By: Rick Serina
This is the next in a monthly series of articles requested by the New Jersey District President commemorating anniversaries of particular writings or events in the life of Martin Luther. They are intended to introduce the historical background and theological content and implications of those writings or events, as well as raise questions about how they might pertain to consciously Lutheran parish ministry in twenty-first century America. The purpose is not to provide answers to these difficult questions, but to provoke reflection, personally or jointly, on how Luther’s life and thought relate to the challenges facing us.
When it comes to our place within the American religious landscape, maybe no Lutheran doctrine raises as many questions as baptism. Where does Scripture command the baptism of infants? How can an infant be saved at baptism? How do you reconcile justification by faith with infant baptismal regeneration? How can an infant believe? We answer these questions in every adult instruction class, every confirmation class, even many bible classes. Yet, for whatever controversy exists about these matters today, there was relatively little over it in the early years of the Reformation, when Luther penned his “On the Sacrament of Holy Baptism” in November 1519. The view he articulated there was remarkably consistent with much of what had been said throughout church history. The greatest criticism to this view of baptism would come not from Luther’s Roman opponents, but from his reforming friends.
In this November 1519 writing, however, Luther said very little that could cause controversy. He divided the sacrament of Holy Baptism into three distinct categories: the sign (signa), the thing (res) that it signifies, and how it signifies what it signifies. These distinctions go back to St. Augustine and his De doctrina christiana, where the archbishop of Hippo divided Christian doctrine (and, in particular, the sacraments) into the external words or signs used, the reality to which they point, and how they do so. For the sacraments, that means the element is the sign, the meaning of the sacrament that to which it points, and the signification how the sign represents that thing. In the specific case of the Lord’s Supper, the bread and wine are the sign, the body and blood of Christ is the thing signified, and how the bread and wine symbolize Christ’s crucified flesh the signification. Luther uses this exact framework to describe Holy Baptism. The baptismal water is the sign. The thing signified is the dying to sin and rising to new, eternal life, as St. Paul says in Romans 6. The way the baptismal waters signify this dying to sin and rising to new is through the physical act of baptism—especially, Luther suggests, immersion!—whereby the meaning of the sacrament plays itself out in real time. (This lays the foundation for how Luther will explain baptism later in the Small Catechism.)
Where Luther begins to say something that will eventually cause controversy is by incorporating his newfound understanding of justification by faith into the sacrament of Holy Baptism. For Luther, what baptism signifies is inextricably bound to God’s covenantal promise of forgiveness: it isn’t just that baptism forgives sins committed prior to receiving it, but it stands as constant promise of forgiveness for the one who has faith in what baptism declares. The believer is never without sin, and since the believer is never without sin he always needs the promise of forgiveness in order to believe that the forgiveness of sin did not just apply to those sins “back there,” but to the sins “here and now.” This, of course, provides us the connection between confession and baptism with which we are familiar. The promise of forgiveness declared at the font is received anew in confession and absolution, through the process of “daily contrition and repentance.” Now, this doesn’t mean that saving faith and mortal sin (however one defines that) can coexist, as the Lutheran confessions make manifestly clear [e.g., AC IV.64, 115, 144; SA III.3.43-45; FC SD II.29]. On the contrary, it assumes a life of contrition and repentance that continually returns to the promise of baptism by acknowledging those sins in confession and seeking to do better, as it says in the Brief Form of Confession appended to the Small Catechism: “For all this I am sorry, and pray for grace; I want to do better.” Nevertheless, sin remains, the effects of sin remain, and therefore the promise of forgiveness must also remain so that the one who has been baptized, repents, and believes might know that forgiveness still stands.
There was nothing controversial about Luther’s intent, nor is there anything in his words remarkably new or strange to our ears. But, by the end of the 1520s, that would change. Rome hardly spared print on the matter. Instead, a new group of opponents arose against Luther in the Spiritualists, Sacramentarians, and Anabaptists. The Spiritualists argued that God did not need to mediate his revelation or his grace through Word or Sacraments. The Sacramentarians applied this criticism to the Lord’s Supper. But it was the Anabaptists who pushed this debate to its logical conclusion: if justification comes through faith, and if faith involves believing in the gospel, then infants should not be baptized for their justification because they can’t believe in the gospel. In this event, infant baptism remains a slavish repetition of “Catholic” sacramental theology and should be abandoned, with all those baptized as infants by Roman priests being rebaptized once they come to the conscious intellectual embrace of the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith. In 1528, Luther responds to this with his treatise “Concerning Rebaptism,” where he makes the claim that baptism does not depend upon our faith, but God’s Word. If faith is lacking, we don’t need to correct the baptism, which is perfectly valid where those waters are blessed according to Christ’s command; we must correct the faith, that is, by teaching and believing what the Scriptures say about justification by grace through faith apart from works for Christ’s sake.
The deeper issue here is how we as Lutherans understand faith. It is not a conscious, intellectual assent to particular doctrines; it is rather a passive gift received through the Holy Spirit at work in Word and Sacrament—and, in the case of infants, through the waters of Holy Baptism. The infant is capable of faith (what historically was called fides infantium) because faith is not an intellectual concept, but a spiritual reception of God’s promise spoken through Christ in the sacrament. Justifying faith is not a matter of understanding, but of receiving the Word of Christ, and that is a reception only possible through the Holy Spirit—and that work of the Holy Spirit is the same in the 80-year-old with dementia, the 60-year-old physician, the 40-year-old pastor, the 20-year-old with Down’s Syndrome, and, yes, even the newborn infant. To use Luther’s famous comparison, if a six-month in utero John the Baptist could respond to recently-conceived Christ speaking through the voice of Mary, how much more can a newborn infant respond to the voice of Christ speaking his Word through the priest administering baptism? Furthermore, as the Luther scholar Heiko Obermann once wrote, there may be no better example of Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith than infant baptism: “Infant baptism revealed the meaning of baptism. From Luther's standpoint one could not genuinely preserve baptism while repudiating infant baptism, for it was in the child to be baptized that the meaning of the Evangelical faith became visible: trusting only in the ‘alien’ justification granted by God.” (Luther: Man between God and Devil, 230).
How should we make sense of what Luther says about Holy Baptism in our context, then? On this score, we face two very different fronts. First, the great majority of Protestant churches in America do not baptize infants, and none of those who do believe the baptism of infants actually provides them justifying faith and thus regenerates them from sin. We have all no doubt experienced this when introducing evangelical converts to Lutheranism. I might add that for the evangelical this will always be the most profound obstacle to embracing Lutheranism. To them, we must make vitally clear that faith is not an idea to be understood (at least not at first!), but a work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, and that in turn nothing represents our doctrine of justification by faith better than the infant—incapable of doing good works, understanding doctrine, or making a decision—passively receiving the justification Jesus offers through the Word he speaks at the font. The obstacle for the evangelical is never infant baptism per se, but the very nature of justification by faith itself.
But the greater challenge we face, especially here in the secularized northeast and its hereditary, largely non-practicing Roman Catholicism, is what to do with the baptism of infants to families with no involvement in a church and no express intention to raise their children in the faith. The typical argument has been that we must “err on the side of grace.” Yet it is interesting that the early church, facing a similarly antagonistic, religiously pluralistic culture, never did such a thing. They delayed baptism of new adult converts for anywhere from one to three years in order to catechize them, and that in turn meant the delayal of baptism for their infants. What might we do in our day to address this problem? What sort of catechesis can we do with families—members or not—prior to baptism so that they understand not only what we believe about the sacrament, but also the implication of ongoing participation in the church for the sustaining of faith? After all, Lutherans categorically repudiate “eternal security,” or the notion that one cannot lose justifying faith [AC XII.7]. And since justifying faith depends upon the Spirit working through Word and Sacrament to fortify it against the flesh, the world, and the devil, baptizing without any intention of future church participation is the equivalent of taking the first dose of antibiotics without any intention of completing the cycle. It also seems terribly strange that we require six weeks, three months, six months of adult instruction for someone to become a member of our church, let alone up to two years of confirmation instruction before one receives the sacrament, yet settle for a meeting or two with non-practicing Christian parents prior to the baptism of their child. What can we do differently by way of policy, catechesis, and counsel to insure baptized infants have what they need to retain their faith: the work of the Holy Spirit in Word and Sacrament, strengthening, sustaining, fortifying their faith against the attacks of the flesh, the world, and the devil?
By: Rick Serina
This is the second in a monthly series of articles requested by the New Jersey District President which commemorate anniversaries of particular writings or events in the life of Martin Luther. They are intended to introduce the historical background and theological content and implications of those writings or events, as well as raise questions about how they might pertain to consciously Lutheran parish ministry in twenty-first-century America. The purpose is not to provide answers to these difficult questions, but to provoke reflection, personally or jointly, on how Luther’s life and thought relates to the challenges facing us.
If there were a “white-hot” center to Martin Luther’s Reformation, it would have to be his understanding of penance. The famous Ninety-Five Theses began with a statement about penance: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” He then followed it by distinguishing between the sacrament of penance—what we call confession and absolution—and the internal repentance by which we acknowledge ourselves to be sinners. St. Jerome’s translation of repentance in Latin was poenitentiam agite (to “make” or “do” penance) and this gave rise to the notion that repentance meant going through a procession of penance. Luther, though, took the Greek word metanoia to mean a literal, internal conversion, where the sinner reflected upon his sins and turned to God in faith, seeking salvation. The entire medieval penitential system Luther opposed in October 1517, including the sale of indulgences, derived from this understanding of penance as a process one “did” rather than as a repentance from sin that led to the embrace of the gospel in faith.
When he published his theses in 1517, however, Luther hadn’t quite developed the clear understanding of justification by faith we have come to expect from him. That can be seen more clearly in his August 1519 sermon “On the Sacrament of Penance.” These sermons were not necessarily preached (though they may have been prior to publication), but they were “circular” sermons printed and distributed widely in the vernacular German for people with lesser theological knowledge to read and understand—not to mention those who didn’t know Latin. In this particular sermon, Luther took aim at the medieval understanding of the sacrament of penance, which was divided into three distinct parts: contrition, confession, and satisfaction. Contrition was the motivation for going to confession, and that could either be legitimate contrition (a legitimate sorrow for one’s sin out of love for God) or attrition (driven only to confess out of fear of punishment). Confession proper was the act of auricular confession, mandated once a year by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and requiring the precise enumeration of all sins committed that required forgiveness. Satisfaction then entailed specific acts prescribed by the confessor to the penitent, upon completion of which those sins enumerated in confession were absolved.
The entire structure of the penitential system raised one obvious question: How do I know my sins are forgiven? One could go through all the steps, yet still wonder whether there was true contrition or simply attrition, whether all sins needing absolution were accurately enumerated, and whether acts of satisfaction had been completed sufficiently. Many scholars—even Luther himself—have argued that this created a torture of consciences, but this may be a little overstated. Records show that medieval confessors tried their best to care for penitents and took great pains to provide them pastoral direction, and that resources were published for the training of confessors and for their use in the sacrament of penance. Nevertheless, there remained a degree of uncertainty, and that uncertainty owed to a misunderstanding of justification by faith and how absolution should provide the forgiveness one receives in faith.
In response to this, Luther’s sermon delineated three different parts of penance (not the two we are accustomed to from later confessional writings). The first was the Word of absolution, where the priest speaks the word of forgiveness to the penitent confessing his sins: Ego te absolvo—“I forgive you.” The second part related to the faith of the penitent receiving the absolution. We are most familiar with this from the Lutheran confessions, but it was something medieval penance simply did not include because medieval theologians operated with a different functional definition of faith, more like cognitive assent than genuine trust in the promises of Christ, as Luther taught it according to St. Paul. The peace and forgiveness that followed faith in the absolution rounded out the three parts of penance for Luther. This means just what it sounds like: rather than a sense of uncertainty, the penitent believer walks away from the sacrament of penance confident that his sins are forgiven because of Christ and that peace with God has been restored. The famous Tübingen Luther scholar Oswald Bayer has made the well-accepted point that with this new 1519 understanding, Luther had come to his “Reformation breakthrough”: he realized that salvation could not be attained through works of the law, but solely by faith in the Word proclaimed, and he came to this realization nowhere more clearly than in the sacrament of penance. When the priest pronounced absolution, the penitent could receive it in certainty and confidence, knowing that what is spoken there on earth is reflected in heaven before God.
But this argument doesn’t necessarily address the problem we face today. We aren’t reforming a misleading view of penance, absolution, and faith; we are dealing with a more daunting challenge: What happens to absolution when the people receiving absolution don’t believe they need it? To put it differently, how do we communicate the need for and benefits of absolution in a culture that doesn’t legitimately believe in personal sin? In the Middle Ages and in the days of the early Reformation, even if the case is overstated, the people genuinely feared death, punishment for sin, and an eternal hell as the fate that awaited them apart from the mercy of Christ. But what does it make of our absolutions when, in fact, those conditions no longer exist? Nothing in our culture, nothing in American Christianity, nothing in the daily lives of our parishioners speaks of sin as it was traditionally understood. At most, we hear of sin as social ills (and which social ills all depends upon whether you vote red or blue). But personal culpability for sins one has committed, by commission or omission, by things we have done or not done? That is a tough sell. It also leaves us with a pastoral predicament as Lutherans: How should we catechize our people in sin so that they might understand and embrace the absolution offered in response to their confessions? While penance provided Luther an opportunity to teach about justification by faith, it now requires us to address a different topic altogether: the nature, consequence, and need for forgiveness of sins. How we do that may be one of the most pressing issues of our pastoral ministries.
By: Rick Serina
Lutherans can trace the principle of Sola Scriptura back to a fateful debate in the summer of 1519 between Martin Luther and the Ingolstadt theologian, John Eck (as well as Luther’s colleague at Wittenberg, Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt). The controversy over the Ninety-Five Theses had decreased considerably due to larger political concerns in the Holy Roman Empire, chiefly the selection of a new emperor. Luther had stopped publishing on the more hotly-contested aspects of his theology, but when he stepped to the podium on July 4, 1519, to debate Eck on the questions of indulgences, penance, purgatory, and the papacy, a new fissure in the Reformation opened: the priority of Scripture over all other sources of authority, whether that was pope, council, canon law, medieval doctor, or early church father.
The debate over the papacy at Leipzig had to do with whether the bishop of Rome had primacy over the other Christian bishops by human right (de iure humano) or divine right (de iure divino), that is, by practical convention or by Scriptural mandate. Luther argued that it was by human right, and thus as a human the pope had no prerogative to condemn those who denied papal authority, like the Greek Church or the Bohemian Church associated with the fifteenth-century reformer Jan Hus of Prague. Hus had been condemned and executed at the Council of Constance in 1415, and Luther argued that this was a mistake because Hus said many things that were “most Christian and evangelical.” John Eck accused Luther of opposing the authority of councils, which Luther had no intention of doing. Luther nonetheless defended his position by saying that councils, like popes, were human authorities and therefore could err. A council was merely a “creature of the Word” and was subject to Scripture. Only Scripture itself is infallible.
Luther’s claim left a mark. John Eck called him “a heathen and a publican” who did not deserve to continue the debate. Duke George of Saxony, the patron of the Leipzig Debate, cried out, “the pest [“the plague”] take the man!” After reports of the debate circulated, many new advocates came to Luther’s side, while others withdrew their support. Philipp Melanchthon defended Luther’s position after Leipzig and formulated the first explicit thesis regarding Sola Scriptura in September 1519. The case against Luther resumed in Rome and, spearhead by none other than Eck himself, led to the bull (Exsurge Domine) declaring Luther a heretic.
What made Luther’s stand at Leipzig so divisive? Many had questioned popes, councils, canon law, medieval doctors, and early church fathers before him. But Luther’s statement that Scripture alone is infallible and thus the only proper judge of, and authority for, doctrine became a turning point in the Reformation that separated Protestants from Roman Catholics, and has continued to challenge Lutherans as we seek to make decisions about doctrine and practice. Sixty years after Leipzig, the Formula of Concord followed Luther in clearly stipulating that Scripture is the sole source and norm (the norma normans, or “norm that norms”) of all doctrine. But it has also raised as many questions as it has given answers.
For instance, what does it imply if the confessions—a source of fallible human authority—declare that Scripture is authoritative? Why would the sixteenth-century Lutherans need to formulate something so self-evident to us? If Scripture is the sole infallible authority, does that mean we are permitted to disagree with or ignore the confessions? Does the authority of Scripture mean all other human authorities (say synodical resolutions, traditional teachings of the Missouri Synod, the creeds and confession of the church) are subject to our interpretation of Scripture? Or is it more accurate to say that Sola Scriptura—in the ablative, mind you, not the nominative—means we don’t simply believe in Scripture alone, but rather judge doctrine by Scripture? Might it even be better to describe Scriptural authority as Scriptura Prima—that is, Scripture “first”—than Scripture alone? These are the questions opened up by the Leipzig Debate, these are the questions Lutherans have been wrestling with for five centuries now, and these are the questions we must face as we charitably discuss and debate the faith within our corner of the Lutheran world.