Three Views on Baptism: ERB Book Review
The following is the longer version of my book review for the Englewood Review of Books – please follow the link above to see the published version!
Baptism: Three Views; edited by David F. Wright, with contributions by Sinclair Ferguson, Anthony Lane, and Bruce Ware. IVP Academic, 200pp
Baptism is a volatile subject among Christians. Lest we forget, men and women have lost their lives in centuries past in the struggle to honor their understanding of Christian baptism. Not only that, many parents have wrestled with the fact that the New Testament gives no direct guidance for how to handle the initiation of their believing children into the covenant community. I hoped for three things from this text: arguments that honored Christ, that respected the authority of Scripture, and that interacted with each others’ arguments. While I do not fully agree with any of the arguments set forth, I can vouch without qualification that these three men exceeded my hopes and expectations in these areas.
The three arguments presented all speak from the conservative Evangelical tradition: Dr. Ware for Baptist credobaptism, Dr. Ferguson for Presbyterian paedobaptism, and Dr. Lane for a historically-rooted plural practice. Each man presents his argument, after which the other two present their response, and then the original presenter addresses the respondents’ points in a concluding response. This is an exceptionally engaging format for the reader, which I’d love to see in broader use, addressing other topics and from broader frames of reference. Thus it was with some trepidation that I accepted the opportunity to review this interactive discussion of the sacrament of Christian initiation. As a Christian in the Stone-Campbell Reformation tradition, a Scriptural understanding of baptism is both essential to my own spirituality and a huge influence on our historical identity.
Dr. Ware won the drawing to start the discussion, and his defense of believer’s baptism is rooted deeply in Scripture. However, his position holds some weaknesses pointed out by his conversation partners. Dr Lane points out that baptism in Acts is not just believers’ baptism, but converts’ baptism: that is, immersion of believers at the point when they come to believe, not at an arbitrary point in the future, which often happens in the credobaptist context, where young people in particular might believe for several months or years before being baptized.
Dr. Ferguson does his best to present what ends up being a fatally-flawed argument for the essentiality of paedobaptism. While I agree with his belief in the unity of Scripture and that God’s People throughout time are ONE people, one cannot reject the actual existence of a new covenant. Further, one cannot ignore the fact that covenant initiation is one of the particular points where the covenants differ, or that that specific difference is prophesied by Jeremiah (31:33-34). People are not born into the new covenant; men and women already “know the Lord” when being initiated into the new covenant.
As a serious credobaptist, I was surprised to find that Dr. Lane most accurately handled Scripture, both in what it does say and what it doesn’t. Only he presents without qualification the Scriptural statements on the salvific power of baptism. Against both Ferguson’s assertion that baptism is a mere sign of what we receive from Christ AND Ware’s assertion that baptism is a sign of our faith, only Lane asserts that in the New Testament baptism above all receives Christ and his salvation. Baptism is our prayerful acceptance of the Lordship and Messiahship of Jesus Christ, and baptism is the time when we are added to the people of God. Neither does Lane shy away from such passages as John 3:5, Eph 6:1-3, and Col 3:20 with their challenging ramifications for those who would blithely reject infant baptism. Dr. Lane’s struggle is to harmonize the paucity of NT evidence for infant baptism with its widespread acceptance. The practice is often recommended against, mostly out of fear of post-baptismal sin, but never deemed heretical or even unapostolic. Because of the clear diversity of practice as early as 175AD, Lane suggests a similarly diverse practice for the modern church.
This text addresses that dilemma head-on and offers three different solutions, of varying value and harmony with Scripture. I wish timing had been better, so that the writers could have interacted with Everett Ferguson’s magisterial contribution, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries. But still, this book is short on fluff and filler, and long on information and irenic argument. Take and read!
in HIS love,