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Luther’s Doctrine of Baptism, a critique, part 1

Review: In our last post we looked at Luther’s doctrine of Baptism as systematically presented in his Large Catechism.  We noted that for Luther, baptism is “water comprehended in God’s Word.”  By “God’s Word,” Luther has two very specific aspects of God’s Word in mind: 1) God’s commandment to perform baptism in the great commission, and 2) God’s promise to save those who are baptized.  Thus, for Luther, baptism is comprehensive in that it comprehends all of salvation—nothing less than God himself, along with all his gifts.  Baptism mediates all spiritual blessings.  Therefore, without it, no one can be a Christian.  Baptism does not merely symbolize salvation, it effects that which it symbolizes.  Luther counters the accusation that his gospel is works based by arguing that baptism is God’s work, not a mere human work.  He also accuses those who trust in faith alone apart from baptism as sufficient for salvation to be therefore trusting in something other than God’s work–human works.  Thus, for Luther, to trust in faith alone as sufficient for salvation (apart from the sacramental mediation of grace through baptism) is to trust in a false gospel of human works.  If you find this shocking in light of Luther’s famed reputation in Reformed circles as the one who defended sola fide, welcome to the enlightening world of theological research. 

We will now proceed to critique Luther’s view of baptism.  The critique must be broken down into three sections.  First I will show that Luther’s hermeneutic is unproven and therefore vulnerable.  Second, I will attempt to argue that Luther’s limiting of saving grace to the mediation of baptism is guilty of presumption.  Third, I will show that Luther engages in some logical fallacies when arguing for the rightness of infant baptism.   

A Critique of Luther’s Paradigm and Argumentation

Some of Luther’s arguments are valid.  For example, if Luther’s argument against those who say baptism is “of no use,” is interpreted to be directed at “some left-wing radicals in the sixteenth century” who argued against practice of baptism altogether, his argument is simple but sound: “What God institutes and commands cannot be useless.”[1]  However, it is the burden of this series of posts to show weaknesses in his argumentation, both in his hermeneutics and his logic.  Therefore, we will only be focusing on those arguments which fit this purpose.   

Luther’s Basic Paradigm as Foundationally Flawed by a Wooden Hermeneutic

Luther’s paradigm of baptism as water comprehended in God’s Word (i.e. God’s promise of salvation) is based on the hermeneutical assumption that the promise in Mark 16:16 is to be taken at face value to teach that baptism is the instrumental cause of salvation.  Luther’s argument for baptismal regeneration, therefore, is very similar to his argument for the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, where Luther also applies a wooden hermeneutic to Jesus’ words of institution at the Last Supper, “This is my body” (Mt 26:26).  While this kind of interpretation often worked in Luther’s favor, in the case of his view of baptism (and I would argue, the Lord’s Supper) this hermeneutic led him into grave error.  Nowhere is this assumption more clear than in the following quote:

In the second place, since we now know what Baptism is and how it is to be regarded, we must also learn for what purpose it was instituted, that is, what benefits, gifts, and effects it brings.  Nor can we understand this better than from the words of Christ quoted above, “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved.”  To put it most simply, the power, effect benefit, fruit, and purpose of Baptism is to save.  No one is baptized in order to become a prince, but as the words say, to “be saved.”[2] [emphasis mine]

It could be argued that Mark 16:16 demands a different interpretation on the basis of the sound hermeneutical principle to interpret the implicit in the light of the explicit.  This principle, along with the fact that as the narrative continues in Acts, the Holy Spirit is given completely apart from any water baptism, is enough to cast reasonable doubt on Luther’s prima facie interpretation of Mark 16:16.[3]  Furthermore, how is this passage in the gospel narrative of Mark to be squared with other gospel narratives and more didactic genre’s which seem to lay out the simple way of salvation without reference to baptism?[4]  Moreover, such a simplistic interpretation of Mark 16:16 seems to violently set itself against Paul’s mentality to the Corinthians: “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one would say you were baptized in my name. … For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel…” (1 Cor 1:17).  Any view of baptismal regeneration will have to see Paul’s comments here as a false dichotomy which, at best, confuses his readers about the relation of baptism to the gospel and to salvation. 

My point here is not necessarily to argue for a specific alternative interpretation of Mark 16:16 so much as it is to show that Luther never deals with the difficulties of his literal interpretation, nor does he argue for this interpretation.  Rather, he simply assumes this interpretation based on an overly simplified hermeneutic.  Most of his paradigm and argumentation from this point on, unfortunately, is based on this unchecked interpretation of Mark 16:16.  This places the rest of Luther’s teaching in The Large Catechism on a vulnerable foundation.      

While Luther’s assumption of a particular interpretation of Mark 16:16 can be seen as a lack of hermeneutical discernment, it can also be considered as a logical fallacy.  After this point in the catechism, Luther everywhere assumes his particular interpretation of this passage to argue against any view which does not see baptism as salvific.  In doing so, Luther commits the fallacy of question begging,[5] assuming what he has set out to prove.

Our know-it-alls, the new spirits, assert that faith alone saves and that works and external things contribute nothing to this end. … But these leaders of the blind are unwilling to see that faith must have something to believe—something to which it may cling and upon which it may stand [the promise of salvation in baptism].  Thus faith clings to the water and believes it to be Baptism in which there is sheer salvation and life, not through the water, as we have sufficiently stated, but through its incorporation with God’s Word and ordinance and the joining of his name to it. … Now these people are so foolish as to separate faith from the object to which faith is attached and bound on the ground that the object is something external. … We have here the words, ‘He who believes and is baptized will be saved.’  To what do they refer but to Baptism, that is, the water comprehended in God’s ordinance?[6] 

Here Luther accuses those who say that faith saves apart from water baptism as being guilty of separating faith from its object of belief.  How does this argument work in Luther’s mind?  If baptism is water comprehended in God’s Word, and this means that it is water comprehended in God’s promise of salvation, then faith in God’s Word includes believing God’s promise of salvation through baptism.  Thus, for Luther, a faith which does not include faith in God’s promise of salvation in baptism is not saving faith.  Faith must include faith in God’s Word (i.e. God’s promise that “whoever believes and is baptized will be saved”). 

Basically, Luther’s logic could be summarized like this: Since God promises to save through baptism, anyone who separates saving faith from belief in this promise has stripped faith of its content.  As should be obvious, this entire argument is begging the million dollar question, for Luther’s opponents obviously do not agree with his assumption that God has promised salvation through baptism.  Luther’s argument begins by assuming what he has set out to prove—that baptism is water comprehended in God’s Word (i.e. God’s promise of salvation in baptism).  If God has not promised salvation through baptism, then to deny baptism of salvific power would not involve separating the water from God’s Word.  In fact, as many would want to argue (myself included), to add such a meaning to baptism is to distort the totality of biblical teaching about salvation and thus shroud God’s Word of promise.

Luther’s ill conceived paradigm of baptism as “water comprehended in God’s Word” accounts for all the radical things he teaches about baptism in the catechism.  When Luther says God’s commandment and promise are “added to” the water, he means the same thing as when he says baptism is water “comprehended” in God’s Word.  Likewise, when Luther says that God’s Word is “attached” to the sacrament, he has both the command to baptize and the promise of salvation in mind: “For the nucleus in the water is God’s Word or commandment and God’s name.”[7]  It is also on the basis of God’s Word being “attached” to the sacrament that Luther makes his claim that baptismal water is not just water, but divine water.

It is nothing else than a divine water, not that the water in itself is nobler than other water but that God’s Word and commandment are added to it….This shows that it is not simple, ordinary water, for ordinary water could not have such an effect.[8] 

Hence it is well described as a divine, blessed, fruitful, and gracious water, for through the Word Baptism receives the power to became the “washing of regeneration,” as St. Paul calls it in Titus 3:5.[9] 

It is on the basis of God’s command and promise that water becomes a divine sacrament. 

From the Word it derives its nature as a sacrament.… This means that when the Word is added to the element or the natural substance, it becomes a sacrament, that is, a holy, divine thing and sign.[10]   

When Luther says that baptism “contains and conveys all the fullness of God,”[11] he is best understood as meaning that through it we receive God’s work of salvation which includes nothing less than God himself—the Holy Spirit.  This Spirit gives inner renewal (regeneration), the granting of faith in Christ, and the granting of repentance, which Luther speaks of in terms of being delivered from the bondage of sin.  This gift is nothing less than eternal life in the kingdom of God.  Given this paradigm, it is difficult to think of anything which is not comprehended in some way by Luther’s doctrine of baptism. 

To put it most simply, the power, effect, benefit, fruit, and purpose of Baptism is to save.… To be saved, we know, is nothing else than to be delivered from sin, death, and the devil and to enter into the kingdom of Christ and live with him forever.[12] 

He always has enough to do to believe firmly what Baptism promises and brings—victory over death and the devil, forgiveness of sin, God’s grace, the entire Christ, and the Holy Sprit with his gifts.  [It is] priceless medicine which swallows up death and saves the lives of all men.[13]

Any and all spiritual blessings whatsoever which are able to be experienced in this life are received immediately through water baptism, which blessings secure those eternal blessings which are still to come.  To be baptized, then, is to do nothing less than receive God and inherit the world with Christ.  In fact, “even the traditional description of baptism as a ‘means of grace’ is a less than felicitous phrase because it suggests the presence of something other than God himself.”[14]  It is no wonder that when Luther was in the midst of spiritual assaults (whatever those were about), instead of claiming the alien righteousness of Christ for himself, he “relied on baptism.”[15]   This is not the poster boy Luther of Reformed Orthodoxy’s rhetorical propaganda, but it is the real Luther.

In our next post, we will see that in addition to Luther’s vulnerable hermeneutic, his sacramental limitation of grace is guilty of presumption.



[1] Luther, Book of Concord, 437.

[2] Ibid., 439.

[3] See esp. Acts 8:14-17, Acts 10:44-48.

[4] See esp. Acts 10:43, Romans 1:16-17, 3:22, 10:9-13, Eph 2:8-9. 

[5] Or by Carson’s categories, we might call it the fallacy of mere emotional appeal.  D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, second ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books House Co., 1996), 106-07.  Luther’s appeal (“these leaders of the blind are unwilling to see that…”) is similar to the example Carson gives of Prof. Smith.  “Sometimes a mild case of emotional abuse occurs when one writer responds to another with some such phrasing as this: ‘Astonishingly, Prof. Smith fails to take into account the fact that. . . .'” 

[6] Luther, The Book of Concord, 440.  Luther has intentionally prepared his readers to be ready for this argument by  emphasizing the necessity of not separating the water from the Word.  “I therefore admonish you again that these two, the Word and the water, must by no means be separated from each other.” Luther, The Book of Concord, 439.     

[7] Ibid., 438. 

[8] Ibid., 438-39.

[9] Ibid., 440.

[10] Ibid., 438. 

[11] Ibid., 438. 

[12] Ibid., 439. 

[13] Ibid., 442. 

[14] Tranvik, “Luther on Baptism,” 31.

[15] Ibid., 24. 


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