Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ – Book Critique

Believer's Baptism

Shawn D. Wright, professor of theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and member of the Evangelical Theological Society[1] teams up with Thomas R. Schreiner, Dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary[2] to co-edit a compilation of scholarly and theological essays on the history and doctrine of baptism. Using exegesis of Scripture, a detailed history of the theology and practices of early church, and with the ultimate goal of restoring baptism to its rightful place as a central liturgical act of Christian worship, the authors set out to advocate credobaptism (the doctrine that Christian baptism should be reserved solely for believers in the Lord,) over the beliefs and practices of Reformed paedobaptists (those who practice infant baptism).[3] This critique will largely agree with the author’s conclusions that credobaptism is biblically supported and will evaluate the strengths and weaknesses behind the authors’ claims, which assert baptism must be reserved strictly for believers and how baptism remains relevant to the church today.

SUMMARY

The main premise of Believer’s Baptism is to clearly articulate the history and practice of baptism and to affirm: who should be baptized, when he or she should be baptized, and what the act of baptism actually accomplishes in the life of the believer. Schreiner and Wright set out, with the aid of an additional eight highly esteemed Baptist theologians and scholars to demonstrate baptism should only be reserved for those who have believed, repented, and maintained his or her faith. Each of the author’s conclusions and findings presented are rooted in rich biblical truth, and offer practical application for the believer today, while also presenting potential reasons for how and why paedobaptists came to believe infant baptism should be linked to the covenant relationship, specifically found in the Old Testament, and early church practices.

Schreiner and Wright further seek to show how paedobaptists associate the covenant of grace with the Abrahamic Covenant, in an attempt to reduce the Abrahamic Covenant to its most basic spiritual components. While this argument presents no middle ground, Schreiner and Wright successfully demonstrate baptism must be reserved for believers who have received Christ as his or her personal Savior, have turned away from a life of sin, and seek to make a public profession of faith, thus fulfilling the command found in Scripture. While the doctrine of baptism has increasingly become a topic of debate in denominational circles, the secondary objective of Schreiner and Wright is to provide pastors and leaders with a practical resource when faced with many of the questions surrounding the practice of baptism e.g., Does baptism save the believer? Does baptism forgive one’s sins? Does baptism have an age requirement? And how should one respond when challenged with any of the above questions?

A tertiary goal of Schreiner and Wright is to cultivate a greater sense of unity within the body of Christ. To many, how, when, or why someone should be baptized may seem like a minor issue but as Timothy George demonstrates, “Baptism is important precisely because it is tied to the gospel, and to the saving work that Christ accomplished in His death and resurrection.”[4] Within Christianity, there are doctrinal hills worth dying on and the practice of baptism is one of those hills, as Paul Jewett demonstrates, “To baptize infants apart from faith threatens the evangelical foundations of evangelicalism.”[5] Believer’s Baptism combines biblical exegesis, history and theology, and practical application to provide a powerful argument for credobaptism.

CRITICAL INTERACTION

Beginning with the Gospel accounts, Andreas Köstenberger provides concise historical context into the practice of credobaptism. While there are not a great deal of passages that deal with baptism, the ones which do clearly establish the rite of baptism: “Is designed for believers who have repented of their sin and have put their faith in God and in His Christ, is an essential part of Christian discipleship, most likely consisted of immersion in water, and presupposes spiritual regeneration as a prevenient and primary work of God in and through the Holy Spirit.”[6] The Gospels each clearly demonstrate the believer’s baptism is the intended teaching and A.T. Robertson further demonstrates, “the Gospels provide no evidence or support for the baptism of infants, the notion of baptismal regeneration, nor does the principle of believer’s baptism enunciated in the Gospels allow for such a practice.”[7]

Robert H. Stein then analyzes Luke and Acts, illustrating God’s intimate role in the process and counters claims of baptismal regeneration and belief that the act of baptism forgave sins. Despite household conversions and baptisms taking place, Stein answers the question, exactly who can be baptized, by asserting “Those baptized… have heard the gospel preached, as responding with repentance and/or faith, and proceeding on their own to the place of baptism.”[8] Robertson further illustrates, “Baptism, as taught in the New Testament, is the picture of death and burial to sin and resurrection to new life, a picture of what has already taken place in the heart, not the means by which spiritual change is wrought. It is a privilege and duty, not a necessity. It is a picture that is lost when something else is substituted in its place.”[9] Stein adequately advances the position for credobaptism, but in a climate where many congregations are seeking to go back to an early church model, some practical and modern-day application of the credobaptism principles would have been a nice companion to this chapter.

Next, Schreiner examines the epistles and reveals how, “Baptism relates to washing, to sealing, to redemptive history, and [answers] whether baptism should be confined to believers.”[10] Schreiner’s main emphasis is on the act of baptism only being for those who have confessed his or her sins and trusted in Christ for salvation. Paul, in Ephesians 4:5 asserts there is one baptism, which unifies all believers. Paul’s emphasis here is to bring balance to the rite of baptism, with his primary focus being on unity within the body of believers, while also making it known baptism is not restricted from any ethnic or social group. Galatians 3:27 is a prime example, illustrating, “Believers who are baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” This verse denotes the close connection between one’s faith and the practice of baptism. Ronald Fung further demonstrates, “Baptism is here regarded as the rite of initiation into Christ, that is, into union with Christ, or, what amounts to the same thing, of incorporation into Christ as the Head of the new humanity.”[11] These passages counter the singular claim of paedobaptists regarding God’s grace and illuminates how God’s grace must be combined with the human response.

Despite there being no record or command of infant baptism in the canon of Scripture, Stephen J. Wellum explains, “At the heart of the doctrine of infant baptism is the argument it is an implication drawn from the comprehensive theological category of the covenant of grace.”[12] To address this claim, Wellum looks at the relationship between the covenants and explains, “[Only] if the interpretation of the covenant of grace, along with its understanding of the continuity between Israel and the church can be maintained do we have a strong case for infant baptism.”[13] Despite paedobaptists’ argument for infant baptism, Wellum verifies the key problem is rooted in a, “Failure to understand correctly the proper relationship between the biblical covenants, [since] a truly covenantal approach to Scripture… demands an affirmation of believer’s baptism.”[14] Another important contribution is Wellum’s response to paedobaptist assertion that, “Circumcision and baptism carry essentially the same spiritual meaning and that in the new covenant era baptism is the replacement of circumcision as a covenant sign.”[15] Ultimately, baptism and circumcision carry two very different meanings and Paul could not be clearer that circumcision was no longer a covenant sign. Wellum rightly concludes, “[Baptism] signifies a believer’s union with Christ, by grace through faith, and all the benefits that result from that union.”[16] Wellum’s contribution for the defense of credobaptism was a key component.

Steven A. McKinion looks to the early church fathers and patristic writings to conclude, “Baptism had less to do with the age of the baptized person than with the role of repentance, profession of faith, and entrance into the full life of the church.”[17] The main issues facing those in the third and fourth century were the high infant mortality rate and debate over whether infants needed forgiveness of sins. Despite these issues, McKinion demonstrates why early church fathers like Tertullian rejected the defense of infant baptism on two counts: “First, infants are innocent, guiltless, and not in need of forgiveness; second, faith alone is sufficient for salvation. [Thus,] baptism should follow faith, and since young children do not need forgiveness and cannot possess faith, baptism is unnecessary.” Despite few supporters, the early centuries of the church are often cited in defense of paedobaptist belief, predominantly since it was the practice of some churches, but it was never universally practiced and those in favor of paedobaptism seemed to have a more refined view on the doctrine of original sin.

With the rise of Anabaptists, Jonathan Rainbow contrasts Ulrich Zwingli and Balthasar Hubmaier’s views explaining, “For Zwingli, baptism was a mere sign, [while] for Hubmaier it was more than a sign. [Ultimately,] Baptists consider, on the basis of an open and personal confession, that the person coming to the water believes in Jesus Christ, and that there is an inner reality to which baptism corresponds… This was the heart of Reformation Anabaptists…”[18] Rainbow offers profound insight between Zwingli and Hubmaier’s viewpoints by illustrating, “There is a fear of allowing water baptism to come too close to the work of grace in the sinner’s heart; there are raised eyebrows and puzzled looks at the New Testament texts that closely associate baptism with salvation; and many would rather not baptize at all than leave room for the impression that baptism is an integral part of the conversion experience.”[19] This assertion is exactly what paedobaptists have done in their departure from biblical doctrine. Making too much or too little of baptism are both dangerous roads to travel, so Rainbow is correct in his word of caution. With this word of warning, Timothy George highlights, “It is important to [remember] and recognize that in the Reformation tradition of believers, baptism was forged in the context of persecution and martyrdom.”[20] Looking back in time at the formation of doctrine and tradition, it can be easy to forget exactly what was going on at that time to warrant the beliefs and practices, which resulted. Rainbow does a great job advancing the credobaptism position in this section.

Shawn D. Wright presents the logic of Reformed paedobaptists in an attempt to examine and understand their logic. Calvin, Murray, and Marcel all hold to the covenant of grace, but as Wright demonstrates, “Their biblical exposition is oriented toward the Old Testament with a lack of attention to the New Testament’s teaching. [Further,] by using the Westminster Confession of Faith as evidence for infant baptism… it is neither ‘good’ nor a ‘necessary’ deduction.”[21] Each of these Reformed paedobaptists seemed to believe God regenerates the infant at baptism, but without faith, this process cannot begin. Another doctrinal error in this vein of theology occurs by paralleling circumcision with baptism, which Wellum has previously covered in depth.

Duane A. Garrett then looks at the Israelite traditions and shows Meredith Kline’s “Error is in taking Old Testament events that are retrospectively and metaphorically called ‘baptism’ and enlisting them as guides to the ritual mode of actual baptism. [Ultimately,] by interpreting baptism under the rubric of a suzerainty treaty means that a Christian must require all persons under his authority to be baptized, [which] validates the Constantinian vision of Christianity.”[22] In Cornelis Bennema’s critique of Believer’s Baptism, he cites, “Kline’s defense of paedobaptism being closely connected with the idiosyncratic theology of the covenant and whenever historic divergences exist within the church, it is best to engage the arguments that have historically been most influential and decisive; this can hardly be said to hold true for Kline’s formulations.”[23]

Baptism was a source of division amongst early Christians, as Ardel B. Caneday explains, by using Paul’s letters to the churches at Corinth and Galatia to show, “All who have put on Christ with all who are baptized into Christ, as though the two are fused into one. To be baptized into Christ by submission to the symbolic foot washing called for by the gospel is to be clothed with Christ Jesus.”[24] Paul seems to be equating those who are baptized into Christ Jesus share in part with the redeeming effects of His death. Caneday further demonstrates, “While Paul warns the Galatians that submission to the ritual act of circumcision would be to sever oneself with Christ (5:2-6), he identifies Christian baptism as the ritual act that marks one as clothed with Christ.”[25] This is a significant contribution to the difference between the ritual acts.

In the context of the local church, Mark E. Dever illustrates, “Only forty percent of baptisms in cooperating churches are ‘first time’ baptisms of converts, [attributing this trend to:] confusion, ignorance, prejudice, and a misplaced and distorting cultural conservatism that besets most churches today in their practice of baptism.”[26] Dever successfully brings together the culmination of previous chapters to answer questions like: Who should baptize? How is baptism to be done? Who is to be baptized? When are baptisms to be done? And should unbaptized individuals be excluded from: the Lord’s Supper, church membership, and should baptisms from other churches be accepted. Bennema adds, “Though it may well be that many Reformed churches have not lived up to their covenant theology, it is hardly the case that this theology diminishes the obligations of faith and repentance in respect to the children of believers. On this point, the claims of several authors in this volume seem to be overstated.”[27] Overall, the predominant Baptist background of the authors limits the scope of this work. Had other denominations of faith been included, the book would become more relevant to a larger number of people, but Schreiner and Wright are quite clear their goal was simply to promote credobaptism over paedobaptism, and this goal was adequately accomplished.

CONCLUSION

Schreiner and Wright have also clearly established baptism requires the public profession of faith, which acknowledges one’s salvation and honors Christ’s atoning sacrificial death, burial, and resurrection. In a time where the world seems to know more what the church is against than what she is for, Believer’s Baptism is a treasure-trove of wisdom and practical application, which has the ability to bridge the gap and produce unity and love within the body of Christ. Baptism plays a pivotal role in the fulfillment of the Great Commission and is vital in advancing the kingdom of God. Ultimately, God wants His followers to live in unity and love, but as Timothy George demonstrates, “Unity in love must also be unity in truth, else it is not genuine unity at all.”[28] Upon this premise, Schreiner and Wright are to be commended for producing a work that brings clarity to the practice of credobaptism over paedobaptism and this work would be well suited for anyone interested in understanding not only the history of baptism but also how this practice should be applied to the church today.

 Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ. Edited by Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, Series Edited by E. Ray Clendenen, B&H Academic Publishing Group, 2006, 364 pp. $29.99 (Hardcover).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bennema, Cornelis P. A Review of Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ., by Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, ed. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 52, no. 3 (September 2009): 655-61, (accessed June 12, 2017).

Elwell, Walter A. ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing Group, 2001.

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing Group, 2013.

Fung, Ronald Y. K. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Epistle to the Galatians. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998.

George, Timothy. “The Reformed doctrine of believers’ baptism.” Interpretation 47, no. 3 (July 1993): 242+. Academic OneFile (accessed June 12, 2017).

Jewett, Paul K. Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978.

Robertson, A. T. “Baptism, Baptist View,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Edited by James Orr (Chicago: IL, Howard-Severance Co., 1915), 1:416-417.

Schreiner, Thomas R. and Shawn D. Wright, ed. Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ. Series Edited by E. Ray Clendenen. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic Publishing Group, 2006.

[1] The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Website, http://www.sbts.edu/academics/faculty/shawn-d-wright/ (accessed June 8, 2017).

[2] The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Website, http://www.sbts.edu/academics/faculty/thomas-r-schreiner/ (accessed June 8, 2017).

[3] Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, ed. Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, Series ed. by E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic Publishing Group, 2006), 6.

[4] Timothy George, Believer’s Baptism, 1.

[5] Paul K. Jewett, Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace, ed. James Orr (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), 162.

[6] Andreas Köstenberger, Believer’s Baptism, 32-33.

[7] A. T. Robertson, “Baptism, Baptist View,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Chicago: IL, Howard-Severance Co., 1915), 1:416-417.

[8] Robert H. Stein, Believer’s Baptism, 65.

[9] Robertson, “Baptism, Baptist View,” 417.

[10] Thomas R. Schreiner, Believer’s Baptism, 68.

[11] Ronald Y. K. Fung, The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Epistle to the Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 172.

[12] Stephen J. Wellum, Believer’s Baptism, 68.

[13] Ibid., 124.

[14] Ibid., 160.

[15] Ibid., 153.

[16] Ibid., 159.

[17] Steven A. McKinion, Believer’s Baptism, 186-187.

[18] Jonathan H. Rainbow, Believer’s Baptism, 206.

[19] Ibid., 205.

[20] Timothy George, “The Reformed doctrine of believers’ baptism,” Interpretation 47, no. 3 (July 1993): 242. Academic OneFile (accessed June 12, 2017).

[21] Shawn D. Wright, Believer’s Baptism, 254.

[22] Duane A. Garrett, Believer’s Baptism, 281.

[23] Cornelis P. Bennema, Review of Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, by Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, ed. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 52, no. 3 (September 2009): 660, (accessed June 12, 2017).

[24] Ardel B. Caneday, Believer’s Baptism, 285.

[25] Ibid., 286.

[26] Mark E. Dever, Believer’s Baptism, 329.

[27] Bennema, “Believer’s Baptism,” 661.

[28] Timothy George, Believer’s Baptism, XIX.

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