Susan K. Wood, SCL, professor of theology at Marquette University, believes baptism is the sacrament that lies at the intersection of many of the great themes of Christian theology. This volume is an attempt to integrate sacramental, liturgical, historical, and systematic theology in the examination of baptism. She largely succeeds in her goal.
True to its subtitle, One Baptism examines baptism through ecumenical lens. In order to manage the complexity of perspectives on baptism, she groups some traditions into families, largely the well-known groups that emerged from the Protestant Reformation (Lutheran, Reformed, and Anabaptist (free church tradition, including Baptists). Interestingly, Wood gives little attention to the Anglican tradition. She writes out of her own tradition, which is Roman Catholic.
The book is composed of seven chapters. The opening chapter on baptism, eschatology, and salvation sets the stage by raising issues that will be addressed by all of the traditions. One such issue is baptismal regeneration: Is baptism necessary for salvation? Some traditions—Baptists for example—consider baptism to be a sign of salvation and not its cause. Another issue concerns non-Christians. Roman Catholics believe baptism is necessary for salvation, yet also hold out the possibility of salvation for non-Christians. How, then, is baptism related to the salvation of non-Christians? These and other questions reoccur throughout the book.
In her second chapter, Wood traces the development of the doctrine of baptism up to the eve of the Reformation. Over time, the threefold rites of initiation—baptism, confirmation (chrismation), Eucharist—were separated in time and the order of their reception changed. By the time of the Reformation, the deleterious effects of these changes were many: salvation had become more privatized, the focus on original sin eclipsed baptism’s primary function of incorporating the person into the body of Christ, initiation ceased to be a process, and in general, the sacrament had lost its ecclesial connection.
The remaining chapters examine the baptismal theologies of the Reformation traditions and the Orthodox Church. In an important chapter on baptism, faith, and justification, Wood notes the convergence today among the traditions toward a more personal concept of faith, something that was not present at the time of the Reformation. At the same time, she warns that putting emphasis on the individual’s personal confession of faith can result in the loss of the connection between the faith of the community and the individual. Wood also believes that the distinction between justification by faith alone and justification by baptism is a false dichotomy. Baptism is an act of faith, so that in baptism one is justified by faith and by baptism. Wood’s attempt to point out both points of convergence and divergence among the traditions is typical of her book.
Baptismal issues that divide the churches are myriad. Here is my list, in no particular order: