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Washed and putting on Christ

20 January 2017

Henry Wansbrough on a sacrament in the apostle’s teaching

Paul on Baptism: Theology, mission and ministry in context
Nicholas Taylor
SCM Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18



NICHOLAS TAYLOR, as both an academic and a Scottish Episcopalian priest, is concerned not only with the exegesis of St Paul on baptism (and subsidiarily of the Acts of the Apostles), but also with the pastoral practice of the administration of the sacrament in today’s world, where there is considerable danger that the sacrament holds no sacred significance but is simply the occasion for a family reunion. He writes as an academic, with long, careful, and unrelievedly solemn sentences, and excellent commented bibliographical notes.

The first chapter sets the social scene of society in Paul’s time, so different from ours. The most important difference for these purposes was that every individual was part of a group, family, or household, and would be expected to conform to the standards and customs of that group; so baptism was not an individual initiative.

The second chapter gives a rewarding exegesis of each of the Pauline passages (even those of the later and Pastoral Epistles) where there is mention of baptism. There are many valuable emphases in this chapter, of which I was particularly struck by two: first, that putting on Christ at baptism, like a new suit of clothing, really does change the connections and involvement of the neophyte; old bonds and distinctions are dissolved, and new ones are created. Second, the neophyte is washed and sanctified, and must really live this out, particularly in the life of the gifts of the Spirit. There can be no such thing as merely passive participation in Christianity; the gifts of the Spirit must be exercised by everyone.

The remaining chapters enter more fully into the practice of the sacrament. The principal and interesting thesis is that in the earliest communities of Paul baptism was the very beginning of the Christian life, before even catechesis had taken place. The catechesis of Cornelius before baptism by St Peter was at best minimal, and that of the jailer at Philippi even less (or are the accounts in Acts merely foreshortened?). How much instruction did Paul have time to give on his whistle-stop tours before baptising the people and moving on to other cities — for example, to Lydia?

So Taylor also argues vigorously that infants would have been baptised with their parents, both on grounds of solidarity within the community and because of the high rate of infant mortality.

There is a host of unusual sidelines. The actual baptism, involving total immersion, would have often taken place away from the community, though part of a community ceremony (so the community eucharist — rather than a private family ceremony — is the natural context for baptism), because of lack of quantities of water, and because of concern about nudity before the new clothing.

Taylor also speculates that marking with the sign of the cross would also have been likely as early as the first century, and even possibly anointing with oil — later to be sundered from that sacrament and separated into confirmation.

After a most interesting, balanced discussion of some of the forty views on “baptism for the dead”, he finally settles for the idea that it might have been a vicarious posthumous initiation of those who had missed out on baptism during life.

I find that Taylor sometimes goes beyond the evidence, and slips from making a speculation in the early part of the book to later using the speculation as a proven fact. But it is a stimulating, well-argued, and original discussion of the New Testament evidence on baptism, which has great importance for pastoral practice.


Fr Henry Wansbrough OSB is a monk of Ampleforth, emeritus Master of St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

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