Baptism 3 Views

Book Review by David P. Craig

In this multi-view book we have three views presented: (1) Believer’s Baptism (credobaptism – “credo” being from the Latin for “I believe”) – presented by Dr. Bruce Ware, professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky; (2) Infant Baptism (paedobaptism – “paidos” from the Greek for “child”) – presented by Dr. Sinclair Ferguson, the Senior Minister at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina and professor of systematic theology at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, Texas; and (3) The Dual-Practice Baptism View – presented by Dr. Anthony N. S. Lane, professor of historical theology at London School of Theology in Northwood, England. The book was edited by David F. Wright (1937-2008), professor of patristic and Reformation Christianity at New College, University of Edinburgh, Scotland – and after his death in 2008 by Daniel G. Reid, the senior editor for reference and academic books at IVP Academic.

The structure of the book is that each scholar gives his argument for his own position using biblical, theological, and historical support. After each presentation – the other two author’s counter, and the presenter responds to the two counter arguments. Such is the case for each presentation.

(1) Bruce Ware argues for credobaptism – “only those who have already become believers in Christ should be baptized and that this baptism should be by immersion in water.” In his biblical defense of believers’ baptism he gives an abundance of linguistic and contextual support for baptism by immersion from the New Testament (NT – from this point on). He then shows that every clear instance of baptism in the NT relates to the baptism of those who have repented of sin and come to faith in Christ. In this section he highlights and discusses eleven passages from the book of Acts where Luke presents a clear and unambiguous depiction of baptism as being performed only on believers. Next he shows the absence of non believers’ baptism in the NT. He then presents a case against infant baptism from its absence in the NT.

In the theological section of his essay he gives a thorough presentation of the meaning of the new covenant and what remains the same and what has changed from the OT to the NT. He writes, “If the NT writers genuinely saw a parallel between physical circumcision and infant baptism, it is utterly remarkable that they never said so in the NT….As I endeavor to explain, the fact that circumcision functioned at two levels, both for the ethnic and national people of Israel and for the spiritual reality of being separated unto God, indicates that the sign and seal of baptism simply is not meant to be seen as parallel to circumcision…That is not to deny any relation between circumcision and baptism. Where circumcision and baptism are parallel is exactly where Colossians 2:11-12 see them as parallel, namely, in the spiritual reality to which each of them points…In short, the parallel between circumcision and baptism in the new covenant is not between physical circumcision and infant baptism; rather, the parallel is between spiritual circumcision of the heart and baptism, which signifies regeneration, faith and union with Christ…So then, since only the actual spiritual reality is in view when one is baptized, the sign and seal of baptism relates only to those who have experienced this spiritual reality, that is, to believers in Jesus Christ. The new covenant encompasses only those who know the Lord, those who have been united with Christ, those in whom the Spirit has come to dwell through faith. As such, baptism, the sign and seal of this reality (i.e., not of the promise but of the reality itself), applies rightly only to believers in Jesus Christ.”

One of the most interesting quotes from the historical arguments in his essay comes from a passage in Justin’s Apology quoted in Stander and Louw on what was required by a person before he was accepted for baptism in the early church (100-165 A.D.), “firstly, the person had to believe in the truth of the Christian doctrine; secondly, he had to undertake to live accordingly; thirdly, the baptismal candidate had to undergo a period of devotion and fasting in which he had to request God to forgive all his past sins…Since only mature persons could satisfy these preconditions, it undoubtedly excludes the possibility that infants were involved in these activities.” Examples like this one show that infant baptism did not develop in any significant way until the fourth century.

Dr. Ware concludes his essay giving two practical ramifications that believers’ baptism provides for the health and well-being of the church: “First, the practice of credobaptism has the potential of providing a young Christian a wonderful and sacred opportunity to certify personally and testify publicly of his own identity, now, as a follower of Christ…Second, the practice of credobaptism grounds the regenerate membership of the church…If membership in the new covenant and hence in the church comes via infant baptism, yet salvation comes only by faith, then it follows that paedobaptist churches are necessarily afflicted with the problem of a potentially significant number of unregenerate church members.”

(2) Sinclair Ferguson argues for paedobaptism – “baptism is the sign and seal of the new covenant work of Christ and is analogous to circumcision, which was the sign of the old covenant of Israel. The biblical continuity between the covenants demands that infants of believers be baptized in addition to those who come to Christ at any age. The mode of baptism is not at issue.” Dr. Ferguson’s essay traces the evidence for infant baptism starting with the historical evidence from the post-apostolic period onward; then provides a biblical and theological perspective (redemptive-historical). Lastly, he draws some conclusions about the baptism of the infants of believers.

In the first part of his essay Ferguson draws upon a snapshot of instances where infant baptism is practiced by the early church: (a) records of mortality – some dating back to the turn of the third century; (b) works of theology – Origen, Tertullian, Cyprian of Carthage refer to infant baptism in their writings; (c) evidence from liturgy compiled by Hippolytus of Rome (d. ca. A.D. 236). It’s interesting that none of these practices give a theological reason for the practice of infant baptism.

Ferguson writes, “Was the title to baptism of these children grounded in either (1) the faith of their parents/sponsors?–which would be somewhat akin, as we shall see, to a covenantal approach to infant baptism–or (2) was the confession of the parents/sponsors viewed as an expression of the ‘faith’ of the infants themselves?–which would be in keeping with the wording of later inscriptions describing the deceased infant as being ‘made a believer’ at the point of baptism.”

In the second part of the essay Ferguson discusses the importance of covenant signs in the Bible: (a) Noahic covenant – the sign of the rainbow (Gen. 9:12-16); (b) Abrahamic covenant – the sign of circumcision (Gen. 17:11); and (c) Mosaic covenant – the Sabbath day (Ex. 31:16-17). Ferguson comments, “In their own context each of these covenant signs pointed forward to a fulfillment in the new covenant in Christ…This background shows that the physical signs of baptism and the Lord’s Supper which Jesus instituted belong to a larger pattern and should be interpreted in the light of this biblical-theological tradition. Baptism cannot be fully understood abstracted from this matrix.”

Ferguson gives the following definition of baptism from the Westminster Confession of Faith: “Baptism (and all the biblical sacraments) are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace, immediately instituted by God, to represent Christ and his benefits; and to confirm our interest in Him: as also, to put visible difference between those that belong unto the Church and the rest of the world; and solemnly to engage them to the service of God in Christ, according to his Word.”

Then Ferguson explains how the sign of circumcision in the Old Covenant is transferred to baptism in the New Covenant: “Baptism functions in relationship to the new covenant in Christ in a manner analogous to the function of circumcision in the Abrahamic covenant. In a word, baptism has the same symbolic significance in relationship to fellowship with God as did circumcision…Baptism signifies all that is in Christ for us; it points us to all that he will do in us and all that we are to become in him…Baptism is not primarily a sign and seal of faith, but to faith.”

In Ferguson’s biblical-theological defense of infant baptism he grapples with the following issues: (a) how circumcision is fulfilled in Christ for the nations; (b) how union with Christ is expressed in baptism; (c) the baptism of Christ and what it means for us; (d) how baptism expresses the fellowship of God within the Trinity; (e) how baptism functions as a sign and seal; (f) divergent views of infant baptism – contrasting the catholic view and subjectivist view (Protestant); (g) How baptism signifies and seals the covenant of grace; (h) the covenant principle and practice of infant baptism; (i) the harmony of paedobaptism with the New Testament mindset; (j) the implications of baptism.

(3) Anthony Lane argues for the dual practice view – “affirms both adult, or convert, baptism and either paedobaptism or adult baptism as legitimate options for those born into a Christian home.”

He begins his essay by sharing his experiences (the only one of the author’s to share his personal baptism experience) of being baptized in the Anglican church at the age of three, as well as being a part of baptistic churches for the past thirty years. He writes, “At a later stage I read George Beasley-Murray’s Baptism in the New Testament. This Baptist author persuaded me that New Testament baptism was no so much believers’ baptism as converts’ baptism. Thinking about this made me realize that Baptist and paedobaptist practice are alike modifications of this. At the same time I was concerned about the fact that my children appeared to be believers but were not yet baptized, a situation I could not square with the New Testament. The suggestion that such children should take communion until they were old enough for baptism struck me as hopelessly confused. So Beasley-Murray (with help) moved me away from the Baptist position.”

In his biblical analysis of baptism he writes, “If we look at these passages (he sites 14 passages from the book of Acts) and ask what was expected to happen, we find four things that repeatedly occur: repentance, faith, baptism, and reception of the Holy Spirit.”

Lane’s essay hones in secondly on the historical development of what he calls “conversion” baptism (he gives the greatest amount of ink to this section). He takes what he calls a “seismological approach” from the 5th century and back tracks to the New Testament. He believes that there is enough evidence to advocate for both paedobaptism and believers baptism in the early history of the church.

The third part of Lane’s essay focuses on theological and practical considerations of performing dual-baptism. Lane explains, “It must always be remembered that for those raised in a Christian home, baptism, is not an isolated event but simply one stage in a lengthy process…The New Testament practice of baptism was converts’ baptism, the immediate baptism of those who come to faith as part of their initial response to the gospel. This needs to be modified for children born into a Christian home, either into infant baptism or into baptism at a later date. The New Testament evidence for how such children were treated is not unambiguous. Both approaches can be defended on biblical grounds. No grounds exist for insisting on one to the exclusion of the other. This policy of accepting diversity is the only policy for which the first four centuries of the church provide clear evidence.”

In the final analysis for Dr. Ware credobaptism is primarily “a sign of our faith and act of obedience and commitment to Christ.” For Dr. Ferguson paedobaptism is primarily “a sign of what we receive from Christ.” For Dr. Lane paedo or credo baptism (together with faith and in a subordinate role) is primarily “an instrument by which we embrace Christ and his salvation.”

Each essay tackles the issue of baptism quite differently. I would say that Dr. Ware (credobaptism) does the best job with the biblical evidence and with an exegesis of baptism. Dr. Ferguson gives a very articulate presentation of the theological reasoning behind paedobaptism. Dr. Lane (dual-view) does the best job of presenting an early history of baptism. In my opinion the one who does the most balanced job in handling the biblical, historical, and theological evidence for his position is Dr. Ware.

No matter where you stand on the issue of baptism you will definitely learn a lot from this book. The author’s have done their homework and have written with theological acumen and a cogent articulation of the pro’s and con’s of each view. The one thing I would have liked to have seen at the end of this book is a concluding essay from the editor, or perhaps theologians’ from the three different strands articulated in the book. Another helpful asset would have been a question and answer section from the editor to each author. However, for greater insight into the issues of baptism from three great communicators – one would be hard pressed to find a more balanced presentation on baptism than contained in this “Three Views” book. I recommend this book for pastors, students, and Christians on all sides of the equation. It will help clarify one’s position, perhaps change your position, or stir within you a desire to search the Scriptures, Theology, and Church History for further study. The author’s are firm on their presentations and yet charitable and balanced – which is a good model for those wrestling with this important biblical subject.

Author: lifecoach4God

I am the Lead Pastor of Marin Bible Church (Bay Area), born and raised in Huntington Beach, Ca., and currently living in Novato, California. I am married to my best friend of 30 years - Dana - and have five adult children; and seven grand children. I have been a Teaching Pastor for over thirty years. I was privileged to study at Multnomah University (B.S. - 1988); Talbot School of Theology (M.Div. - 1991); Westminster Theological Seminary & Northwest Graduate School (D. Min. - 2003). I founded Vertical Living Ministries in 2008 with the goal of encouraging Christian Disciples and Leaders to be more intentionally Christ-Centered in how they live by bringing glory to God in nine key areas of life: (1) Intimacy with God, (2) marriage, (3) family, (4) friendship, (5) vocationally/ministry , (6) emotional and physical health, (7) stewardship of resources, (8) discipleship, and (9) mentoring.

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