Death by Baptism: Sacramental Liberation in a Culture of Fear
By Frank G. Honeycutt
Who should read this book? Frank Honeycutt, a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, wrote this book for pastors (and worship leaders). The book is aimed at Protestant audiences in general and at times to Lutheran audiences in particular. The text is quite accessible. Readers who wish to understand some of the challenges and potential of preaching about and practicing baptism in Protestant churches may find this book useful and interesting.
Main point: The author’s central argument is that American culture is permeated by insecurity and fear, especially fear of death. Repeatedly, the author returns to the claim that in baptism a Christian has already died the death that really matters: “We have already died in these ancient waters, now beyond the reach of any perceived threat to life” (p. 28).
Why does it matter? Why is this book significant? Grounded in the author’s decades of pastoral experience, this book confronts head-on truncated understandings of baptism as “fire insurance” against eternity in hell or as supernatural guarantee against misfortune. The author advises preachers to address the fears of people today by examining in their sermons the fears of Jesus’ early disciples, situating those fears in the “love and promises of Christ” (p. 3). The author also argues against celebrating baptism without preceding catechesis and formation, outlining for adults a four-stage process that mirrors the restored Rite of Christian Initiation in the Roman Catholic Church. While carefully preserving the characteristic Lutheran emphasis on grace over works, the author quotes Dallas Willard’s quip that “grace . . . is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning’ (p. 103).
What intrigued me: The author discusses the baptismal practice of a congregation where, after a baptism, the assembly processes to the adjacent church cemetery. There, water left over from the baptism is poured onto the burial plot which the baptizand will one day occupy. I am not sure how widely feasible this practice may be but it is certainly full of rich symbolism.
Pushing back: I offer three points here. I wonder if the author’s emphasis on baptism ends up obscuring Eucharist. In the book’s closing chapter, for example, the author quotes James K.A. Smith on how the cadences of worship “are the rhythms where we learn to be free . . . The point of the sacraments is that they are embodied conduits of grace that nourish new habits.” The author follows up with “Baptism is a one-time dunking with daily implications for ongoing conversion” (p. 146). True enough. Yet the weekly rhythm of worship features Eucharist far more often than it features baptism. The idea the baptism is ordered to Eucharist makes no appearance in the text here or elsewhere.
The author does not connect discussion of fear of death with the shift in early Christian centuries from Christ as Good Shepherd to Christ as Pantokrator and fearsome Judge. This shift played a part in the emergence of magical thinking about sacraments, including baptism.
The author’s treatment of baptismal promises / renunciations (e.g., on p. 104) does not draw on recent figures such as David Batchelder or Debra Dean Murphy, each of whom has addressed the question of taking baptismal promises / renunciations seriously. Along these lines, the author also does not draw on important ancient homilies on baptism / initiation by St. Augustine or St. John Chrysostom.
Implications. That death in baptism puts biological death in a transformed light is a key element of this book. Would that more of us clung to this belief with greater frequency and tenacity.
Honeycutt, Frank G. Death by Baptism: Sacramental Liberation in a Culture of Fear. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2021. 192 pages. $19.99. ISBN: 9781506470047.
REVIEWER: Timothy Brunk