Paul and the Sacraments
What is the Role of the Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist in the Pauline Concept of Salvation?
Over the centuries, the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist have been considered integral to the Christian concept of salvation. Although there has been much debate throughout the centuries regarding exactly how they integrate into the salvific plan of Christ in the life of the Christian, most Christians have acknowledged at least some role for them. This is no less true of the Apostle Paul.
The sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist did not originate with Paul, but instead were already established within the Christian Church of his day. Paul himself was baptized (Acts 9:18), and he assumes it as a common experience of Christians (Rom 6:1-4, Gal 3:26-28)(1). Likewise, when speaking of the Eucharist, Paul states clearly that it is something he "received" (1 Cor 11:23), not something he invented. While it is true that in the Pauline corpus (2), there is little detailed discussion of these two sacraments, this is due to the nature of his letters, which were written to address specific topics and controversies of the communities to whom they were addressed. One can deduce from the content of Paul's letters that he did not feel the need to address controversies regarding a "sacramental theology." When Paul does address Baptism and the Eucharist, it is almost always in an ethical context (3).
However, it would be a mistake to assume from this that these two sacraments are unimportant to Paul, or not an integral part of his theology. When it suits his argument, Paul does not hesitate to use the realities of these sacraments to further his view. Some point towards Paul's comments in 1 Corinthians 1:14-17 as evidence that he denigrated Baptism. However, this passage is not a statement on the essential role of Baptism in the Christian life, but instead simply a reminder from Paul that his specific mission from Christ is to "preach the gospel" (1 Cor 1:17), not to administer Baptism (4). Furthermore, one must understand the context in which these letters were received and read. Paul's letters are typically intended for a specific ecclesia (1 Cor 1:2, 2 Cor 1:1, Gal 1:2, 1 Thess 1:1, 2 Thess 1:1, Philem 1:2). Meeks and especially Zizioulas show that, for Paul, an ecclesia is specifically the Eucharistic gathering of the community of believers (5). Thus, the context of the reading of Paul's letters is within the Eucharistic liturgy. Thus Paul does not build a true "sacramental theology;" nevertheless these two sacraments are fundamental parts of his overall theology of salvation.
For Paul, both Baptism and the Eucharist are a participation in the saving works of Christ which bring about an incorporation and union with Christ and a corporate union with all other believers. These effects have ethical implications for the believer, and ultimately point towards the parousia, when Christ will come again and bring all his followers into his kingdom.