Volume 18, Issue 4: Liturgia
The Body of Christ is the Body of Christ, Part 1
Some time ago, I suggested that the biblical teaching on baptismal efficacy can be summarized in three axioms:
1. "Baptism" is baptism. When the New Testament uses the word "baptism," it's normally talking about water baptism.
2. "The body of Christ" is the body of Christ. When the New Testament speaks of Christ's body, it's talking about
Christ's body, by which I mean the visible or historical church.
3. Apostasy is possible.
Over the past year or more, I've been using (abusing?) this space to defend the first proposition. It's time now to turn to
This second axiom is the critical one in all the current debates about baptism within the Reformed churches. The question
in dispute is not baptismal efficacy per se. No one in the Reformed world says there's magic in the water, and no one
anywhere believes that baptism invariably saves everyone who gets wet. The question has to do with the significance of baptismal entry
into the visible church, and, behind this, with the question of what the visible church is.
Let's start slow. All parties in these debates agree that baptism admits the baptized into the visible church. Such is the
explicit teaching of Westminster Confession of Faith (28.1), which says that baptism is, among other things, "for the solemn admission
of the party baptized into the visible church." Continental Reformed confessions teach the same: Through baptism "we are
received into the Church of God, and separated from all other people and strange religions" (Belgic Confession, article 34), and
baptized infants are "included in the covenant and church of God" and thereby "distinguished from the children of unbelievers"
(Heidelberg Catechism #74). The Second Helvetic Confession echoes this: "to be baptized in the name of Christ is to be
enrolled, entered, and received into the covenant and family, and so into the inheritance, of the sons of God" (section XX).
The dispute is about what this means. What does a baptized person become a member of when he becomes a member of
the church? What kind of bond to Christ, and through Him to the Father and Spirit, is forged when one enters the visible church
by baptism? Can we say that a member of the church is, necessarily, a member of
Christ? If the visible church is the body of Christ,
and if the body of Christ is the community united to the humanity of the Son of God, then baptism joins the baptized to Christ the Son.
If the visible church is something less than this, then baptism is of course something less too.
One might think these questions are answerable with a straightforward syllogism:
1. Baptism admits the baptized to the church.
2. The church is the body of Christ.
3. Therefore, baptism admits the baptized to the body of Christ.
There's a crucial missing step in this argument, and I'll return to that in later articles, but to see what the current debates are
about, it's worth pausing to reflect that the Reformed tradition has been ambiguous about this syllogism as it stands.
And this is because the Reformed tradition has been ambiguous about premise #2. The Westminster Confession
distinguishes between the "invisible" church, which it describes as "the spouse, the body, the fullness of him that fills all in all"
(25.1) and the "visible" church, which is described as "the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God" (25.2).
Those who appended the Scripture proofs believed that the
visible church is the body of Christ, because they included
1 Corinthians 12:12 among the Scripture texts concerning the visible church. Further, the Larger Catechism (#167) says that
we improve on our baptism in part by striving "to walk in brotherly love, as being baptized by the same Spirit into one body," which
in context surely implies that the "body" is the visible church. Yet, the Confession itself restricts "body" language to the
invisible church. On this view, of course, baptism does
not (or not necessarily) join the baptized to the body of Christ, since there is
no guarantee that the baptized person is a member of the invisible church. The baptized are members of the kingdom and
household of God, but only the baptized elect are, strictly, members of the body of Christ.
The syllogism gets interrupted; at best, a question mark overshadows it:
1. Baptism admits the baptized to the visible church.
2. But the visible church is not the body of Christ.
3. Therefore baptism doesn't admit the baptized to the body of Christ. Or, we don't know whether it does or not.
This confessional ambiguity has produced persistent dualities within Reformed theology, evident most clearly in
various formulas concerning the "dual aspect of the covenant." As Berkhof summarizes, Reformed theologians have
distinguished between an internal and external covenant, the essence of the covenant and its administration, a condition and absolute
covenant, and the covenant as a legal relationship and as a communion of life. Working with one of these dualisms, one might
reformulate the syllogism along these lines:
1. Baptism admits the baptized to the visible church.
2. The visible church involves an external/conditional/purely legal covenant relationship with God.
3. Therefore, baptism admits the baptized into an external/conditional/purely legal relationship with God.
This would be fine if it were what the New Testament says. But it's not, and in the next few articles I'll attempt to prove that.
For the moment, we can ask, briefly, what
does the New Testament say? It says,
"All were baptized into Moses in the
cloud and in the sea" (1 Cor. 10:2), and likewise "by one Spirit we were
all baptized into one body" (1 Cor. 12:13). And, more
fundamentally, it asks, "Has Christ been divided?" (1 Cor. 1:13).