From the April, 2007 issue of Touchstone

Water Works by Peter J. Leithart

Water Works

Early and Medieval Rituals and Theologies of Baptism: From the New Testament to the Council of Trent
by Bryan D. Spinks
Ashgate Press, 2006
(190 pages, $29.95, paperback)

Reformation and Modern Rituals and Theologies of Baptism: From Luther to Contemporary Practices
by Bryan D. Spinks
Ashgate Press, 2006
(254 pages, $29.95, paperback)

reviewed by Peter J. Leithart

Bryan Spinks, prolific Professor of Liturgical Studies at Yale, is disarmingly humble about his latest book. He admits that due to his Anglican roots and previous specialized scholarship, the two-volume work displays “an obvious unevenness in the depth of treatment of some rites and some traditions.” He even apologizes for what he doesn’t cover, pleading ignorance.

No doubt the humility is genuine. It is also completely unnecessary. Spinks’s encyclopedic survey is not profound, and little is entirely new. But he has produced the most comprehensive history of Christian baptism available, perhaps the most complete ever published.

Beginning with the New Testament, the first volume examines the “rising springs” of patristic baptismal theology and practice in Rome, Byzantium, Syria, Egypt, and Ethiopia, and follows the stream of tradition through medieval baptismal rites in England and the Continent up to the reforms of Trent.

Like many recent liturgical historians (such as Notre Dame’s Paul Bradshaw), Spinks emphasizes the diversity of baptismal practice in the early Church, paying particular attention to the different placement and number of baptismal anointings, which, he argues, arise from the Church’s adoption of various ancient bathing customs. He also examines the transmission of baptismal rites from Rome and Byzantium to associated churches in the East and West, and the local changes introduced on the frontiers of Egypt, Armenia, Gaul, Spain, and England, but also notes a growing uniformity toward the end of the Middle Ages.

Volume two navigates the “divergent rivers” of Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, and Anabaptist baptism, takes us through (the rapids of?) Methodist baptismal practice, and even spends a few pages with the Mormons. Spinks ends with a summary of trends in baptismal theology during the twentieth century, a review of some contemporary baptismal rites, and “reflections on the waters” within a global Church. (What is it that conjures the Muse of Puns when theologians write about baptism?)

Rich & Varied

One of Spinks’s guiding premises is that the practice and understanding of baptism are rich and varied, as kaleidoscopic as water itself. Water cleanses, and baptism is, for Augustine, a flood that removes the stain of original sin. Water sets boundaries, and in the typology of the early Church, baptism was likened to the water-passage out of Egypt.

We live the first months of our lives in “water,” and Jesus says that we must be “born again” in water and the Spirit, a text that many Christians have interpreted as baptismal. Though life-giving, water also kills, and Paul talks about baptism as a death-and-burial with Jesus. Our planet is mostly water, and in Luther’s great baptismal prayer, baptism is associated with the cosmic destruction and re-creation through Noah’s flood.

In Scripture and Christian tradition, baptism summarizes the whole of Christian doctrine and Christian living. Christians are baptized in the Triune name or the name of Jesus, and are thereby incorporated into the Triune fellowship. Baptism is linked with the gift of the Spirit, incorporating the baptized into the Church, which is the eschatological people of God. John preaches a baptism of repentance.

Every aspect of Christian salvation is linked with baptism, but in different ways, depending on the tradition and the theologian. For some theologians, the focus of baptism is on union with Christ in his atoning death and resurrection; for others, it is primarily about justification; and for still others, it’s about regeneration and re-creation. And beyond its official public meanings, baptism is also a very particular, intimate event for each baptized person and each baptizing congregation.

Liturgical Tensions

Spinks generally limits himself to the official side of things, examining prescribed rites and the churches’ explanation of those rites. Even here he uncovers important complexities, such as the tension between liturgical act and rubric, on the one hand, and stated theology, on the other. Some Anglicans, for example, employ the idea of “covenant” to explain baptism, although it has no place in the Book of Common Prayer baptismal liturgy.

The tension eventually began to be resolved on the side of theology. Spinks observes that, unlike the church fathers, whose baptismal theology often took the form of commentary on the rite of initiation, medieval Scholastics discussed sacraments without much reference to sacramental practice. Prior to the Scholastic period, Western theologians made do with a highly flexible definition of “sacrament,” often citing Augustine’s definition, “A sacrament is a sign of a sacred thing.” From Hugh of St. Victor on, sacraments were more carefully defined, and the rites of baptism were conformed to baptismal theology rather than being a source for that theology.

The Reformers followed the Scholastic example, formulating a theology of baptism and then reforming their rites accordingly. On this basis, most of them very quickly dispensed with the baptismal anointing, one of the most ancient adornments. One result was that intramural sacramental conflicts among Protestants are normally conflicts about baptismal theology, often between those whose baptismal practices are quite similar.

Spinks doesn’t explain the source of this change from theological submission to liturgical practice to a theological determination of liturgical practice in much detail, but it seems a portentous one, producing a shift away from the ecstatic mysticism of patristic catechesis to a more rational and philosophical treatment of sacraments.

Spinks also discusses the tensions between local variation and universal standardization that arise at various times, particularly during the early modern period. A sixteenth-century manual used by Catholic missionaries in Mexico envisioned that the rite would be translated into the vernacular, and said that baptisms should conclude with “tambourines, cymbals, stringed instruments and native flutes.” Conflicts with Protestants back in Europe arrested such contextualized experiments, as Trent pushed for a uniform rite.

Political Baptism

Much recent work in sacramental theology has explored the sociological and political dimensions of Christian rites, their cultural setting and cultural import. How, to borrow Stanley Hauerwas’s language, has baptism expressed a Christian politics?

What did it mean for a Roman of ancient blood to share the same baptismal waters with his slaves, and what did it mean for the Roman aristocracy to have some of its members demean themselves in such fashion? How central was baptismal theology to the Reformation, and what, if anything, does the post-Reformation separation of “thing” and “sign” have to do with the formation of the culture of modernity?

Spinks occasionally touches on such issues. For example, he reviews a number of feminist revisions of baptism, sensibly concluding that their hopes for “extravagant affections” are more likely to be found “in the deep well of the traditions” than in “gender-neutral and emasculated language.” But I was left wishing for a more substantial examination of the historical connections between baptism—which announces “there is neither male nor female in Christ”—and feminism.

Given his conscious limits, Spinks does not address most of these questions. He does, however, provide much of the material to begin answering them, leaving us all very much in his debt.

Peter J. Leithart is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and the president of Trinity House Institute for Biblical, Liturgical & Cultural Studies in Birmingham, Alabama. His many books include Defending Constantine (InterVarsity), Between Babel and Beast (Cascade), and, most recently, Gratitude: An Intellectual History (Baylor University Press). His weblog can be found at He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.

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