This week we are highlighting five new volumes in the Studies in Historical and Systematic Theology (SHST) series recently published in July. Today we interview Jonathan Watson about his new book In the Name of Our Lord: Four Models of the Relationship Between Baptism, Catechesis, and Communion.
Lexham Press: What sparked your interest in comparing these theologies of baptism, catechesis, and communion?
Jonathan Watson: The answer to your question is equal parts biographical, theological, and pastoral. First, I’ve always been fascinated by the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Though I hail from a “low-church” tradition, I was raised in a church that took the ordinances regularly and seriously. Spiritually speaking, the ordinances have been a significant part of my spiritual growth and have always been a fond topic of discussion. Further, my parents, who reared me in a Southern Baptist church, converted to Eastern Orthodoxy roughly 20 years ago. The ongoing conversations I have had across the years and my exposure to their (new) tradition has given me a different perspective, generated interest, and prompted many questions on this topic. Theologically, the book grew largely out of my study of Luther’s sacramental theology (the fruit of this study is most evident in chapter 3). As I read Luther’s writings, though I differed from him at many points, I regularly found myself encouraged and challenged by his thinking. For example, his view of penance as a return to or recollection of baptism was theologically rich to me (e.g., when I repent, I’m returning to what was signified of me in baptism). More to the central topic of the book, Luther makes the striking claim that if someone wants to understand how adult baptism works they should look at infant baptism. As a credobaptist, when I read this, I realized that the liturgical logic of Luther’s view of adult baptism was more different from my own than I had previously realized. Further, as I continued my research I found authors like Aidan Kavanagh, a Roman Catholic theologian, who argued that adult baptism was normative for infant baptism (see chapter five). This also shocked my theological intuitions, highlighting a discontinuity in how infant baptism was being understood across denominations. These discoveries were counter-intuitive to me, and yet, as I continued thinking about the implications of these contrasting conceptions I began to wonder if there might not be something here worth exploring in greater detail. (This only intensified as I began looking at how catechesis/instruction was functioning in these different frameworks.) Pastorally, my experience within a Baptist church and its congregational polity had shown me that within my own tradition (at least) more thought needed to be given to the locus and expression of the fellowship/communion of the saints. Where is it found? How and when is it made visible? What are the implications of this for how persons are initiated into the fellowship? What does all of this mean for discipline within and even excommunication from the fellowship? These are all pressing pastoral concerns connected to this topic that not only drew me to it but have also sustained my interest. It is for this reason that my final chapter engages the pastoral and ecclesial implications of the discussion directly (see also Appendix 2).
LP: Did you encounter any surprising discoveries in your study?
Watson: I’ve alluded to some of them above. In retrospect, the most surprising discovery in writing this book was how studying other Christian theological traditions has affected me. Two basic paths seem to emerge when it comes to ecumenical or comparative theological studies. The first is a path of doctrinal downgrade. Here the road leads away from robust theological conviction toward a lowest-common-denominator kind of approach. In the name of unity doctrine is minimized in search of a fallback position that allows all parties to subsist within a local church or denomination without rancor. The goal of unity is godly, and we could all do with a bit less rancor in our lives. However, the minimization of conviction and the downgrading of all or most secondary matters to tertiary matters is problematic in my view. The second path of ecumenical and comparative theology is one marked by thoughtful engagement with fellow Christians from different traditions. The goal is not to downgrade our theologies or convictions in search of unity, but rather to listen to and be chastened by one another. While organizational unity isn’t the aim (secondary issues remain), charity and maturity are. Careful listening leads to charity, helping us think and speak truthfully about one another. This restrains us from the sin of misleading caricature and dismissal. Careful listening also leads to maturity because it allows us to learn and grow. As we listen to how others have read and theologized from the biblical text we are prompted to attend more faithfully to the biblical text and the inescapable task of theology (“What does this text mean?”). While irreconcilable differences may remain, insights into our own theological traditions are likely to be gained. My own experience is that studying the initiatory theologies of a variety of major Christian traditions has helped me be a better Baptist. I believe that readers from other traditions stand to benefit in a similar way. In writing this book, I sought to take the second path in a way that would prove helpful to readers from other Christian traditions as well as my own.
LP: What contribution do you hope to make with this book, and what do you hope readers take away from it?
Watson: I have personally found the topic challenging to my own faith and practice. For students and scholars of Christian initiation, I believe the framework of models presented in the book has explanatory power for the task of comparative theology. I hope the taxonomy of models developed in chapters one to four and summarized visually in Appendix 1 helps scholars in this regard. Pastorally, there are several contributions I want to make. First, I believe the book will cause readers to think about the interrelationship between baptism, catechesis, and communion and how this interrelationship is playing out in their own churches. As I note in the opening chapter, “Like celestial bodies, baptism, catechesis, and the Lord’s Supper exert gravitational force on one another. If you are interested in exploring the ways in which changing the order and sequence of these bodies and their orbits also changes the function of each in the process of entrance, then this book will offer aid” (6). Second, I hope the book will cause readers to think more carefully about the administration of the ordinances. The acts of administering baptism and the Lord’s Supper says something. The manner and sequence of their administration says something as well. I believe this book will occasion careful thought about what that “something” is. The exploratory analysis of chapter five and reflections of chapter six will help readers at this point. Finally, I want readers to see the way in which the celebration of the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper continue to shape the members of the congregation across the years. This is given special attention in the final chapter. Our liturgy shapes us. Thus, it is important to think about the shape of our liturgy. These are a few of my hopes for the book and its contribution.
In the Name of Our Lord
Christians divide on how one enters the church body. Matters are quickly complicated once other factors are considered, such as faith, instruction, baptism, first Communion, and formal membership. Who should be baptized? What role does instruction play? And what is the best sequence for these things?
Jonathan D. Watson’s In the Name of Our Lord provides an explanatory typology and incisive analysis for thinking through these interrelated questions. Watson’s four-model framework accounts for the major historical varieties of relationship between baptism and catechesis as rites of initiation into the church. With this framework in place, Watson then considers each model in relation to the others.
Joel R. Beeke, president of the Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary says that “in this well-researched and thought-provoking academic study, Jonathan Watson employs ‘liturgical logic’ to provide an insightful and scholarly analysis of how different church traditions relate baptism, catechism, and Communion to each other.”