Why do we baptise?

– Why do we baptise, asks Professor Harald Hegstad in his research.

Harald Hegstad is professor of Systematic Theology at MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion and Society.

Special fields: Christian Doctrine and Ecclesiology

In light of a recent downturn, the church in Norway is trying to turn the tide, in favour of baptism, through information campaigns and various measures to make baptism more attractive.

– This kinds of action is important, but it is just as important to think about why one might baptise. Theologians have an important task here; we must both ask the right questions and formulate answers, says Harald Hegstad, professor of systematic theology. He is working on a research project to contribute in this area. The project is supported by funding for religious education from the church's National Council in Norway. The results will be set out in a forthcoming book on the theology of baptism.

An Ecumenical Vision
Though baptism is central to the church, no comprehensive presentation of the Lutheran theology of baptism has been published in Norwegian since 1978.

– In the meantime, much has happened, not least in the ecumenical field – in the relationship between different church denominations’ understandings of baptism. Traditionally, the Lutheran theology of baptism has largely been formulated in polemics against the baptismal theology of other denominations, not least against a Baptist view which rejects infant baptism. In the last few decades of ecumenical conversations an effort to focus on what we may declare about baptism together, has taken precedence, without denying that there are still differences, Hegstad tells us.

Consequently, his project is about formulating a theological understanding of baptism, which may both serve as an expression of Lutheran baptismal theology, and which makes inroads towards the ecumenical community and fellow christians.

– An orientation towards the common Christian means, in particular, that it is necessary to work with the texts that all denominations view as normative, specifically the biblical texts on baptism," said the scholar.

Baptism as a Sign
A central perspective in Hegstad's project is the understanding of baptism as a sign. As a sacrament, a sacred rite, baptism expresses something beyond the physical act. How to understand the character of baptism as a ‘Sign’ is therefore an important factor in the relationship between the different understandings of baptism.

– While some think more symbolically about what is happening in baptism (that baptism points to a salvation given to the candidate by other means), others think more sacramentally and literally (salvation is given through baptism itself). In ecumenical contexts there has been a clear development towards a more sacramental understanding: baptism is not merely a symbol that points to something else but contributes in that salvation to which it points, explains Hegstad. This does not, however, exclude the fact that baptism at the same time points beyond itself, towards a salvation that one has not yet fully taken part in, but which is fully realised in the Kingdom of God that is yet to come, Hegstad explains.

Event and Process
This means that baptism is both an event in which something significant happens between the candidate and God, and a Sign of that process, ongoing within those who have been baptised.

– The lifelong significance of baptism was an important perspective in Martin Luther's understanding of baptism, but is also an important theme in the broader ecumenical community. The ‘process’ perspective of baptism points, among other things, towards the importance of baptism being received “in faith”; that the candidate must be taught their faith and included in the fellowship of the church, says Hegstad.

Throughout the project, Harald Hegstad hopes to contribute to an understanding of baptism where it will not be seen as an isolated event but an rite that creates meaning and forms an identity for people today.

– The goal is also to help baptism become something that unites Christians, rather than something that separates them.