Baptism: Three Views
David F. Wright, ed., Baptism: Three Views. Downers Grove: IVP, 2009. $16.00 pap. 200 pp. ISBN 978-0-8308-3856-1.
The last writing project David Wright, longtime church history professor in the University of Edinburgh, completed before his untimely death of cancer in 2008, was the editing of this book. Unfortunately, he was unable to write the introduction that would have set it in the context of his own mastery of the debates on this topic.
The three positions represented are the “credobaptist” view (i.e., believers’ baptism), represented by Bruce Ware of the Southern Baptist Theological seminary, the paedobaptist perspective (i.e., infant baptism), articulated by Sinclair Ferguson, renowned academic and preacher, now senior pastor of a Presbyterian church in South Carolina, and a dual-practice perspective (allowing for both options), penned by Tony Lane of the London School of Theology in England. Each chapter is followed by brief replies from the other two contributors and, unlike many volumes otherwise following this format, a final brief reply by the original writer to the two respondents.
Not surprisingly, Ware spends most of his time in the New Testament, showing how passage after passage that refers to baptism does so in the context of the immersion in water of believers. Even the sticky household baptism passages in Acts never say there was someone baptized who was too young to believe and in Acts 16:32-34, Luke makes it clear that all in the Philippian jailer’s household had come to believe. 1 Corinthians 7:14 says nothing about baptism. Jesus’ welcoming little children says nothing about baptism or infants. The parallels between the old and new covenants in Colossians 2:12 are between circumcision and faith, not circumcision and baptism. Both of the latter are initiation rites, to be sure, but circumcision was an initiation rite not just spiritually but ethnically for ancient Israelites, and hence appropriate for babies whose ethnicity was assured even if their later spirituality wasn’t. Since Christians are not limited to a particular ethnicity, it is not appropriate to baptize infants in new covenant times. A number of Patristic texts that refer to the baptism of children should be understood as just that, rather than baptism of infants too young to believe. While believer’s baptism cannot guarantee a truly regenerate church membership, it stands a much better chance of approximating one than infant baptism, which virtually ensure a mixed membership of believers and unbelievers in adulthood.
Ferguson spends noticeably less time doing actual exegesis of biblical texts and much more time arguing theologically and historically. His argument boils down to baptism as a sign and seal of the covenant of grace. It is not regenerating, it must be followed by children owning faith for themselves (the purpose of a rite like confirmation), and it quickly becomes the dominant approach in the post-apostolic early church. It deals with a problem not found on the pages of the New Testament—what to do with children of believers. Texts like Acts 2:39 nevertheless suggest that baptism is appropriate for the very young children of believers. Colossians 2:12 suggests a stronger parallel with circumcision than credobaptists acknowledge. It would be astonishing if that were not some infants among the household baptisms of Acts, given the large families so many had back then. And, given that infants were circumcised in the old covenant recognizing the greater likelihood of their growing up to know the true and living God after being born into practicing Jewish families, the new covenant would be a regress rather than an improvement on the old if believers, now with the full empowerment of the Spirit, could not have even greater confidence that their children would so mature, thus making baptism an appropriate sign of this hope to be administered to the newborn.
Lane appeals to many of what he believes are the stronger biblical positions of both Ware and Ferguson, but argues primarily by what he calls a seismological approach. Just like the effects of earthquakes can be felt and measured thousands of miles away, Lane notes that as far back as you go in church history you find evidence for both credobaptism and paedobaptism and therefore the only logical conclusion is that both existed from the beginning. He denies that the question of what to do with babies of believers would have emerged only after the New Testament; rather, it would have existed from the day of Pentecost on for every adult convert who had babies in his or her family at that time. In fact, the explicit New Testament model should better be labeled converts’ baptism rather than just believers’ baptism. Patristic writers who urge delaying baptism do so more because of the emerging controversy over postbaptismal sin than due to any sense of inherent impropriety of baptizing infants. That credobaptists often introduce a baby dedication ceremony shows that they recognize the need for the kind of commitment parents make in infant baptism. But the biblical case for credobaptism is strong enough that parents who wish to wait and apply baptism when their children make credible confessions of faith should be allowed to do so.
Of the three authors, Ware demonstrates his passion most clearly: “if the argument of [his] chapter is correct, then it simply is the case that large portions of the church are living in disobedience to Christ” (p. 20). Or again, “one area where Professor Ferguson and I surely will agree is this; Professor Lane’s view simply cannot be correct. . . . It denies that the Bible actually specifies one practice as correct when most Christians have read the Bible as indicating that some one practice is correct, despite their differences on just what that one correct practice is” (p. 172). How this logically follows is beyond me; it is theoretically quite possible that the reason for that disagreement is that both sides have found more to be prescriptive, rather than just descriptive, than they should have. Ware also asks who is to decide which model is followed if a church allows for both, without considering the obvious answer—the parents!
Ferguson and Lane rely heavily on arguments from silence. Surely there were babies baptized in household baptisms, even though we have not a single actual mention of one. Surely the practice of infant baptism must go back in an unbroken tradition to the apostolic age, despite the paucity of data for any position on baptism the further one goes back from Augustine to the days of the apostles. The only explicit reason for Patristic writers to object to infant baptism, among those who do, was emerging baptismal regeneration. As long as this is avoided, infant baptism is a good practice. Lane also makes much of the incongruity of withholding baptism until a believer is at least a young adolescent but allowing communion at an earlier age, apparently not realizing that if one moves from the British to the American scene, both often occur simultaneously in early grade-school years when children show they understand and assent to the meaning of both. None of the three authors appears to pick up on the most likely meaning of Acts 2:39 in context—that the promise of Pentecost is for subsequent generations—probably thus implying nothing about the age for baptism one way or the other.
Ware thinks there is no practical way that Lane’s approach could ever be implemented in churches, apparently not realizing that it is the historic position of the Evangelical Free Church of America, for example, and has been implemented just fine. I currently attend a church that is part of the Alliance of Renewal Churches and we allow parents to decide whether they want their babies baptized or not, but believers, when they request baptism, are immersed. Some may object to allowing both options but logistically there are no serious encumbrances for those who adopt such polity.
Overall, this volume raises all of the important questions that have characterized this long-standing, lively and at times acrimonious debate. Readers can get a good feel not only for how each perspective defends its position but for how they interact with those with which they disagree. This kind of volume has been done before on this topic by other publishers, but what I am not aware of having seen employing this format is one that also includes the view of baptismal regeneration (e.g., the Church of Christ) and/or that adds Catholic or Eastern Orthodox perspectives into the midst (with different sacramental twists put on infant baptism). Now that would make for even more enlightening reasoning!
Craig Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament