One Baptism: Ecumenical Dimensions of the Doctrine

One Baptism: Ecumenical Dimensions of the Doctrine of Baptism. By Susan Wood. Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2009 (A Michael Glazier Book) Kindle ed.

Susan Wood

Susan Wood asks how do Christians explain that they have one baptism, according to Ephesians 4:4, and yet they are greatly divided about what baptism does. Indeed, a reconciliation on the doctrine of baptism among all Christian Churches is the ecumenical task that must be done if the prayer of Jesus Christ is to be realized and the ecumenical movement is to succeed. Perhaps no one is more qualified to write a book of systematic theology like this one. Susan Wood is the dean of the theological department of Marquette University where she earned her doctorate in theology and teaches theology, liturgy and sacraments. She is a member of the international theological commission of the Catholic Church and participates in the international dialogues of the Roman Catholic-Lutheran, Baptist-Catholic Conversations, USA Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue, and a member of the International Working Group of the World Council of Churches. She is also a writer and editor in ecumenical and systematic theology and liturgy.

Her approach on the subject of one baptism is to recognize the convergence that exists among Christians on the subject of baptism. This convergence is founded on the New Testament and is recognized by most Christians. The differences are not about the essentials though some Christians differ in their understanding of sacraments, others on what baptism does and many on the way baptism is celebrated and its effect on Christians.

History is an important part of why Christians are divided. For many centuries the teaching of St. Augustin dominated the theology of sacraments. Augustine defines sacraments as visible signs of invisible grace. Thomas Aquinas is also key to Catholic teaching on baptism. The Sixteenth Century Reformation is responsible for many of the divisions among Christians on the theology of baptism and its doctrinal major differences.

Luther claimed that his teaching was not very different from that of Thomas Aquinas, yet he stressed the importance of “solus Christus” and was opposed to Aquinas’ “ex opere operato”. Luther also affirmed that baptism was not effective because there was something in the water. He stressed “sola scriptura” the importance of the word of God (Scripture) which is part of the essence of sacraments.

In separate chapters W examines the essential points in Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed, Baptist and Orthodox churches which differ from the Catholic doctrine. Some of these differences existed in early Christian dissidents (e.g. Tertullian Origen et al.) W explains how some of the positions of the Reformers were inconsistent hence the difficulty in reconciling them within their own traditions, let alone across church lines.

Wood’s book has three main issues: baptismal doctrine, essentially free of controversy and resting on the theology of St. Augustine from the fourth century to the eleventh and Peter Lombard. The sixteenth century and the Reformers’ attack on Catholic theology of the scholastics not of the eleventh and thirteenth century, but as it had developed by the sixteenth century, especially through the nominalism of theologians like Gabriel Biel. Martin Luther’s theology was learned from Biel. Wood comments:

If the Reformers had been responding directly to Thomas Aquinas many of the disputes between them and Catholic sacramental theology might have been eliminated. However, at Erfurt, Martin Luther learned his scholastic theology as mediated by Gabriel Biel, a nominalist who moderated and interpreted William of Occam. Biel did not credit Thomas Aquinas for sufficiently associating sacramental efficacy ex opera operato with the active role of the recipient ex opera operantis.”

Wood’s second issue is the differences between the Reformers and the Council of Trent, the response of the Catholic Church to the positions of the Reformers which prevailed until Vatican II (1962-1965). The third issue examines the rite of baptism which was greatly determined by the doctrinal tradition of the Christian Churches which prevailed from the sixteenth century to the twentieth century.


Perhaps the final judgment of the book is that it is realistic. There are differences that cannot be reconciled at this time. However, ecumenists continue to dialogue in the hope that slowly but surely the consensus will grow and the unity of Christians will deepen. Full communion of the Churches is the goal. Wood’s presentation of doctrine, systematic theology and rite shows the consensus and differences on doctrine, the areas for development through careful theological dialogue and the diversity of rites that are not necessarily church-dividing but present some avenues for tolerable differences and greater understanding.

Ernest Falardeau SSS

New York, NY