Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Exegesis of Psalm 118

Exegesis of Psalm 118

The Context: The Book of Psalms reached its present form quite late and the process of completion took several stages from the fifth to the second centuries B.C.E. Religious tradition depicts the Psalms as being the work of King David but the Psalms were not written down in Hebrew before the sixth century BCE, several hundred years after the generally accepted dating for the reign of David.

Critical analysis lends strength to the belief that the Psalms are more likely to be the combined work of several writers or schools of writers. Brueggemann gives a helpful analogy when he describes the psalms as being rather like negro spirituals
…that have no author or identifiable place of origin, but simply arise in the life and practice of the community and are found to be recurringly adequate to many different usages over time.
W. Bruggemann, p279

Various collections of psalms were compiled over time to be used in liturgical settings by those responsible for worship, rather like guilds of liturgical performers, and that what we are left with is what Bruggemann calls a “long editorial-traditioning process” (p278) as these various collections were moulded and shaped for use in a variety of liturgical contexts until they settled into the form which we know today.

In addition there are clear patterns or formats to the Psalms. Hermann Gunkel pioneered Form Criticism and sought to provide a new way of interpreting the Psalms. He concluded that GENRE, rather than the individual psalm’s context within the Psalter was the key. According to Gunkel three conditions needed to be met for a psalm to fit into a genre.

• There needed to be a similar basis of worship or cultic setting.
• They were characterised by common thoughts, feelings and moods.
• They required a shared style or structure.
H. Gunkle and J. Begrich, p16

Gunkel identifies six genre: hymns, enthronement psalms, communal laments, royal psalms, individual laments and individual thanksgiving, together with a number of smaller genre.

Psalm 118: Turning to Psalm 118: what we have, in Gunkel’s classification, is a psalm of individual thanksgiving. However Gunkel recognises that some psalms fit more than one category and Psalm 118 is also found under his list of Psalm Liturgies.

Here the form within the Thanksgiving Genre is:
• An expanded introduction expressing the intention to give thanks to Yahweh. (v1-4)
• An outline of the problem to a congregation which will encompass: the lament, the call to God and the deliverence. (v5-19)
• A public declaration of Yahweh’s acceptance. (v20 – 25)
• A thanks offering. (v26 – 29)

From the very outset, in verse 1, we have an echo of the ancient covenant relationship between God and the people of Israel in the idea of loving-kindness or hesed as the priest invites the congregation to repeat the liturgical statement that is common elsewhere in the Psalter: “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, His love endures forever.” What is interesting about this psalm is the possibility that some of the original liturgical instructions may have become incorporated into the text of the Psalm. We can imagine the people standing outside the gates of the Jerusalem Temple and being required to repeat a creedal statement in some form of antiphonal response. It might be possible to identify the three groups represented by the designations, Israel, The House of Aaron and Those Who Fear Israel as the regular faithful, the Priests and the proselytes. G.A.F. Knight argues that from the outset we have the key as to the liturgical purpose of this Psalm.

It covers an act of worship in which a pagan is received into the fellowship of the people of God. He is welcomed by the priest of the day. G.A.F. Knight, p206

While Knight’s is not the general view, it is worth considering and it easy to see how he has reached his position: such converts were not uncommon in the community of Israel as those from other tribes who were attracted to the Law of Moses, were accepted into the covenant. In terms of dating this Psalm, however, the clue is little help: in the pre-exilic period many Canaanites were absorbed into the People of Israel, their very survival conditional upon their following Yahweh while in the post-exilic period Israel saw its role as welcoming in the nations as reflected in the themes of second Isaiah. Attempts at dating are further confused by the use of the term The House of Aaron to identify the priesthood. This would suggest a post-exilic dating as “Aaron” becomes the designation for the priesthood from the period of Ezra. Alternatively one could speculate that the line “Let the House of Aaron say….” is merely a later editing of the text to acknowledge a change in liturgical terminology and shows a traditioning process at work.

So if, as is likely, Knight is wrong, and this is not a psalm of conversion, whose is the primary voice of Psalm 118? In Israel there was a real corporate identity where the first person pronoun could authoritatively be said representing the community. If this is a psalm of Cultic proceeding, as Gunkle would argue, then the primary voice becomes a representative of the people. The military language in v 10-12 and 15-16 suggests the King who, in speaking about his experience of “God’s steadfast love” is, in fact, delivering a word of testimony on behalf of the nation (and there is some suggestion that this may be an annual event). Now that the King has Yahweh on his side his faith is strengthened, as is that of the people. “What can man (now) do to me?” he demands as he goes on to outline those generic things which used to overwhelm him (the nation) or perhaps a generic failing that equates to confession.

Whether the thanksgiving which follows is a new convert’s or the King’s the source of thanksgiving is the same: Yahweh is on his side. At this point the text lends itself to a form of response with the lead voice, either the new convert or the King leading the congregation.

Voice : All the nations surround me
Response: But in the name of the Lord I cut them off.
Voice : They surrounded me on every side
Response: But in the name of The Lord I cut them off.
Voice : They swarmed around me like bees
Response: but they died out as quickly as burning thorns; in the name of The Lord I cut them off.

Given that the Psalms, we now realize, are less private reflection and more public liturgy, this would not be unusual. In the Psalter there are 150 Psalms. Is it too much of a stretch of the imagination to suggest that each had its particular niche as a liturgy? Some would be part of regular public worship while others would be occasional liturgies depending on the circumstances. “Depression, sir? You’ll be wanting the liturgy of Psalm 22 then.”

At verse 19 there is a change of mood. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the voice we now hear is the voice of the Priest. “Open to me the gate of righteosness” becomes a literal instruction rather than merely a spiritual aspiration. In this understanding, the liturgy of Psalm 118 is very much a drama. We see the Priest leading the congregation in procession from one temple court to another in an act of great symbolism. This is theatre in promenade and a liturgical drama managed by the Priests. It is a spiritual transition acted out.

It is the Priest who, in verse 20, makes a statement of authority on the status of the petitioner, new convert or chastened King: he is now Righteous in the sight of God and can therefore move deeper into the temple, closer to the Holy place. This is God’s saving love acted out as a public witness of faith. Does verse 21 now reveal the petitioner’s response? His statement “I will give you thanks, for you answered me: you have become my salvation” is a strikingly humble recognition of the working of God’s grace. It is God and God alone who has brought him to this point. Here we have jutification by faith not by good works Old Testament style.

What for many Christians is a statement about Christ in verses 22-24 is revealed as having an altogether different emphasis. The petitioner, whether former pagan or penitent King, is recognized as having been brought close to God. He is a new creation and we can “hear” the voices of his supporters in a formal response as they acknowledge his acceptance (or reacceptance) into the community of the faithful, perhaps in unison or perhaps in three groups:

• The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.
• The Lord has done this and it is marvellous in our eyes.
• This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

The one who was nearly rejected has been reinstated. The use of the idea of cornerstone would seem to strengthen the argument for the petitioner to be the King. The King is restored: all is well with the community.

In Christian understanding this is taken as a clear reference to Christ and verse 24 “This is the Day that the Lord has made, let us be glad and rejoice in it.” is a wonderful statement for Easter Day. Thus Christianity has taken this Psalm and used it to support the doctrine that God has acted to bring life to mankind through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ.

That Christianity sees itself as the heir to the theology, history and traditions of Israel has always been a part of its self-understanding. In seeking to re-evaluate a past in the context of a man who has been accepted as the promised Messiah, Christian apologists have re-read the writings of the Tanakh in search of passages which can retrospectively legitimize their claim that Christ is indeed God’s Chosen One “Before Abraham was, I am.” (Jn 8.58).

However, regardless of Christianity’s view that Christ is the word of God both forward and backwards, the same yesterday, today and forever, there was a pre-existing understanding of this Psalm in the Jewish tradition which has value in its own right.

The Christian understanding of this section, while it may be valid, is not the primary understanding. While it is, in its broadest sense, a Psalm of David and therefore might be interpreted as having a Messianic element, it is primarily a Psalm of “fresh start”. The petitioner’s new acceptance by the worshipping community reflects back to the earlier sense of abandonment of verses 5-9.

The final section of the Psalm is one of thanksgiving and the symbolism and sense of theatre continue. Is the voice we now hear in verse 26 – “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” - that of another priest, one who has a different liturgical responsibility in the new temple court? We can picture this priest standing at the door of the shrine building and inviting the now forgiven and justified petitioner to approach the altar of Yahweh to make an offering of thanksgiving. The petitioner follows what must have been this deeply moving and spiritual moment with an exultant cry of gratitude: “You are my God and I will give thanks; you are my God and I will exalt you.” To which the gathered congregation responds “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.”

What we have in Psalm 118, then, is not the private reflections or meditations of “the psalmist” but a vibrant piece of active liturgy, taking the petitioner from the status of outcast, through confession and penitence to grace and acceptance by God into thanksgiving and full membership of the worshipping community: all witnessed by, and with the active participation of, that same worshipping community. We have a tantelising glimpse of the religious practices of a lost world. How exciting is that?

Knight, G.A.F: The Daily Study Bible – Psalms (Vol 1), St. Andrew Press, 1982.

Bruggemann, W: An Introduction to the Old Testament, WJK Press, 2003.

H. Gunkel and J. Begrich: Introduction to Psalms, Mercer University Press, 1998. (German edition 1933)

Examine ways in which the Psalter is used in modern churches with critical discussion on how these uses relate to the original setting.

Examine ways in which the Psalter is used in modern churches with critical discussion on how these uses relate to the original setting.


The language of the Psalter owes much to the ancient poems of the Hebrew people, examples of which can be found in the Song of Deborah in Judges 5 and in the supposed Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32. There is also sufficient evidence of Canaanite and other poetry, reminiscent of the poetry found in the Psalms, to suggest a common religious and cultural approach to liturgy in the ancient world.

The Book of Psalms reached its present form quite late and the process of completion took several stages from the fifth to the second centuries B.C.E. Some Psalms are related to the events of the Babylonian exile (586-539 B.C.E): for instance, Psalm 137 includes the line “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” while others such as Psalm 119 probably date from the period following the rebuilding of the temple. In its present arrangement the Psalter is divided into five distinct sections and it has been suggested that this may be a response to the five books of the Torah as if to link the Psalms to the Mosaic tradition.

Religious tradition depicts the Psalms as being the work of King David but the Psalms were not written down in Hebrew before the sixth century BCE, several hundred years after the generally accepted dating for the reign of David.

It is now recognized that the headings of the Psalms were added only in later centuries, and are not original. But even if we accord them a high credence as reflecting the tradition of the temple priests and singers, only about half of them contain the words “of David”. G.A.F. Knight, P 8.

Knight goes on to consider what the words “of David” actually mean in relation to the Hebrew preposition “of”. While it can certainly mean composed by David, it can equally mean composed for David, in the style of David, or even authorised by David. Such analysis lends strength to the critical belief that the Psalms are more likely to be the combined work of several writers or schools of writers. Brueggemann gives a helpful analogy when he describes the psalms as being rather like negro spirituals

…that have no author or identifiable place of origin, but simply arise in the life and practice of the community and are found to be recurringly adequate to many different usages over time. W. Bruggemann p279

Various collections of psalms were compiled over time to be used in liturgical settings: the Davidic collection contained all those headed “David” and others were collected by the Sons of Asaph (Ps 50) Sons of Korah (Ps 84). Knight suggests that these “Sons of..” were those responsible for liturgical worship and he goes on to suggest that the continued association of David with the Psalms comes to be in the manner of a patron saint of psalmody. Identification is, of course, further complicated by the fact that in calling David, God called his whole line of descendents: several generations of a King might still be known as David, Son of God. However, at the end of the second book of Psalms comes the statement “The prayers of David, the son of Jesse are ended.” (Ps 72.20) It seems that it was recognized that what was then considered as the Davidic collection was at an end.

What we might understand is that the competing groups were like guilds of liturgical performers and that what we are left with is what Bruggemann calls a “long editorial-traditioning process” (p278) as these various collections were moulded and shaped for use in a variety of liturgical contexts until they settled into the form which we know today.

In the end the Psalter is evidence of a long practice of Israel in finding poetic, artistic ways of to voice faith, but poetic and artistic ways that were being impinged upon, no doubt in decisive insistence, by vigorous theological intention and urgent ideological advocacy. We may imagine that the end result is something of an ecumenical achievement in Israel that sought to bring many diverse traditions together into a generally accepted poetic and theological coherence. W. Bruggemann, P278.

What we also know from studies on the Dead Sea Scrolls is that there were other Psalms which were in general circulation but which did not find universal usage and therefore did not make it into the final canon, so there was clearly a degree of flexibility in liturgical forms.

The Psalms are, then, nothing short of a condensed history of God’s dealings with Israel from the time of David to the late Old Testament period.

Psalms as Liturgy:

The Psalter contains one hundred and fifty psalms, each of which is a religious song. There is some variation in the numbering of the psalms between Christian denominations with Protestant churches using the Hebrew numbering system of the Masoretic tradition and the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches following the Greek numbering of the Septuagint, which includes an additional psalm in Psalm 151.

One of the primary clues to the origin of the Psalms as liturgical texts lies in the Septuagint, the translation into Greek of the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh. In the Greek text we find the word psalmoi, from which we get the word Psalm itself. Psalmoi originally meant “songs sung to a harp” from the verb psallein “to play on a stringed instrument”.

In the original Hebrew the Psalms are known as the tehelim, or “Praises” and are found in the book known as the ketuvim also known as “Writings”, the third and final section of the Hebrew Bible. The Book of Psalms is the first of the books in the ketuvim and also the first of a subset of three poetic books, together with Proverbs and Job.

When we read many of the Psalms today there is, perhaps, a natural tendency to assume that they were primarily written for individual private use.

More and more we are coming to realize that the religion of the Psalms is cultic – that is, it is the faith of a community at worship. It is quite true that many….were composed by individuals who spoke out of their concrete life situations. In any case, the treasury of Psalms was appropriated by the worshipping community precisely as songs of various origins are incorporated into modern hymn books. Thus when “I” and “my” are used as in Psalm 23, we must think of the whole community joining in to express its faith. Bernhard W. Anderson, p543

The Masoretic manuscripts, (the Hebrew text of the Jewish Bible) which predates the Septuagint, do not only set out the books of the canon, but also the precise accenting for both public reading and private study. Psalms, Proverbs and Job are set out in a particular style which highlights groups of related lines which have a parallel structure in the verses. This parallel structure is known as a “stich”. These reveal the function of the text as poetry. In a passage, there can be a distich (two related lines) or a tristich (three related lines), as seen in Psalm 1:1-2:
How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
And in His law he meditates day and night.

In addition there are clear patterns or formats to the Psalms. Psalms may be Hymns of Praise, Laments, Hymns of thanksgiving and, more occasionally, Renewal of Covenant. If we take, for instance, a Psalm of lament. The format here would be:
• Invocation – an address to God.
• Complaint – the cause of the distress such as illness, famine or war.
• A creedal statement of Trust – the supplicant relies on God.
• Petition – an appeal for God’s intervention.
• Thanksgiving – expressing confidence that God hears and answers prayer.
The poetic function of these writings can further be recognised in the additional markings of cantillation, which aids the ritual chanting of readings in synagogue services. The chants are set out following specific accent markings printed in the text to complement the letters and vowel points.

These accents are used to guide the chanting of the sacred texts during public worship. Simply put, these cantillation marks, known in Hebrew as te’amim are linked to musical phrases and therefore show how the word or phrase is sung. The Hebrew word ta'am means "sense", and so the point is that the pauses and intonation revealed by the cantillation accents further highlight the sense or meaning of the passage. The musical themes associated with the signs are known in Yiddish as “trop”, absorbed into English as “trope”: a word or phrase introduced as an embellishment in the sung parts of certain liturgies. Tropes are carefully designed to follow a clear and set pattern.

The Psalms are not simply expansions of subjective feelings of pious Israelites, but are constructed from liturgical conventions and reflect a highly objective dimension of common worship. Brevard S. Childs P171

There are further indications of Psalm usage as being liturgical in what appear to be surviving “stage directions” which seem to have become absorbed into the text of the psalm. In Psalm 118.2 for instance, we have what appear to be a set of responses: “Let Israel say…Let Aaron say…Let those who fear the Lord say…” as an antiphon to the main text. Later in the same psalm (v27) we find “with boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar.” which strikes a note of dissonance in the context of the psalm unless it is understood as part of the liturgical performance which gives context to the text.

While we can recognize that the psalms were performed in public worship it is not possible to be sure of the exact details, which sets some limits on modern attempts to recreate a liturgy. In Psalm 46, for example, we come across the repeated word selah probably meaning “stop and listen” which is taken, again, as some form of stage direction, believed to be the point at which the vocal chanting is punctuated by an instrumental section. The music has been lost, of course. On other occasions a word at the start of the Psalm might indicate the nature of the instrumental accompaniment. One could speculate, for instance that the phrase “To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments; according to The Sheminith” at the start of Psalm 6 indicates the name of the contemporary tune used to accompany the psalm.

The mysterious final phrase, (and others like it at the start of other Psalms) is usually taken to refer to the name of a particular chant or musical motif. Within some psalms we find references to performances involving musical instruments and dance – and in the case of Psalm 150 the ancient equivalent of a symphony orchestra appears to be indicated. A.G. Hunter, p7

In relation to this ancient temple music it would appear that Israel imported some of the arrangements of the Religious Orchestra used in Egypt at the time of its cultural hight.

According to Abraham Zebi Idelsohn, p 7-15, the orchestra of the Temple of Jerusalem consisted of: Nevel, the big harp; Kinnor, the little lyre (“Sheminith” may indicate eight or ten strings). There was also the Shofar, rams horn, (which was simply for signalling purposes), the Chatzotzera, trumpet, the Uggav, small pipe, the Halil, large pipe and the Alamoth, the double flute. In percussion terms there were the Tof, little drum, the Tziltzal, Cymbal and finally there was the Paamonim, the little bells which were attatched to the robes of the high priest to call the attention of the worshippers to the sacred function in the sanctuary.

Christian Liturgical use:

Recognizing, then, that in the psalms we have reflections of the life of the worshipping community which was ancient Israel over a period of time and through a variety of experiences, we have to consider what use the worshipping communities can make of them today. In considering the idea of worshipping community we need to recognize the two main groups as modern Jews, who are the closest heirs to the Hebrew tradition, and Christians who also see themselves as heirs but whose heritage contains, in addition, a belief in Christ as the word of God both forward and backwards: the same yesterday, today and forever. “Before Abraham was, I am.” (Jn 8.58)

It is clear from the New Testament that the early Christians continued to use the patterns of worship they were familiar with from their Jewish heritage and this included the use of the Psalms which have remained, where other Jewish elements were abandoned, an important part of Christian worship. In the early Christian era it was even expected that candidates for the role of Bishop would be able to recite the Psalter from memory, having learnt to do so as monks first.

Schism did not change the use of the Psalms. The Roman Catholic church took the practice from the Orthodox and most Protestant churches including Lutheran, Anglican and Methodist retained it in their turn. All have a systematic cycle for the use of the Psalms which includes the recitation or chanting of most, if not all, of them in public worship. The precise order, varying slightly from church to church, are to be found in the appropriate Lectionary for each denomination. Several smaller denominations such as The Free Church of Scotland choose not to sing any non-Biblical material at all and will only use Psalms or hymns based on them.

A brief oultline of Orthodox usage:

Eastern Orthodox Christians follow the Byzantine Rite which divides the Psalms into 20 kathismata – literally “sittings”. Each kathisma is further subdivided into three stases literally “standings”). Different kathismata are read at different times during the liturgical year and on different days of the week so that all 20 kathismata containing all 150 psalms will have been read during Matins and Vespers in the course of a week.

The Psalms occupy a very important part in Orthodox worship in addition to kathisma readings. In particular the penitential Psalm 50 is widely used and individual verses of various psalms are used as introductions to readings from scripture. Psalm 118 is used at Matins on a Saturday and is a key element of the funeral service. In the period leading up to a funeral, in a reflection of Jewish usage, it would be quite common for the entire Psalter to be chanted over the body.

A brief outline of Roman Catholic Usage:

Again the Psalms have always been important in Roman Catholic usage. The daily practice of using the Bible for prayer, known as the Liturgy of the Hours, concentrated on chanting the Psalms in Latin using musical patterns called psalm tones best recognised today in the sound of the Gregorian Chant. This practice declined among the laity as knowledge of Latin declined. However, with the work of Bishop Richard Challoner, who provided devotional material in English, the Psalms again became accessible for English speaking Catholics from the eighteenth century. Joseph Gillow P456

The pattern of psalm usage before the Second Vatican Council tended to be on a weekly basis or less frequently, as in the Ambrosian Rite, but since 1974 with the publishing of the Breviary the psalms have been distributed over a four week cycle, although monastic usage may vary, often using a one week cycle based on St. Benedict’s sceme. With the development of the modern Breviary came a more formalised approach to the mechanics of performance with three styles sanctioned:
• The direct speaking or chanting of the psalm, in whole or part, by the entire congregation.
• Antiphonally, as two choirs or sections of the congregation recite or chant alternate verses. (This is the most popular method.)
• Responsorially, as the cantor or choir sings or recites the verse and the congregation recites or chants a specific response after each verse.
Since Vatican Two with the revision of the Roman Missal, when the use of vernacular languages was sanctioned, longer psalm texts were reintroduced into the liturgy whereas before, the Tridentine Mass had only retained fragments. This more contemporary arrangement saw the recitation or chanting of large sections of a psalm or indeed a whole psalm after the first reading of scripture, the Responsorial Psalm, because of its method of usage.

A brief outline of Protestant usage:

The use of the Psalms has been very popular in those of the Reformed Traditions and following the Reformation use of paraphrases of the psalms in hymns became very common, particularly in Calvinism where they were used almost exclusively to the exclusion of other hymns and, of course, Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is our God” is based on Psalm 46. The first book published in North America was a collection of psalm settings, “The Bay Psalm Book” of 1640. By the twentieth Century the psalms have been largely replaced by hymns in public worship but they remain a strong element of private devotion, and are still used in many churches as a formal element of the liturgy: Lutheran, Anglican and Methodist worship books all use the psalms in a structured way, with specific psalms for each day set out in the lectionary. The new Anglican publication “Common Worship”, for instance, has a companion Psalter in modern English.

Those churches who follow the lectionary read three biblical passages each Sunday, one from the Old Testament, one from the New Testament epistles and one from the Gospels. In between the reading of the Old and New Testament lessons a Psalm is appointed to be said or sung, one that generally relates in some way to one or more of the lectionary texts.

The psalms have been used in numerous ways in Christian liturgy, at least three of which are familiar to congregations in the Reformed tradition. First, and perhaps most familiar to most of us, is the use of psalms as expressions of the congregation's successive acts of praise, penitence, dedication, and thankfulness. For example, a congregation might begin a service by reciting the votum ("our help is in the name of the Lord") from Psalm 124:8. A second way of using the psalms—linking psalms to Scripture text and sermon—is also familiar to Reformed Christians. Though not every text and sermon can be matched precisely with an appropriate psalm, often a minister can find a few verses that will echo something in the text. Or, thirdly, both psalm and text might be chosen to reflect a particular season or feast of the church year (e.g., Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, etc.) This third way of using the psalms is closely related to the second and is frequently practiced in our churches. Both of these can be grouped under the broad heading of a "psalm-of-the-day" approach. In adopting the new lectionary many churches that have historically been weak in the singing of psalms have now made the Psalter an integral part of their liturgies. The lectionary has transformed Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and other churches into psalm-singing churches. It is becoming increasing less probable that one can attend the liturgy of these churches without hearing at least one psalm.

There is currently some controversy in the English speaking Lutheran world over the use of the Psalter in 2006 publications of congregational worship books which may offer some salutory lessons for others intending to render the psalms into the vernacular: the book Evangelical Lutheran Worship has received much criticism: The Book of Common Prayer/Lutheran Book of Worship version

…was rewritten, expurgated, one may say, to avoid calling God by masculine pronouns. The principal way this is accomplished is to turn all the psalms into second person address, “you” instead of “he”. This was variously defended as the objections came in. It was said that many people had wanted to pray the psalms and this new form facilitated that by making them prayers, ignoring the long tradition beginning in Judaism of praying the psalms in the existing biblical form. It was then said that the new form facilitated singing, ignoring the Anglican practice of choral evensong. Philip H Pfatteicher p249

Pfatteicher goes on to lament that the verses of the new Psalter have been renumbered to make it consistent with the New Revised Standard version numbering and has eliminated the asterisk in each verse which is essential to singing the psalms to Gregorian and Anglican chant. In addition this publication has revised the Psalm prayers of the Lutheran Book of Worship which are based on the Roman Catholic Liturgy of the Hours. Pfatteicher questions the principles on which these revisions were made. Indirection is blunted: (“your people” becomes “us”) the prayers are invariably addressed to the Father rather than to the Son and never to the Spirit; references to the church as bride and references to the saints as martyrs are almost entirely removed. He is also disturbed that:

The concluding formula for each prayer is an invariable “Through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.” Avoiding the standard reference to “your Son” and thus selfishly relating him only to us and not also the the Father. Pfatteicher, p256

Pfatteicher goes on to lament that both new American publications, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, published by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran Service Book, published by the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, abandon the carefully prepared two-year daily lectionary from the Book of Common Prayer which their predecessor publication The Lutheran Book of Worship had adopted, each moving off in a different direction. The outcome of this has serious implications: as there is now no psalm table appointing different psalms to different days of the week and as the traditional attempt to read the whole Psalter over a period of time has been abandoned, familiarity with the Psalter will be drastically reduced and public worship will be the poorer for it. It also disadvantages those pastors who are used to a daily lectionary because they celebrate the Eucharist on weekdays. Many such pastors are eschewing the new publications in favour of the Roman Catholic daily lectionary. His conclusion is that with the Psalms, in Lutheran worship, anything goes now.

I use the example of this controversy over the Psalter in critically evaluating the way the psalms are used in relation to their original setting because it comes from my own tradition and illustrates the point that even when new comprehensive worship books are commissioned and approved by committees of theologically literate people, things can go badly wrong. One must question why things went so badly wrong in America and the conclusion seems to be that, assuming these developments weren’t deliberate, those “theologically literate” people had not got a full appreciation of the historic significance of the psalms in public worship. That is some indictment, but it does illustrate the potential danger that where there are movements for liturgical updating, often alligned with a desire for relevance in any denomination the outcome may turn out to be liturgically and theologically impoverished. That is not to say that in all such new liturgies it will be the Psalter which suffers, but it might illustrate the vulnerability of the traditional and historical role of the psalms to misunderstanding. It does seem, however, that where liberalism, pietism, revivalism or rationalism have come to hold sway, the psalms are frequently seen as archaic, irrelevant, or even unchristian. In that context, bringing them back into the heart of worship may well be problematic.

BibliographyKnight, G.A.F: The Daily Study Bible – Psalms (Vol 1), St. Andrew Press, 1982.
Bruggemann, W: An Introduction to the Old Testament, WJK Press, 2003.
Anderson, Bernhard W: The Living World of the Old Testament, Longman,1993.
Childs, B: Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context, Fortress Press, 1989.
Hunter, A.G: Psalms, Routledge, 1999.
Idelsohn, A. Z: Jewish Music, Dover, 1992.
Gillow, Joseph: Biographic Dictionary of the English Catholics, Ganesha Publishing, 1999.
Pfatteicher, Philip H: Reforming the Daily Office in Two new Lutheran Books. (From :Studia Liturgica Vol 37, No.2) Societas Liturgica, 2007.

Monday, 2 February 2009

“I believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins”

“I believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins”

What are the ecumenical implications, liturgical problems and pastoral opportunities in the recognition by all the churches of our common baptism?

Section 1: Early Traditions

“Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptised by him. John would have prevented him, saying “I need to be baptised by you and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now for it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptised he went up immediately from the water, and behold the heavens were opened and he saw the spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven saying, “This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased,”
(Mat 3.13-17)

According to this tradition, at the very start of his ministry Jesus makes an overt public display of the importance of baptism, investing in it his stamp of approval. The subsequent practice of Jesus is made clear in John 3.22 “After this Jesus and his disciples went in to the land of Judea; there he remained with them and baptised” The verb ‘to baptise’ is in the imperfect tense which suggests a repeated action - but did Jesus himself baptise people? The Johannine tradition specifically says that he did not. It was his disciples who were baptising, not Jesus himself (John 4.2). In any case this cannot have been Christian baptism, because the NT writers consistently maintain that
“… baptism receives its efficacy from the crucifixion and resurrection. Therefore baptisms conducted by the disciples ‘is baptism like that of John the Baptist.” (Raymond E. Brown, p 151).

This being so, the supposed injunction of Jesus to his disciples both then and today in Matt. 28.19, “Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” reflects the practice of Christian communities much later in the first century CE. These words can only have been placed on Jesus’ lips by this later tradition.

In Acts 2.38-39 this injunction appears to be taken very seriously in Peter’s appeal to the Jews of his day when attempting to explain the events of Pentecost. In this appeal he linked their Messianic expectations to the death of Christ (though there is no reference here to ‘the Father’). Even this early in the apostolic age, repentance and baptism are inextricably linked to each other and to salvation. “Repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one who the Lord our God calls to him.” (Acts 2.38-39) “So those who received his word were baptised, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” (Acts 2.41) But these, again, reflect early Christian tradition placed within the context of the eidetic, idealised, history of Acts.

Turning to a period at least a generation earlier than these traditions, Paul’s letter to the church in Rome provides a summary of his theology of baptism, and this epistle makes clear what the practice was that St. Paul expected of the early Christian Diaspora. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom 6.3-4).

Now, what seems to be in mind here is water baptism, not the ‘baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire’ which John Baptist is recorded as saying of the ‘one who comes after’ him. The Baptist’s water baptism is a baptism ‘for repentance’. The baptism of the one who comes after is the much more fundamental and critical baptism of judgment: it is baptism with a winnowing-shovel (Matt. 3. 11-12 and parallels, see also 1 Cor. 12:13). This is the use of the word ‘baptism’ as a vivid image, quite distinct from any association with water. Clearly there are a number of deeply significant biblical/theological symbols at work here in a complex and, frankly, unclear relationship. There is, evidently, both an external and visible, and also an internal and invisible, baptism. These two parallel emphases relate to the several ways in which baptism is referred in the NT. So, for example, water-baptism becomes a symbol of death, the baptism of martyrdom (Mk. 10.38 and parallels) and baptism into the death of Christ (Rom. 6.3). further, the author of I Peter draws a sharp contrast between baptism by water, the mere external rite, and an appeal to God ‘for a clear conscience’ (I Pet. 3:21). And then there is the question of the relation between the external rite of baptism and the vexed question of circumcision, an issue which threatened the unity of the first Christian communities - should converts be circumcised as Jews before being baptised as Christians? This is a question Paul addresses in Col. 2.11-12). So there is, in the NT, much ambiguity and lack of clarity in the supposed relationship between water-baptism and the reality of salvation or the gift of the Holy Spirit. Note, for example, Acts 19:3-6, where there is discussion about the efficacy of John’s baptism which led to a rebaptism in the name of Christ. This ambiguity and lack of clarity has carried forward into subsequent Christian history, seen, as one example of many, in the far from satisfactory explanations offered as to the relationship between the baptism and confirmation rites.

Another emphasis is found in Hebrews: “For it is impossible to restore again to repentance, those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the Heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit.” (Hebrews 6.4) Here baptism is seen as enlightenment.

What we can recognise is that the process of becoming a Christian in the early church may have been initially interpreted and expressed in a number of different ways with slightly different emphases.

Although St. Augustine stressed the importance of the notion of justification by faith, he held it in tension with the practice of baptism.
So he promoted Cyprian’s doctrine that there is no salvation outside the church. This meant that as many people as possible must be compelled into baptism and the discipline of the church, participating in what became the penitential cycle, for the sake of their own salvation.
(Stephen Spencer: p113, 2007)

Among others Luther attempted to overcome this ambiguity. As does the NT, Luther stressed two blessings that are promised and symbolised in baptism. One is cleansing. Since human beings around the world and throughout history have used water for washing, washing in the name of God is an obvious symbol for a spiritual cleansing as Acts 22.16 reveals: “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptised, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.” A second promise, according to Luther, is linked to St. Paul’s symbolism of dying and rising with Christ. We need to remember that the practice of Jesus and the early church was of full immersion. The act of immersion symbolises death so the person being baptised dies metaphorically with Christ and as St. Paul says, is dead to sin. Coming up out of the baptismal water represents Christ’s resurrection, and the entry into new life of the one being baptised.

At baptism our redemption is sacramentally portrayed in a dramatic way and both the early church and Luther regarded confession as linked to baptism. The symbolism of Romans lends itself to this understanding with its language of death and resurrection.

During the Reformation, Luther was one of those who reconsidered the universal nature of baptism against a prevailing clericalism and hierarchy.
To call popes, bishops, priests, monks and nuns the religious class, but princes, lords, artisans and farm workers the secular class is a specious device invented by certain time-servers. For all Christians…truly belong to the religious class, and there is no difference among them except insofar as they do different work. This applies to us all, because we have one baptism, one gospel, one faith and are all equally Christian. The fact is that our baptism consecrates us all without exception and makes us all priests.
(Gerhard Eberling: p180, 1970)

It is clear then that in baptism we identify with the death and resurrection of Jesus. Baptism is clearly a sacrament in this respect in that it is an outward sign of God’s already accomplished work and an outward sign of an inner belief and conviction in the believer about the efficacy of the atonement and redemptive grace. This allows each of those who are baptised to do as Luther did, and to look back in times of doubt taking comfort from the objectivity of what has taken place. Acceptance and transformation need to be experienced again and again and the physical remembrance of baptism can help us to remember God’s promise and experience God’s grace daily.

There is, then, a clear link to the ministry of reconciliation: baptism is conducted by a minister on behalf of Christ and in confession we receive Christ’s absolution in the same way.
What we need to do when we sin is not to be rebaptised, but to be reminded of the baptism which we have already undergone. We need to be reminded of God’s love for us and of the forgiveness that he grants to us.
(Ian Paul: p332, 2003)

It is questionable from the above, then, to what extent the churches have reached a common understanding of “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins”. The New Testament gives a vast number of images and metaphors about baptism, and an attempt to cram all of them verbally into every baptismal rite is overwhelming, so liturgies have, of necessity, been selective.

Section 2: Ecumenical, Liturgical and Pastoral issues

In relation to exactly what is meant by a “common understanding” of baptism in ecumenical terms we need to recognise that one of the most hotly debated questions today is that of whether it is appropriate to baptise children. Most churches, Anglican, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist and Orthodox baptise infants and adults. Conversely, Baptists, Pentecostals and many Evangelical churches will only baptise those old enough to have made an informed and mature personal declaration of faith. It seems that the issue is that of the individual’s understanding of the nature of Baptism.

What is clear from the New Testament is that a period of instruction was a regular part of the initiation rite, “…. With instructions about ablutions…..” (Hebrews 6.2) although it is unclear whether infants and young children were baptised. According to Kurt Alland (p93) Infant baptism is certainly provable only from the third century.

Firstly, those who practice infant baptism see baptism as primarily an outward sign of God’s grace. This grace impacts on a person as the Gospel is proclaimed and lived out in the church. The emphasis, then, is on the grace of God manifest in the daily life of the worshipping community in which the infant is nurtured. This view is supported by such theologians as Oscar Cullman who comments that:
Baptism is causative in that it places a person within the community where faith becomes possible rather than simply informing that person of something. (Oscar Cullmann: p274, 1950)

By contrast, those who only accept the baptism of adults see the sacrament as an outward declaration of a person’s inward faith and therefore baptism is appropriate only when a person has attained a personal faith and wishes to make a personal declaration of membership. This can, of necessity, only be achieved in adulthood. The emphasis here is on the individual’s act of faith and their decision to join the worshipping community. Such a view would be supported by such theologians as Karl Barth who describe infant baptism as:
“necessarily clouded baptism” and that only adults capable of understanding the event should receive baptism. (James F White: p 224, 2000)

These differences are not total. Those who practice infant baptism have the ceremony of Confirmation for those who have attained a maturity and wish to formally enter the church by confirming the baptismal vows taken on their behalves. Those who practice adult baptism recognise that God’s grace precedes personal faith.

In ecumenical dialogue, the main concern of those who support adult believer’s baptism is to what extent a baptismal ceremony can have any significance or meaning for someone too young to understand or appreciate what is happening.
I know from personal experience that adoption is a helpful analogy for the understanding of baptism. What adoption illustrates is how an action taken quite apart from a child’s agreement is by no account a meaningless rite. First my wife and I regard our decision to adopt Kim as irrevocable. If one day Kim were to reject us, we would continue to regard him as our son and hope for reconciliation with him. Similarly in baptism God’s promise of grace that forgives and transforms always holds good. Even if the person turns away from God, God seeks reconciliation. God’s promises given in baptism can be a reminder of the merciful grace of God. If Kim were to reject us as parents the alienation would not be healed until he accepted us once again. In similar fashion it is possible for someone baptised as a child to later turn away from God. While God’s promises in baptism always hold good and God always seeks out the one who turns away, the broken relationship is not healed until God’s love is accepted by the person. Finally, adoption like baptism, is meant to signal ongoing involvement in a certain community. Just as the adopted child is meant to live in the family the baptised infant is meant to live within the church.
(Bradley Hanson: p91/92, 2000)

In pastoral terms many churches are inconsistent in their application of baptismal policies and infant baptism can be encouraged or otherwise in neighbouring parishes of the same denomination. The attitudes of local clergy or Church Councils can make requesting baptism quite a minefield. Grace Davie points out that baptism …
…. permits some measurement – if not always an entirely accurate one – of the value placed by the population at large on a ceremony associated with Christian initiation.
(Grace Davie: p53, 2006)

That does not mean that the experience of requesting baptism is consistent.
No one is born a Christian. One becomes a Christian through becoming a part of a community with a distinctive way of life involving definite ethical and creedal commitments.
(James F White: p 203, 2000)

Unfortunately, White’s position implies that children of ‘Christian’ families cannot be regarded as Christians until they have made these ‘ethical and creedal commitments’. This comes very close to requiring ethical and creedal commitments as a ‘good work’ which must be performed before the saving grace of God can flow to that individual which would appear to be a perversion of the grace of God to which the NT bears witness. When the jailer ‘and his whole family’ are baptised following the miraculous release from prison of Paul and Silas (Acts 16.31) there is no suggestion that the jailer’s children were barred from baptism because of their lack of ‘ethical and creedal commitment’ (in fact only the ‘trust in the Lord Jesus’ of the jailer himself, evidenced by his prior question ‘what must I do to be saved?’ is required. His faith is the faith of his whole family.

This, of course, tends not to be a part of the conversation between priest and the candidate for baptism and in the vast majority of cases rightly so but it raises an ambiguity.

Approaching a church one is already a member of for baptism for one’s self or one’s children is one thing. To approach that same church as an outsider, possibly with a very limited understanding or experience of Christianity or with a hazy understanding of a different lapsed tradition is quite another. It is White’s recognition of ethical and creedal positions that many people seeking baptism fail to grasp and many pastors seem to fail to acknowledge that assent to a creedal statement is not part of the N.T. pattern.
The crucial point to grasp is that some sort of religiosity persists despite an obvious drop in practice. The sacred does not disappear – indeed it is becoming more, rather than less prevalent in contemporary society. (Grace Davie: p43, 1992)

Davie is commenting here on the role of an off the peg approach to religion in modern society that seems to confound the decline in formal worship: that which is often called folk religion. Many people like to have their children baptised, not because they accept the theology behind it, or are even aware of it, but for a variety of other reasons, often informed more by a lack of knowledge than anything else, but certainly informed by a sense of innate spirituality.

Some of the unchurched believe that they have a right to have their children baptised and that to have a church service is simply the natural order of events. Such people, when questioned, often see the service as merely a public thanksgiving for the safe arrival of a new baby. At the same time baptism is frequently seen as little more than a public naming ceremony. This is more likely to be an issue within established churches where there is more of a public perception of the church as a community resource, (certainly in the Anglican church, both under canon and civil law, a couple residing in the parish do have the entitlement to bring a child to baptism) but all churches face requests from those with historic or family ties and who see those lapsed ties as conferring some degree of membership privilege.

In terms of the entitlement culture, notwithstanding canon law, no responsible parish priest would accept an individual for baptism (other than emergency baptism) without certain conditions or stipulations and this can become a delicate pastoral juggling act.

At the very least a priest or pastor would expect to go through the baptism service to make clear to a baptismal candidate or the parents of an infant, not only the sequence of events, but also the meaning and implication of the words. Some will insist, on dubious legal ground possibly, that a period of instruction takes place and that as baptism implies membership, the candidate or the parents of the child attend worship for a period of time before the baptism service.

There are priests and pastors who understandably see such personal contact as an opportunity for evangelism but a good minister will have the pastoral needs of the candidate or child’s parents at heart. This does beg the question of what the exact nature of the church should be to the unchurched in the post modern period, although that question itself is anathema to some Evangelicals who see anything short of evangelism as a missed opportunity. Baptism clearly presents such an opportunity, both in the candidate or child’s parents and in the whole gathered congregation of family and friends on the day.

There can be few clergy who have not had the experience of conducting a baptism after a period of preparation or instruction, where it has become clear that the parent’s of the child are continuing to go through the motions. They have compromised their own integrity by persisting in a ceremony whose premise and values they know they do not share because they have had their hearts set on the occasion, and that occasion has to be in church. In this respect baptism can mirror the charade which characterises many weddings: all is for show and corresponds to some idealised image of a family occasion. The underlying meaning, and indeed the significance of the meaning, is not confronted.

On the other hand there will be those who do come to a clearer understanding of the profundity of what they have embarked upon. This is the point at which pastoral care and liturgical considerations can collide.

My Mother-in-Law tells a family story relating to baptism: over fifty years ago in a more conservative age, an uncle and aunt of hers took their child for baptism in the parish church. Her uncle never returned to church from that day. Why? Because he heard the priest speak of his child being “conceived in sin”. What he understood in that phrase was something quite different with deeply shameful implications. I faced an equally unsatisfactory situation at the baptism of my God-daughter. Her mother, an old college friend of mine, is a single mother. During this Roman Catholic service the priest prayed for “this woman and her husband” and then, clearly unsure who was who in the baptismal party, assumed I was the father and referred to me as such throughout the remainder of the service. Fortunately this was a source of some amusement rather than of angst, but how pastorally inept.

Most churches see baptism, then, as a public declaration of membership and place it at the heart of parish worship. It can be a pastoral and liturgical issue for the pastor concerned to head off requests for a private family service where it is quite clear that the baptismal party has not understood the nature of baptism. It is hard to think of any circumstances where a Pastor should accede to such a request.

I was once on the edge of a dispute where a couple, both Anglican ordinands, were discussing with their priest the arrangements for the baptism of their firstborn. It soon became clear that they were not intending to have the service in the church where they habitually worshipped but were intent on using Leeds Parish Church with its choir, pomp and ceremony. This became a heated conversation when the couple were challenged by the priest on the theology behind their choice and what such a ceremony would implicitly be saying about them and their sense of status. There was a parting of the ways soon after.

The issue is quite different, of course, for those churches which are not charged with the legal responsibility to baptise. Such churches can expect and demand a higher degree of orthodoxy in belief and understanding on the part of those seeking baptism.
The Catholic and Orthodox worldview remains implacably sacramental ….. it is reserved, if not hostile towards attempts to reduce it into a series of conceptual propositions. It baptises a convert, not on the basis of the convert’s having been intrigued by some Christian doctrines, attracted by the Christian stance on some moral issue or pleased by the aesthetic of some ceremony. It baptises on the conviction that the convert either has begun by the Holy Spirit to live in Christ already, or shows a marked likelihood of coming to do so at some future point. (Aidan Kavaganah, p159)

We need to consider what the nature of the language and the liturgy we use in baptism is. Perhaps more to the point, given the lack of confidence that many people today experience in church and, for some at least, a limited educational achievement, what is the reducible minimum that a pastor or priest can use? “I baptise you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” is that reducible minimum. Given that, for the unchurched and a pastorally concerned priest, the baptismal service can be a wonderfully creative opportunity.
No convert ever believes in exactly the same way as any other. From this source the church is constantly in receipt of the varied richness that is the most vital aspect of a faith claiming to be universal. (Aidan Kavanagh p166)

This is a time when all the theology and symbolism can be explored; when alternative wording can be considered and alternative forms of expression created. What could have been at best a meaningless, at worst a threatening liturgy can become something meaningful, vibrant and challenging for all concerned.
These personalised liturgies often reveal a shift from seeing baptism as merely a salvation from something, to it being also salvation to something which can be very pastoral. My Mother-in-Law’s uncle might have appreciated that.

On the other hand we need to acknowledge that not every attempt to create a personalised baptism liturgy is going to be either successful or meet with universal approval. While conscious attempts are sometimes made to make new rituals,

… they are likely to strike those witnessing them to be forced or even false. Those present may fail to become performers or participants because they may not know what is expected of them, because the expectation of the inventors may not be in accord with the impulses of the potential performers (and here we may be considering the regular worshipping community as much if not more than the baptismal party) unless it is sanctioned by time and custom. (Italics mine) (Roy Rapport, p32)

In developing new liturgical forms, then, the question of balance between the existing orders and new innovations is very important because it is also a pastoral issue.

Kavanagh reminds us that baptism does not exist to generate doctrine but faithful Christians and seems to support the idea of innovation.
….. (The quality of ) liturgy is determined by the extent to which it is constantly renewing, reinforcing and reintegrating the faith community which uses it for survival’s sake. Renewal is the criterion for judging the quality and appropriateness of liturgical reform. (Aidan Kavanagh, p165)

We also need to recognise that the involvement and commitment of parents to the baptism of their children has a real significance. They and godparents/sponsors can be relegated to the status of mere passive observers but their role has developed in to one of great significance. However, this has resulted in two structures:
• On the one hand, many churches have placed both parental and individual promises prior to the act of Baptism, often calling this a baptismal covenant, showing the pattern of contract/grace. (Anglicans and Lutherans, for example)
• Others have insisted that any promises or response should come after the baptism, and thus have the pattern of Grace/response. (Methodists)
The theological subtlety of this is presumably lost on most people and might well be a step too far in any discussion with the unchurched. In addition some Baptists are now taking seriously the need to provide some liturgical rite for infants, even if it is not baptism.

The difficulty with all of this is that too many assumptions can be made: on the part of the baptismal party the assumption is often that they have to accept the service as it is written; on the part of the pastor concerned the assumption may be that the family understand the theology and symbolism and are happy with the service as presented to them. That key pastoral and liturgical discussion does not take place. One cannot help but wonder, too, to what extent many clergy are actually willing or sufficiently able to look creatively at the baptismal service. While we might speculate about the numbers of people who go away from a baptism disappointed that it was too “modern” and not at all what they are used to, In terms of a missed opportunity for witness one can not also help but speculate how many unchurched couples go away from their child’s baptism with a nagging sense of dissatisfaction: a sense, perhaps, of having bought something off the peg that didn’t quite suit rather than something tailor made to their needs. It comes back to the role of the pastor. James Woodward, writing in the Church Times, expresses the pastoral issues thus:
Our theology can be enriched if we open ourselves up to people, their work and values, their hopes and anxieties. We can do this only if we make a choice to listen: to attempt to connect beyond the safety zone of our inward-looking religious worlds. I am constantly amazed at people’s preparedness to open up the spiritual fabric of their life; to talk theology; to ask questions, if they are given time and attention on their own territory. Many of these encounters emerge from conducting occasional offices with care. The mother arranging a baptism is also a stressed accountant worried about her work and how this balances with the responsibilities of motherhood; she is a spiritual person wanting to know more about how prayer works. The grandparents at a baptism party are anxious about what kind of world their little ones will grow up in. After…………. gathering in the pub, a stranger is kind enough to ask: “Where has all that left your head, vicar? Do you fancy a pint?” (James Woodward, Church Times)

Alternatively, also writing in the Church Times, Ian Robbins comments thus:
I know from observation and from comments from the congregation that the continuing practice of what was once called indiscriminate baptism makes a mockery of all our talk of evangelistic outreach. Sunday by Sunday, the faith is being sold cheap, and the opportunity for patient and welcoming pastoral teaching before Baptism is being lost. ……….these popular Sunday jamborees are invitations to fresh perjury. (Ian Robbins, Church Times)
There are clearly many opinions amongst pastors, priests and ministers. Who in the end is to say which of the above have got it right?

I leave the final word to Anita Sauffer who argues that the most significant thinking on baptismal liturgy will probably not come from first world churches but from other cultures and ethnic groups.
The traditional “explanatory symbols” of baptism may need to be replaced by the means of dynamic equivalence or reinforced by the means of creative assimilation, so that the power of the water bath may be more clearly perceived in local context. Each local church will need to ask: what local symbols may express the gift of the spirit, the adoption of a new identity, baptismal dignity and vocation, death and resurrection, and the unity of the community, and do so without obscuring the central importance of the water and the word? (S Anita Stauffer, p18)

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Paul, Ian: Building Your Spiritual Life, Zondervan, 2003.

Spencer, Stephen: Christian Mission, SCM Press, 2007.

Eberling, Gerhard: Luther: an introduction to his thought, Collins 1970.

Cullmann, Oscar: Baptism in the New Testament, SCM Press, 1950.

White, James: Introduction to Christian Worship, Abingdon, 2000.

Davie, Grace: Religion in Britain since 1945, Blackwell, 1994.

Hanson, Bradley: A Graceful life, Augsburg, 2000.

Alland, Kurt: Did the Early Church Baptise Infants? Philadelphia, 1963.

Woodward, James: Don’t lose your pastoral heart, Church Times, Feb 2008.

Robbins Ian: Baptism should not involve perjury, Church Times, Feb 2008

Kavanagh, Aidan: The Shape of Baptism, The Rite of Christian Initiation, Pueblo, 1974.

Stauffer, S. Anita: Baptism rites of passage and culture, Lutheran Word Federation Studies, Geneva, 1998.

Rappaport, Roy: Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, Cambridge University Press, 1999