Thursday, June 07, 2007

Baptism—Let's face it, the New Testament is not wholly clear! So what shall we do about it?

Periodically there are intense debates or controversies in American Evangelicalism between those called "Baptists" and those called "Paedo-Baptists"—that is between those who baptize only adult believers and those who baptize both adult believers and the infant children of such.

The tendency of each side is to look for, and to find, a clear "blueprint" of its position in the documents of the New Testament (in the context of the whole Bible). Further, the advocates of each position give the impression of going to the documents to look for "proof texts" for what they already claim to know is the teaching of the New Testament and the mind of Christ. In practice, each side presents what are seen as "clear" texts for its position and then works hard to make the "less clear" texts present the same message as the "clear" ones. They believe that the N.T. must have and does have one doctrine, and not—as the rainbow—seven varied doctrines that are complementary!

Further, neither side fully allows for the simple fact that what is assumed in the New Testament is a missionary situation amongst both Jews and Gentiles, where apostles, evangelists and prophets—let alone the local presbyters and deacons of the new congregations—are entering new territory and facing new situations, and adapting to varied conditions. Also, few if any appear to recognize that, surprisingly, comparatively little is said about the way Baptism was (and is to be) administered and what is its connection to faith, repentance, regeneration and Baptism in/by the Holy Spirit. There is not one pattern or model in The Acts of the Apostles and deciding whether or not infants were included in the Baptism of households is fraught with difficulties. Then St Paul seems to downplay Baptism in 1 Corinthians 1: 16-17 and the much-used text from John 3: 5 ("by water and the Spirit") may well refer to human birth, the "breaking of the waters in the womb."

Bearing this in mind, it is good to be able to recommend a recent book, published in May 2007, which does actually take into full account the incomplete and varied picture of Baptism provided in the New Testament. It is not a perfect book—as I shall explain—but it is most useful as a reliable introduction to the fascinating, complex and varied presentation of Baptism that is found in the documents of the New Testament, against the background of the Old Testament and Inter-Testamental developments.

The book is Troubled Water. Rethinking the theology of Baptism . By Ben Witherington III, published by Baylor University Press of Texas, 2007. Despite the title, and very inappropriate dust-cover, it is primarily a biblical study with added reflections upon the biblical material. And herein is its strength for the author is an accomplished New Testament scholar, who is well aware of both the major studies of Baptism in the N.T. in the last century, and also of the debates with the Evangelical world to which he belongs (as a teacher at Asbury Theological Seminary).

What I would like the author to have attempted—and the studies for him to have used to assist him in the task are many—is an account of what the Early Church of the third and fourth centuries actually did with the biblical materials in order to create the baptismal theology and practice of the Church, in a period that it went from being a persecuted minority to that of being favored by the Emperor. How did the Church combine the different emphases and theologies of the varied New Testament witnesses (documents) and what if anything did it fail to make use of, or what did it over-use—and so on? Were the development of the Catechumenate and the holding of multiple Baptisms on Easter Morning developments in accord with major N.T. emphases?

From my Reformed Catholic or Anglican perspective, one has to admit that the providence of God guided the Early Church after the promotion of the apostles to heaven, and that what the Church came to institute and do by the fourth century is important for us to know and to study. I have made this point concerning the ordained Ministry in various essays—for here, like Baptism, we have a varied picture of Ministry in the New Testament itself and by the third century we have the stable Order of the Bishop, Presbyters and Deacons.

But before we attempt to look at the evidence of Church practice and theology from the 3rd and 4th centuries, we need to have a good idea as to the variety of teaching within the New Testament, and for this I commend Ben Witherington's book.

To those who wish—and I hope they are many—to begin to explore what happened to Baptism a couple of centuries later, as a starter I suggest: Bryan D. Spinks, Early and Medieval Rituals and Theologies of Baptism: From the N.T. to the Council of Trent, Ashgate Publishing , VT. 2006. Dr Spinks teaches at Yale.

[for my own 64 page booklet on Infant Baptism in the Anglican Way, go to and look for Mystical Washing……. (2007) ]

-- The Revd Dr Peter Toon, M.A. M.Th . D.Phil., President of the PBS 2007

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