Infant Baptism in the History of the Church

Infant baptism was the universal practice of the church until after the Protestant Reformation. The early church was not credo-baptist.

Note: I wrote this post in response to a question I received from a fellow pastor. I like to address practical issues that pastors and Christians are facing on the ground. If you would like me to address a particular question, drop me a note!

Ancient practice in the Church sets an important precedent for present day practice. This certainly doesn’t mean that Christians are bound to only do things as they have always been done, but the principles of catholicity and unity move us not to break from historic church practice on a particular item unless there is a strong biblical rationale.  Where there is not a strong biblical rationale, or, strong cases could be made on either side, the precedent of church tradition should play a factor in making the decision.

Such is the case with infant baptism. Credo-baptists and paedo-baptists both present biblical arguments that either side is fully convinced of. Thus, church tradition is often brought into the discussion to lend weight to the support of one side or another.

So what does church tradition have to say on the issue of infant baptism? What was the historic practice of the church from the earliest days?

Before we go further, I would like to make a few distinctions and give a few definitions. First of all, credo-baptism shall be defined as the conviction that only those who credibly and consciously profess belief in Christ are valid subjects for baptism. This can also be referred to as believers-only baptism. Second, paedo-baptism shall be defined as the conviction that infants of at least one believing parent are valid subjects of baptism. The paedo-baptist conviction therefore does not exclude baptism of adults who have converted to Christianity and have never been baptized. I shall also use the term infant baptism as synonymous with paedo-baptism.

Also, I would like to make two caveats. First, I am fully aware of the biblical evidence and rationale for the paedo-baptist position and can readily give it. This point of this article is to give historical evidence in the face of two positions that both claim to have biblical rationale. I am also fully aware that credo-baptists have fully developed biblical rationale for their position (though I disagree with them). The point of this post is to address the historical precedent as a sort of “tie-breaker” to the biblical stalemate. Second caveat: I fully embrace my Baptist brothers and sisters as fellow believers in Christ. This is a intramural discussion, and one I offer not with rancor, yet with firmness of conviction.


 

Infant baptism was the universal practice of the church until after the Protestant Reformation. At the onset of the Reformation, none of the magisterial reformers abandoned the practice of infant baptism, but began to vigorously defend it with fresh biblical rationale based on Covenant Theology. The Reformers went so far in their defense of paedo-baptism that none of them even advocated the re-baptism of those who had received baptism in the pre-Reformation church. To this day, churches that are the ecclesial and theological heirs of the Protestant Reformers have continued that practice of infant baptism. These would be Lutherans, Presbyterians, Reformed of various kinds, and Anglicans (which I would argue fall in the Reformed camp, but someone may protest that I left them out). In these churches there is a continuous and consistent theology and practice of infant baptism that goes back to the days of the early church.

Thus infant baptism was the universal practice of the Christian Church until some Reformation leaders began to question many of the standard practices of Christianity and the Christian life. These Radical Reformers (what scholars call the anabaptists) opposed padeo-baptism, and they advocated for the re-baptism (thus the name anabaptist, one who re-baptizes) of those who had been baptized before the Reformation. But the 16th century anabaptists can not be properly described as holding to credo-baptism as I have defined it. These radical reformers made a very high hurdle to cross before baptism, not simply allowing those who made a credible profession of faith come to the font, but only allowing those who had proven themselves over a long period of time as committed Christian disciples. The radical reformation reserved baptism for the few, a subset of Christian believers. This is not the modern Baptist position. Furthermore, there are many aspects of 16th century anabaptist movements that modern baptists do not adhere to, specificaly, pacifism, communitarianism, and mysticism. The proper heirs of the 16th c. Radical Reformation are to be found in the Menonite and Amish churches, not in modern Baptist churches. (NOTE: see James R. Payton, Jr, Getting the Reformation Wrong, pp. 160-172).

Baptists, rather, are the spiritual heirs of the English Reformation of the 16th-17th centuries. As such, the 17th century theology of credo-baptism was quite new, even by the timeline of the Reformation. There is no real historical precedent for the view before the 17th century and no place where it was practiced outside of England. In contrast, the paeo-baptist position was practiced and defended biblically and theologically from the onset of the Reformation and in every place where the Reformation spread up to the present day.

To the time before the Reformation: no one disputes that the practice of the ancient and medieval Church was universally paedo-baptist after the time of Augustine. This is because Augustine’s treatment of both original sin and the doctrine of grace made a theological path for the practice of infant baptism to become universal. From the 5th century onward, there is no question as to the universal practice of the Church in baptizing the infants of believing parents.

However, in the earliest centuries of the church (before Augustine) the evidence for infant baptism is scant and many credo-baptists will argue based on this that believers-only baptism was the first practice of the church until Constantine got a hold of things. The Constantine thing is always a red herring. Almost nothing he is credited (or blamed) for in the Church is accurate. As I said above, Augustine was the one who closed the book on infant baptism. Constantine himself never weighed in on it and still evidenced the flawed early church baptismal practice in his own life (which I will talk about below).

Yet the argument for credo-baptism in the early church is not sustained by the historical evidence. It is true that the writings we have access to today give overwhelming evidence to adult baptism and to many folks delaying their baptisms well into their adult life. However, this evidence for delaying baptism does not support the credo-baptist position for the following reasons.

1) The reason why adult baptism is the focus in the early church is because everyone is converting to Christianity (it’s the same as in the New Testament). Many of the stories told in the very early church are of converts, and so many were converting from paganism to Christianity that the stories of infant baptism get lost. The story of the early church is one of conversion. Thus the baptism of professing believers is the story told. This is not therefore evidence against infant baptism or for believers-only baptism. It is evidence that people were converting to Christianity in droves and being baptized.

2) There is no writing (that I know of) that is polemical against infant baptism. If the Early Church was credo-baptist by conviction, you would expect much polemic against infant baptism. It simply doesn’t exist.

3) There is evidence for infant baptism in the early church. It isn’t the only practice, but the evidence suggests that infant baptism was a normal and expected practice. One specific example is found in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (late 2nd to early 3rd c.). In this text a baptismal rite is described that includes infants. There are other examples of this in the early church. As I said above, the adult baptism of converts was the most attested practice, but there is still ample evidence that infant baptism was occurring and no one, I repeat, no one was arguing against it.

4) The reason why many Christians in the early church delayed their baptism was due to a faulty baptismal theology and a faulty soteriology. Before Augustine gave the definitive treatments, many believed that since baptism washed away all previous sin and that if you sinned after baptism there was no possibility for forgiveness, you should delay baptism as long as possible to get your sinnin’ in. This is why Constantine was baptized late in life, for example, not because he was not a committed Christian, but because he wanted to make sure to be saved (there was also a political reason for him delaying baptism). After Augustine developed his doctrine of grace and gave the definitive (and final, at least till the Reformation) argument for infant baptism, this is no longer an issue.

Here’s the payoff, Baptists point to the early church for evidence of believers-only baptism, but are they willing also to own the errant theology that was the reason for it? I think not. There were people who delayed baptism in the early church but it was not for modern credo-baptist conviction that only believers should be baptized. It was for other (faulty) theological reasons. Baptism was not delayed until a credible profession. It was delayed  until the person felt they could go on for the rest of their lives without sin (or to enter the Christian ministry). This is not the modern Baptist position, nor should it be. The early church was not credo-baptist.

St. Ambrose of Milan – Savior of the Nations, Come

This is one of my favorite Advent hymns. It has some of the most powerful lines in the history of Christian hymnody, written by one of the first to really emphasize congregational participation in worship, Ambrose of Milan.

This hymn is also deeply theological. In Ambrose’s words we find the various theological controversies of the day reflected. Namely, the heresy of Arianism, which said that Jesus Christ was not fully divine, is combated in verse 4. Nestorianism, which argued that Jesus Christ was not fully human, is combated in verse 3. But beyond that, the hymn promotes the wonder and awe that we should all have when contemplating the mystery of the Incarnation. Verse three into the first phrase of verse 4 gives me goosebumps. Every time.

Give a listen to Christ Our King’s arrangement of this hymn from the 4th century. I hope it instills in you the wonder that it did for its first singers in Milan.

1 Savior of the nations, come,
Virgin’s Son, make here Your home!
Marvel now, O heav’n and earth,
That the Lord chose such a birth.

2 Not by human flesh and blood,
By the Spirit of our God,
Was the Word of God made flesh —
Woman’s offspring pure and fresh.

3. Here a maid was found with child,
Yet remained a virgin mild.
In her womb this truth was shown:
God was there upon His throne.

4. Then stepped forth the Lord of all
From His pure and kingly hall;
God of God, yet fully man,
His heroic course began.

 


Savior of the Nations, Come
St. Ambrose of Milan, 4th c.
Translation of verses 1 and 2 by William M. Reynolds, 19th c.
Translation of verse 3 by the Lutheran Service Book, 2006
Translation of verse 4 by F. Samuel Janzow, 20th c.

Tune: Johann Walter, Wittenburg, 16th c.
Arranged by: Timothy R. LeCroy 2016

Performed by Christ Our King Musicians
Vocals: Tim LeCroy and Liv Cordray
Violin: Erica Kallis
Piano: Liv Cordray
Guitar: Tim LeCroy
Bass: Tim LeCroy

 


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A Brief History of Sanctification

When reading Berkhof’s Systematic theology one comes away with the notion that justification and sanctification were inseparably conflated and that works based theology reigned until the Reformation, (Berkhof, 529-30). While it is true that the Reformers were the first to articulate the doctrine of justification by faith alone and to draw out the distinction between justification and sanctification, it is not true to say that the church was uninterested in the process of sanctification until the Reformation.

Sanctification is, as the word suggests, the process by which a person is made holy. The distinction has historically been made between definitive sanctification, a setting apart by God at one’s regeneration and baptism, and progressive sanctification, the lifelong process by which a believer, by grace, is enabled to more and more die unto sin and live unto righteousness, to paraphrase Westminster. To say that the church never rested in the “apartness” of baptized believers or that the church never sought to become more conformed to God’s law would be incorrect. Furthermore, after Augustine, everyone in the West taught and believed that everything in a believer’s life was totally and completely of and by grace.

Since though we do not see traditional reformed systematic theological categories in the first fifteen centuries of the church, what do we see? I propose that we see different models of sanctification throughout the life of the church. These models are more or less chronological. They are:

  1. Martyrdom (1st-4th) – the intense early phase of the church. The passion of standing for one’s faith in the face of torture and death and the contagious fervor that this threat posed served to sanctify the early church.
  2. Orthodoxy (4th-6th) – Right belief in the era of the Creeds and Councils. Sanctification through right belief.
  3. Mystical Theosis – Eastern contemplative. Becoming God-like through spiritual disciplines and contemplation. Related to orthodox belief.
  4. Sacramental Divinization (5th-7th) – Augustine’s Western counterpart to Theosis. Being made God-like through grace by hearing the word, participation in the liturgy, sacraments, and prayer.
  5. Communal Regulative formation (5th – 11th) – Benedict of Nursia. Sanctification through faithful (full of faith) and evangelical (belief and adherence to the gospel) submission to a rule of life in the community of believers. Still assumed the Augustinian notion of sanctification by grace.
  6. Corporate Sacramental Participation – Carolingian period (8th-10th c). A form of Augustine’s notion, but more emphasizing the entire body being sanctified corporately instead of individual believers.
  7. Curative Pastoral Application – Innocent III (13th-14th) Emphasis on individual participation and involvement in pastoral care to bring sanctification.
  8. Mystical Contemplation (13th-15th) – Mystics like St. Francis and Bonaventure building on the tradition of Pseudo-Dionysius in the mystical contemplation of the Trinity. There is some of this in Augustine too.
  9. Imitation of Christ (15-17th) – Thomas à Kempis and the other devotio moderna adherents. Contemplation and imitation of Christ. There is some of this in Francis as well.

A Word on Reading the Scholastics

Here are a few points that will help us enter into the wonderful world of scholastic theology.

I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to spend thousands of hours reading and studying the writings and theology of the scholastic period through the course of my PhD, my teaching, and especially through working on this: a translation of one of the more important works of scholastic theology by St. Bonaventure. Since the writings of the scholastics can be a bit difficult to enter into, I thought I would write a primer on scholastic theology as an entry point for interested readers.

Scholasticism broadly defined is the theological and intellectual movement surrounding the schools of Paris in the 13th and 14th centuries. It is marked by an adherence to the theological tradition, grounded in the teachings of the Bible and the theological exposition of St. Augustine. The basic tenant of Scholasticism was Augustine’s mantra Credo ut intelligam (I believe so that I may understand), or to put it more simply, faith seeking understanding. There are two things that made Scholasticism different from previous intellectual movements: the sic et non method, and the use of Aristotle (This one, not this one).  These two (the method and the philosophy) combined to form a theological movement that posited and explored the thesis that everything could be understood and explained through faith and reason. Therefore, if we do not either understand how the sic et non method works or know a bit about the Bible, Augustine, and Aristotle, we cannot read, understand, or explain the scholastics in an intelligent way. Here are a few points that will help us enter into the wonderful world of scholastic theology.

 1. The fallacy of historical anachronism
The first thing we must note when undertaking to read writings from the past is that we should avoid the fallacy of historical anachronism. What’s that? It’s when we impose later developments onto earlier ones and either criticize the earlier for not having exhibited evidence of the latter, or assume that something in a latter development is also an integral aspect of the earlier ones. An example of this would be in criticizing medieval authors because they do not articulate their soteriology in the exact language of the canons of the Council of Dort. We could however hold medieval writers to the canons of the Council of Orange since it preceded the Middle Ages. The basic idea here is that if something didn’t exist yet, we can’t expect someone to know about it. It would be like expecting Abraham Lincoln to know the intricacies of the whip and nae nae, for example.

 2. The sic et non method
The sic et non method was the way scholastic theology was done, thus it is often called eponymously the scholastic method. The sic et non method was introduced by Peter Abelard in the 12th century. Abelard was a rock star in the classroom, mesmerizing his audiences with his lectures. In them he would posit a question, for example, “Must human faith be completed by reason, or not?” Then he would present the arguments for answering “yes” (Latin, sic) followed by the arguments for answering “no” (Latin, non). Abelard would argue passionately and vigorously for each side of the position, but would never give his answer. He would just leave the audience hanging! While this method lead to his fame, it would not develop into anything more than a show prop for about 100 years.

Meanwhile, around the same time, the theological standard for orthodoxy was being developed by another Peter, this one named Lombard. His Four Books of the Sentences was the standard exposition and articulation of Western (Augustinian) theology for 500 years. This book, not Thomas Aquinas, was the theological textbook of the Middle Ages, and has left such an imprint on the Western theological landscape that we can even see it in the arrangement of books and subjects in Calvin’s Institutes.

In the 13th century, the teachers of Paris, lead by Alexander of Hales, synthesized Abelard’s lecture method and Lombard’s theological textbook to form the scholastic method. It began as an academic exercise. Alexander had his students (one of which was the famous scholastic theologian and contemporary of Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure) write a commentary on the sentences of Peter Lombard, using a modified form of the sic et non method. Alexander and his students added to Abelard’s method of presenting the yes and no a statement of the correct answer (in the opinion of the student) and then answers to the objections.

Thus when reading any of these scholastic texts, one must understand that the first statements one finds at the beginning of each section are not the opinions of the author! They are simply popular arguments for and against that the author is presenting for the sake of the method. If the reader wishes to understand what the author is actually teaching on the subject, he must skip down to the respondeo, which begins with the words “I respond.” There you will find the opinion and rationale of the author on the question. Following the response then are the responses to the objections that did not agree with the opinion that the author took.

This academic exercise was undertaken by students of theology studying for a doctorate in the late Middle Ages. Jan Hus, the famous Czech reformer, wrote one of these commentaries as a part of his magisterial studies in Prague, and in it he exhibits the same method developed by Alexander and his students.

The Summa theologica by Thomas Aquinas, though not a commentary on the sentences (he did produce one) employs the sic et non method. Thus readers of the Summa need to understand how the method works.

 3. Augustine and Philosophy – He loved Philosophy!
St. Augustine laid the theological and intellectual framework for Western civilization. His mature synthesis of Christian society can be found in his capstone work The City of God, which was written in 426, four years before his death. In the City of God Augustine argues that the philosophical basis for Christian thought should be what we now call Neo-Platonism, and he even states that Plotinus, the chief expositor of Neo-Platonism in his nine-volume work The Enneads, was the closest of the pagan philosophers to come to a true understanding of God (See Book X in The City of God). In The City of God and other writings Augustine synthesized the Christian faith and Neo-Platonic philosophy to lay the intellectual foundations for the Christian west.

 4. The Scholastics and Augustine
As was already stated above, the theology of the Western church in the Middle Ages was thoroughly Augustinian. This is so in almost every aspect of every subject of theology. For example, medieval theologians were Augustinian in their thoughts on sacraments, sin, grace, anthropology, theology proper, ecclesiology, eschatology, and every other “ology” you can think of. Augustine was the teacher par excellence of the medieval church.

Specifically, on the topic of salvation and grace, medieval theologians consistently maintained their adherence to the Augustinian doctrines of grace. These doctrines are articulated in his treatises against the Pelagians, and also made canonical by the declarations of the Council of Orange. This theology posited the existence of Original Sin, handed down from parent to child all the way back to our first parents, and that original sin destroys the ability in any human being to love God or achieve salvation or do any good work outside the divine aid of God. Augustine also taught that believers must have an act of God performed on them to even make them dispositive for grace. He taught that believers were chosen by God (predestined) to receive this grace a part from any merit in themselves. He also taught that this grace was conferred to believers by a free gift of God through sacraments. No orthodox western theologian (medieval, Reformational, or otherwise) ever strayed from this opinion until the modern period.

A poignant example of this can be found in the writings of Thomas Aquinas, a medieval theologian often pilloried by some Protestant polemicists. In Question 109 of his Summa theologica, Thomas posits ten questions on the necessity of grace in human salvation. You are welcome to read this section, minding the use of the sic et non method I outlined above:

It is notable that Thomas’s answer to all ten of these questions is unequivocal: divine help is absolutely necessary for any good thing to come out of a fallen person. Here are the ten questions:

  1. Without grace, can man know anything? Answer: No
  2. Without God’s grace, can man do or wish any good? Answer: No
  3. Without grace, can man love God above all things? Answer: No
  4. Without grace, can man keep the commandments of the Law? Answer: No
  5. Without grace, can he merit eternal life? Answer: No
  6. Without grace, can man prepare himself for grace? Answer: No
  7. Without grace, can he rise from sin? Answer: No
  8. Without grace, can man avoid sin? Answer: No
  9. Having received grace, can man do good and avoid sin without any further Divine help? Answer: No
  10. Can he of himself persevere in good? Answer: No

Now, admittedly I have done a bit of contextualization to bring his terminology into our modern theological idiom. Thomas is a very precise thinker. So if you take my challenge and read the section, you will find that at times he will say that an extra work of grace is not needed. Nevertheless, none of these things can be done without divine aid. That is what we would call grace. Here are some examples:

Response to question 1: Hence we must say that for the knowledge of any truth whatsoever man needs Divine help, that the intellect may be moved by God to its act. But he does not need a new light added to his natural light, in order to know the truth in all things, but only in some that surpass his natural knowledge. And yet at times God miraculously instructs some by His grace in things that can be known by natural reason, even as He sometimes brings about miraculously what nature can do.

Response to question 2: And thus in the state of perfect nature man needs a gratuitous strength superadded to natural strength for one reason, viz. in order to do and wish supernatural good; but for two reasons, in the state of corrupt nature, viz. in order to be healed, and furthermore in order to carry out works of supernatural virtue, which are meritorious. Beyond this, in both states man needs the Divine help, that he may be moved to act well.

Response to question 3: But in the state of corrupt nature man falls short of this in the appetite of his rational will, which, unless it is cured by God’s grace, follows its private good, on account of the corruption of nature. And hence we must say that in the state of perfect nature man did not need the gift of grace added to his natural endowments, in order to love God above all things naturally, although he needed God’s help to move him to it; but in the state of corrupt nature man needs, even for this, the help of grace to heal his nature.

In these we can see that Thomas is making the distinction between what we would call saving grace and what we would call either common grace or simply, grace, i. e. the grace we need to continue to live the Christian life.

 5. The Scholastic theology of the will
One last thing should be said when thinking about how some scholastics, specifically theologians like Thomas and John Duns Scotus, discuss things like the will, the intellect, the mind, reason, and so on. When they do this they are operating on a whole host of assumptions, set by St. Augustine, on the philosophical foundation for nature and being. Augustine, for example, taught that there is in every human a higher soul and a lower soul (see De Trinitate, Book XII). Augustine also taught, as we have already established, that the human person was fallen and unable to do good or choose God outside of divine help. Scholastic theologians like Thomas and Scotus took this teaching to a particular place when they posited that it was fundamentally the human will that was fallen and thus made the human person unable to do any good thing or to love God or choose to serve him or have faith in him. This theology of the will served as the basis for much of Luther’s thought on the human person, salvation, and the will and is the underlying basis for his doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone.

The reason why Thomas and Scotus taught that there was a part of the human intellect that was untouched by sin has to do with where they placed the image of God in the human person, again following, you guessed it, Augustine. Since they all placed the image of God in the upper or rational soul, that part of the human person could not be touched by the fall, otherwise a person would cease to be rational, cease to be an image bearer, cease to be a person. Yet, these teachers protected the Augustinian teachings on grace in unequivocally stating that despite this, the human person could know nothing or do nothing outside of God’s divine help (as is shown above). Thus I think that anyone labeling these thinkers as semi-Pellagian is straying out of their lane.

Conclusion: Why this matters
Why does this matter? Simply, because there is a resurgent interest in the scholastic period and in thinkers like Thomas, Scotus, Ockham, and Bonaventure. I would add that theologians like Hugh of St. Victor (and the other Victorines), Lombard, Hales, and Anselm are also worthy of study. Thus if we are going to study and read these medieval thinkers, it is always good to read them correctly, contextually, and on their own terms. To put it even more simply, it matters because we want to tell the truth about what these folks actually said.

Why else does it matter? I think another good reason why reading these writers accurately matters is that when we do not tell a true or accurate story about medieval theologians (or patristic writers like Augustine), and then someone is presented with a more nuanced and accurate take on them which better accounts for their writings and their context, it discredits those who propounded the unfortunately false view and those who surround him or her. How many young Protestants have converted to Roman Catholicism (or seriously considered it) because they have heard truncated or even false takes on ancient and medieval writers only to hear a truer take from Roman Catholic authors and apologists? We as Reformed and otherwise Protestant are better served by engaging these ancient and medieval authors correctly, articulating where we differ, celebrating where we find commonality, and enriching on our own traditions where we find anew sources for growing and building upon our own little piece of the great Catholic Church.

Fully Human

A friend reminded me today of this important aspect of theology. Fourth century theologian Gregory of Nazianzus said, “What has not been assumed is not healed.”

Christ has a human mind, a human body, and a human will. He is like us in every respect, except without sin. If this is not true, if he does not have a human body, then our bodies are not saved; if he does not have a human mind, then our minds are still fallen, if he does not have a human will, then our wills are left without hope of deliverance. In other words, if Christ is not fully human, in every way like us, then we are still in our sins.

Something to remember.

(HT Tomás O’Sullivan)

Ecce homo: a Good Friday Homily

The Passion of Christ has long been a subject for artists. The material has depth of story  and emotion like nothing other. Some of the most beautiful art that has ever been produced has used the subject of Christ’s suffering and death as inspiration. In the world  of music there is the genre of the Passion chorale, in drama, the Passion play, and in art the standard canon of scenes from Jesus’ suffering and death as depicted in the Gospels.

One of those standard scenes in the passion canon is the Ecce homo. This scene gets its name from the famous words of Pontius Pilate as he introduces Jesus to the crowds after his flogging and humiliation. When he presents Jesus to the crowds, Pilate says, “Behold the man,” which in Latin is, “Ecce homo.”

Behold the man. Ecce homo.

This scene began to be a popular artistic subject in the late middle ages and into the Renaissance. Most of these depictions are shown in the third person, with you, the viewer back at an angle watching the entire scene unfold. The angry crowds are shown. The crowds who will call for Jesus’ death. The soldiers are shown, the torturer, the surrounding architecture and city are shown, and of course, Pilate and Jesus. Most of these paintings give the viewer a birds eye view of the entire scene to let you appreciate
the full gravity of this moment in all its awful enormity.

But there is one painting that is different, and it happens to be one of the most famous of this genre. In Caravaggio’s rendition, there are no crowds, no surrounding city, no buildings or architecture, there is nothing at all, but the torturer, Jesus, Pilate, and you.

Yes, Caravaggio’s brilliance is in placing we, the viewer, into the artistic moment. The painting is astounding in its simplicity. Christ is looking down, passively suffering, like a lamb before the slaughter. The torturer is almost gently placing a purple robe on the
shoulders of the suffering Christ. And Pilate, on whom the most attention is given, is standing in the foreground with his hands, palms upward, gesturing toward Christ, his body pointing neither at Christ or us, but his head turned and looking us squarely in the eyes. In Caravaggio’s work Pilate is taking a neutral stance. He is not for or against Jesus. He is almost indifferent. And he looks to us almost as if to say, “What do you
want me to do with him? It is up to you. Behold the man.”

Now, this was revolutionary because the depictions of Ecce homo that preceded  Caravaggio serve to make you empathize with the suffering Christ and to be angry with those who caused his suffering. The torturer is shown with an insane look in his eyes. The soldiers are blood thirsty. The crowds are enraged. You are supposed to be angry at  them. But in Caravaggio’s painting, the torturer almost doesn’t even want to be there, Pilate seems indifferent and annoyed, and the only person to blame for the horrible state of Christ’s suffering and humiliation is the only other person left in the artistic moment: me.

I think Caravaggio gets it right. You see, Pilate is not saying Ecce homo to the scribes, the Pharisees, the chief priests and rulers of Israel. Pilate is saying Ecce homo to you, to me. He is saying to us, “behold the man.” Pilate is asking us what we will do with this Christ, this King of the Jews. He is saying to us, “Behold the man.” Behold him. Behold this Christ.

There is something about considering Christ in this specific moment, almost as if we had hit pause on our TV remote. Here is Christ. Before he dies on the cross, yet in the midst of his suffering and rejection. This is a part of Christ’s passion, you see. This is a part of his atonement. He had to experience this moment. Behold the man.

Behold him as he is scourged. There are two Greek words used in the gospels that
describe the scourging of Jesus. One word emphasizes the many pronged whip that was used, with bones and metal tied to the tips of the leather thongs. These thongs sliced through his flesh. The other word used in the gospels is the word that we get our word for “to chew” and emphasizes how the whip tore and chewed through his flesh. This scourging was for the purposes of torture, and the Romans were very good at it. Its goal was to inflict excruciating pain but still leave the subject alive so that he could be crucified. If this scourging itself would not have been limited, that act itself would have killed him. Behold the man.

Behold him as the Roman soldiers take thorns and twist them and make them into a crown of mockery. Behold him as they cruelly force the thorny crown onto his brow. Behold the blood as it begins to pour. Behold the man.

Behold him as the soldiers mock him and strike him. Behold him as they take a purple robe and place it on him, mocking his supposed kingship. Behold him as he is mocked and beaten by the very ones whom he carefully and wonderfully knitted together in their mothers’ wombs. Behold the man.

Behold him now as he is brought out again before you. Behold him as Pilate presents him to you again. Behold him stricken, smitten, and afflicted. Behold the sacred head now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down. Behold him despised and rejected. Behold him acquainted with grief. Behold the man.

You want to look away, don’t you. We can’t bear to look, can we? It is too awful, too gruesome. But ultimately, we are too ashamed. We cannot look because we know that
it is our sin that put him there. We cannot look because it is our penalty that he is suffering to pay. We cannot look because it is we who have condemned him. Yes, when Pilate looks at us and says, “Behold the man,” we would like to think that we would grant him reprieve. We would like to think that we would take Barabbas instead. But no one has ever taken Barabbas. We have all taken Jesus. We have all condemned him to die.

When did we do this? Every time we sin. Every time we reject goodness of the creator for our own selfish ways. Every time we follow the wicked ways of this world instead of the ways of God we are asking for Barabbas and rejecting Jesus. Every time we harden our hearts and do what we know is wrong, we are saying, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him! Crucify him!” Behold the man.

Tonight, we are all faced with a choice. Pilate looks at us and asks us a question, “What will you do with this Christ?” The beauty of the gospel is that you can make this choice anew tonight. All past wrongs can be forgiven if you will choose Christ again. Be sorry for your sins! Repent and turn away from them. Choose Christ and send away your own sinful flesh. He suffered and died to make this way for you. He paid the debt that you
owe. He suffered the wrath that you deserve for your sins. Choose Christ and nothing else! Run to Christ and receive his grace! Bask in his mercy that he bought with his
own blood. Be healed with the stripes of his back. Be renewed with the blood of his brow.

What will you do? What will you choose? This the most important decision you will ever make. Will you choose Christ, or will you choose to continue to wallow in your sin and misery? Will you choose Christ or will you choose death? There is no need for you to die because Christ has died so that you all might live. Choose life. Choose Christ.

What will you choose?

Behold the man.

Was Jesus Crucified on the Mount of Olives?

View from the Mount of Olives looking west onto the Temple Mount, where the Dome of the Rock now stands

In a 1996 article in Biblical Horizons, James Jordan makes several observations about the Mount of Olives and it’s significance both in Jesus’ ministry and in biblical theology in general. Now there are several fascinating observations in that article, but one of them particularly stood out to me. There Jordan argues that Jesus was likely crucified on the Mount of Olives. Read the essay here:

I must admit, this suggestion makes a lot of sense and resonates with me. The Mount of Olives figures largely in all the gospels and it’s theological symbolism can easily be articulated due to the significance of olives in the Bible. Many of our modern day designations for places of Jesus’ life are admittedly guesses by scholars, so this suggestion by Jordan is not treading on anything sacrosanct. I must say that given the geography and symbolism it makes a lot of sense. What think ye?