Catechesis by the letter # 6
Some people’s Christianity is way too touchy-feely, we sometime conclude. Sometimes this critical appraisal is meant metaphorically – believers seeks after affective experience in preference over Scriptural truth or dogmatic anchoring. In another sense of the criticism, it is a literal touching that is frowned upon. It might be touching sacred objects, valuing certain places for devotional uplift, or more dangerously touching me, entering my personal space to the Christian side-hug or sharing the peace or the high-five with the fellow worshipper sitting next to me in service.
My own free church baptist upbringing was of course deeply physical in its celebration of immersion baptizing, but otherwise was wonderfully restrained in the Englishness of our polite handshakes. So the Interpreter’s 4th cachechetical principle is one that emerges from the Christian tradition as a relative stranger, at least formally: Laying on of Hands. Laying hands on someone doesn’t sound particulary voluntary or consensual, warning us of the creepy to criminal ways in which touch is abused among humans, including, sadly among Christians.
But the Interpreter tells us that laying on of hands was ‘practiced by the Early Church as an act that invoked the bestowal of the Holy Spirit’(41) as a natural accompaniment to water baptism (42). The connection between baptism and faith, and baptism and the Holy Spirit are the burden of the previous and present principle of the catechism. I like the reading of Acts 19:6 that ‘[w]e know that the Spirit came upon them, not because there was an outward manifestation, but because of the promise of God that in baptism, “you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”’ (Acts 2:38) (45). The Interpreter goes on, ‘If conversion is turning to God in Christ enabled by the Holy Spirit, then baptism is the embodiment, the completion, the seal of conversion.’(45)
Drawing on his deep research into baptist origins and seventeenth century nonconformity, Freeman’s Interpreter teaches that Baptists in England and America have at times kept an emphasis on laying on of hands for biblical and continuity of Christian tradition reasons (46-47). The letter ends with a Pilgrim's Progress reference to Christian receiving a mark on his forehead from the Shining One at the cross. Freeman’s ‘evangelical-catholic’ spirit is on display as he writes: ‘The awareness of forgiveness, the outward change, and the assurance of salvation are all part of evangelical experience, but they are all also enacted in the historic catechetical tradition of Christian initiation.’(47) Baptism, the Interpreter concludes is about lifting our hearts and stretching out our hands to pray that the Lord would pour out his Spirit (Acts 2:17-18)(48).
The formal Q and A for this Principle are (xiv):
Q: Why does the church pray and lay hands on newly baptized Christians?
A: The church practices the laying on of hands with prayer upon baptized believers because baptism signifies the work of the Holy Spirit, which unites my life with Christ and with other members of his body and equips me with the gifts and graces needed to participate in God’s mission to the world (1 Cor 12:13; Acts 8:17, 19:6)
What I missed in this chapter, perhaps because it was seeking to establish a practice that needed greater shoring up, was the personal address of the Interpreter to his reader in pastoral directness.