My four-part series on this subject got a few comments, which will enable me to expand on some things that obviously weren’t clear in the first part.
First thing to note: I got no responses from my Pentecostal bretheren on this subject, after the considerable back and forth on this subject here. Sooner or later this will be an issue but, like everything else, Pentecostals have an entirely different dynamic in which doctrinal matters are discussed.
I wonder if your judgment of the sacramental system is not too rigid. “God is bound to the sacraments, but he is not bound by them.” Hi grace can operate outside of their visible signs. Even in the Roman Catholic tradition there is a baptism of blood (martyrs who do not receive water baptism, but are still saved) and the baptism of desire, for those who do not KNOW that they should be baptized, but would desire the sacrament had they known.
And then there’s Father Greg:
But then, you write above: “John tells us that our new birth is via baptism. This is something I cannot agree with.”
However, as with the Eucharist, the New Testament does not support such an interpretation. In the New Testament, beginning with John 3:5 and including Titus 3:5, “new birth” or “regeneration” is always associated with baptism.
The more I think about this issue, the more it’s apparent that the trout in the milk of this issue is infant baptism.
Let’s consider Holy Communion. We agree that the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist validates many of the claims made for receiving the Holy Communion. On the flip side the consequences of unworthy reception are as strong of an argument against a purely symbolic Eucharist as one could want. As Pat Robertson pointed out last Sunday, people don’t die for unworthy reception of just a symbol.
In both cases, however, the benefits or curses of the sacrament are dependent upon the spiritual state of the recipient. Now the Roman Catholic would come back and say that this in turn is dependent upon proper reception of forgiveness in the sacrament of Penance. But that also is dependent upon valid contrition of the penitent (unless you’re Cardinal Richelieu, in which case only the fear of hell (attrition) is necessary.) So the proper spiritual state of the recipient is still important.
In the case of infant baptism, however, such a state is irrelevant, because the infant cannot make such a spiritual decision for him or herself. There have been many arguments advanced to try to fix this problem, from the “infant faith” business to shifting the responsibility to the godparents to the Augustinian solution of original sin. All of this doesn’t take away from the core problem with infant baptism: the infant makes no decision, so you end up on relying entirely on the efficacy of the sacrament for whatever infusion of grace (in this case, the inheriting of eternal life) comes with the sacrament.
Once you have this with one sacrament, you compromise the whole system. To directly address Abu Daoud’s remark, I don’t know of any responsible Catholic or Orthodox writer who would say that one could achieve eternal life solely on the reception of the sacraments, but on the operative level too many people are acting as if that is the case. If it works in infant baptism, why not everywhere else?
Eliminating infant baptism and only baptising people subsequent to a turning to God through Jesus Christ eliminates this problem. It sets up the same type of volition/sacrament pairing you have in the Holy Communion. It also solves the relationship between baptism and salvation which Fr. Greg rightly points out is inherent in the New Testament.
Ultimately people have to decide whether they are Christians or not. A church that ties that conscious decision to baptism makes a powerful statement with both.
As an aside, I should mention that the secular import of that decision is easier to see in some cultural settings than others. I’m primarily thinking of secular cultures, but Islamic ones also come to mind. That’s one reason why I lament the attitude that Evangelicals take towards Catholic, Orthodox and Coptic believers in the Middle East. Same believers have to make a serious decision to remain a Christian in a culture whose pressure to become Muslim increases all of the time. Evangelicals should take the time (as I did last weekend) to watch a Coptic priest like Father Zakaria lead Muslims to Christ on television.
But let me address Fr. Greg’s last comment:
“It is my prayer that this exposition will be enlightening, helping to patch a lacuna in the garment of Pentecost that has covered the world.”
Okay, but I have to ask: are we sure that the Lord’s Supper, as celebrated in the Church of God and in similar places, is in fact the same as that which is being celebrated in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches?
One of the purposes of this series is to move things forward to the point where the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is widely acknowledged by Pentecostal churches, at which point we can answer this question, if not in liturgy or perhaps in detailed theological explanation, in the affirmative.