Absent in the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, most recently published in 1995, is the early Anabaptist rhetoric of knowledge of faith before baptism that I have been wrestling with. It also pushes beyond a purely symbolic understanding of baptism as outer symbol of an inner transformation/faith (a dualism I also don’t like). In the commentary on Article 14 on Baptism one reads: “Some churches refer to baptism and the Lord’s Supper as symbols, sacraments, or ordinances. In this confession of faith, these ceremonies are called signs, a biblical term rich in meanings. Sign is, first of all, an act of God: signs are wonders in Egypt (Exod. 1-:1; Num. 14:11), signs to prophets (Isa. 7:14; 55:13), and Jesus’ performance of signs (John 2:11; 12:37; 20:30). John 2:18-22 sees Jesus’ death and resurrection as a sign. A sign is not only an act of God but a human action as well: eating unleavened bread at Passover (Exod. 13:9), binding the commandments to oneself (Deut. 6:8), keeping the Sabbath (Exod. 31:13; Ezek. 20:20). Likewise, baptism is a sign, representing both God’s action in delivering us from sin and death and the action of the one who is baptized, who pledges to God to follow Jesus Christ within the context of Christ’s body, the church.”
In summary, such an understanding of baptism as a sign blurs the lines between two conflicting theologies: a) a public sacrament that informs and transforms the inner self, and b) an inner transformation that precedes its outer symbolization. The latter theology can easily turn the ritual of baptism into a virtual reality of sorts, what Derrida calls “the errant play of signs…[where] God is dead, there is no transcendental signified, nothing outside the image.” (“On the Gift” in John D. Caputo and Michael J. Scanlon, eds, God, The Gift and Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 16.) This can, of course, go one of two ways: either the pointless signification as such becomes the point, or like the Anabaptist spiritualists did, you get rid of any public practice.
John Howard Yoder (surprise!) offers an account of baptism that is congruent with the Confession’s sign-ificant understanding, but pushes the early Anabaptist inner faith precedes mere outer symbol theology:
“If the idea is that baptism intellectually signifies the new birth as an outward symbol representing an inward individual experience, which the one baptized can “confess,” then it is obvious logically why we should disavow administering it coercively or to infants. Yet still that “Baptist” view does not naturally imply egalitarianism because what it is trying to explain is a symbolic behaviour rather than a social one. It does not make the world new. On the other hand, we might be able to resurrect what might be called a “sacramental” realism.[which is here closer to our use of signs than the Catholic understanding of sacrament] In that understanding, just as we saw in an earlier chapter that breaking bread together is an economic act, so baptism is the formation of a new people whose newness and togetherness explicitly relativize prior stratifications and classification. Then we need no path, no line of argument, and no arbitrary statement (e.g., “Let us say that this symbol ‘x’ means…”) to get from there to [ethics and politics], either in the church or beyond. We start with a ritual act whose first, ordinary meaning is [ethical and political].” (John Howard Yoder, Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World,” (Scottdale: Herald Press, 2001), 33).
Thus, with the end of reading week ends the intentional reflection on my own believer’s baptism conflict. Though I’m pretty sure I haven’t resolved anything I have had the opportunity to trace some theologically shifts from the radical reformation to contemporary European Mennonite theology on baptism. I’m usually not one who has a lot of time or energy for “doctrinal debates” for the sole reason that they tend to be abstract from ethics and politics (which is the only thing I actually care about) but because of what this week of mining my history has revealed, I have to say that I am pretty satisfied with the turn to the ethical and political vis a vis baptism. My conflict is not nearly resolved, nor was that the goal of my endeavour, but some things have been clarified and the terms of the infant/believer’s debate have been somewhat reconfigured. Hopefully towards fruitfulness.