During the last week of January, the Institute hosted the second meeting of the Trilateral Dialogue between the Lutheran World Federation, the Mennonite World Conference, and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (Roman Catholic). The purpose of the trialogue—only the second three-way conversation in ecumenical history!—is to discuss baptism. This itself is an outgrowth of major reconciliations that have taken place between the churches, in particular the official act of repentance and apology of the Lutherans to the Mennonites during the LWF’s 2010 assembly in Stuttgart, Germany. Having addressed the painful history of persecution, all three felt prepared to tackle the serious issue of baptism.
The reason this is difficult is because the Mennonites, as heirs of the Anabaptist movement, do not recognize the validity of infant baptism. Unique among the Reformation movements, they opted for a practice of believers’ baptism following a public confession of faith. As such, baptism is closely correlated to a deliberate choice on the part of the person to pursue a life of discipleship in following Christ. Such discipleship always takes place in the communion of believers; it is always a decision to join the church. Thus for Mennonites the ecclesiological question precedes the baptismal question. By contrast, both Lutherans and Catholics retained the practice of infant baptism, though of course both baptize adults in cases of conversion from other religions or none at all. While many of their arguments in favor of the practice overlap, they are by no means identical. However, they both believe that baptism itself gives rise to the church.
Such a dialogue, of course, needs to cover a wide range of issues. The specific topic this year was “Baptism: God’s Grace in Christ and Human Sin.” In particular, each group took up the question of how baptism relates to the forgiveness and/or elimination of sin. Original or hereditary sin is not a central aspect of Mennonite theology, though it is not necessarily denied, either. Since baptism is linked so strongly to the choice for discipleship, it makes little sense to them to conceive of baptism as „salvation“ from original sin, nor would there by any point in „emergency baptism“ as practiced by Lutherans and Catholics. Nevertheless, all three traditions came together in struggling over the question of the persistence of sin in the life of the baptized. On the one hand, why do adults who have willingly chosen to hand their lives over to Christ still find themselves so at odds with His will? How does that impact discipleship? At the same time, if there is no apparent difference in the life of a baptized child who has been „cleansed“ of original sin, why do it? There was much lively discussion of this and other issues, such as the extent of the freedom of the human will, the meaning of sacraments, and the practice of baptism in and out of Christendom contexts. These discussions were complemented by Bible studies of relevant scriptural texts that also brought in issues to consider from all corners of the globe. Finally, as each team takes turns presenting its own church’s baptismal rites, two Lutheran presentations were offered on the history of baptismal rites in the Lutheran church and the current practice of Lutheran baptism in sub-Saharan Africa.
The next meeting of the trialogue will take place in February 2015 in the Netherlands and will be hosted by the Mennonites on the theme “Baptism: Communicating Grace and Faith.” These annual meetings will continue until 2016. Hopes are to conclude with a report that will be useful at all levels of church life and will emphasize the importance of baptism to all three traditions despite the apparent differences among them.