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Volume 14, Issue 5: Liturgia

Baptism and the "Real Me"

Peter Leithart

Baptism is about personal identity. It answers the question, "Who am I?" Paul expected the Romans to know that "all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death" and reminded them that "if we have been united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection" (Rom. 6:3, 5). Because they were joined to Christ by baptism, the Roman Christians were to "consider [them]selves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 6:11). To use the modern jargon, Paul taught that a Christian's "self-image" is grounded in and shaped by the fact of his baptism.

But is this really true? Does the "self-image" that comes from baptism match reality, or was Paul playing a game of "let's pretend?"
Many have concluded that Paul could not have meant what he said. Sprinkling a few drops of water, especially on an infant, can't change who he really is. It might affect him in some "external" and "legal" ways, but it doesn't touch the core identity. To be blunt, if Abdul was a rank unregenerate unbeliever a moment before baptism, he is still a rank unregenerate unbeliever a moment after baptism. Abdul is still Abdul, even if he's wet. To suggest otherwise is to transform the sacrament into superstition.
Here we must begin "before the beginning" if we hope to understand the New Testament teaching about baptism.
For starters, the ("Protestant") notion that baptism does not affect the "real me" and the apparently opposite ("Catholic") notion that baptism supernaturally transforms the soul assume the same view of personal identity.1 "Protestants" deny that water sprinkled on my body changes the "real me" because the "real me" is a soul tightly and hermetically sealed within my body. If baptism is going to affect me in any fundamental way, it has to be something more than water applied to my body. It has to be infused with magical or supernatural power to penetrate past my skin and touch my heart.
"Catholics" also deny that an external rite can change who I am, and for the same reason as the "Protestant," namely, because the "real me" is locked up inside the body. For "Catholics," if baptism is going to affect me in any fundamental way, it has to be something more than water applied to my body. It has to be magical, supernatural.
"Catholics," of course, believe that baptism injects supernatural power and "Protestants" don't. But this difference pales in comparison to the more basic agreement between the two, and this fundamental agreement explains why debates between "Protestant" and "Catholic" are so frustratingly inconclusive: how can you win a debate when your opponent already agrees with you? Behind both "Catholic" and "Protestant" views of baptism is the notion that the "real me," what makes me uniquely me, is some internal ghostly me that remains unaffected by what happens outside and is unchanged by what happens to my body. Neither "Protestant" nor "Catholic" raises the possibility that baptism, precisely as an external and physical ritual, might actually affect who I am.
Both "Protestant" and "Catholic" views, in short, seek to locate some eternal, unchangeable, autonomous "me" deep within. Ultimately, this is idolatrous. It is an effort to find some divine me inside the human me. Christians aren't supposed to believe in any such thing.
We can make the point by looking at what the Bible says about the soul and the "inner man." Let's assume for the sake of argument that "soul" in the Bible means "the real, inner, essential me." Even if we adopt this questionable definition, it is clear that the "real, essential me" is affected by the world and by external events.
According to Scripture, souls, not just bodies, hunger and thirst (Ps. 107:9), and hungry and thirsty souls are refreshed when they receive food and drink (1 Sam. 30:12). Spanking a child drives foolishness from his heart (Prov. 22:15), and the Torah of Yahweh, which comes as ink on a page or sound waves on the air, restores the soul (Ps. 19:7). When it seems that God is absent and that enemies have been unleashed to destroy him, David's soul "pants" for God to come and deliver him (Ps. 42:1; cf. vv. 9_10). David would have difficulty singing "It is well with my soul," for when disaster strikes, it is definitely not well with his soul.
The fact that the Bible often describes the "inner" man by reference to bodily organs (heart, kidneys, liver) is a hint that Scripture does not sharply distinguish inner spiritual realities from outer physical realities. Even the "inner" man is conceived physically, not as a disembodied, ghostly self. There is always more to a human being than appears on the surface, but being human is always "being in the world" because it is always "being a body." What makes me uniquely me includes what happens to my body.
Whatever else we must say about a baptized person (and we must say much more), we can say with utter confidence that he is baptized, that a minister has poured water on his body, and that this is an irreversible event in his "being in the world." He emerged from the waters of baptism, and he is a new person. Abdul is no longer simply Abdul, and he is not simply wet Abdul. Abdul is baptized Abdul. That means the "real Abdul" has been changed.

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