Perfection in design is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but rather when there is nothing more to take away.
–Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
As a software engineer, I can appreciate this statement. Good engineering isn’t cluttered and doesn’t have extra parts left over. It cleanly and efficiently does what it’s supposed to do, and nothing else. Unfortunately, the modern mind is the mind of an engineer, and we often forget that what is a sound proverb in engineering makes little sense when applied to other pursuits. Shall we take brush strokes off of paintings as long as they could do without? Shall we replace literature with Cliff’s notes that cover the essential points without all that unnecessary prose? While there can be a kind of beauty in clean efficiency, it is not the only kind of beauty. Good design is not Truth. Perhaps the greatest crime against the humanities has been modernism’s ongoing attempts to reach the essence of a thing by stripping away everything that’s non-essential. An effective strategy for the mechanical is downright destructive for the spiritual and the organic.
The same holds true when we try to apply this to theology. Consider baptism. Lutherans believe what the Church has historically taught and the Bible has always taught about baptism. In short, we believe that Baptism saves us (“Baptism now saves you” 1 Peter 3:21, “No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit” John 3:5, etc). More modernistic theologies, however, attempt to strip baptism and salvation down to their essential parts and end up separating the two.
This is typically reached, not through Biblical instruction, but through the use of exceptions to trim the edges of Biblical instruction. Sometimes these exceptions come from the Bible: for instance the thief on the cross. He was told he’d be with Jesus in paradise, but he (probably) wasn’t baptized. More often, the exceptions come from life. What about unbaptized babies that die? What about a man who believes because he here’s the Word, but he’s killed in a car accident on the way to his baptism? Such folk aren’t baptized, but surely must be saved! Must we therefore be good modernists by stripping salvation down to its essence and removing baptism from it? Shall we make salvation more efficient and get rid of all the “false positives” of baptized who reject Christ later in life?
I think there’s a different and entirely legitimate answer to the exceptions: “So what?” Do these examples really prove that Baptism is unnecessary? Only in the same way a broken Chevy rolling down a hill after pulling the wedges out from underneath its wheels proves that a car doesn’t need an engine to accelerate. There might be some narrow, abstract, & theoretical sense in which it’s technically true, but it’s also completely irrelevant. There’s nothing for the Church to do about a man who dies on his way to be baptized. There’s nothing for the Church to do about unbaptized infants whom we have not been given the opportunity to baptize–otherwise they’d be baptized infants. Let God sort that out. That whole sacrificing His Son and dying for our sins thing makes me suspect that we can trust Him to accomplish whatever end is good and right. The thief on the cross was saved by Christ’s personal promise–that he would be with him in paradise that very day. We too are saved by Christ’s promise–His promise to the whole world that He saves us through baptism. Why cut off perfectly good legs just because it might technically be possible to move around on bloody stumps?
We have not been authorized to make salvation more efficient than what God has taught. God has given us the means of grace that He has given us: Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the Word. By receiving these we receive faith & salvation. He has taught us these things, and His teachings are trustworthy and true. There’s nothing to be gained by misusing modernistic thought trends in a vain attempt to “improve” God’s instruction.