Saturday, 1 February 2014

Baptismal nonsense

Stephen Tompkins writes 'warts and all' biographies and histories.  I have read his books on Wilberforce, Livingston and Wesley.  Each of them was criticical but I think Livingston was most heavily criticised.  I have to say that his books give a healthy realisism to church history, and it is a reminder that God graciously uses flawed people.

I have really enjoyed Tompkin's book 'A Short History of Christianity' and I want to write some posts about some of the more entertaining stories it records (I'll put these under the label 'Horrible Histories of the Church').  I remember, when studing in theological college, there were times when I wanted to put up my hand and say 'this is not Christian History, this is the story of a corrupted institution.'  There have been many people who have played roles in the leadership of 'the church' who had no faith worth speaking of.  I suppose we could deal with this problem by talking about the visible church (the institution) and the invisible church (those of faith).  This idea goes back to Augustine (fourth century) and was insisted upon by the reformers of the sixtenth century.  Problem is that sometimes those who displayed genuine faith also had deep flaws and did some things that seem inexcusable.

As an evangelical I find it uncomfortable that Chirstians of the early centuries soon became highly superstitious about baptism.  Leaders believed that it was baptism itself that washed away your sin, (rather than baptism being a visible picture of the cleansing that comes by grace through faith).  This false teaching created problems.  For example, if it is baptism that cleanses you from your sin what do you do about sins that are committed after you are baptised?  Such teaching reduces the belief in ongoing grace.  Such thinking leads to doctrines of penance, whereby people seek to make up for their post-baptismal sins.

The ludicrous nature of believing that it is baptism that washes away your sin is seen in the life of the Emperor Constantine.  Church history was radically altered when he was 'converted' (I put converted in inverted comas because I find it hard to see how his faith was genuine).  Constantine ruled with all the brutality of pagan emperors.  He even killed his first born son to protect his throne.  He also had his wife put to death.  Now I am sure that Constantine would have tried to defend these actions.  But what did it matter anyway, he had not yet been baptised?  He waited until he was on his death-bed before he was baptised, therefore mechanically wiping away all past sin and not living long enough to commit any further 'serious' sins.

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