Baptism and Christian Identity: Part 2

Moving ahead in our look of Mikoski’s volume, we now address the “trinitarian structure” of baptism. Mikoski initially focuses on the language used in the liturgy noting the prominence of the Trinity: “What makes the rite a distinctively Christian washing has to do with the linkage of the act of washing and the narrative of the economy of the Triune God’s dealings with humanity across the sweep of history” (28). Mikoski continues:

When set in the context of the proclamation and prayers of the church to the Triune God, the water becomes an instrument of Triune transformation in the baptizand’s life. By the work of the Holy Spirit and through the will of the Father, baptized persons are united with Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection. The gathered community prays with the presiding pastor that through this liturgical event the Holy Spirit will bring the baptizand to rebirth into a life of faithful discipleship in relation to Jesus Christ and to the glory of the Father. In some fashion or another, the water ceremony seeks to fund and shape the many patterns of everyday ritualizations that make up Christian daily life” (31).

There seems to be a line Mikoski jumps back and forth over, which is the ordering of God and man’s action in relation to baptism. The emphasis starts on God’s action by focusing on the work of the Holy Spirit and the will of the Father, but then seems to come at it from another angle, claiming that it is through this liturgical event that the Holy Spirit works. Furthermore, he makes explicit what was implicit in my last post, that baptism functions as a “patterning” of Christian ritual life. It is unclear what register Mikoski is working in. Is he simply exploring liturgical categories? Is he actually focusing on ontological claims about God and man? Is he using ontologically charged language to talk about specific epistemological categories? Confusion continues to reign when he states,

Beginning with baptism and working outward, so to speak, the doctrine of the Trinity aims to function as a crucial part of the formation of individuals and communities. Baptism links the Trinity to concrete, embodied, historical people and communities and the lives they lead. Viewed through the lens provided by the baptismal rite, the doctrine of the Trinity ceases to function as a complicated abstraction and becomes the deep grammar for a whole way of life” (32).

So what is going on here? My interpretation is that Mikoski equivocates on his use of the term “Trinity.” He seems to be functioning in something of a narrative framework, seeking meaning through a liturgical-narrative that necessitates a functionalizing of the Trinity to make practice trinitarian. This is not to say that he does not affirm a truly ontological Trinity, I’m certain he does, but for the sake of the ecclesial life trinitarian doctrine functions to order language and practice. Notice his language that the doctrine of the Trinity “aims to function,” and that used this way it “ceases to function as a complicated abstraction.” This, and the point he makes about linking the Trinity to concrete people and communities, points to a functionalizing of the doctrine for the purpose of practice. He then reemphaszies his point, “To reiterate: pursued by way of the baptismal rite with its deep trinitarian grammatical structure, the doctrine of the Trinity becomes a pervasive grammar for an entire way of life” (34). Explained here, it is as if the Trinity becomes “a grammar,” in the sense of what we would call a school book teaching language. Once we learn the right grammar, we can function within the language contructs creatively. Mikoski seems to be implying that this is true in baptism. Baptism becomes the pedagogical action through which we learn trinitarian grammar, so that we can function within the narrative economy of the triune God.

Does that make sense? I’m not thrilled about this kind of usage of the Trinity. What are your thoughts about this approach?

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3 thoughts on “Baptism and Christian Identity: Part 2

  1. Mik seems to be saying that God in part, works through intermediary agencies. Like humans, churches, church liturgies. Personally, I have no trouble seeing God (Trinity, etc.) as working through or by way of intermediary agencies in general. (Like say, Jesus himself).

    God working through intermediaries, is a common idea. Some Catholics for example, believe God created the universe … but did it by way of or thru, say, the laws of physics; which were omitted from the original account for reasons of brevity. The advantage of this, is that it would give both the Bible/God, and man and his ideas, a place in God’s plan. As applied in Evolution: God brought people into existence … but not ex-nihilo; but by way say, of the intermediary processes of Evolution.

    Personally, I like this idea. It seems to find a place for both the Bible, and secular knowledge too; at the same time. And in many cases, when well done, without contradiction.

    But to be sure, we would like to make sure the intermediary agencies are behaving reliably. Many would say that this or that church, self-appointing itself as the arm or hand of God, has been merely presumptous. Many would say that many churches, many intermediaries, make mistakes, and are not really acting for God at all.

    “For we all make many mistakes,” said the Apostle/St. James. Including, in this “we” apparently, even the holiest apostles, like James himself.

  2. As regards learning specifically “The Trinity” through Baptism? In part, maybe what the author is thinking of is this simple fact: we are often Baptised “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” The Trinity. And this by the way, might well be the most dramatic moment those are mentioned to us.

    So it’s pretty simple. Does it go deeper than that? We’d have to hear a lot more about the Trinity.

    To be sure though, historically, it may well be that the whole doctrine of the Trinity came about in part, by way of early Baptisms. Different prophets, disciples, were baptising in the name of what might seem to be different gods: John the Baptist in the name of one; Jesus baptising no one it seemed at first; Paul baptising in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

    It was important. The matter at issue in early baptisms, was nothing less than the identity of God. Or putting together the main concepts of him. Was the “father” of the Jews, one and the same as the “holy spirit”? When Paul re-baptised some early Christians, they had not heard of the “holy spirit.” And then too: when did they decide for sure, that the “son” belonged there also? And finally, what did they decide as their relationship?

    The identity of God was the matter at issue; the problem came up first in the question of who do we baptise in the name of. Finally, it was all decided of course, in part by looking at how early disciples baptised … and then fit together according to much early philosophical – ontological’/epistemic – discussion, in early churches, Councils.

    That’s my memory of what was pretty standard church history, c. 1950. Here, the author seems to simply assume knowledge of all this, in the reader.

    Such things might seem very, very obscure to a scholar from the new (your?) generation, to be sure. But at one time, this kind of discussion was one of the hottest – and eventually, most boring – topics in Protestantism. In part because some Protestants believed in Baptism, and some did not. Therefore, it was once discussed endlessly. And knowledge of all this, was simply assumed.

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