baptism

That we are again able to see and so recover the sacrament of baptism and Christ’s body given in time as the central Pauline themes, we have J. Louis Martyn to thank, as noted by several contributors in Apocalyptic and The Future of Theology. This is not to say that Martyn’s apocalyptic reading of Paul is without criticism. Rather, Martyn’s thought, often in spite of his most insistent Protestant assumptions, helps to uncover the liturgical foundation of Pauline Apocalyptic.

David Belcher offers one of the more insightful critiques of Ernst Käsemann, Martyn and others. Among the giants of 20th century German biblical studies, the “cross” was deliberately put to polemical use in direct contradistinction to the resurrection. For Käsemann in particular, cross and resurrection must remain separate, lest an over-realized eschatology or bourgeoisie ‘comfort’ religion ensue. The problem with this separation, as Belcher argues, is that it becomes that which it despises – a transcendental ideal.

Because any positive, this-worldly account of the church’s life must be measured according to the cross, the apocalyptic, polemical theology of the cross actually submits concrete social reality to an abstraction above and outside that reality established in order to govern it… By cutting off the church’s life from Christ’s resurrection life, the polemic actually loses any true account of the mystery of the redemption of the world – which consists of the unity of Christ’s cross and resurrection, living and active in Christ’s body through the power of the Holy Spirit. Without a positive account of Christ’s resurrection for the life of the church, then, the polemic has no way of saying how the cross is concretely significant for Christian discipleship in this world” (280-281).

What Belcher effectively demonstrates throughout his essay is that the language Käsemann bequeathed to Martyn tells us more about the state of 20th century German biblical studies than it does about St. Paul.

Rather than the crux sola, Belcher convincingly shows that the liturgical and cultic rite of baptism figures preeminently in Paul, and which serves to safeguard the appropriate and this-worldly relation between cross and resurrection. Notably, Belcher steps outside the German realm of biblical studies into the French nouvelle inspired world of Liberation Theology to make the following argument:

Paul’s clear eschatological thrust is thus wed to his further conviction that we have been taken into Christ’s own body through the Spirit in baptism (1 Cor. 12:13), and the same Spirit continues to dwell within our embodied lives in this world here and now. Gustavo Gutierrez reaches the same conclusion, asserting that for Paul the “spiritual body” in 1 Corinthians 15:44 is not “something mysterious or impalpable that can exist only after death.” Rather, it is “an already present reality, provided that by the power of baptism we live even now the resurrection of the Lord and are journeying toward the fullness of a life we already possess in an inchoative way.” In the way, while still clinging to the expectant future of the liberation of the whole cosmos, Gutierrez can speak without hesitation of the church as the “extension of the incarnation.” Baptism unites us to the indivisible unity of Christ’s cross and resurrection because it unites us to Christ’s very person through the gift of the Holy Spirit” (288-289).

Belcher goes on to argue that in order for apocalyptic theology to recover its liberating intent, it will need to recover (and so refuse to sever) the liturgy, the life of Christ in us.

If apocalyptic is to fulfill its original purpose, that is, to direct us to Jesus Christ’s liberating apocalypse into this world, then it will also require the incorporation of the positive significance of the liturgical life of the church, and especially baptism, into its discourse. For it is in Christ’s body through the power of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that the fullness of the paschal mystery is living and active, even now. Any future apocalyptic theology should thus be able to say with F.D. Maurice’s paraphrase of Luther: “Believe on the warrant of your Baptism, You are grafted into Christ, claim your position. You have the Spirit, you are children of God; do not live as if you belonged to the devil” (292-293).

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