Baptism marks the Christian’s entry into the covenant community. At baptism the recipient’s sponsors make promises on the candidate’s behalf, as does the community witnessing the baptism. Baptism itself does not save in an ultimate sense, but it is a proximate means of grace which God is pleased to use to bring the baptized child or adult to salvation. However, a Reformed understanding of baptism emphasizes that word and sacrament are inextricably linked. The primary meaning of word is, of course, the Word of God as communicated in Holy Scripture, which is read and preached in the course of the liturgy. But it also includes the words spoken at the administration of the sacrament. Without, for example, the invocation of the trinitarian formula: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” the mere washing with water does not constitute a valid baptism. What we say with our lips matters, which explains why efforts to change liturgies can be so divisive.
It comes as no surprise then that efforts in the Church of England to modernize the language of the Anglican baptismal rite should cause controversy. Jonathan Petre reports for the Mail Online: Welby casts out ‘sin’ from christenings: Centuries-old rite rewritten in ‘language of EastEnders’ for modern congregation. Of particular note is the proposed elimination of references to sin and the devil from the rite, to be replaced with a general rejection of evil.
There is, of course, something to be said for updating liturgical language to make it speak more clearly to contemporary Christians and seekers. The Reformation emphasis on vernacular liturgies was an improvement over prayers said “in a tongue not understanded of the people,” to quote Article XXIV of the Articles of Religion. The Second Vatican Council moved the Roman Catholic Church in the same direction a half century ago, belatedly recognizing that the Christian life depends on hearing and understanding the Word of God in public worship.
Nevertheless, efforts at updating liturgical language, however necessary, always carry a certain risk: rather than further clarifying the faith, they could end up obscuring it or even falsifying it. When does “updating” language effectively cross the boundary and change the substance of the faith? For example, with the use of “gender-inclusive” plural form in Psalm 8 for man and son of man in the New Revised Standard Version and in the latest revision of the New International Version, the Christological interpretation drawn out by the author of Hebrews is inadvertently masked.
Of course, revising a Bible translation is not precisely the same as revising a liturgy, because the Bible is a fixed text (albeit with textual variants) requiring proper translation of three ancient languages. A liturgy may contain large portions of Scripture, e.g., the words of institution in 1 Corinthians 11 during the Lord’s Supper, but the liturgical use of Scripture, including its homiletic proclamation, is at a further remove from the task of translating. Thus updating liturgies is always more than a matter of updating language.
This is where matters get more dicey. Does it make a difference that the word sin might be replaced with evil in the proposed revision? I believe it does, yes. To oppose evil does not necessarily entail recognition of its presence within myself. I can reject the evil found in oppressive systems out there or in the pettiness of my neighbour next door. But I needn’t look into my own heart. I can, if I like, but the altered rite itself seems not to require it. By contrast, if I am asked, “Do you repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour?”, I am compelled to look within, to weigh my own heart in the balance and actively to renounce certain destructive tendencies within myself.
This may not comport with a modern or postmodern worldview, but it nevertheless flows out of a biblical framework within which repentance from sin brings divine forgiveness and is tied inextricably to salvation in Jesus Christ. No liturgical revision should obscure this central element of the gospel message.