Forum: Christian Initiation and Baptism in the Holy Spirit


Recent work by Kilian McDonnell and George T. Montague(*1) has proposed that baptism in the Holy Spirit is integral to Christian initiation because evidence from the New Testament and from the first eight centuries of patristic literature verifies that neophytes came up from the font speaking in tongues and prophesying. The authors argue that contemporary catechesis for Christian initiation should therefore include preparation for the prophetic charisms that enliven the charismatic renewal.

Hundreds of pages and thousands of footnotes manifest the zeal of the authors, whose insistency may convince the reader. However, caveat lector. Three major problems limit the value of this work: The sources cited do not describe the charismatic activity the authors claim they do, the ritual texts of the same period (about which the authors keep silent) never detail the bestowal of charismatic gifts, and the theology of initiation does not demand them.

Montague and McDonnell perch their argument on the backs of many citations from Scripture and patristics, but they gloss over the difficulties each presents. A sampling of the sources and arguments will demonstrate their method.


Montague's argument from the New Testament considers both the evangelists and the epistlers. He aims to show the link between charismatic gifts and early Christian initiation in passages like these:

1. Mark 16:17-18: "These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages. They will pick up serpents with their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them. They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover."

Montague concludes, "There is a clear promise, and therefore an expectation, of charismatic activity flowing from the very nature of discipleship. . . . (S)uch empowerment is meant for all disciples and not just for the original twelve. . . . (C)harismatic manifestation was expected as a normal effect of initiation."(*2)

This passage, a late addition to Mark's Gospel, records an early church tradition about the commission Jesus gave his disciples. From this spare evidence, Montague concludes a) that all disciples experienced all these gifts, b) that Jesus expected them in all disciples in all future generations, and c) that charismatic manifestation normally resulted from Christian initiation. However, the disciples did not universally have such experience; these words rank among the least likely to have come from Jesus himself; future generations of disciples have in fact not all experienced these signs; and the leap from Mark to the content of apostolic initiation rites is presumptuous. Furthermore, Montague wishes us to accept that speaking in tongues and healing the sick form part and parcel of every Christian's discipleship. Why not handling snakes and drinking poison?

2. Acts of the Apostles (passim): Montague writes, "Though the Holy Spirit is not explicitly mentioned in the baptisms of the Ethiopian (Acts 8:38-30), Lydia and her household (Acts 16:15), the jailer in Philippi (Acts 16:33), and the group of Corinthians (18:8), it is clear from the paradigmatic nature of Acts 2:1-38, 10:44-48, and 19:5 not only that the gift of the Spirit belongs essentially to Christian initiation, but that some external expression of its reception is normal."(*3)

Clear? It is not clear why some baptisms should be paradigmatic and others not. In fact, the widely various reports of the baptismal rituals in Acts of the Apostles make it difficult to conclude there was any single paradigm in the apostolic age. In Acts 10 the gift of the Spirit precedes baptism. Lydia's story presents a similar experience: before her baptism, Luke says the Lord "opened her heart," an action the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (paragraph 1) ascribes to the Holy Spirit for those who seek baptism. The evidence from Acts is far too sketchy to conclude that an external expression of the Spirit normally followed baptism.

3. Galatians 3:5: "Does then, the one who supplies the Spirit to you and works mighty deeds among you do so from works of the law or from faith in what you heard?"

Montague writes, "The close association here of the Spirit received and the mighty deeds makes it virtually certain Paul is speaking of the charisms poured out on the community at their baptism, and continuing even into the present."(*4)

"Virtually certain"? Well, no. Paul does speak about the wondrous activity of God, but a connection between this passage and a baptismal ritual lies only in the imagination.

4. 1 Peter 4:10: "As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God's varied grace."

Montague: "The grace (charis)of God is called manifold. . . . And it expresses itself in charismatic gifts. . . . Each one has received such a gift."(*5)

Montague assumes that "gift" means a special charismatic gift received at baptism, but the context simply infers virtues that abound quite commonly in the Christian community.

Examples abound, but these suffice. Montague isolates a passage, spotlights it with his theory, and universalizes it. He's searching for proof-texts to support his wish that external manifestations of the Holy Spirit normally followed early initiation rites. His method relies on a theory that the New Testament reflects a first-century Christian world where both the initiation rites and charismatic gifts have become institutionalized into common practice. Scripture study demands a more critical analysis of texts. His conclusion is too broad. Acts 19:5-7 does describe gifts of the Holy Spirit following the imposition of hands by St. Paul on twelve newly baptized Christians, but this single incident for a small group can hardly be called paradigmatic.

The New Testament reports that some baptisms continued with charismatic gifts, but more often we read of baptisms without charismatic gifts, baptisms preceded by them, and gifts which show no dependence on the baptismal ritual. Moreover, the New Testament does not attempt to present a single, common rite of initiation. If it tells us anything about these early rites, it confesses their variance.

Patristic Literature

McDonnell's contributions to the book suffer from the same rush to judgment. A few samples will demonstrate the problem.

1. Tertullian, Baptism: "Therefore, you blessed ones, for whom the grace of God is waiting, when you come up from the most sacred bath of the new birth, when you spread out your hands for the first time in your mother's house with your brethren, ask your Father, ask your Lord, for the special gift of his inheritance, the distributed charisms, which form an additional underlying feature [of baptism]."(*6)

McDonnell writes, "Specifically the neophytes are to ask for the charisms (peculia gratiae distributiones charismatum subiacere) which, ostensibly, one expected to find in a normal healthy local communion."(*7)

McDonnell positions this text as a building block for what follows, an argument that from the second century neophytes prayed for charismatic gifts as they rose from the font. However, his English translation is faulty and the universalization unfounded. McDonnell builds his entire argument on English words that Tertullian never wrote.

For example, he uses "in your mother's house" to translate apud matrem. McDonnell believes that the neophyte came up from the water, walked to another room for the eucharist, the "mother's house," and there asked for the charismatic gifts. (In the Roman tradition neophytes left the baptistry for the church where the bishop imposed hands on them and prayed for the Spirit.) However, apud matrem most naturally refers to the font ("in the mother's presence"), since Tertullian has just called baptism a rebirth.

But much more troublesome is the instruction, "ask your Lord for the special gift of his inheritance, the distributed charisms, which form an additional underlying feature [of baptism]." Tertullian wrote this: "petite de domino peculia gratiae distributiones charismatum subiacere." Literally, "ask the Lord that the inheritance of grace may be subject to the distributions of gifts." Tertullian recommends that neophytes place their personal inheritance of divine grace at the service of the spiritual gifts in the community. McDonnell's translation has them asking for charisms which form an "additional underlying feature of baptism"--a useful translation to argue that charismatic gifts accompanied second-century baptism, but a string of words that never issued from Tertullian's pen.

2. Origen, On John 6:33: "(Baptism) is in itself the principle and source of the divine charisms for anyone who offers one's self to the divinity through the powerful epiclesis of the adorable trinity. `For there is a diversity of gifts' (1 Cor 12)."

McDonnell writes, "Origen both names baptism as the principle and source of the charisms and indicates that he has principally in mind the charisms listed in 1 Corinthians 12."(*8)

However, nothing in Origen's text indicates he champions the cause of specifically prophetic gifts. He argues that rituals carry results--John's baptism effected forgiveness of sins, the healings of Jesus increased faith, and Christian baptism produced the gifts of the Spirit in the community. But he could be talking about faith, charity, and community as much as about tongues and prophecy. In addition Origen admits that the Spirit is not evident in everyone after baptism.(*9)

3. Cyril, Mystagogical Catecheses 2:6: "No, we know full well, that as (baptism) purges our sins, and conveys to us the gift of the Holy Spirit, so also it is the representation of Christ's sufferings."

McDonnell writes, "Cyril uses this biblical shorthand phrase in the MC for the charisms."(*10)

McDonnell appropriates Cyril's expression, "the gift of the Holy Spirit," to mean prophetic charisms and calls it biblical shorthand. However, nothing in the context nor in the history of interpreting Cyril justifies restricting the meaning of this expression to prophetic charisms.

4. Chrysostom, On 1 Corinthians 36: "The present church is like a woman who has fallen from her former prosperous days. In many respects she retains only the symbols of that ancient prosperity. She displays, in fact, the repositories and the caskets of her gold ornaments, but she is, in fact, deprived of her wealth. The present church represents such a woman."

McDonnell writes, "In the apostolic days the charisms were implicit in ecclesial life. . . . Chrysostom laments that the glory of those apostolic days when all was heavenly, is past."(*11)

However, Chrysostom treats the charisms of virginity and widowhood here, not prophetic gifts.

The book goes on. And on and on. But the sources cited do not make the case.

Furthermore, the authors keep silent about the expanse of literature from the same period which describes the initiation rituals. A fair treatment of this theme would acknowledge that ritual texts reveal a complete absence of any indication that neophytes spoke in tongues. Ambrose, Augustine, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Ephrem the Syrian, John the Deacon, the ordines romani, and the Veronese, Gregorian, and Gelasian sacramentaries all provide descriptions of initiation rituals that offer no support to the book's thesis. In their zeal to prove a point, Montague and McDonnell have overstated their case.

Finally, the theology of baptism does not demand the presence of prophetic manifestations of the Spirit. Virtually every parish community can bear witness to the abundance of faithful members who have never spoken in tongues.

The evidence supports a more modest conclusion: Communities of the early church experienced the gifts of the Spirit in many ways--some prophetic, some not. It is possible that some baptisms resulted in charismatic manifestations of the Holy Spirit, but we lack clear documentation. Prophetic gifts may serve the community by bolstering its faith and celebrating the presence of God, but they are not necessary, nor should they be expected to accompany every baptism. Preparation for baptism could include information and testimony about external manifestations of the Spirit, but it need not. Its focus remains to facilitate conversion of heart and openness to God.


(*1) Christian Initiation and Baptism in the Holy Spirit: Evidence from the First Eight Centuries, Second, Revised Edition, A Michael Glazier Book, Collegeville (The Liturgical Press, 1994).
(*2) Ibid., pp. 13f.
(*3) Ibid., p. 40.
(*4) Ibid., p. 47.
(*5) Ibid., p. 64.

(*6) McDonnell credits Francis Sullivan and the Sources Chrétiennes translation of this original: "Igitur benedicti quos gratia dei expectat, cum de illo sanctissimo lavacro novi natalis ascenditis et primas manus apud matrem cum fratribus aperitis, petite de patre, petite de domino, peculia gratiae distributiones charismatum subiacere."
(*7) Christian Initiation, p. 113.
(*8) Ibid., p. 143.
(*9) SC 157:258.
(*10) Christian Initiation, p. 222.
(*11) Ibid., p. 288.


This article first appeared in Worship 71/5 (September 1996):446-452.

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