Foundations: No.63 Autumn 2012

Review Article

Baptism: Three Views

Edited by David F. Wright, with contributions by Sinclair B. Ferguson, Anthony N. S. Lane, Bruce A. Ware

IVP Academic, 2009, 200 pp, £10.99

There are two opposite errors that evangelical Christians easily stumble into on the topic of baptism: we treat it with too little or too much importance.

The former error, I assume, is more common these days. The thinking here is, the West is secularising; we live in post-Christendom now; let’s not divide over non-essentials. Instead we must affirm the main thing we all share – the gospel.

The latter error, more common perhaps in former times, is still found wherever provincial mindsets cannot see that the work of Christ’s kingdom is afoot in denominations beyond their own. My own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in the United States, often succumbs to this temptation. I remember one convention speech where the speaker made some remark about “As goes the SBC, so goes Christianity in America. As goes Christianity in America, so goes Christianity in…” You can guess how that horrible progression of thought ends.

The solution to the first error is to recognise that baptism may not be essential, but it is important. The solution to the second is to realise that baptism is important, but not essential. In short, Christians need at least three categories for setting theological priorities: essential, important, and unimportant. We often miss that middle category, and act as if everything is either essential or completely unimportant.

Baptism is not essential because it does not save. The word of the gospel alone saves. Yet baptism is important because (i) it proclaims the gospel visibly; (ii) it helps to protect the gospel from generation to generation; and (iii) it serves to publicly identify the people of heaven on earth, both for their sake and for the sake of the nations.

To help us sort through several prominent views on baptism comes the helpful book Baptism: Three Views, edited by the late professor of patristics and Reformation Christianity, David F. Wright. Presbyterian minister Sinclair Ferguson presents the case for infant or paedobaptism. Baptist theologian Bruce Ware agues for believers’ baptism or credobaptism. And professor of historical theology Anthony Lane offers a dual-practice position. 

My younger sister, who was raised a Baptist like me but now attends a Presbyterian church with her husband and a newborn, recently asked me for a good lay-level book on the topic. I happily commended this one. It is written in a friendly, easy-to-follow way. Each author provides a reasonably compelling defence of his position. And the book’s format is conducive to a fruitful interchange.

All three authors give a 30-to-35 page presentation of their position, which is followed by a 5-to-10 page response from the other two, and is then concluded with an approximately 5 page rejoinder by the original presenter. This creates – I dare say – a fun dynamic, allowing the reader to see the different sides on any given point of dispute without getting bogged down in the intricacies of one position. It is an ideal format for this type of topic.

Ware on believers’ baptism

Ware opens the conversation by doing what Baptist theologians typically do: he offers a definition of the disputed term and then marshals a host of texts before the reader. To summarise in bite-sized morsels, Ware, who alone argues for both a particular mode (immersion) and subject (believers) of baptism, presents these challenges:

  1. The root of the Greek word baptō means “immerse” or “submerge” (21).
  2. In terms of usage, the New Testament describes scenes of “going down to the water” or “coming up out of the water” of believers (e.g. Matt 3:16; Acts 8:38)(21-23).
  3. Every New Testament instruction or command of baptism involves repentance, faith, or something else that presumes conscious belief (e.g. Matt 28:19; Acts 2:38; 2:41; 8:12; 8:35-38; 9:18), including the “household texts” (16:32-34; 18:8)(24-27; 29-35).
  4. No text in the New Testament explicitly mentions the baptism of infants (29-40), and the favourite texts of paedobaptists don’t say what they think they say (e.g. Acts 2:38-39). 
  5. “Only baptism by immersion provides the symbolism of dying to the old and being raised to the new life in Christ” (27).
  6. The old covenant incorporated people at two levels, both the ethnic and national as well as the spiritual or promise; but the new covenant incorporates only those who have been forgiven of their sins and received God’s law on their hearts, i.e. those who have repented and believed. Hence, the people of the new covenant, the church, is not a mixed community – “at least in principle and by structure and design” (emph. orig., 50; 41-47).  There is no category for unbelieving covenant members.
  7. Circumcision, too, functioned at both levels (ethnic/national and spiritual/promise). Which means, there is both continuity and dis-continuity between circumcision and baptism. Both are a sign and seal of their respective covenants (see Rom 4:11), but circumcision had an ethnic/national element that has fallen away. Only the spiritual/promise remains. Hence, the children of believers should not be baptised (45).
  8. Not surprisingly, the only explicit connection the New Testament makes between circumcision and baptism is drawn between spiritual circumcision of the heart and baptism (Col 2:11-12)(46, 116). 
  9. A growing number of scholars suggest that most churches practiced believers’ baptism in the first four to six centuries of the church’s existence, and when infant baptism was practiced, it was treated as necessary for the remission of sins, hardly a theology most Protestant paedobaptists would welcome (47-49).
  10. Believers’ baptism grounds the regenerate nature of the church.
  11. Baptists link the objective work of Christ with the subjective response of faith (73).

Ware rests his case lightly on historical grounds, largely on exegetical grounds, but not insignificantly on historical-redemptive grounds.

Ferguson on paedobaptism

Sinclair Ferguson makes his case mostly in this last historical-redemptive category, which of course is what Presbyterians do so well. He offers these challenges:

  1. In terms of mode, the New Testament baptismal accounts do not require immersion since pouring might have occurred (even in Matt 3:16 or Acts 8:38) (51-53).
  2. The early church attests to the practice of infant baptism, as with the third century Apostolic Tradition which refers to baptising children who are not yet able to speak (79-84).
  3. As with Abraham’s circumcision, baptism is a sign and seal of the righteousness that comes by faith. But where believers’ baptism emphasises what the believer does in responding by faith, the paedobaptist emphasises what Christ has done (53-55; 86-91; 92-96). It is a Christo-centric emblem, not a fidecentric one. Emphasis is on the movement from objective to subjective, not the opposite.
  4. The household baptism texts demonstrate that the Old Testament’s covenantal understanding of the family continues (56-57). God would not promote the family unit in the Old Testament only to displace it in the new, and nothing in the New Testament suggests the family has been displaced (106-07). The epochal movement from old covenant to new presents not a contraction (removing the family) but an expansion (adding the nations, as well as women into the covenantal sign).
  5. Jeremiah includes the “to you and your seed” principle in his exposition of the new covenant (Jer 32:38-40), as do all divine covenants prior to Pentecost (57-58; 101, 103-04).
  6. The fact that the way of salvation has always been the same suggests that the ordinance which replaces circumcision, which was a sign of that salvation, can also be given to infants (100-01; 104).
  7. Peter’s promise at Pentecost specifically underscores that these promises also go to the seed of believers (Acts 2:38-39)(103-04).
  8. Christ specifically blesses not just children (Mark 10:13-16) but seemingly babies (Luke 18:15-17)(107-08).

No doubt Ferguson exegetes texts, like Ware. But the overall paedobaptist argument depends less on straightforward reading of the texts and more heavily on a canonical framework that informs how one reads the baptism texts. Ferguson calls Ware’s approach “proof-textual” (105), which is always a convenient epithet when the proof-texts don’t immediately work in your favour, at least on the surface.

To be forthright, reading these first two accounts back to back did make me think, “Perhaps this explains why the Presbyterians I know have more education than the Baptists I know.” Yes, that’s a stereotype, but I say that as a Baptist. The credobaptist account, I dare say, is just easier to grab onto for the common Joe (“Look, the Ethiopian eunuch and Philip went down to the water!”). The paedobaptist account, honestly, requires greater theological sophistication and canonical sensitivity, at least if you are not a first-century Jew. That does not mean it is right or wrong. It simply means a person in the twenty-first century who is not accustomed to conversations about Old Testament circumcision has to think harder to see it.

Lane on mixed practice

Anthony Lane, whose position will be less familiar to most readers, treats baptism on the pages of the New Testament not as “believers’ baptism” but as “converts’ baptism.” This subtle shift emphasises the immediacy of a person’s baptism upon conversion: converts get baptised to show they are converts.

Conversion, Lane argues, consists of four steps: repentance, faith, baptism, and reception of the Holy Spirit. That does not mean baptism is regenerative or a salvific requirement, as such. Lane acknowledges that the thief on the cross was saved. His point is simply that baptism is the flip side of faith. It is how faith expresses itself. 

When it comes to the children of believers – whether infants or not – Lane appreciates the paedobaptist emphasis on the corporate and familial nature of the faith, and so assumes the early Christians would have done something to adapt or modify the practice of convert baptism for their children. Since conversion involves all four steps listed above, some may have concluded that nothing would be lost if baptism comes first, to be followed years later by repentance and faith.

What’s important to recognise, says Lane, is that the New Testament is silent on whether or not infants were baptised. When we look to the data of the first four centuries, however, we find a plurality of practices: sometimes infants were baptised, sometimes not, and for a number of reasons. Then, like seismologists who feel the ripples of an earthquake thousands of miles away, we can make deductions about what was happening in the original apostolic churches, namely, there were a variety of practices happening there as well. In other words, accepting the authority of Scripture means “respecting the silences of Scripture as well as its positive statements” (166).

A second kind of silence is important for Lane’s argument – the silence among the church fathers concerning principled arguments against infant baptism. Tertullian, for instance, offers something like a prudential against it. But that, in itself, is instructive. Apparently infants were being baptised, which is what prompted him to make a prudential argument. But the lack of a principled argument suggests that neither he nor others had principled objections. The first principled arguments against infant baptism don’t occur until one obscure group in the Middle Ages and then the Anabaptists in the Reformation.

Lane concludes from all of this that the contemporary church has grounds to offer more than one practice. Surely adult converts must be baptised, most centrally. But then Christian families should be permitted to baptise their infants or to delay their baptism. 

Evaluation

Admittedly, I am not an objective reader. I was convinced of the believers’ baptism picking up the book, and I remain convinced of it setting it down, maybe even more so.

What the book did do, however, is enrich my original position by the things I learned from the other two perspectives. Ferguson’s robust presentation of baptism as a sign and seal of the righteousness a Christian gains through faith is worth incorporating and adapting into a Baptist framework, as Ware gladly does. And Lane’s insistence on the tight relationship between faith and baptism, even calling it a Christian “passport” (129), reminds us of how important the topic is in the Bible. Faith subjectively expresses itself through baptism, and it is a public marker of entrance into the objective faith. 

Further, the book reminded me of how tough this topic is. Sinclair Ferguson observes at one point that the interlocutors had reached an “impasse,” and most readers will probably feel that. Every position is intelligent, and offers a reasonably coherent explanation for the biblical and historical data. It is like a private detective and a police lieutenant staring down at the same dead body and same set of clues, but one is convinced the butler did it while the other is convinced the estranged wife did it, and both are adamant. Where do you go from there?

For instance, Bruce Ware offers what I took to be a compelling Baptist explanation for the “household baptism” passages in Acts, but Ferguson and Lane are not compelled. What else can be said?! Thank you, folks. Goodnight. That’s all we have.

It is tempting for me to throw my two cents into the argument, perhaps observing that both Jeremiah and Jesus very much do annul the ethnic “and to your seed” covenantal principle (Jer 31:29-30; Matt 12:50; 19:29; cf. Matt 3:9; 10:35).

Further, the paedobaptist idea of the covenantal inclusion of infants only works because of a vagueness surrounding which covenant they are included within – the theologically conceived covenant of grace? The exegetical new covenant? I honestly find it impossible to stare at the words of Jeremiah 31:31-34 and understand how exactly an infant is included in its promises, unless one wants to say that baptism guarantees such inclusion because it effectually implants the Holy Spirit, as the passage discusses. 

Or, Ferguson is surely right to affirm the continuous nature of salvation from old covenant to new. But I would argue that he, like paedobaptists generally, can only equate circumcision and baptism by smothering the institutional distinctions within the text, such as (Ware observes) the two layers of meaning behind circumcision (national/ethnic and spiritual/ promise).

But instead of hearing my own arguments, a reader does well to jump into the book’s responses and rejoinders. What he or she will discover, I contest, is that the different positions depend upon subtly different theological methodologies. One author emphasises the exegetical, one the historical-redemptive, and one the historical. The impasse exists on this topic, in part, because of these differing assumptions about which kinds of data and methods are most persuasive.

Finally, there is only one right explanation for who should get wet, a point our relativistic age likes to overlook. And obedience to Jesus means searching for it. Paying closer attention to methodology, I believe, will help. A solution is not essential to faith, but it is important.

Jonathan Leeman
Member of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Washington, DC
Editorial director for 9Marks and author, most recently, of
Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus (Crossway, 2012)