Leithart, Peter J.
The Baptized Body
Moscow, ID: Canon, 2007. Pp. x + 136. Paper. $15.00.
Ever the provocateur, Peter J. Leithart has produced an incredibly well written, if unevenly argued, volume on baptismal efficacy that is sure to get the knickers of many Reformed folks in a twist. The Baptized Body is a slim volume that at first glance would deceive the reader into thinking it’s about one facet of sacramental theology, but upon further investigation proves to be a systematic theology in miniature.
Leithart, Presbyterian by confession, runs the gambit of the loci communes from epistemology, to anthropology, to theology proper, ecclesiology, soteriology, and eschatology in his examination of baptism. He maintains his case for baptismal efficacy with three axioms:
- “Baptism” is baptism (i.e., the NT writers use the word usually to refer to the rite of water baptism).
- “The body of Christ” is the body of Christ (i.e., the NT writers are referring to the visible/historical church as the body of Christ).
- Apostasy happens (i.e., it is entirely possible to have received baptism, become a member of the body of Christ, and finally fall away).
His views on these matters strike at the heart of Reformed theology and sacramentology. Leithart isn’t content to say that baptism (or sacraments more generally) is a sign, a symbol, or even a means of grace; but rather it’s a status-changing ritual. Just as the wedding ceremony makes a man a husband and a woman a wife, or a presidential inauguration turns a candidate into a president, so baptism makes the baptized a member of the body of Christ.
The body of Christ, Leithart contends, is not the “invisible” Church as Reformed theology generally has it. In fact, he prefers to jettison descriptions of the “visible church” comprised of those who profess faith and the “invisible church,” which is comprised of the elect, and rather talk about the historical and eschatological church. The Reformed tradition takes the invisible church of the elect to be the body of Christ while reserving other, less intimate and personal terms for the visible church. Leithart contends that the historical church is just as much the body of Christ as the eschatological church; one is simply in the transformative process while the other has come to maturity and glorification. Same body at different stages of development, if you will.
And yet this process of maturation is exactly where Leithart argues that apostasy happens. Yet it is here where his indebtedness to Reformed theology presents the most significant problems for his argument. On the one hand he wants to affirm that God preordains to election and reprobation. Well and good. But on the other hand he wants to suggest that the reprobate were, for a time, elect. This seems an irreconcilable contradiction according to the canons of Reformed soteriology/theology, and yet many Arminians would want to argue precisely that. Unfortunately, Leithart doesn’t seem to resolve the tension with his appeal to time and relation (pp. 97-100).
His touching parable, “A Tale of Three Servants,” while used to illustrate his three axioms, doesn’t seem to make any more sense of this last one than the chapter in which it is argued in detail. The book is rounded out with an appenidx on “The Sociology of Infant Baptism,” in which James B. Jordan makes his case for paedobaptism by challenging the presuppositions of credobaptism, which he believes are marred by a desire for autonomy. One thing becomes clear in reading Jordan’s essay: Leithart is the better of the two writers. Leithart is a wordsmith of the first class and whether or not one agrees with what he argues, they should recognize a certain aesthetic beauty in the way he argues it.
I for one found myself largely convinced by the first two thirds of the book, but confused by the third, which seems to lead in all sorts of directions that a Reformed theologian wouldn’t want to travel. With that said, Leithart’s short case for infant baptism in the first chapter was brilliant, much more so, I felt, than Jordan’s extended treatment, which undoubtedly influenced Leithart’s own views. Whatever the case, this is a book worth reading, and I haven’t the slightest reservation about recommending it to one and all.