of the Jordan!

And, of course, he has no verse to show that the Spirit descends on the baptismal font.

After quoting 1 Pet 3:20-21, he says:

“Why does baptism give us a good conscience? Because in baptism all our sins are forgiven, and we are raised to new Life in Christ.”

i) To begin with, this wouldn’t prove baptismal regeneration. For if Peter is using the rite of baptism as an emblem of saving grace, then he’d describe the rite in efficacious terms even though he was speaking figuratively rather than literally. So Bryan would first have to show that Peter’s ascription is literal rather than emblematic.

ii) But suppose, for the sake of argument, we take Peter literally. That, however, proves too much for Bryan’s purpose.

a) One the one hand, Bryan doesn’t think that baptism is necessary for salvation. In contemporary Catholic theology (e.g. Vatican II), it’s possible for a Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist to be saved.

b) On the other hand, Bryan doesn’t think that baptism necessitates salvation. That’s why the sacrament of baptism must be supplemented by the sacrament of penance, to deal with postbaptismal mortal sins.

“The wood, the water, and the dove show the relation of the cross, the water, and the Spirit in baptism.”

But Peter doesn’t draw an analogy between a threefold type (water, wood, dove) and a threefold antitype (cross, water, Spirit). Bryan is interpolating items into the text that simply aren’t there to generate a neat little symmetry.

“Similarly, the crossing of the Red Sea also is a type of baptism, wherein our enemy (sin) is drowned and we pass into new life.”

That’s an allusion to 1 Cor 10:1-2. However, Paul doesn’t say the Israelites were spiritually renewed by that experience. Indeed, he goes on to say that “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.”

Back to Bryan:

“Also, the bitter water that was sweetened by the wood at Marah is a type of baptism: the wood is the cross that brings the power of the Spirit to the water to give us life. The story of Naaman the Syrian is also a type of baptism. The seven dippings prefigure the seven sacraments, of which baptism is the gate. Naaman is cleansed not by water alone, for he had water in his own land. He is cleansed by the combination of the water and the word.”

i) Bryan gives us no reason to accept his allegorical exegesis.

ii) And how would 7 dippings prefigure 7 sacraments? After all, 7 dippings are dippings in the same medium. Repeated instances of the same type of experience. That’s hardly analogous to 7 different kinds of experience. The 7 sacraments are not interchangeable.

“In the New Testament, we see baptism revealed in John 19:34, where water and blood pour from Christ’s side.”

I0 Once again, he doesn’t even attempt to argue for his fanciful interpretation. How is that a revelation of baptism?

The point, rather, is to establish the death of Christ. He really died. Death is a precondition for the Resurrection.

ii) And when he was pierced, bodily fluids issued from the wound. That doesn’t happen to prefigure baptism, as if the body of Jesus was specially constructed to bleed out in that fashion to foreshadow a sacrament. That could happen to anyone under the same circumstances.

“From this water and blood that proceeds from the side of Christ, Christ’s bride is made.”

Bryan apparently sees this as an allusion to the creation of Eve from Adam’s “rib.” But, of course, there’s nothing in Jn 19:34 about the rib of Christ, or the bride of Christ. Bryan is simply projecting his theological agenda onto the text.

“When refers to being “born again” (John 3:3), he is talking about being regenerated through baptism. The Fathers all understand the following verse in Titus [3:5] to be referring to baptism. I have found not a single Church Father who thought that this verse does not refer to baptism.”

Bryan is assuming what he needs to prove. Jn 3:5 was spoken to a rabbi, not a church father. Tit 3:5 was written to Titus, not a church father.

“Here again, the washing of water [Eph 5:25-27] with the word refers to baptism, since baptism is the combination of matter and form, i.e. washing with water [matter] accompanied by the invocation of the Holy Trinity [form], (i.e. the sacrament of regeneration through water and the word). Why is it called “washing” if it does not cleanse?”

Once again, he takes for granted that this has reference to baptism, rather than a metaphor for spiritual renewal or forgiveness.

Moreover, there’s nothing in the text to suggest baptism formula. Bryan is taking later Catholic practice as his frame of reference, then superimposing that imagery onto the text.

“In these three passages [Acts 2:38; 22:16] we find that our sins are washed away in baptism…Finally, baptism signifies and actually brings about our union with Christ in His death and resurrection. The Apostle Paul writes…[Rom 6:3-5].”

This suffers from the same fallacies I noted in his appeal to 1 Pet 3:20-21 (see above).

“This is not merely figurative language; in baptism we are ontologically united to Christ’s death and resurrection in such a way that the character effected in our soul by our baptism is indelible. (cf. Col 2:12).”

That doesn’t advance the argument. For if it were “merely figurative language,” then Paul would use that word-picture to depict saving grace. But he wouldn’t confuse the picturesque metaphor with the thing it stands for.

“In 1 Corinthians 15 St. Paul explains that Christ is the second Adam. In baptism we are immersed into the cleansing water that flowed from Christ’s side. We receive sanctifying grace and the Holy Spirit, and thus die to sin. This is what is meant by ‘dying with Christ.’ We are thus buried with Him and reborn in His resurrection. The life we live is no longer only natural; it is a supernatural life, the Life of the Second Adam.”

i) Except for the enigmatic reference to baptism for the dead in v29, 1 Cor 15 doesn’t talk about baptism.

ii) Bryan’s misinterpretation amounts to sacramental preterism. He has reinterpreted 1 Cor 15 in such a way that, like Hymenaeus, the resurrection of the just has already occurred. The Second Coming comes in baptism. This life is the afterlife. The resurrection of the body is just a metaphor for baptism.

In his sacramentalism preterism, Bryan has now has everything in reverse: the sacraments are the reality, of which the future state is the metaphor. Bryan is a one-man cult.


  1. Astounding how serious exegesis of Scripture goes out the window when one has "water on the brain."

  2. It should be noted that Catholics like Bryan Cross accept some beliefs that were widely absent or rejected in scripture and/or among the church fathers. Some of those beliefs are more absent or rejected than a non-justificatory view of baptism. There's a lot of evidence for justification apart from baptism in scripture, and there were some people in the patristic era who rejected baptismal justification. The Biblical evidence has been significant enough to motivate many Catholics to argue for widespread exceptions to baptismal justification in the Bible, even among individuals in scripture who could easily have been baptized before being justified. I discussed issues like these with Bryan Cross and some other Catholics in another thread at Called To Communion. It's a lengthy discussion, but I cite a large amount of Biblical and patristic evidence that's often neglected.