Evangelicals gladly assent to Jean Daniélou’s claim that the mission of the church “continues the mighty works, the mirabilia Dei, recorded in the two Testaments” and agree that “God still accomplishes his mighty works, in the conversion and sanctification of souls.”
Few Evangelicals, though, would make sense of his further claim that “The working of God’s power among us is through the sacraments.” Jesus’ baptism—now, that was a mighty act, as the Father unzipped the heavens and the Spirit fluttered down. If you want to see a mighty act of God today, though, you need to look for blinding lights on Damascus Roads, pilgrims suddenly unburdened, hearts strangely warmed. No self-respecting Evangelical testimony begins with, “God baptized me as an infant. . . .”
I think Scripture supports Daniélou’s position. Which is why I want to make an Evangelical case for the “Catholic” sensibility that discerns the extraordinary behind the veil of the ordinary.
In the middle section of Isaiah, the prophet focuses on the Lord’s promise that Israel will return from exile. Isaiah describes it as a new exodus and plunders Israel’s memories of the first exodus to imagine what’s coming. But the second exodus will not be a mere repetition of the first. It will be so incomparably superior that it will make Israel forget what went before. Throughout the Pentateuch, Moses urges Israel to remember: Remember what I did in Egypt; remember what I did to Pharaoh; remember how I provided for you in the wilderness. Isaiah tells Israel to forget: “Do not call to mind the former things, or ponder things of the past. Behold I do a new thing.”
This is shocking. The first exodus was awe-inspiring: the plagues, the parting of the sea, manna from heaven and miracle-water from the rock, Moses emerging from Sinai’s fiery cloud horned with rays of reflected glory. The mighty works continued into the conquest—Jordan split like the Red Sea, walls crumbled at a trumpet blast, the sun stood still in the sky, and Yahweh stoned Israel’s enemies from heaven.
By comparison, the second exodus is altogether hum-drum. There are no plagues; Cyrus voluntarily lets the people go. Israel does not plunder Persia as she plundered Egypt; Cyrus gives supplies to rebuild the temple. There is no parting of the sea, no miracles in the wilderness, no earth opening to swallow rebels, no Jericho. How can something so ordinary make Israel forget the first exodus?
According to Isaiah, the second exodus is extraordinary for all the reasons we think it ordinary. In the first exodus, the hard-hearted Gentile king has to be beaten to a pulp before he lets Israel go; in the second exodus, the Gentile king is a willing participant in Yahweh’s work. Persia doesn’t have to be plundered because Cyrus is willing to help rebuild Yahweh’s house. The earth never opens to swallow rebels because there are no rebels; Ezra and Nehemiah lead an astonishingly compliant crew of returnees.
Far more than the first, the second exodus fulfills Yahweh’s promise to bless Gentiles through Abraham’s seed. The second exodus fulfills the prophetic hope that the nations will bring their wealth to Zion and that the Lord will inscribe his law on Israel’s heart of flesh. God’s kingdom no longer invades from outside but quietly transforms from within, like leaven in dough.
The apostles announce yet another exodus. Paul says that baptism is the New Testament reality figured in the crossing of the Red Sea. “In the primitive liturgical context of the Paschal vigil,” Daniélou writes, “baptism is recognizably a continuation of the mighty works of God whereby he saved his people in the first Passover, from bondage in Egypt, and in the second Passover delivered his son from the bondage of hell.” This is not a piece of “mere tradition.” It is apostolic sacramental theology.
The “third exodus” of baptism is designed to make us forget the second as the second blotted the memory of the first. Israel escaped from Pharaoh at the Sea; the baptized are rescued from Adamic flesh, the world, and the devil. Cyrus the Persian sponsored the rebuilding of the temple; but the third exodus of baptism knits Jew and Gentile together into one new man with the common vocation to build the house of God. At every baptism, we witness a fulfillment of God’s promise to bring all nations to himself through and as Abraham’s seed. Manna and water from a rock were miracles, but sharing in the body and blood of Jesus through bread and wine is the greater wonder. Every ordinary baptism testifies to the extraordinary faithfulness of a God who makes and keeps promises.
This is not merely an issue of personal experience and piety. The growing friendship of Evangelical Protestants and Catholics is one of the big stories of recent American religious history, yet a focus on doctrine doesn’t capture the deepest things that divide Christians. Differences of ethos and sensibility are harder to identify and discuss, but are of at least equal importance. It will be a sign of extraordinary progress when Evangelicals are awestruck at ordinary water and confess with Catholics (and St. Paul!), “All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”
Peter J. Leithart is on the pastoral staff of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective (Wipf & Stock). His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
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