Catholicism’s Uniquely Baptismal Theology
The basic doctrines that distinguish Christianity from all other religions have, at their root, assumptions that also differentiate Catholicism from all other forms of Christianity. I have spent some time illustrating this phenomenon in the case of several dogmas—the Incarnation, the authority of Christ, and the exclusive claim to grace. However, if you are just joining me now, don’t be daunted. Each essay is independent in its argument, since each one examines a different facet of Christian dogma.
In the beginning, the world was good. This message is echoed seven times throughout the Genesis narrative—as if the narrator, already aware of the many controversies his writing would engender, felt the need to emphasize this one truth about the beginning above all else. If so, his foresight paid off: among the myriad of disagreements between the Hebrews and, later, the Christians, there has never been much disagreement about this point. At the beginning of the world, it was good.
Despite all the evils that the fall of man brought into the world, this goodness is still more fundamental than evil. While sin bends our will towards itself, and brings us guilt and misery, we are not made in its image. Only God defines our existence.
The same is true of nature, which is subjected to hardship and disaster in the wake of our curse, yet nevertheless preserves some of the beauty with which its Creator first endowed it. Through Saint Paul, we have also received intelligence that nature is not a neutral observer in the battle between good and evil, but that it “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19). The realm of nature is, in essence, on the side of good—like us, its perversions are accidental, rather than formal.
One imagines that it is for these reasons, among others, that the Divine Persons have been slow to destroy Their creation. Elsewhere in Genesis, God says even of Sodom, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it” (Genesis 18:32). Intriguingly, in 1 Chronicles 21:15, “God sent the angel [of death] to Jerusalem to destroy it; but when he was about to destroy it, the Lord saw, and he repented of the evil.” The Old Testament’s refrain that the Lord is “slow to anger” means nothing if not this: that He prefers to redeem rather than to destroy and replace.
Therefore, it is unsurprising that God has brought about our salvation through the “washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5). This refers to baptism, the means by which God brings souls to purity, and thus to Himself. While this theological formulation is now disputed, it is worth noting that for the early Christians, the matter was settled: as the Epistle of Barnabas (11:11, 130AD) explains, “We go down into the water full of sins and foulness, and we come up bearing fruit in our hearts, fear and hope in Jesus and in the Spirit.” Or, in the more simple words of Saint Peter, “baptism […] now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21).
However, baptismal regeneration is not essential to the argument I am making. I make reference to it only to explain why I refer to Christianity’s regenerative tendencies as ‘baptismal.’ Whether or not you agree with my sacramentology is rather beside the point. The broader idea—that Christianity aims to sanctify the earth—ought to be less controversial.
It is worth noting, furthermore, that Christianity’s particular brand of regeneration is not merely restorative. We are not simply heading back towards Eden. Instead, the Gospel baptizes believers into a supernatural perfection that surpasses our long-lost natural perfection. By dying and rising with Christ in baptism, we are united to Him irrevocably; our identity is found in Him, and in return, He is in us.
This aspect of Christianity is, importantly, not limited to the soul of the believer. Our bodies, and even the natural world, will be renewed in union with Christ at the end of time. In a similar way, the Jewish law is given new and supernatural meaning by the coming of Christ: as our Lord teaches in Matthew, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them” (Matthew 5:17).
The Gospel’s baptismal effects continued throughout history. For example, the ancient Christians immediately realized that Plato’s philosophy was given new meaning if understood through the faith. Saint Justin Martyr and Saint Augustine, among many others, aided in this baptism of Plato. Later, St. Thomas sponsored the baptism of Aristotle by swearing that he would do good, and not harm, if brought under the light of the Gospel. The early Christians even built churches from the design of ancient pagan architecture, adding arms so that the old temples might become crosses. This baptism was brought to many other people, institutions and ideas in the ancient and medieval world—including pagan myths and holidays (a fact which we are still reminded of by skeptics and Puritans alike every Halloween, Christmas and Easter).
I have found that many criticisms of the Catholic Church ultimately boil down to ignorance of this phenomenon. It baffles me that a fellow Christian, who believes that even the most hardened sinner can be regenerated, cannot accept that the Gospel might also regenerate the ancient pagan office of Pontifex Maximus. Or to use another example, why cannot the power that brought truth out of Aristotle through Saint Aquinas also bring some truth out of modern rights-theory through Vatican II? We can all agree that Christ ought not bow to Plato—but must we destroy Plato? Is it not possible to make Plato bow to Christ?
So I admit the obvious: yes, parts of the Church are doubtlessly sourced from extra-Christian contributors. This is true in art, philosophy, and even in some religious practices. But it is also true of the very people who make up the Church. We are all brought from a state of sin, and we are all baptized into grace. And if human beings, who are far more complex than mere ideas, can be renewed by the Gospel—why not ideas? Why not offices and institutions and holidays? By rejecting the regeneration of these, we reject a core power of Christianity itself.
Original photograph found here.