Baptism and Rebaptism--a Controversy
by Vernard Eller

This letter was originally published by The Christian Century Foundation, Chicago, IL, in The Christian Century, on September 20, 1963. It is reproduced here with their kind permission.

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These two letters to The Christian Century are part of a continuing dialog that was sparked by the decision of President Lyndon Johnson's daughter Luci to join the Roman Catholic church. Luci had been baptized as in infant in the Episcopal Church, and Episcopal Bishop James A. Pike took great umgrage because Luci's priest had decided to rebaptize her. The resulting controversy raised questions as to the consistency of Bishop Pike's understanding of baptism, the ecumentical dialog between the two denominations, and the whole matter of baptism (and rebaptism) itself. These two letters present Eller‘s contribution to the debate. Ed.

  1. Another Catholic in the White House (10/18/65)
  2. The Meaning of Baptism (11/10/65)

Another Catholic in the White House
an Open Letter to Bishop Pike


I trust you will not take it amiss if I speak with some of the Christian candor whose time you have announced and whose practice you exemplify. There recently came to my attention a report of the passing comments made by you regarding the rebaptism of Miss Luci Johnson. For that matter, how could it not have come to my attention, this heard round the World, Times, News-Bulletin and any other newspaper you might care to name? Although turning down the volume, I tried to listen carefully; but there are still some points on which I am not entirely clear.

My understanding of the position taken by you and the Episcopal Church is this: The only possible grounds for rebaptizing Miss Johnson would be in declaring that her original, Episcopalian baptism had been without "sacramental efficacy," and the only possible grounds for denying that efficacy would be in showing that her baptism had not been conducted according to form (presumably, that it somehow had been defective as to the words used, the motions made or, possibly, the motivation of the baptizers). On the other hand, you made it quite dear that Miss Johnson's own judgment as to whether that first baptism had had sacramental efficacy in her life is completely beside the point; this is a matter to be decided by priests, bishops and canon lawyers--certainly not by the person in whom the sacrament supposedly had its effect. Miss Johnson's request for rebaptism was out of order, and her priest was out of order for so much as allowing it--even more so if he is the one who initiated and encouraged the idea. However, the case seems to have been as you assumed it, that Luci brought the request. And this makes my question all the more pointed.

Now if "sacramental efficacy" is solely a question of the outward form followed by the baptizers and in no sense a question of the inner experience of the baptizee, it follows that the economy of baptism is ex opere operato, i.e., effective by virtue of the very performance of the rite itself. So be it; in your ecumenical dialogue with Roman Catholicism, public anguish over Miss Johnson's rebaptism thus is seen as entirely pertinent--if not entirely proper. You are right and Fr. Montgomery was wrong--as has been freely admitted. However, the very terms of the controversy make it clear that you and the Episcopal Church share with Roman Catholicism a basic premise regarding baptism; namely, that if the rite is conducted according to "proper form" there can be no question as to its "sacramental effect." But if, then, you are the same Pike as the one who is co-author of the Blake-Pike Proposal on Church Union, you have now created for yourself a far greater rupture within the ecumenical dialogue of your more immediate concern: that with your fellow Protestants.

This matter of "sacramental efficacy" is one which will have to be threshed out before any sort of church union can be true union; and I don't think you will have much success in convincing Methodists, Presbyterians et al, that a baptizee has no right to an opinion as to whether or not the sacrament she received was effective, or that a bishop can decree that a given observance of a sacrament had no effect. If you want to call attention to road-blocks to ecumenicity, why don't we consider this one rather than raising a hue and cry over the slip of one poor Roman Catholic priest who became overawed at the opportunity of baptizing the President's daughter? Church union is not advanced by talking Catholic to the Catholics and Protestant to the Protestants; and when it comes to matters of merger, this "middle way" will be found to lie much too far to the right.

I also have another question. If you are the same Pike as the avant-garde theologian who forms the American half of the Candor-to-God Bishops for Religionless Christianity, how do you fit as sheerly "religious" a concept as ex opere operato sacramental efficacy into your program? What are the secular readers of Time and Newsweek (to say nothing of the quasi-religious readers of The Christian Century) to make of your quarrel with the Roman hierarchy? If it is true that modern man no longer can be religious, then you have made baptism incredible in the eyes of modern man. Why, it is evident that even the Episcopal-Catholic Miss Johnson doesn't begin to comprehend baptism in your terms. Her response to your criticism was: "I felt this was a personal matter and went about it in a personal way." But both your church and hers insist quite the opposite: In no sense is rebaptism a personal matter; it is solely an ecclesiastical-official matter to be gone about in an ecclesiastical-official way. My guess is that modern man finds Luci's theological stance much more relevant than yours.

If I read you alright (read, that is, the avant-garde Protestant theologian, not the intra-Catholic debater), because God is not a person "out there" who thus in his sovereign independence is free to reveal himself when he will, to whom he will, to the extent he will, through the means he will, he is instead to be thought of as present and revealed equally and without distinction in every event and aspect of our experience. Whether or not, then, any given item becomes a communication of God for us depends upon what we perceive of God in it, not upon a particularized and focused action of God within the item itself. You say, in A Time for Christian Candor:

In no one of these particular actions or revelations [i.e., those items of our historical existence that the Bible understands as God's revelatory acts]--not even in the Action and Revelation in Jesus Christ--did God change or decide or add to or subtract from His consistent character. At no point, from His side of reality, did He do or say anything new, as from our side of the veil one or many of us received or perceived, or were agents of, the new in given situations or in the Great Situation.

This idea should have some implications regarding sacramental efficacy; and you see that it does:

If God is truly and fully in and under all things at all times, He is not more present at the Holy Communion.

Very good; but does it not also follow that he is not less present in a baptism where the priest made a wrong move than in one where he made all the right ones? How can proper form be the sole criterion of sacramental efficacy? You continue:

But in this action of remembering Christ's death and resurrection we reenter this continuing grace (as acceptance and power) and allow God through it to manifest the new life in us which at all times He is ready for us to have in its fullness.

But this strikes me as saying that sacramental efficacy depends precisely upon what the communicant (or baptizee) allows, receives or perceives to happen within his life. And if so, then Miss Luci Johnson and only Miss Luci Johnson--and decidedly not Episcopal and Roman bishops poring over the records of an Austin, Texas, church--must say whether a new baptism would or would not have sacramental efficacy for her.

Of course, the bind comes in the fact that because she was baptized as an infant it is problematical in what sense Miss Johnson possibly at that time could have been "allowing" and "perceiving" God's manifestation of new life within her. Without a subject who is capable of appropriating God's undifferentiated presence, one is as much as forced to take recourse to an ex opere operato view of baptism. The baptizee cannot act; she is only a baby, not yet truly a person. God cannot act; that would require him to do something new, to add something, to become particularized. The religious ritual must do the doing in and of itself. What you or Bishop John A. T. Robinson or somebody ought to come up with is a nonreligious interpretation of infant baptism which still retains its New Testament connection with the experience of dying and rising with Christ ("Moment I" and "Moment II" in your nomenclature). This would be of much greater service to the ecumenical movement than complaining about Catholic slaps in the face.

It is too bad, though, that the Methodists did not have as vocal a champion as you are when, a few years ago, a certain denomination insisted on "supplementing" the ordination of a Methodist minister so that his administration of the sacraments could have sacramental efficacy. But who is there to look out for the Methodists when they get slapped in the face? Myself, I come from the Church of the Brethren, and we have been slapped, scorned and ignored by so many for so long that we don't have left enough pride even to feel it any more--let alone cry to heaven (i.e., in secular jargon, to Time, Life and Newsweek) for vindication. The only consolation we've got is Jn. 15:18.

The Meaning of Baptism
Further Reflections on Luci Johnsonís Rebaptism


In the Aug. 18 Century I took a pot shot at Bishop James A. Pike's position regarding the rebaptism of Luci Johnson. In your Sept. 29 issue [page 1194] four readers took pot shots at my position. This is fair game--except that perhaps I should have opportunity to state my own position on rebaptism. My criticisms of the bishop were premised not on my particular views (it would have been no great trick to show that Bishop Pike is not a member of the Church of the Brethren) but on what I took to be hisviews. Basically, I intended just three comparatively mild accusations:

  1. That he had been a little shrill and over dramatic in his public anguish. This, I suppose, is a matter of personal judgment, but methought he did protest too much. If all denominations howled as loudly on every like occasion of real or imagined slight, the raucousness of the household of God soon would drive off all its neighbors of the world.
  2. That his protest, which presupposed a baptismal theory common with that of Roman Catholicism, revealed that he and the Episcopal Church hold a very High-Church, sacerdotal, "religious" view of sacramental efficacy. I had no intention of challenging his or anyone else's right to such a view but merely hazarded that few if any of the other denominations in the Consultation on Church Union would be willing to go along. Indeed, what I still hope may be the one positive effect of my letter is that the consultation will take serious cognizance of this outstanding difference and not try to form a "united" church until they have achieved a true unity on such vital matters as sacramental efficacy.

    Questions of the sort raised by the readers who objected are the very ones that need to be talked through--in light of the New Testament teachings on baptism. For instance, if our Protestant understanding is correct that the saving grace proffered us through Jesus Christ must be appropriated by faith(sola fide, Luther said), is Johannes Ringstad right in suggesting that the natural, instinctive, unconscious response of a newborn infant qualifies under what the New Testament calls "faith"? If so, Jesus' terrible apprehension "When the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?" [Lk. 18:8] seems a little extreme, doesn't it?

    Or, again, is Paul Froman's an accurate presentation of New Testament teaching--or even of good Methodist doctrine (which we hope is the same thing)? "The baptizee participates as a recipient of the grace [What grace? The saving grace of dying and rising with Christ? And how received? Through the baptizee's faith or without it?] which has really been made available to him by the minister who represents the church." Is the Lord‘s hand shortened that it cannot redeem, that his sovereign grace now must pass into the control of a sinful minister who can (or can fail to) "really make it available"? And in what sense can the infant baptizee "reject the offer" (or accept it, for that matter)? These are precisely the questions that must be threshed out before church union can be spiritual reality instead of mere organizational facade.
  3. That his doctrine of God as presented in A Time for Christian Candor effectually eliminates any possible theology of infant baptism. To deny the "out there" aspects of God's nature is to prohibit his "acting" in any ordinary, literal, undemythologized sense, i.e., "acting" in the sense of initiating words, deeds, events or any personal activity which consciously is directed toward--and intended for another person--this, of course, presupposing his awareness of other persons as specific individuals. In order to act so, God has to be able to say and do things that are new, added, particularized, focused--which is precisely what Bishop Pike's words would seem to disallow. Paul Cosby may be right that I "fail to grasp the point of what Jim California and Jack Woolwich are trying to say," but the point that grasps me is that the logical implication of what they do say inevitably plays hob with Christian doctrine and practice all down the line.

It is in this regard that Johannes Ringstad did not do me the courtesy of a careful perusal. I am not the one who would incapacitate God; I am the sharer of Ringstad's alarm rather than its author; his letter is misaddressed. Likewise, with Paul Cosby the question is not whether I appreciate the baptismal theory in which the sacramental direction is from God to us but whether Bishop Pike even can allow for such.

Mr. Cosby opens by calling my letter the rudest personal diatribe he has ever read and closes by accusing me of heresy, a charge that I would never think of leveling at a Christian brother. I am sorry if my letter goaded him into trying his own hand at the genre. But it is in connection with this "heresy" that Mr. Cosby and William Boyd jump to the unwarranted conclusion that I advocate "one baptism after another," "at every denominational conversion," "by personal whim."

It is true that I and my denomination (the Church of the Brethren) come out of that tradition known as Anabaptist and that "anabaptism" means rebaptism" or "baptism repeated." It should be noted, however, that this label was never recognized by my forebears or me but was hung on us by Mr. Cosby and his forebears precisely so the charge of heresy with its attendant of fire and eternal damnation might be invoked. But the truth of the matter is that I and my tradition are as opposed to rebaptism as Bishop Pike and his denomination ever were. We know as well as does William Boyd that baptism is "but once to be administered to a person"--although we came to that knowledge by consulting the New Testament rather than the Westminster Confession.

Yet notice that Bishop Pike's protest against the Catholics assumes the possibility that not everything that passes for baptism actually qualifies as baptism. Thus if a person's original "baptism" is proved not actually to have been such then, strictly speaking, he is not "rebaptized" but is given true baptism for the first time. With this point the "churches" and the Anabaptists are in complete agreement; the difficulty comes only in how they answer the questions: "What constitutes a non-baptizing baptism; when is a baptism null and void?"

The churchly answer is, when the administration of the rite is defective as to form"; thus examination is directly tied to the credentials of the officiant and the correctness of the words spoken, the motions made, the actions performed--in short, to the outward details of the ritual itself. On the other hand the Anabaptist answer is, "When the baptizee has no desire for, or intention of undergoing the spiritual economy of dying and rising with Christ which is symbolized in the rite, or when he is constitutionally incapable of experiencing it." Thus baptism might be null and void if the baptizer had deceived the baptizee as to the nature and significance of the rite, if the baptizee deceived the baptizer as to his sincerity in undergoing the rite, or if the baptizee were unconscious or otherwise oblivious of what was happening. Here, in clear contrast to the churchly view, the explanation is directed toward the authenticity of the personal, I-Thou encounter between the baptizee and his God.

Since the Church of the Brethren does not go in for formal directives or canon laws on matters such as rebaptizing I have no official documents to quote, but I am certain that what follows is well its general understanding and practice. If a convert came to me my first responsibility would be to teach and discuss with him the nature of New Testament baptism as understood by the Brethren; namely, as an outward act of voluntary obedience in which the believer attests to and/or expresses a desire for the experience of dying and rising with Christ--which "dying" necessarily involves repentance for sin, which "rising" necessarily involves faith‘s personal acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. It should be noted that "voluntary obedience," "repentance of sin," and "personal faith" all point toward a baptizee who is of the age of accountability.

If then the convert wishes to belong to belong to a church which so understands baptism, ultimately he is the one who will have to decide whether he already has fulfilled the New Testament intention of whether a new performance of the rite is required if he is to do so. We believe in the priesthood of all believers. Thus as a minister of the church I have the right and responsibility to teach and counsel him and to communicate to him whatever guidance the church can offer; but because he has just as direct access to God as I have (and even more direct access as regards the quality of his own obedience and the nature of his own faith), it is certainly not my place nor that of any priest, bishop, pope or council whatsoever to decree who has or who has not been obedient to God, who has or who has experienced the efficacy of a sacrament.

We are ready to admit to our fellowship anyone who wants to stand with us in our understanding of baptism and who is convinced before God that he obediently has acted on that understanding. Whether his earlier baptism at the hands of Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, or Jehovah's Witnesses; whether he was sprinkled, poured upon, dipped one time or three or even "dry-cleaned" in the Quaker mode--in the final analysis all this is beside the point our view of the dynamic of baptism and can conscientiously affirm that in God's eyes he has acted and been acted on accordingly. I vehemently reject William Boyd's insinuation that we use baptism as an entrance only to the particular denomination in which it takes place.

Personally, I would strongly discourage from requesting "rebaptism" anyone who in sincerity had undergone a believerís baptism. I would not discourage those who were sincerely convinced that their infant baptism failed to signify the voluntary obedience, repentance of sin and personal confession of faith that the New Testament teaches. But as I would not deny "rebaptism" to those who felt led by God into a new (yet really first) act of baptismal obedience, neither would I demand it of those who felt that the will of God required of them no new act. Thus, if Luci Johnson was sincerely convinced that her original, Episcopalian baptism (or, "baptism at the hands of the Episcopal Church," if William Boyd insists on the more awkward but more correct wording) was in actuality no baptism, then although priests and bishops may have a responsibility to counsel her against this view they have no right to prohibit her from seeking and receiving what she feels is God's true baptism and no right to tell her what can be and what cannot be its sacramental effect on her.

Of course, I do not ask my brethren of the Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Methodist churches to become Anabaptists with me. I do hope they can come to understand that we are not heretics, that we do not believe in the repetition of baptism, that we too baptize into the church universal and are as quick as any to recognize the validity of baptisms other than our own, that we do not baptize promiscuously at personal whim but (as far as we are led) according to the teaching of the New Testament and under the guidance of God.

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Copyright (c) 1965, The Christian Century