Baptism and Catechesis

Ben Myers recently posts on baptism and ordination with some helpful thoughts, and so I have decided to post some remarks from Gregory of Nyssa on baptism as well. The following passage is from his Catechetical Oration, but I’m quoting from Mikoski’s volume that I am reviewing here on page 119:

If the washing is applied to the body, while the soul does not wash away the stains of its passions, but the life after initiation is of the same character as the uninitiated life, even though it is a bold thing to say, yet I will say it and not draw back, in such cases the water is water, and the gift of the Holy Spirit nowhere appears in what takes place, whenever not only the deformity of anger dishonours the Divine image, or the passion of covetousness, and the uncontrolled and unseemly thought, and pride, envy, conceit, but also when a man retains in his possession the gains made by injustice, and the woman he has made his own by adultery continues to minister to his pleasures even after baptism. If these and the like vices mark the life of him who has been baptised after, no less than before, I cannot see how he has been changed; for I behold the same man as I formerly did. He who has suffered injustice, he who has been falsely accused, he who has been thrust out of his own possessions, these, for their part, see no change in the man who has been washed…. If then, you have received God and become a child of God Who is in you, show yourself Him who has begotten you…. If you share these characteristics [of God], you have in truth become a child of God. But if you persist in exhibiting the characteristics of vice, it is in vain for you to babble to yourself of a birth from above.”

What do we think about this? Is this simply Aristotle? Should we invoke Luther here?!


3 thoughts on “Baptism and Catechesis

  1. This classic statement, one of the foundations of spiritual Christianity, asserts that the actual physical act of throwing a little water around, does not achieve anything much. It asserts that Baptism is solely a spiritual moment.

    But this is overlooking, say, the very real, physical efficacy of washing and hand-washing. Say 1) before surgery; 2) after dealing with disease-ridden bodies; and 3) as part of food preparation. All occasions for “ritual” – and real – cleansing, in Hebrew and all other aware societies. All moments where washing is extremely, materially useful – no matter what your attitude or inner faith or spirit may be. Moments that save us literally, from disease and death. Just as God promised following his commands would do.

    So that I submit this, not spirituality, was the real meaning behind baptism, and related washing/cleansing rituals for priests and others.

    Contemporary Christianity, from Gregory etc., concentrates far too narrowly then, on the mere spiritual, symbolic meaning only. Asserting a good bath or hand-washing, doesn’t do anything at all for us … unless or until we take the spirit of it in, and change our minds or spirits. If we take this moment as a marker of the moment we adopt into ourselves the spirit of Christ, and are reborn into a different life, then, and only to that extent, the author suggests, this moment is good.

    No doubt to be sure, the moment we decide to be good and change our spirits, is indeed important, and good. But it by far is not the only good that comes from washing and cleanliness. Indeed, antisepsis is the basis of ancient and more modern medicine; and this has physically saved millions of lives from disease and death. Exactly as God promised to those who truly understand and follow him.

    Indeed I submit, the more physical sense of this, not the “spiritual” one, is closer to what God was really getting at.

    The spiritual sense is in contrast, part of the Hellenistic incursion into Jusaism that formed Christianity; though maybe less from Aristotle, than Plato and Philo.

    The problem for thinkers in this era, was with one aspect of Plato: that Plato (not the Jews) put ideal Forms/Gods, not always all around us, but in heaven. But how then did these Gods come down to earth? How could immaterial/spiritual forms, that have no matter in them, interface with, effect, push, physical things? How could a God or ideal form in heaven influence human beings, for better or for worse? Or why would he even concern himself with physical things at all?

    Plato’s theories, in sort, were dualistic: we have a spiritual ideal Form … over a material and allegedly evil earth. But no way to explain how one related to the other. Just as we once had (before psychotropic drugs) no real way to deal with the apparent disconnect, a huge conceptual and practical gap, between mind and matter, thoughts and brain.

    To solve this problem with Platonism – to solve dualism – by the way, Philo (the slightly older contemporary of Jesus; who lived in Alexandria Egypt; where Jesus could have lived as a youth in the Flight to Egypt) proposed that there were some intermediaries between God in heaven, and life in the flesh and on earth. Philo had many names for this. Among others though, Philo chose to personify or symbolize those intermediaries, in part, as “The Son of God.” Thus Philo popularized the idea of, an image of, a “son of God” just before Jesus appeared. NO doubt creating an expectation and a buzz, in the Jewish community.

    Other related ways of dealing with mind/matter, heaven-earth, God/man dualism though, would include say, the new naturalistic interpretations of miracles or “spiritual” moments. Like our explication, here, of the very, very material functionality, the material good, of Baptism and ritual priestly cleansing rituals. A moment which is commonly asserted to be only spiritual; but which has after all, properly understood and performed, a very, very, very physical utility.

    Good enough to, say, save the whole world from pandemics?

    If only the people understand at last, the true meaning of Baptism and cleansing.

    Thus a kind of modified naturalistic Christianity, solves a lot of loose ends. And is better than “spiritual” Christianity.

  2. Jesus himself did not baptise, parts of the Bible suggest; he “wash”ed. As when he washes the disciples’ feet; and when he orders a patient to “wash” in the pool of Siloam.

    The real and better sense of Baptism is not 1) a mere ritual sprinkling of water that magically saves the spirit; nor 2) a mere symbol of a deeper spiritual change in our hearts; but is 3) an early form of washing. Which literally saves lives, when properly understood in a medical context.

  3. What we commonly think of as “baptism” is wrong in many ways. First 1) Jesus didn’t baptise with water it says in part of John; Jesus “washed” people, literally. THen too 2) washing literally “saves” people’s lives, in medical sitations; baptisim does not. And 3) washing is probably the original meaning or gist of early baptisms with water. Indeed, therefore, probably “baptism” is just a degenerated version, misunderstanding, of washing. While 4) making too much of of baptism is fetishization; magical thinking. 5) Mistaking symbols for substance. Or is 6) the very kind of “sacramentalism” that Protestants loathe in Catholics. So that indeed, 7) most churches today rightly minimalize its importance. Moving on to more important things.

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