Book Review: “Baptism: Three Views”

In 2009 IVP Academic published a book presenting three views on baptism edited by the late David Wright.  In it, the views of credobaptism, paedobaptism, and dual-practice are all defended and critiqued by very capable scholars.  So what are their main arguments?

Bruce Ware: Credobaptism

Bruce Ware kicked off the series of essays with a defense of credobaptism.  He defines his view as the belief that “Christ’s words mean that those who have believed in Jesus Christ should be immersed in water in obedience to Christ’s command” (emphasis in original).  That is, you should only be baptized if you have already converted to Christ and this baptism should be by immersion.  I will focus mostly on the when of baptism rather than the how because that is where the emphasis is placed in the book.

He has two main points which he makes with respect to the baptism of only believers.  The first is that throughout the New Testament, we only see examples of people being baptized following their conversion and never prior to it.  Baptism is connected with belief, and this is made clear in Peters sermon in Acts 2:38-39.  Against the claim that the household baptisms provide counterexamples, he argues that there is never any mention of infants and that it is unjustified to conclude that they are, in fact, both present and baptized.

The second argument is that since baptism is the sign and seal of the new covenant which signifies the promise that sins are forgiven, new life in Christ is received, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, it can only rightly be applied to those who are in that covenant.  The main argument is to show a relevant discontinuity between circumcision and baptism, and he does this by arguing that circumcision functioned at two levels; it was sign of both the physical descent of the Israelites and of the spiritual Israel.  However, baptism only functions at the spiritual level and therefore is only rightly applied to those who the spiritual truths signified by baptism are obtained in.

Sinclair Ferguson: Paedobaptism

Sinclair Ferguson defends his view second, which is the view that not only should believers be baptized, but also their children, including infants.  Whereas Ware argued for the discontinuity between circumcision and baptism, Ferguson argues extensively for their continuity.  If baptism truly replaces and fulfills the role of circumcision, then since infants were circumcised, then they should also be baptized.

Baptism and circumcision both point to the same promise (Gal 3:13-14) and to regeneration and it’s conversion response both prior and posterior to it’s fulfillment in Christ.  The fruit of circumcision is found in regeneration (Deut 30:6), cleansing (Is 52:1, Ezek 44:6-7), and repentance (Deut 10:16, Jer 4:4).  This is exactly the fruit of Christ’s work and the significance of baptism.  They mean essentially the same thing.

He notes that in every covenant instituted in Scripture, the promise is to “you and your seed” and this is without exception.  It is odd that if the new covenant is the exception, why is it not made clear?  In fact, in Acts 2:39 Peters says that “This promise is for you and your children and to all who are far off.”  The covenant is being expanded, not contracted, yet that is exactly what the credobaptist is, in essence, arguing for.  In the Old Testament God dealt primarily with families, not individuals, and so infant baptism makes more sense of this perspective as well.

Anthony Lane: Dual Practice

Anthony Lane finishes by arguing for what is perhaps the least common view: that a variety of practices should take place and that there is no normative time to baptize.  That is, it is not wrong to baptize your infants and neither is it wrong to wait until they have made a profession of faith.  He reasons largely from the fact there is no explicit command either way in the New Testament coupled with the existence of a variety of practices in the early church.

He notes that the examples of baptism in Acts are not so much examples of believers baptism so much as examples of converts baptism.  The people who are baptized are people who were non-Christians and living outside the covenant, and then converted to Christianity.  As a result, we cannot extrapolate these examples to a normative theology of baptism.  We simply have no examples either way of what happened to people who were “born into” Christianity.

He then argues from history, working backward from the 4th and 5th centuries where things are clearer up to the 1st century in an attempt to see what the apostolic church practiced.  He argues that the church had a variety of practice surrounding baptism and that no one argued from apostolic authority.  That is, no one argued either for or against any view of baptism by claiming that it was a new belief nor that it was one that the apostles either practiced or condemned.  He concludes that the age of baptism should be left up to the parents and that there is nothing wrong with practicing either position.

Conclusion

This was the first book that I have read on the topic of baptism and I learned quite a bit from it.  I’ve only ever attended credobaptist churches and hearing the other perspectives was eye-opening.  I am not wholly persuaded by any particular view in this book, none of the arguments felt compelling to me and as a result, I will likely follow the practices of the church in which I attend.

There is much that I have left out, many arguments and responses that are worth reading and studying, and the arguments are not as simple as my simple summaries might suggest.  This is the first book that I have read on the topic of baptism and I think it was an excellent one.  All three views were presented and critiqued by capable scholars in a very gracious tone.  If you are wanting to start studying baptism but do not know where to begin, I think that this would be an excellent starting place.

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