Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Book Review: "Should Babies Be Baptized?" by T.E. Watson

Watson's book came to me highly recommended, and indeed is held in high esteem within Baptist circles, with a Reformed perspective. Unlike the many tracts that straightforwardly argue for Believers' Baptism, Watson set himself a far more complex task in the writing of this book. His aim is quite a narrow one, to demonstrate to the Reformed churches that paedo-baptism is essentially incompatible with Reformed faith - and that Presbyterians and Congregationalists should therefore become Baptists.

In order to achieve his aim, he does two things. Firstly he rehearses the standard Baptist New Testament exegesis of the most contested texts. This he does with mixed success; on some texts he advances some flimsy arguments that simply belie his underlying assumptions, whilst on others he manages to successfully hole Covenant theology below the water line (woeful pun intended!).

So far so good. What comes next however is quite unusual. Watson, to his credit is brave enough to actually offer an anti-paedobaptist critique of the classic Presbyterian view of Covenant Baptism. (I remember being pressured by some ardent baptists on the subject. When I asked them the basis on which they specifically rejected Calvin etc. on the subject, it was blank looks all round!). Thankfully Watson has done his groundwork here, he is fully conversant with key views on baptism within Presbyterian (etc) thought from the Reformation to the 20th Century, and he offers a detailed - and sometimes persuasive critique. There is though at the heart of his argument here a gaping hole - in fact an embarrassingly monumental logical gaffe. His method of argument is to demonstrate that for each pillar upon which covenantal paedo-baptism rests, there is a paedo-baptist theologian who has gone into print to refute it; only leaving him to conclude that believers-baptism is the only credible option. Although he does make good points on the way, and amasses a fascinating array of quotations - the problem is that the structure of his argument is deeply flawed. Firstly, just because there is disagreement within a body of work, doesn't automatically invalidate every aspect of it - that much is obvious. Secondly though, what Watson seems to be completely unaware of (or perhaps just quietly ignoring!), is the fact that a Presbyterian could perform exactly the same exercise on an array of Believers Baptist literature! For instance, Watson and Jewett could be used to undercut each other on whether or not the children of believers have any special place in the church (Watson, no; Jewett yes) - or we could line him up against the American independent churches that practice Believers Baptism but refute Baby dedication; then we could line Spurgeon up against the current trend in Baptist churches towards a more sacramentally efficacious Believers-Baptism! Similarly we could turn Baptist upon Baptist in terms of their understanding of the relationship between Water and Spirit Baptism! Using Watson's method it would be easy for a Presbyterian to conclude (mirror-ing Watson) that paedo-baptism is therefore the only viable option! The fact remains that detailed spade-work through acres of paedo-baptist texts is essentially pointless when marshalled in so obviously flawed a way. Without the transparency of admitting that his own position is not one without difficulties, problems and complexities, to interact with; his method descends from discussion to polemic.

The other significant problem with this book, is the deployment of the 'fallacy of the excluded middle' - that is to say the establishment of a false dichotomy of extremes, ignoring moderating options. Watson sadly resorts to such measures on several key points in the book especially where he seeks to move from principles to application. He is so keen to play strict paedo-baptists against strict baptists like himself, that he is entirely unwilling to examine any of the many believers through history who have not interpreted the matter in such overtly confrontational terms. So we get no Bunyan, no Lloyd-Jones and no F.F. Bruce with his famous desire to be a "Baptist but not an Anabaptist"; having a preference for Believers Baptism but not making the re-baptism of those he saw as baptised prematurely, an article of faith! Another critical ommission in this vein is Karl Barth, who did so much in the 20th Century to undermine paedo-baptism, but for whom re-baptism of those so baptised remained a blasphemy, an 'insult' to God!! Likewise no hint of David F. Wright, for whome baptism needs to be reformed within denominations, and is not cause to abandon them. The weight of such exclusions is to the great detriment of the book.

Intriguingly, while Hodge and Vos and their views are given a chapter each, the thorny issue of 're-baptism' is dismissed in a single sentence - as is the requirement to leave paedo-baptist denominations without reference to fruitfulness of ministry in that context! In so doing he makes the assumption that the reader, if persuaded by his attack on paedo-baptism, will automatically share his view that the sequence of the biblical command to "repent and be baptized" is the sole determining factor in the question of 're'baptism, and denominational affiliation. Of course he treats that text as a disembodied proposition, not part of a narrative; but that's really beside the point. What is more suspect is that Baptists frequently don't complete the sentence - because in Acts 2 Peter's actual order of events is (i) repentance - (ii)baptism - (iii)reception of the Holy Spirit - yet no argument is successfully formulated to demonstrate why the sequence is not binding in its third element! Some Baptist might be so bold as to argue that only Believers' Baptists actually have the Spirit, but the historical verification of such a position would be laughable. I remember having a baptismal interview when I was a student, with two leaders of a baptist church which descended into farce on this very point. One arguing that the sequence is vital (and that by implication paedo-baptists don't have the Spirit!) and the other arguing that that was plainly ridiculous (Wesley, Whitfield, McCheyne etc) but then not being so sure on why the sequence of the first two elements was then so definingly critical! (it wasn't a great evening).

Sadly, after ignoring all the moderating positions, and the views of those like Martyn Lloyd-Jones who strove not to make the Baptism issue a point of division between believers, and who served in a denomination with whom he had some disagreements on the matter (a very odd omission indeed as in the introduction Watson seeks to verify his Reformed credentials with a bit of DML-J name dropping!); the book ends on a sour note. Rather than seeking like Lloyd-Jones to place the issue in its proper context as a secondary non-divisive issue, Watson concludes his book with a double insult. The penultimate chapter calls paedo-baptists regressors into paganism, and the final chapter subtly entitled "the evils of infant baptism" says that it undermines the gospel. At least in Paul Jewett's book arguing in favour of Believers Baptism he says that the matters are so fiendishly complex, that at very least there should be sympathy, charity and understanding offered between sides.

If T.E. Watson was still alive today, I'd write to him and ask him to re-write this book. When he is in good form, arguing from the New Testament for his preference for witholding baptism until a credible profession of faith has been made - he is actually persuasive. What marrs the book is his handling of those he disagrees with, his hasty leaps from principle to practice, his somewhat divisive approach, his ignoring inconvenient moderate positions, and his lack of humility about similar problems which exist within his own camp. I suspect if he had stuck to the good bits, he would have won more people to his point of view.

I have subsequently had a book entitled, "Baptism: Three Views" recommended to me, it looks fascinating and which I plan to read next. The fact that it has "3" views is immediately encouraging in the light of some of my criticisms of Watson (above).

1 comment:

lynn said...

man alive Mr HIWWC - not a half-hearted hastily written review!!!
Don't think I will rush to buy the book but good to know someone as thorough as you has reviewed it.
Some interesting points came to mind as I read your review which I might come back to at some point on my blog.

But in the meantime, for your delight and delectation - read this, which I stumbled upon tonight. You're gonna love it.