- The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan: The Trinitarian and Cosmic Order of Salvation
At first glance the title of this book might strike one as odd. After all, when thinking about the baptism of Jesus, do not issues of Jesus’ humanity and ascending christologies more readily spring to mind than images of the Triune God? While such preoccupations may represent particular modern sensibilities, any reader of McDonnell’s book will quickly realize how much they differ from early Christian understanding of the significance of Jesus’s baptism. McDonnell argues that the baptism of Jesus not only provided the primary motivating force in the institution of Christian baptismal practice, but also that reflection upon it allowed Christians to enter symbolically into the mystery of God’s triune existence.
McDonnell insists that his book is primarily a work of systematic theology using historical material and not an exercise in historical theology. Hence, his study differs significantly for that of D. Vigne on the same subject (see my review, JECS 4 : 394–96). While Vigne sought to demonstrate that the Baptism of Jesus was central to Jewish Christianity, McDonnell’s labors to identify thematic strands in early Christian literature relating to the Baptism. His efforts are comprehensive and impressive. Authors and titles from the Western, Eastern, and Syriac church are all represented. The cosmic significance of Jesus’ anointing, the Jordan as the pivot point between the old and the new Adam, and the symbolic connection between the descent into the Jordan and the descent into hell are among the many themes McDonnell explores. Readers who enjoy immersion in the symbolic world of early Christianity will profit from these sections. With themes and images so rich and complex, however, the material constantly threatens to lose cohesiveness. At times McDonnell seems content simply to lay out the opinions of various authors without making clear how all the pieces come together: the systematic conclusions toward which McDonnell moves evade easy detection. [End Page 321]
These conclusions do eventually emerge and they offer keen insight. Particularly helpful is McDonnell’s observation that the earliest Christian baptismal practice was deeply rooted in reflection upon the significance of the Baptism of the Lord. Hence, at the beginning of a new life in the power of the Holy Spirit, the Christian life that begins in baptism follows the pattern established by Jesus in his own baptism. As Cyril of Jerusalem explains: “Jesus sanctified baptism when he himself was baptized. . . . So Jesus was baptized that we, in our turn, might be made partakers in it with him, and thus we receive not only salvation, but also the dignity [as children of God]” (219). In some parts of the church, only Easter was more important than the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Eventually, however, Romans 6:4 (we were buried with him through baptism into death so that . . . we too might live in newness of life), began to compete with the earlier model. While the theology based upon the baptism of the Lord coexisted with the baptismal theology of Paul well into the fourth century, the imagery of Romans eventually came to dominate.
McDonnell attributes this transition to the movement from an essentially symbolic theology characteristic of the pre-nicene church to a more precise theological language born of controversy. In this he is certainly correct, but the book does not draw sufficient attention to the ease with which the baptism of Jesus could be used in anti-nicene arguments. Nor does he take much account of Vigne’s strong arguments that the baptism of Jesus was a central feature of Jewish Christianity. In other words, the eventual eclipse of the baptism of Jesus from the forefront of the Christian imagination may have been even more deeply rooted in early Christian controversy than McDonnell allows.
In fairness, establishing a precise history of early Christian understanding of Jesus’ baptism was not McDonnell’s goal. His intent was, rather, to show how Christian attention to the baptism of Jesus...