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If on one hand you tried to count up the number of times you have heard jokes about the Doctrine of the Trinity in mainstream media, my guess is you would have a lot of fingers left over. Like maybe five. Yet it happened last week. Stephen Colbert made a Trinity-related comment/joke on The Late Show. If you have not already guessed how and why, then it is of course related to the recent story that a Catholic priest in Arizona has apparently invalidated thousands of baptisms retrospectively on account of his saying “We baptize you . . .” instead of “I baptize you . . .” each time he baptized a baby or adult.
Colbert’s joke was that since pastors represent a God in three Persons, might it not be oddly appropriate to say “We” as a personal pronoun? If God made a restaurant reservation for three, might he not even so have to tell the person taking the rez “We will just be the one of us”?
Last week in the Capstone integrative seminar I teach for MDiv seniors at Calvin Seminary and as part of their prep for next month’s Oral Comprehensive Exam, I turned this story into a practice Oral Comp question that I later posted on Facebook. A friend shared a long-ish Facebook post with me from a Roman Catholic woman who pleaded with people to stop making fun of the Catholic faith over this matter. To be clear: I have no intention of making fun of this and neither was my practice Oral Comp question cheeky or intended to criticize. My students took it very seriously too. Because listen: Words Matter. I also thoroughly believe that sacramental words really, really matter.
I will point out an inconsistency, however. Across all the years of the dreadful and tawdry sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church while bishops and archbishops knowingly moved around pedophile priests—and while at least a couple of popes blithely looked on—no one ever wondered whether the sacraments performed by these serial offenders were invalidated. So I will admit that part of me gets a little indignant to see the Vatican generating a lot of moral wattage over a baptismal pronoun after decades of not generating enough voltage to illuminate a 25-watt bulb on a matter of gross spiritual/physical/emotional abuse and intense institutional failure.
Of course on this point St. Augustine of Hippo long ago proposed a way forward theologically. In the late-fourth and early-fifth century Donatist controversy, questions were raised whether the sacraments offered by a priest later found to be corrupt or immoral still counted. Augustine essentially said that since God by the Holy Spirit is the primary actor in the sacraments—and not the priest/pastor—then the relative holiness of the officiant was secondary to the gracious action of God. So I guess that would cover the pedophile priest matter but so far as I can recall, no one in the Vatican ever even raised the question.
OK, I got that out of the way. Now back to why words matter. In the practice groups in Capstone last week, the students were not so sure whether the pronoun alone could invalidate a baptism. Some pointed out that in the Reformed tradition, baptism is very much a communal sacrament. God makes promises, the parents make promises, the whole congregation makes promises. “We” are all definitely involved. And though I would still deem it odd for a pastor to say “We baptize” instead of “I baptize,” a more communal understanding might help on this point. (This is why we don’t typically—except in extremis—baptize in private.)
One thing the students hit on quite quickly, however, is that baptism into the Triune name in obedience to the dominical command in Matthew 28 is vital. Baptisms are properly done “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” and if that Trinitarian formula is missing or is altered, that could be cause to ponder the validity of a baptism.
A colleague of mine has for years been involved in a Reformed-Catholic dialogue that has involved some of the higher echelons of both communions. Some while back the two groups agreed to recognize one another’s baptisms with the all-important proviso that the baptisms happened ever and only as Jesus said in the Great Commission: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Thus some while later when my friend heard a couple pastors riffing a bit by baptizing babies “In the Name of the Creator who made you, the Savior who rescued you, and the Spirit who befriends you” (or something like that), he went after the issue full throttle. And rightly so. Words matter.
In my experience of having baptized lots of babies, there were plenty of parents who presented their child with due earnestness and a reasonable understanding of the sacrament. But there were others who still had a magical view—the water automatically keeps the child from hell and so it’s best we get it done. And there were a few others who treated the baptism with all the gravity of a six-month portrait being snapped at Walmart.
There was even the one couple who sought to maintain familial peace in their Reformed/Catholic combined family by having a priest baptize the child on the 20th at St. Robert’s and then I would baptize the child on the 27th at Calvin CRC. The priest and I both refused and told them to pick one and only one of us. We were not the ecclesiastical equivalent of the Good Humor man selling ice cream bars.
If the current story about the “We vs. I” baptism does no more than remind us that words matter when it comes to the central practices of the Christian faith, that will be a good thing. Maybe it can remind us that despite all the chummy and user-friendly and latte-sipping ways we have tried to make worship casual in recent times, what Christians do on Sundays really is finally of eternal moment.