What follows is my final paper for my class, Formation of the Christian Tradition. Enjoy.
Whether Thomas Aquinas prioritizes the act of baptism over the Christ in whose honor the act is performed?
Objection 1: It seems as though Aquinas does place a tremendous amount of emphasis on the act of baptism, so that it is done in a certain way ("Baptism receives its consecration from its form" [Part 3, Question 66, Article 5, I answer that]) with certain words, ("Therefore this is the suitable form of Baptism: "I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost."" [Part 3, Question 66, Article 5, I answer that]) and with a certain liquid, ("By Divine institution water is the proper matter of Baptism; and with reason" [Part 3, Question 66, Article 3, I answer that]) so that Christ's presence is lost in the regulations of the act.
Objection 2: With a seeming lack of discussion of the state of the heart, soul, or standing before God of the candidate, baptism is presented as simply an act, and not a transforming experience. Therefore, the focus is on the physical act and not on the metaphysical transformation of the individual participating in the act.
Objection 3: Aquinas' focusing on the rules and proper form of the ritual only serve to enforce a kind of legalism upon an act that is supposed to symbolize the greatest act of grace. The free grace of Christ is therefore lost in the regulations of the act.
On the contrary, Aquinas writes, "Baptism derives its efficacy from Christ's Passion." (Part 3, Question 66, Article 9, Reply to Objection 1) He also writes, "The Baptism of Water derives its efficacy from Christ's Passion and from the Holy Ghost." (Part 3, Question 66, Article 12, I answer that)
I answer that, for Thomas Aquinas, the ritual of baptism only had power because of the merciful work of Christ that took place on the cross. The act of baptism was not salvific unto itself: it required the atoning death of Jesus and the belief of the Christian for the ritual to have meaning. Precisely because the ritual of baptism ONLY had meaning on account of the signifying death of Jesus, the ritual intrinsically pointed to Christ. The ritual itself, when performed correctly, was fused with the presence of Christ. Therefore, the detail that Aquinas gives to the ritual does not detract from the presence of Christ, but rather ensures it.
Reply to Objection 1: Because Christ specifically commanded baptism be performed in a certain way, it must be done correctly so that it is made sure that Christ is present in the act. Therefore, such detailed argument and description is necessary in order for the focus to remain on Christ, who made the baptism possible. Thus, the more detailed and correct the procedure only serves to make certain of the presence of Christ, and does not detract from it.
Reply to Objection 2: As the recipient of the grace of Christ, the candidate for baptism is the evidence of the changed soul. Aquinas speaks of the ritual as powerful to cleanse, and not as a legal hoop to jump through: "Yet this latter sacrament derives its cleansing virtue from the power of Christ's blood." (Part 3, Question 66, Article 3, Reply to objection #3) Therefore, the deep change that occurs in the candidate's heart not ignored in order to simply focus on the ritual act itself. The only reason the Christian is receiving baptism is because of a changed heart. Thus, the changing of the individual is evident, and is not lost so that a physical act can be described in depth.
Reply to Objection 3: The free grace offered by the death of Christ is not lost in the act as it is the sole reason the act is even able to take place. As the source of the ritual, ("The Baptism of Water derives its efficacy from Christ's Passion and from the Holy Ghost." [Part 3, Question 66, Article 12, I answer that]) the Passion and the grace it offers are forever present, even if rules and regulations seem to be the primary focus of Aquinas' writings. Just as the influence of a mother or father are ever-present in the life of a child, even when seemingly absent, so the effects of grace are present in baptism.