Sunday, November 07, 2010

Book Notes: Baptism Explored by D. Robin Taylor

D. Robin Taylor is a Baptist Pastor, who has written a very surprising book about Christian Baptism, the content of which has been the material he has used in preparing candidates for Baptism for many years. The book celebrates people turning to Christ in repentance and faith, and directs them to use their baptism as a way of expressing three truths which lie at the core of the experience of being a Christian. These three are: (i) washing and cleansing from sin, (ii) being dead to self, and alive to God, and (iii) deliverance from evil.

The heart of the book lies in using the New Testament to map out the core of Christian discipleship, which revolve around those three things and which the texts link to baptism. This is foundational stuff, which is great to read and to re-affirm - even for readers who themselves turned to Christ many years ago. Exploring this material in preparation for baptism must make the baptism-services that the author takes in his church in New Zealand, very profound and inspiring occasions.

All of this is very wise, biblical and pastoral and inspiring. Yet there is something else about this book which means that the adjective 'surprising' must be added to that list! Since the Reformation, Protestant Christianity has been at war with itself over the subject of Baptism. The battle lines have been most starkly drawn over the subject of whether the children of believers are the fit subjects for baptism, or whether the only valid baptism is that which takes place post-conversion.

Taylor, although a Baptist Pastor who practices the immersion of believers on profession of faith, is one thinker who is convinced that it is time to bring this damaging war to a close. In his chapter on the subjects of baptism he outlines (very succinctly) a moderate position on baptism. His contention is that as scholars on both sides of the debate are godly men and women, handling scripture honestly - and both drawing hugely on arguments from silence, we must accept the validity of the baptism of all our Christian brothers and sisters, even if it is not the mode of our preference! In the schema that Taylor develops in the first third of the book, he demonstrates the reasonableness of both accepting the infant baptism of people whose Christian experience really did begin in their very first years as well as those who were baptised after profession of faith. Likewise he demonstrates why he will not withhold believers-baptism from an adult convert who was baptised prior-to-conversion, but for whom that fact has no ongoing significance. The thorny question of 're-baptism' is therefore not crudely formularised but placed within the context of the discipleship of the individual! This is so, so important because it makes discipleship the aim of the exercise, not party-allegiance or conformity.

Personally, there are two things which I find to be appallingly sub-standard in the baptism-war. The first is those of Presbyterian persuasion who smugly patronise Baptists as those who are not able to comprehend the depths of covenant theology. This is simply not true, there are many baptists who do, but their hermeneutics gives priority to the clear examples of the New Testament 1st generation baptisms, over and against the weight of such theological construction. The other shoddy occurrence is when Baptists disingenuously claim that receiving believers-baptism is simply a matter of obedience to Christ, nothing more. This is at best manipulative nonsense, at worst simply false. The truth is that it is a question of interpretation and obedience.

Two woeful errors flow from these twin evils. The first is that many Presbyterian (etc) churches will prevent gifted individuals serving in key roles if they do not present their offspring for baptism. This is a thoroughly unwarranted division of the body of Christ. Likewise, some baptist-churches practice a closed membership system in which those baptised prior to conversion are "in-Christ", but "2nd-class"! That such membership policies are hostile to the New Testament picture of the body (Paul) or the family (Hebrews) is so obvious that it is hard not to label them as being downright sinful.

Taylor's vision in Baptism Explored (let's get back to the book review!) is that Christian believers must unite around the gospel of Christ and that it is time to declare the baptism-war over. The oft-repeated claim is that a flexible approach to baptism is unworkable in practice and that churches must work policies of exclusion. Taylor's book - and the experience of his church shows why this is not the case.

It is a delight to read a book about baptism that is supremely concerned with Christ himself, and with a pastoral passion for the spiritual health of the disciple. Too many books subsume such concerns under the requirements of party-loyalties, for one side or the other and read like manifestos for the pompous or angry! Here is a book which calls people to baptism, to understand it, to live it, and to live out their baptism as part of living for Christ. There is one element which I would want to question Taylor on though. He deals with the cases of children who move from infant baptism seamlessly into adult faith without any apparent conversion. I think that his discussion here requires some clarification, maybe by more clearly differentiating between visible, outward conversion and inward regeneration. Unless this is clarified the book could be accused of either playing into the hands of the ultra-baptist critique that infant-baptism in inimical to genuine conversion or to having the 'Federal Vision' being espoused by a Baptist Pastor! The latter is quite an entertaining thought, at least!

The book concludes with the delightful 'liturgy' that Taylor uses in services of 'believers-baptism'. He favours a triple-baptism in the Trinitarian formula, with each immersion representing one of the three core meanings of baptism outlined above. This is a great way to end the book, and I'd love to attend a service like this! If I was ever personally persuaded of the requirement of post-conversion-re-baptism I'd probably go for something along the lines that Taylor suggests here.

This is a simple, but profound book, which (almost uniquely) champions discipleship and Christ-centred-ness itself, above the outward form of the sign that points to it. It promotes the unity that comes from making Christ himself the central reference point for all our discipleship. One critic suggested to me recently that where baptismal-parties exclude one another from the church it reveals that their baptismal-party is in fact an idol claiming a higher-allegiance than Christ in their policy making (ouch!). I fear that she may have been right in some instances, but even where that is the case, Taylor is seeking to help us to chart a course out of such a pointless impasse.

This book is a short, easy-read with a clear pastoral focus. On occasion it raises questions which are beyond its scope to answer. It seems abundantly clear that a full-scale theological work is now required to accompany this pastoral book, and to engage with those on both sides who will vehemently disagree with it. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said that he was in a 'minority of one' in his desire to chart a baptismal course that mediated between the two classic strict positions. I suspect that Taylor will find himself in similarly unpopular territory. Nevertheless he makes an important and idiosyncratic contribution to the discussion.


Richard Toller said...

Thanks for this - really helpful. Now to read the book...

That Hideous Man said...

A.N.S. Lane's contribution to the book "Baptism: 3 Views", is a theological equivalent of this pastoral book.