Monday, August 22, 2011

The Response of Faith (Baptismal Covenant, part 3)

(continued from here)

The Book of Common Prayer talks about Covenant as well. The story of Abram and the firepot puts our biblical understanding of covenant in the realm of God's unilateral grace. What understanding does the Prayer Book have?

The BCP makes a distinction between the Covenant God has made and the covenant we make with God and with one another

In response to the question, "What is meant by a covenant with God?" the Catechism responds, "A covenant is a relationship initiated by God, to which a body of people responds in faith" (BCP, 846).

There are two movements in this answer. The first is the relationship initiated by God. This aspect of covenant we have already seen in the story of Abram and the firepot. The second is our response in faith. The first is God's movement towards us. The second is our movement towards God. But, the Catechism does not say that the Covenant is both of these movements. No, "a covenant is a relationship initiated by God." We respond to the gracious, unilateral covenant in faith.

The Catechism distinguishes between the Old and New Covenants, but it maintains God's gracious, unilateral movement in each. Any talk of a Baptismal Covenant falls squarely under the rubric of the New Covenant, however.

Q. What is the New Covenant?
A. The New Covenant is the new relationship with God given by Jesus Christ, the Messiah, to the apostles; and through them, to all who believe in him (BCP, 850).

This gracious, unilateral movement of God towards us in Christ demands a response. The response that Christ requires is summarized in the Catechism by the Summary of the Law (You shall love the Lord your God… and You shall love your neighbor as yourself) and the New Commandment (Love one another as Christ loved us) (BCP, 851).

The New Covenant is God's gracious movement towards us (and our human response towards God) in Christ. Our response in faith  is lived out in the Summary of the Law and the New Commandment. The Baptismal Covenant found in the Book of Common Prayer is nothing more than an exegesis of these two responses to the New Covenant of grace. In other words, the Baptismal Covenant gives us nothing more than can be 'proved' from Holy Scripture. Even if the Episcopal Church did not express the Baptismal Covenant in the way they do, the same ordinances are incumbent upon all Christians. Formalizing a minimum standard of discipleship in this way adds nothing to what Christ our Lord himself demanded of his followers. If anything, it helps us along the way.

The Baptismal Covenant consists of eight questions and answers. The first three comprise the Apostles' Creed. They are "Do you believe?" questions. The remaining five are about the Christian life. They are "Will you do?" questions.

Questions 1-2 outline Christianity's 'portable narrative.' This is the story that Christ followers believe about the past so that they can follow Christ in the present. Following Christ in the present is the theme of the remaining questions, each of which characterizes the baptized life by a different but interrelated aspect. The baptized life is the life of the Spirit (q. 3-4), the life of Proclamation (q. 5-6), and the life of Service (q. 7-8). In abstraction, we might say that the baptized life is the life of Spirit-empowered Witness.

In the next installment, we will discuss articles 1-2.

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