Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Book Note: "Baptism: Three Views", David F. Wright (ed)

There are several books which follow the "three views" or "four views" format, of being a round table discussion amongst theologians who disagree on an aspect of Christian faith. Each author is invited to submit an essay defending his/her position, the others are invited to comment upon it, and the initial author allowed a final word. The format works very well as a means for charting the landscape of an area of controversy.

Bruce Ware's defence of believers-only-baptism (anti-paedobaptism) is standard stuff, (i) links with the OT model of circumcision are weak, (ii) all provable NT examples of baptism are of believers and (iii) anything further is too dependant on arguments from silence, plus some critiques of the theological moves needed to justify paedo-baptism. Sinclair Ferguson's essay in defence of infant-baptism is magisterial (!), arguing less from individual proof texts, but from the form and shape of the grand-narrative of biblical-covenant-theology. This essay is probably the best explanation of the practice of infant baptism that I have read, and I would suggest that any baptist who wants to understand why their Presbyterian or Anglican friends have baptised their infants should start here. Especially devastating is Ferguson's complete demolition of the usual credo-baptist argument that suggests that Reformed paedo-baptism militates against the proclamation of the gospel or a full-blooded doctrine of regeneration! In Ferguson's hands, baptism (both of believers and their children) is a Christ-exalting sacrament which represents the gospel of God, and his initiative in the redemption of sinners - contrariwise, he seeks to present Bruce Ware's essay as reducing baptism to celebrating merely human response to the gospel! The two authors admit that their discussion at this stage reaches an impasse.

The surprising extra view comes from Anthony N.S. Lane, of the London School of Theology, who espouses a "dual-practice" view. Lane finds much merit in both Ware and Ferguson's proposals; but ultimately thinks that neither offer a water-tight (!) case against the other position. His view is that the New Testament is completely silent on the matter of the initiation of 2nd generation believers (Acts = 'missionary baptisms'), and that both credo-baptists and paedo-baptists have essentially filled in the silences in different ways as they have constructed their theologies! Additionally Lane is alone in examining the missiological context in which baptismal theologies have been worked out, pointing out that while some very group-orientated cultures find anti-paedobaptism unfathomable; the baptist movement was a direct result of the rise of modern western radical individualism. As such, Lane believes that as arguments from silence are useful but not binding, the church should embrace both forms of baptism - each household making the hard choices about when to baptise their children. What Lane insists upon is that Christian conversion must consist of four initiatory elements, (i) baptism (ii) faith in Christ (iii) repentance for sin (iv) reception of the Holy Spirit. What his view does not permit is any form of division within the church over the precise order in which these elements have occurred - as long as they are present. Ware and Ferguson are in turn intrigued, and wary of Lane's view. Basically, they both agree that it is unworkable in the realities of church life.

If you are interested in the debates surrounding Christian baptism (with a Protestant context), this book is must - a quite splendid laying out of issues and probing of their strengths of the various views.

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