Saturday, April 16, 2005

Leithart on Salvation from the Outside-In 

Having just posted an extended passage from James Jordan, in which he challenges the primacy of the ‘bottom-up’ understanding of social change assumed by most evangelicals, I thought that it would be interesting to follow it up with some extended quotes from Peter Leithart, who challenges the ‘inside-out’ understanding of disciple-making. These quotes are taken from Leithart’s essay, “The Sociology of Infant Baptism”, from Christendom Essays, which is available from Biblical Horizons (really, get it!). …[B]aptism is an external application of water, a striking fact that receives too little attention in theological literature on baptism. Much of the water symbolism in the Bible has to do with drinking: people thirst for God, God is the water that everlastingly satisfies all thirst, water in the wilderness is for the thirsty. These water themes do have some links with baptism, but it still seems strange that baptism is applied to the outer body. Is it not the inner man that needs cleansing? And, is not the cleansing of the inner man precisely what the New Testament promises? Why not, then, a drinking rite, with the water of cleansing applied where it is needed? An external application of water fits better, it seems, in the Old Testament system, with its cleansing rites that removed “external” ceremonial defilement. [In a footnote: The form of baptism thus challenges the belief that inner piety is the sole or primary location of religion; for the Bible “true religion” involves bringing the whole of life into conformity to the covenant. And, the church’s continued use of a washing rite challenges the implicit Marcionism of much traditional and modern sacramental theology, for the sense that an external washing is out of place in the New Testament is a lingering trace of the notion that Old and New Covenants relate according to this ratio: Old:New::Material:Spiritual.] Rather than change the rite that Jesus instituted, of course, we should take the oddness (to us) of its form as a starting point for reflection. If baptism is one of the means by which we are made disciples (Matthew 28:19-20), and if baptism marks us on the outside of the body, then it follows that we are made disciples from outside-in. Without wishing to claim that an “inside-out” pattern is unbiblical, in several senses the “outside-in” is the more basic movement….
…[T]he means the Spirit uses to bring us to fellowship with Christ come from the outside. The gospel comes as an external word (verbum ex auditu). [This is one reason why the common terminology of ‘internal call’ can be so unhelpful.—AR] Whether we hear God speaking directly to us, or read the Scriptures, or listen to a sermon, the Word is communicated by another and confronts us from outside…. In its “outside-in” pattern, Christian discipleship follows the tracks laid down by creation. We can see this if we consider the place of moral prohibitions and sanctions in culture generally. Every culture, as Philip Rieff puts it, teaches its own rules of life, its own dos and don’ts, its “thou shalt nots,” and every culture has a particular way of enforcing those “thou shalt nots.” Cultural life involves, among other things, setting boundaries to human behaviour and enforcing those boundaries. The boundaries taught and enforced by a culture do not, however, stay on the “outside” but become coordinates of one’s map of reality and impress themselves on one’s experience. As Proverbs say, the rod and rebuke purge foolishness from the heart of a child (22:15; 23:13-14). Even when one resists external constraints, they have their internal effect; as Paul says, he would not have said “I will” in his heart if he had not first heard “thou shalt not” (Romans 7:7-11). A milder example: How many adults raised in teetotaling households still feel a twinge of guilt when they sip their white wine? In cultural life generally, external discipline and teaching form intellectual, moral, and practical habits, shaping personal character and identity. Infant baptism suggests that Christian nurture does not reject the “external” of cultural training in favor of purely internal transformation. Christ instead redeems the external.
…Personal identity and character are always and permanently shaped by the relations, loyalties, circumstances into which we are thrown. The coming of a new creation does not dissolve the web of unchosen circumstances into a shapeless mound to be moulded by autonomous choice and consent. What is good or evil is the way of life itself, not whether it is “freely” chosen. Contrary to existentialists, the human problem is not that we face unchosen givens; the tragedy of the human situation does not lie in our “thrownness.” Adam was thrown into a garden, wholly without his consent, and yet the Lord said that Adam’s situation was “very good.” The problem then is not the reality of unchosen constraints and givens but the nature of those givens; the tragedy of the human situation — which is not really tragedy in the classical sense — is that the trajectory of human life in Adam is a trajectory toward the grave. From the perspective of infant baptism, we can see that what the gospel announces is not absolute choice, but an alternative givenness, equally unchosen. Baptism does not liberate us from society, but from Adamic society with all its pathologies, and engrafts us into an alternative society that, like the old society, begins to impose its patterns on an infant as soon as he enters it. Life still begins with a trajectory, but this alternative givenness has been reordered and redeemed so that its trajectory is (however imperfectly) toward righteousness and life.
…[T]he “inculturation” of the infant into the Christian culture of the church takes place through symbols. Confusion concerning symbols and symbolism is so pervasive among Christians, especially evangelical Protestants, that a few comments on the role of symbolism need to be made. First, symbols do not merely express what we already know and desire but also shape knowledge and desire. The clearest example of this is language, a system of symbolic sounds and visual shapes that forms our thoughts and guides our basic perceptions of reality…. Even what we think of as most deeply our own, as our deepest personal feelings, desires and aspirations, are formed by the symbols of the communities in which we are nurtured. Children aspire to be film or sports stars, and these aspirations touch their identity to such an extent that they become defined by their aspirations. But where do these desires come from? Surely they are not generated from “inside.”… Identity, with its aspirations and desires, is shaped by those whom we choose to imitate, those who serve as “types” into whose image we wish to be molded…. ...I do not want to trivialize the question but from the perspective I have been outlining, we might say that the question, “Why baptize infants?” is similar to the question, “Why speak to infants?” Why talk to them when they cannot understand anything you say? The answer is of course that it is through speaking to them that they learn to understand and even to speak for themselves. Unless we deploy linguistic symbols in their direction, they will not develop the skills they need. Similarly, we do not baptize babies because they understand what is happening to them, but in order that they might come to that understanding. Through the water of baptism, God speaks to infants so that they might come to know and love Him. And through that symbol and others, they are trained to respond.
Pierre Bourdieu has argued that the status conferred in a rite [Leithart is writing about “rites of passages” that move a person from one status to another.—AR] must be constantly reaffirmed by the community for the “magic” of ritual to have its effect. William Jefferson Clinton is inaugurated President, and what makes this rite of passage real is that thereafter everyone treats Clinton differently. Everyone defers to him, calls him by his new name — “Mr. President,” cozies up to him seeking support for legislation or urging him to ignore human rites abuses in Indonesia or China. Each of these is a reaffirmation of his new status and each affirmation reminds Bill Clinton of his status and the obligations it places on him… We can see how this applies to baptism. James Jordan has repeatedly said that we should count and treat the baptized as Christians. That is correct, but it would be a mistake to understand this as something purely “external” and “outside” that has nothing to do with who we really are, as a game of “let’s pretend.” Counting and treating the baptized as Christians is one of the important ways in which their Christian identity becomes internalized and the Christian culture of the church becomes formative of their personal character….
I find all of this very helpful (everyone should read the whole article). Giving primacy to the ‘inside-out’ approach seems to be quite prevalent in evangelical churches. It can lead to all sorts of problems that a strong emphasis on the ‘outside-in’ paradigm and a robust view of sacramental efficacy can avoid, as Joel Garver has observed. It seems to me that giving primacy to the ‘inside-out’ approach can be related to some degree to giving primacy to ‘reality’ over ‘symbols’. Symbols are ‘external’ and denigrated for this reason; reality is ‘internal’ and to be prized over everything else. Accompanying this is a whole form of religion that downplays external ceremonies and exalts the inner realm of the individual’s heart as the great seat of religion. Leithart’s position stands opposed to this approach. James Jordan, in the following quote from Through New Eyes, takes a similar line:—
The power of symbols is the power of worldview presuppositions. It is the greatest power in the world. All of language is symbolic, of course, but symbolism is not limited to words. Symbolism “creates” reality, not vice versa. This is another way of saying that essence precedes existence. God determined how things should be, and then they were. God determined to make man as His special symbol, and then the reality came into being.
The essence of man is not something purely internal, but comes from outside; his essence is found in his symbolic relationship to God. Our personal identity is not something we possess within ourselves. Rather, we are who God says we are. Jordan goes on to argue that:
Grace gives us redeemed and restored men. The saved are re-symbolized as righteous and whole before God.
Being re-symbolized (in Baptism) in such a manner transforms our very being. We become essentially different people. From the point of a person’s Baptism onwards, we must ‘count and treat’ them as Christians, with all of the privileges and responsibilities that this entails. When God declares us to be righteous in Baptism we really are essentially righteous from that point onwards. Most Protestants seem to hold the idea that justification effects no essential change for the person justified. Even after justification, it is supposed, one is still ‘essentially’ a sinner. God’s declaration that a person is righteous, it is presumed, leaves their fundamental being totally untouched; it is merely an 'external' status. Leithart has commented on Berkhof’s formulation of the doctrine of justification in this regard (see also his post on Bruce McCormack’s doctrine of justification). The supposed dichotomy or sharp distinction between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ also needs to be rejected. In reality ‘internal’ and ‘external’ continually mingle in various ways. The internal/external dichotomy only really works once you have assumed that the impossibility of two items interpenetrating each other. There is nothing purely internal; nor is there anything purely external. Fergus Kerr’s book, Theology After Wittgenstein should serve to explode this myth. The quest for the purely internal (seen particularly in the quest for ‘mentalese’ — the private language) is the quest for autonomy — the quest for the self, unshackled by anything outside itself. The quest for the purely internal is a key expression of man’s rebellion against God. Kerr writes:—
The ‘foundations’ upon which I exist as a self-conscious and autonomous being are the innumerable practices that collectively establish the tradition which is my native element. There is nothing deeper — there need be nothing deeper — than the unending ‘game’ which is ‘the whole that consists of the language and the activities with which it is interwoven’ (PI 7).
Initiation into, and growth within, community is the only manner in which I can arrive at selfhood. Initiation into, and growth within, the Christian community serves as the manner by which one arrives at Christian selfhood. As Leithart has observed elsewhere: “Paradoxically, we become ourselves, and become aware that we are selves, only as we love, speak, and live with other selves.” There is no aspect of my internal life that was not forged on an external anvil. No aspect of my internal life is untouched or unshaped by the external. Religion is irreducibly social because there is no such thing as a private language. The ‘outside-in’ approach must always take priority over any ‘inside-out’ approach. In the light of all of this, the idea that Baptism and its continual reinforcement and reaffirmation only change me ‘externally’ seems fundamentally wrongheaded and nonsensical. Furthermore, the idea that Baptism is somehow only the ‘external’ aspect of our salvation and requires an ‘internal’ aspect to go with it is also false. God certainly demands that we ‘internalize’ our new identity, but all that is needed in order for us to do this comes to us from 'outside'.

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