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More than a Feeling
On the Love of Learning and the Desire for Dunking
I was the freshest of freshmen.
Like almost everyone in that incoming class, I was living away from my home and family for the first time, and I was hungry for everything that Grove City College had promised us. Indeed, I'm sure that I wanted it more than most of my classmates. I had been an academically inclined high school student, the type who was tempted to capitalize the word “Learning” when it was used as a noun. I was a relatively new Christian, but already steeped in theology, and there at Grove City College I could study with noted thinkers of the evangelical and Calvinist worlds.
What’s more, Grove City was not an isolated Christian institution. It was part of a cultural movement. Two other evangelical Calvinist campuses sprawled nearby, Westminster College and Geneva College, and all the lands in between those campuses and ours—mostly small towns and farming communities—were dotted with pastoral and communal experiments that drew inspiration, energy, and even members from the colleges.
So, as I took my first steps away from home and into the wider world, I had a true freshman’s openness to new experiences and ideas. And the college and its orbit had plenty to occupy my mind and senses. Still, it wasn’t an easy transition for me. The college couldn’t fit all the first–year men in the freshmen dorms, so some were dispersed to live with the upperclassmen. I was among the dispersed.
The upperclassmen were kind and welcoming; but, I have to admit, I felt isolated. Some of this feeling, I’m sure, was just garden–variety homesickness. Some of it, too, was the sense of being the “odd man out” among a horde of old buddies—the guy to whom they had to explain all their inside jokes. But a big part of it was a mismatch of interests and ideals: here I was, eager for Learning and intellectual companionship—maybe even a disputation or two. And there they were, world–weary juniors and seniors, for whom college had long been demystified and its professors demythologized.
Gradually, though, I reached out across the gulf that separated me from my fellow freshmen. I got to know two guys, Doug and Ron, especially well, as they shared my interests and my longing for like–minded—but, even more, like–hearted—Christian fellowship. Those two were easily the most popular first–year men on campus. Getting to know them over the opening weeks of the semester, I heard a lot about the church they attended. In fact, Doug and Ron were so enthusiastic about it, they talked about little else; and all other subjects seemed to lead them back to the main theme of their conversation, which was their newfound church.
“Dunked for Real”
The place was more than ten miles away, between our campus and Westminster’s. Every Sunday its worship service was standing–room–only. The singing raised the roof; the preaching was electric. The congregation was a mix of local farmers and students and professors from the colleges. They had built up a network of social services, including adoption, foster care, and programs for troubled youth. Every service ended with a “laying on of hands,” at which people were apparently healed of ailments ranging from depression to cancer. Every month or so, after the service, many new members would be baptized by total immersion in the nearby creek.
These events were the favored topic of conversation on the way to and from classes, and they were the inevitable destination of our table talk in the dining hall. A few weeks into the semester, I finally agreed to join my newfound friends for their Sunday worship.
Our anticipation grew during the long ride out to church. And the service itself didn’t disappoint us. There was exuberant singing, powerful preaching, and the laying on of hands. I found myself wondering why my Presbyterian worship couldn’t be this way. My church generated excitement in special programs like Young Life, but we could accomplish it only by segregating teens from the staid older folks and the distraction of small children. Yet here was a true cross–section of local life, and it was alive and engaged.
On the drive back to campus, Doug and Ron began talking about how soon they might make their own trip to the creek for baptism. There was no question whether this would be the next step. The only question was when.
And it was only then—when they began speaking in terms of baptism—that my own mind stopped racing with excitement. Indeed, the racing vehicle screeched to halt. The conversation continued back on campus, where a number of students were talking about getting “dunked for real.”
We had all been baptized as infants, but now my friends were repudiating the very idea of infant baptism. When I raised a caution, they replied, “Scott, what do you remember from your baptism?” On the other hand, they pointed out, we all could vividly remember what we had seen, heard, and felt at our newfound country church that very day—a church whose truth was evidenced in apparent miracles.
I still hesitated. “But is it biblical to get baptized again? And are you sure that infant baptism is unbiblical?”
One of the guys answered my question with a question: “Okay, Scott, where do you see infant baptism in the New Testament?”
I had no ready answer.
Rebaptism and Research
My friends weren’t ridiculing me. They were merely discouraging what they saw as my “overly intellectual hang–ups.” Don’t get me wrong: they were very intelligent kids. They just felt they didn’t need further reasons after the continued experience of such exalted worship. They felt that their experience was reason enough for them to take action.
The problem occupied my mind. These new friends meant a lot to me, and their church excited me. But the prospect of rebaptism troubled me, and I wasn’t sure why. I decided to mention it to a professor I deeply respected, Dr. Robert VandeKappelle. I was taking his course titled Biblical Ideas, and I was loving it. The ink wasn’t yet dry on Dr. VandeKappelle’s doctorate from Princeton, and his love for scholarship shone in his lectures and in his smiling eyes. With his wire–rimmed glasses and conservative neckties, he even looked the part of the prof. Gently inquisitive, he fostered the kind of Learning I’d dreamt about when I first applied to Grove City College.
In his office one afternoon, I mentioned, as casually as I could, that some friends and I were planning to get rebaptized.
He raised an eyebrow above the wire rims, but his eyes kept smiling, and he spoke gently as always. “Rebaptized? Why?”
He knew, of course, about the church we were attending. Everybody knew about it.
I said, “I was baptized as a baby, and it didn’t mean anything to me.”
He kept smiling. “So?”
“Besides,” I said, “where is it in the New Testament?”
Still smiling, he asked, “Have you looked into it?”
My silence answered him well enough. He said, “Well, maybe you should,” and then the clincher: “Scott, why not make infant baptism the topic for your research paper in my class?”
The next Sunday my friends got “dunked,” but I stayed back and worshiped closer to campus. Meanwhile, I had checked out all the books the college library had to offer on the subject of infant baptism, a contentious issue from the earliest days of the Protestant Reformation, dividing the classic Reformed strains (Lutheran and Calvinist) from the Anabaptist (Baptist and Mennonite). I loaded the volumes onto my library card, into my backpack, and into my dorm room, where I pored over them late into the night.
What did I learn? I learned that the custom of infant baptism was very ancient indeed, and those who held on to it had good scriptural reasons for doing so. Jesus Himself had said: “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19:14). The Lord made clear that the kingdom belongs to those children, and baptism is somehow the sign of the kingdom’s coming (see Mt 28:18-19). When Peter preached the Gospel for the first time on the first Pentecost, he put the matter in the same terms: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children” (Acts 2:38-39).
These New Testament passages made the case for infant baptism plausible to me, if not quite as explicit as I would have preferred. But when I read the reasons that scholars and sages had marshaled from the whole Bible—both testaments—the case was overwhelming. When I considered Jesus’ “New Covenant” in light of the history of God’s covenants with His people, I saw that provision was always made for the inclusion of infants. If God welcomed newborns into Israel by means of ritual circumcision for two thousand years, why would He suddenly close the kingdom to babies because they could not understand ritual baptism? And if He had intended to make such a radical change in the terms of the covenant, wouldn’t He have said so explicitly?
When I read the New Testament in light of the Old, the New became more luminously clear. And I knew what course I should take—and what course I should not take—in my life as a Christian. I had reasons to believe what my Calvinist ancestors and teachers had believed about infant baptism.
I will not bore you with a detailed summary of the paper I wrote. Suffice it to say that I made a firm decision not to be rebaptized. And I did get an A from Dr. VandeKappelle. Then I joined one of those staid and lackluster local congregations—a congregation that baptized infants “for real” and that worshiped in more conventional ways.
College had given me my first experience of disciplined Learning as well as a life-changing Learning experience. I learned to test every spirit—to check my feelings against right reason, and to check my reasoned hunches against the Christian churches’ heritage of reflection on biblical faith. It is this method that would, some years later, give me reasons to believe in the claims of the Roman Catholic Church, and then to be received into full communion with that Church. But that’s another story, for another book.
The moral of the story in this book was set forth many years ago, in the First Letter of St. Peter: “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet 3:15).
There are times in life when we have to make a leap into darkness, go with our gut instinct, or settle for blind faith. But those are not “normal” times. They’re usually times of extreme emergency. We shouldn’t strive to live our lives in a constant state of crisis. Our ordinary way is evident from St. Peter's use of the word “always.” We should, like the Boy Scouts, always “be prepared” to explain the reasons why we believe what we believe. That statement assumes that our beliefs are defensible on rational grounds, and that we’re willing to spend a lifetime preparing to defend what we profess in the articles of faith. When I was an undergraduate, I was vulnerable because I had never bothered to study the meaning of baptism. Yet I was intensely aware of how I felt when I was in that zealous, rebaptizing congregation. What I needed to learn was that the laws of God, like the law of gravity, do not depend upon how I feel about them. They are inexorable, and God has willed them to be knowable, even in the absence of strong emotion or apparent miracles.
I needed to learn how to place my reason at the service of the mystery of baptism. For baptism is a sacred sign instituted by Jesus Christ, but made up of the most common and unimposing matter: water.
After thirty–one more years of Christian living, I’m still learning that lesson, and I hope to be learning it on the day I die, because the mysteries of Christianity are unfathomable. They’re a participation in the very life of God, and none of us will ever be able to attain mastery over God’s life. Again, the mysteries are unfathomable—inexhaustible—but they are eminently knowable, because God Himself has willed them to be known. That is the very reason He revealed Himself in the book of Scripture. That is the very reason for His self–disclosure in creation, “the book of nature.”
God and His ways are understandable and defensible; and, as Christians, we have the sweet obligation of coming to know them and coming to their defense as often as we please. There is no shortage of opportunity for study, contemplation, and evangelization. Wherever we go, we are in God’s presence and in His world. And in most places we go we can take a good book along for stolen moments of study. It’s the work of a lifetime.
Seeds of the Word
This book is a summons for Catholics to fulfill the duty that St. Peter spelled out. It’s not enough for us just to feel hopeful, and then hope that our hope will be contagious. St. Peter wants us to prepare a defensible account of our hope, showing that its foundations are unshakable, grounded as they are in ultimate reality.
Again, we’re talking about much more than a feeling. We’re talking about theology. Specifically, we’re talking about that branch of theology known as apologetics—the art of explaining and defending the faith. Students of history perhaps know that there is, among the ancient Church Fathers, a category called “the apologists.” These were men who took it upon themselves to spell out Christian doctrine in terms that ordinary non–Christians might understand. They appealed not so much to God’s special revelation—not to the Bible or the creeds—but to logic, science, nature, history, and common sense. They even appealed to the highest principles of pagan philosophy and religion, showing that these were better fulfilled by Christianity! One of the Church’s greatest early defenders, St. Justin Martyr, distilled this approach to a handy principle: “whatever is true is ours.” Since God created the world and everything in it—including the pagan philosophers—Justin could treat almost everything he encountered as “seeds of the Word.”
This was true of many of the apologists. Not all of them were as polite and “catholic” in their tastes as Justin was, but most of them took special care to provide reasoned responses to their contemporaries’ objections to Christian doctrine and practice—even when those objections were slanderous, untrue, or downright surreal.