Book Review: Baptism: Three Views, edited by David F. Wright
It is a sad reality, but a reality nonetheless, that in the broadly Reformed community worldwide, one of the most salient divisions between churches, denominations, and individuals is the â€œone baptismâ€ which partially constitutes the ground of our great unity in the gospel (see Eph. 4:3-6). As daunting as the proposal may seem, it is still of sufficient importance to be willing to expend great effort in seeking to bridge this tragic disconnect in the understandings and consciences of Christian brothers and sisters, and bring all to a practical unity of opinion on that which really does unite them in Christ. Of course, if this is ever to happen, it will have to begin with humble, articulate, and theologically-astute men from different backgrounds taking the time to explain their positions to one another and respond in gracious dialogue which seeks to understand and critique for the good of the other, not just to score points or win debates. Baptism: Three Views, edited by David Wright, is a very commendable step in that direction, which I can recommend for Reformed paedo-baptists and credo-baptists alike.
The format of the book is very simple: Bruce Ware lays out his case for credo-baptism, is critiqued by the other two contributors, and adds his own final response. Then, Sinclair Ferguson defends paedo-baptism according to the same format. And finally, Anthony Lane defends an intriguing view that a mixed practice of paedo-baptism and credo-baptism is not just acceptable, but was in all likelihood an arrangement of apostolic appointment.
Given the limited space with which the contributors have to work, it is very interesting and instructive to note just what material each gives most time and energy to. Although dealing relatively briefly with Covenant Theology and its implications, Ware gives considerable predominance to dealing with NT texts on Baptism, and specifically, the exemplary texts which provide accounts of just how baptism was done in the sacred record of Acts (Interestingly, he sums up his basic approach most clearly in his response to Ferguson's chapter, where he makes the telling statement, â€œThe Baptist conviction, then, is one driven by the text of the New Testamentâ€ [emphasis mine].).
Ferguson, on the other hand, clearly favors a â€œredemptive-historicalâ€ grounding in the primacy and nature of the Covenant in biblical revelation, and only at the end of his defense moves exclusively into the NT â€“ and then, he deals much more extensively with NT texts dealing with the Covenant and the essential nature and meaning of baptism, and notably less with historical accounts. In fact, one of his most emphatic points from the NT is that, to be properly understood, baptism must be seen as a sign and seal of the covenant realities flowing from God to us, not as a sign of our faith to God â€“ an error which he sees at the heart of credo-baptism.
In the final section, Lane merely gives a brief overview of the exemplary texts with which Ware dealt extensively, for the purpose of pointing out that they all depict baptism as being administered immediately upon conversion, as a means of reaching out and embracing Christ in faith; then he spends the rest of his time dealing with Church history. His essential point is that, when it comes to the dynamic of applying the NT examples of baptism to the children of believers, there simply has to be accommodation on some level â€“ it is impossible to determine exact points of conversion in many, if not most, children raised in a Christian home: so do you deviate from the moment-of-conversion principle by baptizing babies, or by designating a time when the child or young adult can intelligibly frame his own beliefs? The question is left open-ended in the NT, and hence it is a backhanded minimization of sola scriptura to make the answer binding to another person's conscience.
The problem with the space constraints and different emphases of the contributors is that the largely positive case made by each one was then not sufficiently dealt with on its own terms by the others. Ware expresses his opinion that, after giving his exhaustive treatment of the elements involved in every recorded case of NT baptism, â€œneither Professor Ferguson nor Professor Lane provided an account for the multiple references in the New Testament that demonstrate a consistent and unbroken pattern of baptism being linked with belief in Christ for salvationâ€. But on the other hand, the same case could be made that he did not provide an extensive account for Ferguson's full-orbed redemptive historical case, nor even for some of the NT texts that Ferguson dealt with extensively. Most notably, Ferguson gave a very detailed and stimulating discussion of Luke 18:15-17 which was not even addressed by the others. The bottom line is, while the book gives a good summary of the positive cases for each approach, it is weaker, no doubt because of space constraints, in providing a good polemical case of each position against the others. On the flip side, though, when both Ferguson and Ware did give considerable time to the same text, it makes it all the more interesting to compare and evaluate their respective cases and exegeses â€“ and to at least two texts, Acts 2:38-39 and Colossians 2:11-12, both gave an extended treatment. I already have a firm opinion as to who was more compelling, and I would encourage the potential reader to give serious thought to the cases made by both from each of these texts, and come to a conclusion in his own mind.
Lane's perspective demands its own analysis, since (in this day, anyway) it is a rather novel approach, and has none of the pat answers that credo-baptists and paedo-baptists alike have developed for the arguments of the other. His basic argument is, first, that both credo-baptism and paedo-baptism deviate in some manner from the â€œconversion baptismsâ€ which Acts unexceptionally records; and second, that there is a definite lack of clear instruction in the NT concerning how to deal with this dilemma, and in fact, as far back in Church history as we are able to look, even, in some cases, within a generation or two of the apostles, and certainly by the third and fourth centuries, both practices were clearly followed. And while some were enjoined by certain Church fathers as more expedient approaches, yet none of them ever condemned the other option in principle. Extrapolating backwards in time, Lane believes, it would be virtually impossible to posit a Church-wide and apostolic pattern of exclusively one type, without ever finding any controversy or appeal to the apostles when different patterns began to emerge so soon thereafter.
Lane's contribution is interesting, in that, both of the other contributors reject it for the same basic reason (consider Ware, for example, â€œEven if Professor Ferguson and I may never agree on just what the normative and specific teaching of the New Testament is regarding the practice of baptism, it is a step even further to conclude that there is no such normative teaching to be understood and practiced. This, it seems to me, is the main problem with Lane's position...â€); but then, both are quite willing to use it as ammunition for their own cases! Ware applauds Lane's candid recognition of the unexceptional nature of baptism in the NT historical record as being mingled with faith; and Ferguson, while giving the great majority of his response to arguing against Lane's historical methods, does at least capitalize upon the point he had made to the effect that, â€œit is difficult to see how Evangelicals can, with theological consistency, teach their children to say, 'Our Father'...â€ (Ferguson, emphasis his). Of course, although Ferguson is chiefly arguing against Lane's precise conclusions, the well-supported evidence he marshals for the very early existence of paedo-baptism in the Church, against the historical understanding of Ware, cannot help but be of at least some support to his own case.
To sum it up, this was a very stimulating and well-done book â€“ both the credo-baptist and paedo-baptist positions were laid out very capably, and the introduction of a third option into the mix was an interesting addition. For anyone wanting a brief but sufficient introduction to the chiefly positive case for each position, this book is highly recommended.
Baptism: Three Views: Available at Monergism Books.