Posted by: mattcolvin | December 21, 2011

Titus 3 and Liturgical Nestorianism


Thursday of the Fourth Week in Advent: Titus 3:4-7.

4 But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, 5 not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

That little bold phrase, λουτρου παλιγγενεσιας, might just as well be translated, “washing of creating-over-again.”

Some would like to avoid seeing a reference to water baptism here, but I really don’t think we can avoid it — nor should we want to. Strictly speaking, “washing of new creation” is a catachresis, a mixed metaphor. And surely the “washing” half of it is the weaker of the two. Which is more difficult, after all? To clean something, or to create it all over again? So “washing” does not heighten the force of the phrase. What, then, does it do? Surely it must clarify and specify: namely, it links the new creation in question with the washing of baptism.

One of the things that John Piper has said that makes me roll my eyes is in Finally Alive, where he says about this passage:

This is one reason why I do not think the “washing of regen-eration” in verse 5 refers to baptism. Whether circumcision in the Old Covenant or baptism in the New Covenant—it is not good things we do, not even sacraments, that cause us to be born again. The kindness of God. The love of God. The absolutely free mercy of God. These explain our new birth. Not circumcision. Not baptism. Not any works done by us in righteousness. New birth comes and brings righteous deeds with it—not the other way around.

Piper could not be clearer that he thinks sacraments are “good things we do.” He also appears to think that baptism is not “the kindness of God” or “the love of God”.

We in the Reformed Episcopal Church do not think that baptism is a good thing we do. We think it is something God does to us. That is why it is not meritorious, and nothing we can boast about. The baptized person is passive. Someone else puts water on him. And even that water would be of no use if it were not instituted by God and used by Him. And thus, according to the 39 Articles, baptism is “a sign of Regeneration or New-Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of the forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed; Faith is confirmed, and Grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God.”

The REC’s Prayer Book has another rubric at the end of the Form for Baptism that reads:

The word regenerate in this Office of Baptism is well meant for a signification of our grafting and incorporation into Christ’s flock and a grateful acknowledgement of the benefits of Christ therein given to all who receive Baptism rightly (Note Article XXVII Of Baptism). Yet, lest the same word should by any persons, out of ignorance, malice, or obstinacy, be misconstrued: It is hereby declared that the use of this word is not intended to denote an essential alteration in nature, nor a passing, as by some mysterious process, into that fullness of religious life marked by faith, repentance, incipient holiness, ardent desires after God, and elevated affections.

This is, in form, practically identical to the Black Rubric at the end of the Order for Holy Communion. It makes clear that we do not hold to a mechanical theory of baptism. It works sociologically, and as a moral instrument.

Let me not end on that qualification, but rather, on the positive note. I love this declaration that immediately follows infant baptism in the Prayer Book:

Seeing now, dearly beloved brethren, that this Child is regenerate, and grafted into the body of Christ’s Church, let us give thanks unto Almighty God for these benefits; and with one accord make our prayers unto him, that this Child may lead the rest of his life according to this beginning.

Beautiful! “Seeing that…”! There is no doubt about it. God has acted on the baby and made him part of the body of Christ. You are all witnesses.

Otherwise…what? The alternative is Liturgical Nestorianism: Christ does not act on us in the sacraments. The sacraments are things we do to stimulate our minds to think about Christ. Our relationship to Him operates basically the same way as our relationship to any other historical figure: We think about Him. Ultimately, this means that Christ is not really in the Church or the sacraments, and you cannot have real contact with Him there.

This, like certain theories of how the Lord’s Supper works, is another instantiation of what Philip Lee calls “Protestant Gnosticism.” May the Lord deliver the Protestant churches from thinking this way.


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