My journey on the doctrine of baptism was long and at times arduous. I think it may be pertinent as I review this book about baptism. I was raised Roman Catholic, and was “baptized” as an infant (I say “baptized” since my parents are nominally Catholic and I question whether I had a right to baptism). As a new convert, I unknowingly fell into a campus cult that taught you needed to be baptized to be saved. I knew I was already saved by grace thru faith, but believed I should be baptized so I was. Soon I was engaging my “discipler” on the issue, driven to better understand Scripture and leave that “ministry”. I found a Conservative Baptist church in my hometown and enjoyed my new life as a Christian there until I left for Seminary 5 years later. At seminary I was a credobaptist among paedobaptists, and I was thankful for Dr. Nicole as I also read Kingdon & Jewette to defend my credobaptism from a covenantal perspective.
Finally, 2 years after I graduated from seminary (the first time), the light bulb went on. A friend jokingly challenged me that my resistance was a reaction to growing up Catholic. I re-entered my study with “Lord, if this is true help me to see it.” I saw that I had erroneous presuppositions that led to my resistance of a fully biblical view of baptism. I had it partially right, but not wholly right.
So, my cards are on the table- are yours? The power of presuppositions is one of the reasons this discussion is so difficult. We are not just dealing with biblical texts, but all the presuppositions about Scripture we bring to the table. This is true about all doctrinal discussions, but this discussion is particularly laden with landmines. Baptism: Three Views brings three respected theologians together to work through it.
The introduction quotes from Barth, who after writing the quote moved from a paedobaptist position to credobaptist position, about how your anger reveals a vulnerable point in your position. Could be. Or it could also be that your sanctification has not sufficiently progressed to patiently deal with a person who is either unteachable or utterly blind of the presuppositions he or she brings to the table. So be careful about using that quote, folks.
Dr. Bruce Ware, a self-described Progressive Dispensationalist (footnote, pp. 42), is the first to present his view. He has written many books I’ve found edifying, including God’s Lessor Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism and the books he edited defending the 5 Points of Calvinism. He is no theological slouch, which is what makes his presentation all the more disappointing. I see within it the power of his presuppositions, to it’s detriment.
Ware begins with his argument for immersion. Mode of baptism was never a hot spot for me, so I just don’t get why this is so important for many Baptists. He does the usual stuff with the linguistic argument and the contextual argument. In the process, I thought of Climategate and the suppression of evidence contrary to his convictions. He does not bring Acts 1 and 2 into the discussion. In Acts 1 we see Jesus saying this:
4And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; 5for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
But in Acts 2, Peter quotes Joel 2 which describes this baptism in this way:
17 “‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit…”
Since the Spirit was poured out, does that mean they weren’t baptized in the Spirit? No, it means that baptism doesn’t always mean what Bruce Ware wants you to think it means- immersion. He also fails to mention one of the prophecies of the New Covenant, in which God says “I will sprinkle clean water on you” (Ezekiel 36:24-27).
His presuppositions influence his evaluation of the data to reach a more rigid conclusion than Scripture warrants. In his discussion he often ignores the context of passages. He uses descriptive passages prescriptively. He neglects the missionary context of the texts (this is more pertinent in the subjects of baptism but he misses this in his discussion of mode).
He makes another argument that is laden with difficulties. He refers to Acts 8 in this way.
“Similarly in the account of Philip baptizing the eunuch from Ethiopia, we read that Philip and the eunuch “both went down into the water (Acts 8:38) and then both “came up out of the water” (Acts 8:39).”
Does he mean that this text states that both were baptized since both went down into the water and came up out of it? He makes this speak to mode of baptism when it refers to both entering the river or pool of water (which is no indication of how deep it was). He takes this text someplace the text does not go. This text does not mean anyone was immersed.
In his discussion of the subjects of baptism, we see a similar suppression of evidence regarding Acts 2. He states that Peter’s statement “this promise is for you and your children” should in no way be connected with the Abrahamic promise. He states the original audience of Peter’s sermon, though they be Jews, would NEVER make that connection. He claims Peter is only referring to the promise of salvation for those who repent and are baptized. I say the suppression of evidence because he never examines Genesis 12, 15 or 17 to note the use of just such language in passages near and dear to every Jew’s heart and which are fulfilled in Christ (Mt. 1, Galatians3-4). This is particularly clear in Genesis 17 which uses the phrase “you and your offspring” or children repeatedly.
7And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” 9And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. “
While land is mentioned, the main point is salvation- “I will be their God”. The text also includes household language. His whole household, even the son who would not believe and receive the promise, was to receive the sign. This included adults who may or may not have believed (we don’t know). His presuppositions keep Ware from “going there” and investigating a legitimate claim of those who bring Acts 2 into the discussion of infant baptism.
Ware, based on his presuppositions, demands clear, explicit statements in the New Testament. His presuppositions minimize the continuity of Scripture and the covenants. He also seems predisposed against what the Westminster Confession of Faith calls “good and necessary consequence” (WCF, I, 5).
Ware makes some other, interesting, claims. For instance, he argues that Israel was not to marry the surrounding nations to preserve ethnic purity of the line for Messiah. This was not the issue. First, Scripture says clearly that this was to protect Israel from apostasy because foreign spouses would bring foreign gods (ask Solomon). Converts like Rahab and Ruth were welcomed into Israel and even found themselves in the genealogy of Jesus. His progressive dispensationalism drives an unnecessary, and unbiblical divide between Israel and the Church. He fails to see Gentiles being brought into Israel instead of being separate from believing Israel.
In his definition of baptism, as Sinclair Ferguson notes in his response, Ware is more in line with the Reformed paedobaptist understanding than the understanding given in the London and Philadelphia Baptist confessions as well as the Baptist Faith and Message that Ware is to adhere to as a member and teacher in the SBC. See, he’s so close and yet so far (just as I used to be).
The final argument I’ll mention is from that of the “pure church” or “regenerate church” when Baptists see as a function of the New Covenant. He goes on to say this:
“All new covenant participants will be covenant keepers, will know and embrace the law intrinsically, and will know the Lord and be his spiritual people.”
The practice of excommunication, as taught in the Scriptures, should instruct us that profession of faith is not the same thing as possession of faith. He takes what speaks toward the invisible church and addresses it to the visible church. Like Israel in the Old Testament, the visible church is mixed. There are many who have been immersed as adults who have left the faith visibly. There are many who still show up, but how are not regenerate. People make counterfeit confessions of faith. One’s view of the subjects of baptism should not be governed by teaching regarding the invisible church, but the visible church (from both testaments).
The response by Sinclair Ferguson makes a number of good points. He brings up the Acts 1 & 2 argument against immersion, as well as other examples where baptism is used metaphorically to include Jesus being lifted up on the cross. He also notes how Ware misuses Romans 4 (one of my favorites texts on the subject). Circumcision was not a sign of Abraham’s faith, but the righteousness he had by faith (and which his children were to receive by faith). Ware misreads the text!
“Like all covenant signs, circumcision signified the divine activity and grace to which recipients were called to respond in faith (cf. Gen. 17:11). It did not signify faith itself.”
In his response to the “household” question he addresses Ware’s use of Jeremiah 31 about a “pure church”. Ware neglected to say that Jeremiah affirmed the “to you and your seed” principle of the covenant which was found in the Abrahamic covenant as well as the Mosaic covenant. Though in the next chapter, it is dealing with the (re)new(ed) covenant.
38 And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. 39 I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. 40 I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me.
Ferguson also notes why the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) didn’t resolve the issue of circumcision & baptism as some like John Piper have suggested they would if there was really a connection. As Ferguson says, though it may have “clarified” the issue for some people it would perpetuated the real problem addressed by the Council. The Judaizers would have just done to baptism as they did to circumcision- making it necessary for salvation much like that campus cult that tried to suck me in and then lied about why I was no longer there.
Anthony Lane makes some good points in his response to Ware. He says that the “New Testament norm is not so much believers’ baptism as converts’ baptism.” He stresses the missionary context in which we would expect to see adults getting baptized. The reality of household baptisms does not necessitate the fact that infants were baptized, in his view, but neither does it rule it out. He brings out one of Ware’s presuppositions. This presupposition, greatly affects how he views Scripture and baptism. More than he would admit.
“Bruce Ware writes from the stance of modern Western individualism. … it is anachronistic to suppose that the first-century Christians thought that way. It is not a coincidence that the principled rejection of infant baptism, the belief that it is wrong, originated in the sixteenth century, at a time when individualism was becoming stronger in the West.”
This was the presupposition I had to admit that I had. It was Marcel’s introduction to his book on baptism that opened my eyes that I was projecting my worldly worldview on the biblical worldview. This is a common problem, and a devastating problem.
While there were far more points made by Ware, Ferguson and Lane I will stop here. I have not focused on the arguments for believers’ baptism precisely because this is the dominant view in American evangelicalism. Rare is the person who is not familiar with them. But many have not heard some of the weaknesses of that view. Next time we’ll examine Ferguson’s robust defense of infant baptism and the responses by Ware and Lane.