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Book Review: Baptism: Three Views

Sorry I missed last month's book review. You will get two this month to make up for it. Our book for this month is the recently published book on baptism released by IVP Academic. The format of the book was good, better than the Point-Counterpoint Series, in my opinion, because the author of each essay was given a few pages to respond to the critiques that the other contributors gave.

Defending the Baptist view was Bruce Ware, professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. A major strength is that he spends an extensive amount of time in analysis of the biblical texts. He does make some good points, especially in his analysis of the new covenant in Ezekiel 36 which strongly emphasizes faith as being a marker of the new covenant people.

On the other hand, I felt his logic was faulty on a couple of occasions. One was a minor point, but worth mentioning because I've heard others offer it. Ware claims that immersion being the mode of baptism portrayed in the New Testament suggests that baptism was not administered to infants. However, as both responses pointed out, the Orthodox Church baptizes infants by immersion.

I'm also not convinced that Ware's methodology is the best for addressing the issue. He demands that we have New Testament evidence for infant baptism if we are to practice it and claims that if it were a valid mode of baptism that surely Scripture would tell us that. I think, though, that he overlooks the degree to which much of the New Testament was situational. If the Corinthians weren't making a mess of the Lord's Supper, we wouldn't have any clear teaching on it in all of Paul's epistles. Thus, if infant baptism was the practice of the church from the get go, and it was being done properly, why would we have direction about it in the New Testament. Unlike Ware, I do not think that there is a clear cut answer to the question of mode of baptism in the New Testament.

The next essay was by Sinclair Ferguson defending infant baptism. His argument is steeped in his covenant theology. He sees a high degree of continuity between the covenants, much more continuity than Ware does, which enables him to espouse that baptism is more or less the replacement of circumcision. With Ware, I quickly retort that that is something the New Testament wouldn't have been silent about. Surely somewhere in Acts 15 or in Paul's dispute with the Galatians it would be reasonable to expect to have heard that circumcision was unnecessary because of baptism.

I thought his best points were made when discussing the New Testament mindset. Jesus was very inclusive of little children, and the Bible as a whole seems to show again and again that God works in and through family. Overall, though, I did not find Ferguson to be too convincing. I wonder, with Lane, if he doesn't overly stress the continuity of the covenants.

The final essay was written by Anthony Lane. He favors dual-practice and sees value in both positions. Lane begins by noting that the New Testament is far from clear as to who should receive baptism. The baptisms that are recorded in the book of Acts are far different than the baptisms of people who grow up in Christian families. New Testament baptism was convert baptism. People were exposed to the faith, believed and were immediately baptized. Many children in Christian homes do not have a single conversion experience, they grow into their faith. Thus their process of initiation into the faith is radically different and hence their baptism is qualitatively different.

Lane's argument is bolstered by his understanding of the meaning of baptism, which is significantly different than the other contributors. He sees baptism as a means through which we receive grace from Christ. Baptism is an initiatory step through which people become Christians.

Sensing the ambiguity of the New Testament, Lane turns to the history of the church in the first four centuries. In a very helpful study, he shows that the practice is varied and that there was no attempt to claim that one side or the other was out of step with the practice of the apostles. Thus taking, as he terms it, a seismological approach, he believes that the best answer to the ambiguity of the New Testament is that the apostles themselves practiced a dual-practice baptism.

Of all of the essays I found Lane's to be the best. Certainly not everyone will agree with me in that judgment, but I think that his approach was the best methodologically and that his understanding of the meaning of baptism seems most satisfactory. While I'm not convinced of dual-practice yet, Lane certainly has given me much food for thought on a position that I gave very little credence to before.

If you're interested in the topic of baptism I recommend the book. Each contributor is pretty representative of at least one major line of thought within their tradition. It is an excellent primer for further study.


  1. great book review Marcus. So how does Lane's view practically work out? Does every parent in a church decide if their child will be baptised as an infant or not? And if so, on what basis? Or does he envisage some local churches favouring one practise and some the other. Does he say anything about those who have been baptised as an infant wanting to get baptised as a believer?

  2. He answers one of your two questions and but I don't mind taking a stab at both. They key for both questions, in my opinion, is Lane's understanding of baptism as initiatory. Lane is ok with each parent figuring things out. He even asked a diagnostic question, would you give your child communion? If the answer is yes, then it shows that you consider the child to already have begun initiation into the church and thus it would make sense for you to baptize them. If you wouldn't give them communion, then it woudln't make sense to baptize them.

    He never addresses rebaptizing (none of the contributors do), but I think that he would oppose it, since again he sees baptism as an initiatory act.

  3. Ah, baptism. Couple points (I have the book on my shelf but haven't read it, and I'm not at home right now, so I can't check to see if anything I have to say is in the book- forgive me):

    1) I agree that the situational character of the NT documents should remind us that we can't treat the Bible as a systematic theology. I spend much of my time in teaching and conversations (especially in seminary) trying to get this point across. BUT, I still think the fact that there is no exegetical evidence in the NT for infant baptism (as one of my Prebyterian professors in seminary admitted) means the burden of proof is on the paedobaptist to present a really strong case. And since that's awfully hard to do (since the NT doesn't really say that baptism is the new covenant replacement/equivalent of circumcision), I really can't see it. I've tried. I spent much time in seminary discussing this, I just don't see it.

    2) It seems to me that a verse like 1 Peter 3:21 connects baptism with a confession of faith (or "pledge of a clear conscience toward God" if we want to sound less Baptist and more biblical) in a way that would rule out infants. So I would say that this verse is exegetical evidence that baptism was only administered to those who professed faith. Is this verse dealt with in the book?

  4. 1 Peter 3:21 doesn't get too much attention in the book, but the funny thing is, is that Lane seems to use it the most. He sees baptism as part of the four fold initiation process described in the NT, baptism, faith, repentance, and reception of the Holy Spirit. If you understand baptism as intitiatory (if that's a word) then I think you can baptize infants with this verse in mind. The interesting thing in my mind about 1 Peter 3:21 is the causal relationship between baptism and salvation.

    I would suggest that at minimum when you get a chance to read Lane's arguments for dual practice. I think he makes the strongest case that you can possibly make in favor of it being acceptable to baptize infants (much better than the covenantal approach of Ferguson in my opinion). The big thing is, though, most Baptists won't agree with his methodology and hence won't be convinced. I personally don't find the NT all that clear in either direction yet. I think a key to keep in mind is that converts are baptized whether one is a paedo-baptist or not. Lane convinced me that the baptism of a child brought up in a Christian family seems to be a different case.

  5. Danny, I should also add that Lane makes his case without reference to circumcision/baptism parallels. I agree with you that they're not very convincing. The record of the church over the first five centuries, used to help us understand the New Testament, seemed very convincing.

  6. I think there are two issues going on here, one of which isn't remotely settled by Lane's approach. Here are two separate questions:

    1. What should a church allow in terms of its practice (only infant, only believer's, leave it to the conscience of the parents)?

    2. What should a parent do (which might involve how parents choose a congregation to be members of or mighty involve choosing what to do in a dual-practice congregation)?

    Even if you answer the first question with dual-practice (as I would), you still need an answer to the second question. I belong to a dual-practice congregation, and I think they made the right choice to allow both. But I think the scriptures do favor believer's baptism. Someone else might disagree with me, and I don't think that disagreement is grounds for division, which is why I favor the dual-practice approach. But that doesn't mean not taking a view on which to do when it comes time to decide between them.

  7. Hi Jeremy, I think that you make an excellent distinction. I think that Lane was aiming primarily at addressing the first point. What denomination is your church a part of if you don't mind me asking?

    He does bring up the second issue. Obviously everyone has to take a stance somewhere, which is why he asks the diagnostic question that I mention in my first comment. It's founded on the assumption though that the NT isn't all that clear on the issue (I'm inclined to agree with him here, but I'm just beginning my serious study on baptism).

  8. The only denomination that would take us was the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference. But we don't hold this view because of them. We're a member of their loose affiliation because they don't require a particular stance on this issue.


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