Baptism in the Spirit: The teaching of the Church

It would be tempting (at least for this ex-Protestant) to jump into an investigation of the term “Baptism in the Spirit” with a biblical use of the word “baptism” in connection with “the Spirit”. But, on the advice of the Church itself, ie. that when reading Scripture we should “be attentive to the analogy of faith [cf. Rom 12:6]”, ie. “the coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation” (Cat p.114), I thought it best if we actually investigated the Church’s teaching on this before looking at Scripture to see whether the Scriptural witness and the Church’s teaching are congruent. I know that would sound back to front to a Protestant, but it is a method that has its uses.

Since Fr John Hampsch’s defence of the Charismatic use of the term “Baptism in the Spirit” is intensely focused on the biblical witness, I also thought I it best to begin with “Baptism in the Holy Spirit” by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa. I am being a bit audacious here by taking on the Pope’s own household preacher, personally selected by the Great John Paul himself, so I want it to be known from the outset that I greatly admire Fr Cantalamessa and am very inspired by his preaching. Nevertheless, every Christian has a right to examine the preaching of their priests and to question them on their teachings (bishops and popes are something of a different matter).

From the many descriptions I have heard of the experience called “Baptism in the Spirit” and from the effects I have observed in the lives of those who have had this experience, I can only conclude that it is an intense experience of faith.

The nature of faith, and its relation to our salvation, was, of course, of intense interest to Martin Luther. Luther did not abandon the idea of sacramental grace, but he stressed, in opposition to the “ex opere operato” doctrine of the Church, cf. Cat p.1128, that this grace had to be received in faith for the sacraments to be effective. The Church insisted, along with St Thomas Aquinas that “the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God” [St. Thomas Aquinas, STh III, 68, 8]. Thus, the Catechism says, “from the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister.” The Catechism adds the note, however that “the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them.”

There is, if I may say so, a basic error in Fr Raniero’s approach to the doctrine of baptism and faith. Here is how he describes it:

The opus operatum of baptism, namely, God’s part or grace, has several aspects — forgiveness of sins, the gift of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity (these, however, only as a seed), and divine sonship — all of which are operated through the effective action of the Holy Spirit.

This is God’s work, he says. It is the effective action of the Holy Spirit. One of the theological virtues that are gifted from the Holy Spirit is faith–albeit in the form of a seed that, like love and hope, needs to be nurtured–by more grace!–to maturity. However, he goes on:

But what does the opus operantis in baptism–namely, man’s part, consist of? It consists of faith! Whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved (Mark 16:16). At the side of baptism, therefore, there is another element: the faith of man.

There is some confusion here, isn’t there? The Catechism, on a number of occasions (eg. pp.1122,1123), quotes Vatican II which called the sacraments “sacraments of faith”. Accordingly there is a twofold respect in which the Sacraments are related to faith: “They not only presuppose faith, but by words and objects they also nourish, strengthen, and express faith.” That is, the sacraments are both received in faith and, in a mysterious way, grow faith in the heart of the recipient.

As noted, the Catechism acknowledges that the fruits of the sacrament depend upon “the disposition of the recipient”. It is interesting that they do not use the term “faith of the recipients” here, leaving open the mysterious relationship between sacramental grace and faith.

Fr Cantalamessa himself acknowledges that the theological virtue of faith is given in the sacrament of baptism–even if only as a “seed”. The faith which receives the gift of baptism is itself the gift of the Baptiser!

So in what sense can we call faith the “opus operantis”? Only in the sense that its locus is in the heart of the one who has received the sacrament, and that it is the individual human being who truly does the believing (he is not a passive recipient, or a “block of wood”).

But to call this faith “man’s part”, as if it is our human contribution to the saving work of baptism, is slightly worrying–indeed, it has something of the smell of Pelagius. Indeed, St Augustine said “The one who crated you without your cooperation, will not save without your cooperation”, but cooperation is just that–not God’s work side by side with my work, as if they were two separate things, but my response mysteriously being a part of God’s own grace and work.

Therefore I cannot hold up “my faith” and say: See what I have done in response to God’s grace. Even my faith is the work of God’s grace. That’s what’s meant by the “co-” part of “-operation”. This is precisely the point of the text that Fr Cantalamessa quotes: “To all who received Him He gave the power to become children of God: to those who believe in His name” (John 1:13).

So baptism is much more than “the divine seal put on the faith of man”, as Fr Cantalamessa calls it. It is, as the Catechism calls it (p.1213),

1213 the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit (vitae spiritualis ianua) [Council Of Florence], and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: “Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word” [Roman Catechism].

Catholic Charismatic Renewal has attempted to marry two theologies that are essentially conflicting: the radically protestant theologies of Pentecostalism (which reject the teaching of regeneration through the sacrament of baptism) and the Catholic doctrines of sacramental grace.

The Pentecostal rejection of regeneration through “water baptism” is based on observation: they see people who have been “water baptised” and who are not living lives of faith. On the contrary, they see people who have been “Spirit baptised” who are living dynamically faithful lives. Their conclusion is that it is “Spirit baptism” that effects the regeneration of the soul, not “water baptism”.

CCR theologians have fallen into the trap of accepting these externally “observations” rather than living by faith in what they do not see, namely the regeneration of every individual who receives the grace of baptism “ex opere operato“.

So what exactly is the relationship, according to the teaching of the Church, between baptism–and confirmation for that matter–and the Holy Spirit? More on that in the next blog on this topic.

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