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  • Beth Jones

on irrevocable baptisms, grace, and Augustinian Protestant instincts

The recent story about invalidated baptisms in the Roman Catholic church has been eating at me.

There are two polarized responses: 1) isn’t it silly to suppose that the sacraments DO something & that their form thus matters vs. 2) sacramental realism means the church’s dictates are absolutely tied to sacramental efficacy.

I take the heart of the great tradition as affirming that sacramental form absolutely matters (after all, the beauty of the thing is God’s reaching out to us through the very stuff we’re made of, an analogy to the incarnation itself) AND AT THE SAME TIME affirming that grace is absolutely separate from human control & cannot be blocked by human error.

An oversimplified story of the West says Roman Catholics affirm the materiality of the sacrament & thus of God’s work among US in THIS world, while Protestantism inevitably devolves to a Gnostic symbolicism.

This is historically untrue, of course. Protestantism just does encompass everything from Luther eating grace to Zwinglian memorialism (with Calvin hanging out in between, seemingly affirming both, annoying both, leaving lots of us free to not quite have a metaphysical position)….

I’m no Zwinglian, but his theology absolutely raises an important concern about magical thinking regarding the sacraments. And to magic-ize the sacrament is to suppose it’s under our control.

Which is where I want to go back to Augustine & insist this move to “invalidate” baptisms is wrongheaded. When the Donatists ran off into the wilderness, Augustine did not want to admit any work of God there among. Why would he? They were wrong. Schismatic. Wounding the body.

But if he refused to accept Donatist Joe’s Donatist baptism, he’d become... Augustine the Donatist, for he’d be insisting, as they did, that the church has to get it right for the sacrament to be the sacrament.

So, grumble, grumble, Gus acknowledges Joe’s baptism not because he thinks the Donatists are so great (har!) but because he knows that grace is bigger than our errors, bigger than our sin. And he frees us forever from worrying if our baptisms are valid (or he would, if we taught him better).

Donatism is Pelagianism writ ecclesial. Or Pelagianism is Donatism writ on each individual’s heart.

And good old Gus is the theologian of grace who says “stop it, neither the church nor the individual can get this right.”

Grace is bigger than us. Grace is certainly not under our control.

And one bit of this that’s particularly irksome to me in regard to supposedly "invalid" baptisms is that everyone acknowledges this. Neither Catholicism nor any kind of recognizably historic Protestantism is insisting (as most everyone in Gus’s time seems to have wrongly assumed) that saving grace is always & inevitably unavailable outside of baptism.

Even Gus would have acknowledged this, say, in the case of a martyr (whose baptism in blood would not be invalidated by the odd element or the lack of the priest), even if he said otherwise about the poor unbaptized infants.

To acknowledge that saving grace does not have to be bound to baptism is not to denigrate baptism. Nor does it require a Zwinglian sacramental theology.

What it does lead to is us, standing in awe of the majesty & mercy of our gracious God. And also, really importantly, it is to insist that salvation is in God’s hands & not ours.

Also, it seems to me that this acknowledgment that grace sometimes comes outside of baptism (which again, everyone makes) is an elevation or celebration of baptism. It is to say that saving grace is NORMALLY tied to baptism. That the birth waters of mother church are God’s chosen way of working in our lives.

Would baptism have to be done the normal way?

No, God WANTS it to be the normal way.

God is really into baptism, it seems, and by extension, into working in THIS world with US, with creatures who are made of the very water and word into which they are then baptized.

So, given that we all acknowledge the possibility that God’s saving work also works outside of the normal means, it seems disingenuous to then move to invalidate the baptisms of ACTUAL, PRECIOUS people based on a pronoun.

In fact, we’re free to SAY those baptisms are invalid, but if Augustine is right (and he is), that doesn’t change the fact that those baptisms ARE God’s grace, impossible to invalidate by human means.

There are tricky questions here, for sure. There are minimal standards of ecclesial discernment & obedience which must be retained if we’re to keep talking about the same sacraments we’ve been talking about for 2000 years.

In the case of baptism, those minimal standards are generally agreed to be 2: water & the Triune name. I’m not saying we should give up those standards which are REAL and MATTER. I am saying that adding to them with squidgy categories like “intention” and nit-picky categories like plural pronouns is to risk hurting REAL PEOPLE

and to risk the whole theology of grace on which the saving grace of baptism depends. Augustine has settled this thing. Sinful priests cannot block the grace of the sacrament. Surely mistaken priests can't either. For God is the agent of grace, not the priest.

Yes, I do actually think that the church has been inherently Protestant since Augustine, at least in a certain sense. The door was opened, anyway, and rightly so. There’s no pristine church unity. Catholics are just Protestants to Orthodox & Coptic Christians & so each to the other & so on.

I say all this as a Protestant affirming a high theology of the sacrament. In fact, like Luther, I’d insist said theology is the most Protestant thing of all. I don’t need a sign of Jesus, which I might need to work to feel or act on. I just need Jesus. Objectively, really, materially.

And I thank God that the crazy mess that is the church does not and CANNOT interfere with the grace that I did receive in him at the font & do receive in him at the table.

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