The Lordless Powers and Baptismal Renunciations

Leicester R. Longden

I would like to explore in my next few essays the challenge and promise that the Baptismal Renunciations provide to a culturally accommodated church. The questions to be asked include the following:

  • What liturgical and theological functions did the Renunciations perform in the early catechumenate?
  • What “powers” did they identify and reject?
  • What is the current use, function, and effectiveness of the Renunciations?
  • Is it possible to retrieve the radical character of the Renunciations of the early church for the cultural struggles of the contemporary church?
  • How might a deeper awareness of the role of the Baptismal Renunciations help the church to name, resist, and even publicly renounce the “Lordless powers” in our age?
  • What are some possible openings in pastoral practice for the recovery of the Renunciations?
  • What are the possible gains as well as dangers for such a recovery attempt?

The impetus for this exploration comes from reading a recent essay by R. R. Reno (“Benedict Option,” First Things, May 2017). Reno’s article takes aim at the powers at work in our public culture and appeals to Karl Barth’s analysis of “the Lordless Powers” (Church Dogmatics IV/4: Lecture Fragments; ET, The Christian Life [Eerdmans, 1981]). Reno’s essay and Barth’s acute theological appraisal center around the conflict between Christian freedom and captivity to the age. I believe their reflections have significant ramifications for catechesis in our time, particularly baptismal catechesis. Thus, I want to draw out from their theological claims some applications for pastoral practice and to invite the comments and suggestions of my readers. (It’s worth noting that the whole of these “lecture fragments” of Barth are an extended exegesis and commentary on the Lord’s Prayer.)

To begin our exploration, then, the Renunciations I have in mind are the questions asked in the Baptismal Liturgy before the candidate confesses faith in Jesus Christ. The form in the United Methodist Hymnal is as follows:

Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,
reject the evil powers of this world,
and repent of your sin?

Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you
to resist evil, injustice, and oppression
in whatever forms they present themselves?

Note the tension between human actions — renounce, reject, repent, resist — and the spiritual forces at play — evil powers, on the one hand; the freedom and power God gives, on the other. An initial question to mark for further investigation: what kind of teaching and formation is required for the candidate to make such renunciations with understanding and integrity? In other words, how are “spiritual forces” and “evil powers” named and identified so that the candidate knows the objects of rejection and what’s at stake?

This is not the place for an extended study of Barth’s final lectures on dogmatics (which are an exceedingly rich exposition of the Lord’s Prayer and the foundation of the Christian life in baptism), but his discussion of “the Lordless powers” can provide a broad theological vista for considering and expounding Baptismal Renunciations, even if one disagrees with his interpretation of baptism. Nor must we agree with all of Reno’s interpretations of the current political and cultural scene to acknowledge that he has made a fruitful connection between Barth’s teaching and the struggle between Christian freedom and the “powers” of our age.

Nevertheless, a brief exposition of Barth’s perspective can help orient our investigation. First, his teaching about the powers to be resisted is grounded in the petition, “Thy kingdom come.” It is in the prayer that Jesus taught that we are given the command and the freedom to call on God, “and in so doing … to know this kingdom even in the midst of the kingdom of disorder, to look toward it and to call for it” (The Christian Life, 234).

Second, corresponding to God’s action there is a human response: “Christians have been given the certainty that God has taken in hand and actualized order in his creation for the good of man and that he will finally manifest and enforce it in its perfection. They thus revolt against all the oppression and suppression of man by the lordship of lordless powers” (205n1). Thus, Barth defines Christian life as “entry into a conflict.”

Reno helpfully summarizes the third aspect of Barth’s perspective: “Barth observed that when man [sic] no longer accepts God’s authority, he is not in fact free. Instead, otherwise healthy aspects of the created order ‘become spirits with a life and activity of their own, lordless indwelling forces’” (67). Barth is clear that these powers have only a “pseudo-objective reality” since they are not “ontologically godless forces” but rather “human abilities, exalting themselves as lordless forces, against man himself … [and] they derive power and lordship over him because of the disintegration of his relationship to God.” It’s important to note that Barth is not here returning to an older form of demonology; he makes clear that “because they do not have more than pseudo-objective reality, we can speak of them only in consciously mythological terms” (The Christian Life, 215-16).

Barth names among the lordless powers the following: the “demonism of politics,” the “myth of the State,” Mammon and money as a symbol, “intellectual constructs” known as ideologies, and “chthonic forces” (which Reno summarizes as “the instinctual powers that surge within our created natures”). Some of his examples will be useful in our later discussions of the Renunciations. I invite my readers to enter this discussion with me.

Posted Aug 07, 2017

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