Foundations: No.63 Autumn 2012
Robert Letham, Christian Focus, 2012, 128pp, £4.99
Robert Letham is senior tutor in Systematic and Historical Theology at the Wales Evangelical School of Theology. His book encourages Christians to see children of believing parents as part of the covenant community, and, therefore, to receive the covenant sign of baptism.
The book has three parts. In the first Letham sets out the underlying principles he sees as the keys of Bible interpretation. In the second he explains what baptism signifies. The final part spells out his conclusions.
In part 1 Letham believes that the ‘reading of Scripture is often governed by unconscious principles that influence what we see in the text’. In four short chapters he seeks to outlines principles that will prevent this.
In the first he explains that in interpreting Scripture some things are clear and plain, while other things are only deduced after reflection. He cites the Trinity as an example of the latter, and so concludes: ‘when thinking about baptism we should deal not only with the express statements of the Bible but also with the wider sense of Scripture that is entailed with these pronouncements’ (8).
Letham continues in the second chapter to show that the Old and New Testament are a coherent whole. Therefore the covenant made to Abraham is not contradicted by the covenant through Moses, and the new covenant in Jesus is the fulfilment of the old covenant. When it comes to baptism, Letham argues that whilst baptism is a new covenant sign its meaning ‘cannot be established from the New Testament alone’ (15). He concludes that baptism should be understood ‘canonically’.
In the third foundation chapter the focus is on how, throughout the Bible, we see God use ‘material signs to reinforce his promises’ (20). Covenantal signs therefore point to the activity of God. The signs are distinct from the reality but they point to what God has done or will do. ‘Baptism is first and foremost a divine activity’ (28).
In the final section of part 1 we are shown the importance of the corporate nature of God’s plan. In both the Old Testament and the New Testament we are shown that the individual is seen in the context of the corporate nature of either Israel or the Church. Whilst not denying individual responsibility, Letham argues that the corporate context is key to understanding baptism.
In the second part of the book Letham seeks to explain the New Testament meaning of baptism. In the first two chapters Letham takes us through many New Testament texts to argue that baptism signifies cleansing from sin and union with Christ. I wasn’t always convinced that every ‘washing’ or ‘cleansing’ reference he cites was as clear a reference to baptism as he assumes. However, Letham argues against a Roman Catholic view that sees the mere act of baptism as efficacious, or the more widespread evangelical view that sees baptism as merely symbolic.
The third chapter in the main section of the book is a brief survey of Reformed historical theology. The purpose is to show that the view of baptism that many evangelicals hold today differs from that of Protestant heritage. Letham comments, ‘The classic confessions of the Reformed church all speak of the Holy Spirit conveying grace in connection with baptism’ (78).
In the final chapter of part 2 Letham addresses the question of who should be baptised. Few will disagree with him that those converted from paganism should be baptised. He then argues that children of believers should also be baptised. He thinks that credobaptists fail to appreciate the continuity of the new covenant with the Abrahamic covenant, and therefore to understand that baptism is the ‘fulfilment of, and successor to circumcision’ (83). He concludes by arguing that the New Testament sees the ‘household’ as the basis for covenantal administration.
Part 3 is the conclusion to the book. In it Letham seeks to draw the threads of his discussion together. He widens the issue beyond baptism of children of believing parents, to their being part of the church. He concludes with the challenge: ‘If you consider that Paul addresses the children of believing parent(s) in terms of their privileges and responsibilities in Christ, then should they not receive the means of grace, the covenant sign of baptism?’ (105).
I enjoyed reading the book. I found part 1 particularly helpful. I thought that Letham rightly encourages us to read the Bible as a whole and also not to be too individualistic in regards to the plan of God. If anything I thought this section could have been developed further.
I thought that the middle section of the book was the hardest to read. There was some repetition and I would have valued more space given to expounding the Biblical texts he cited. Further I thought the section that surveyed historical theology would have been a bit tough on a reader not knowing the Westminster Confession of Faith.
The final section of the book poses important questions about children being part of the church. I was left wondering what Letham’s view of children and communion is!
Having read the book I was still left with some questions. For example, if it is so obvious that we should see baptism as the fulfilment of circumcision, why isn’t there any clear New Testament reference that shows that? Further is it as clear as Letham suggests that the meaning and function of the old covenant sign of circumcision is the same as that of baptism?
Credobaptists will also suggest that systematic theology is too much the governing tool of how the Bible is being interpreted. Whilst I agreed with Letham’s desire to stress the unity of the covenant of grace I would have liked him to deal with the arguments of those who see some discontinuity too. Credobaptists will argue that the new covenant is only made with believers or the elect, whereas the old covenant externally included believers and non-believers within Israel.
In this short book Robert Letham has rehearsed well the arguments for the baptism of believers’ children. Letham has a clear desire to sit under the authority of the Scriptures and to take seriously the historical teaching of Reformed thinking. He clearly and firmly rejects, as well as refutes, Roman Catholic tradition and teaching. The book’s title claims to be ‘a Christian’s pocket guide to baptism’, but without engaging at any length the arguments for credobaptism, I don’t think that it will convince all. However I hope that credobaptists as well as paedobaptists will read it.
Director of the North West Ministry Training Course