Dipping into baptism 5: responses to believers’ baptism

Continuing our discussion of a good recent book on the contested waters of baptism is Baptism: Three Views, edited by the late David F Wright just before he died.

The three views are:

1. Believers’ Baptism View: Bruce A. Ware

2. Infant Baptism View: Sinclair B. Ferguson

3. Dual-Practice Baptism View: Anthony N. S. Lane

In this post, I’ll highlight some key points that Sinclair Ferguson (infant baptism) and Tony Lane (dual practice) make in response to Ware’s case for Believers’ Baptism.

Sinclair Ferguson: Infant Baptist response

1. Immersion

To Ware’s claim that baptism is by immersion, Ferguson says it may well be implied but it is not explicitly required by the texts. Indeed a case can be made for affusion. The Didache talks of pouring over the head. Certain NT ‘Baptism in the Spirit’ texts talk of ‘pouring’ of the Holy Spirit [Acts 2:13, 33, cf Rom 5:5] that are suggestive of affusion.

2. Meaning of Baptism

An important argument of Ferguson’s is that Ware glosses over very real differences in how paedobaptists and believer’s baptists understand baptism itself. He quotes different Baptist churches understandings of baptism that talk of it in subjective terms, as something to be done; ‘an act of obedience’ symbolizing the believer’s faith. His point is that it is paedobaptists who understand baptism as something objective Christ has done which is received in faith. The focus is off ‘us’ and our actions, and on God and his actions.

And Ferguson argues that major Baptist confessions deliberately do not talk of baptism as a ‘sign and seal of the new covenant’ for this reason but they do talk about ‘an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith’.

3. Does Baptism replace circumcision?

Ware had argued that there is NOT a continuity beween circumcision and baptism, rejecting the idea that as with Old Covenant circumcision, infants can be baptised as a sign of their membership within the (new) covenant.

The issue here, argues Ferguson, is that circumcision was a covenantal sign of divine grace to be received in faith. It did not signify faith itself. And so baptism is not about the faith of the believer, but is a sign of God’s grace to be received in faith.

Ferguson says, arguing from Col 2:11-15 , that the work of Christ fulfils the meaning of circumcision and ground the meaning of baptism. The two signs, each within its own covenant, points to the same reality.

4. Children worse off in the New Covenant?

Ferguson also proposes that it is a strange theology that puts children in a worse position in the New Covenant than in the old. Namely they lack ‘a gracious promise to faith with respect to children in relationship to God’s covenant.’

Tony Lane: a Dual Practice response to Believer’s Baptism

Tony Lane is characteristically concise

1. On Immersion

He says immersion is a minor point of no great significance. What is undoubted is that baptism is in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, not the mode.

2. The New Testament Norm

Yes, the NT has believers’ baptism, but it needs to be noted that this is more accurately converts’ baptism. These are stories of first generation Christians coming to faith and being baptised immediately. In a modern context, this will need adjustment for a more gradual initiation into the Christian faith – for example of children in a Christian home.

On household baptism, he is not as convinced as Ware that there were not infants baptised in the NT accounts. The context is one where the head of household made decisions for the family.

3. Problems for both paedobaptists and credobaptists

The infant Baptist faces that problem of no NT text clearly teaching the baptism of an infant and the inconclusive evidence that it happened in the first 150 years of the church.

The Credobaptist faces the problem of absolute silence about what happened to the children of believers in that same time period.

4. The Efficacy of Baptism

Lane describes the well established Baptist position that baptism is a sign of realities that have already happened. Faith, union with Christ, reception of the Spirit have all taken place and baptism is a later sign of this new life.

The trouble is, Lane argues, “The New Testament portrays baptism not just as a symbol pointing to something but as itself having a role in the reception of salvation.”

Now at this point I suspect a lot of evangelicals will start to get very jumpy. I sometimes put up the Nicene Creed up on screen in a class on the identity of Jesus. It’s interesting that it is often the little phrase on baptism that catches students’ attention ‘we believe  … in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins’.

But Lane argues, the NT is clear. There is a fourfold initiation into the Christian faith:

– repentance

– faith

– baptism

– reception of the Holy Spirit

Baptism is a means by which Christians receive the gift of salvation. While baptism is never separated from faith, faith is never separated from baptism. [Contrary to Ware, the Baptist theologian, George Beasley-Murray in his famous book Baptism in the New Testament did argue this point – so not all Baptists agree here].

Although baptism is clearly associated with regeneration (John 3:5; Titus 3:5), Lane is willing, with paedobaptists, to live with the detachment (by years) of repentance, faith and reception of the Spirit from baptism as an infant.

And as he also notes, most Baptists in practice do this too by not baptising young children who profess faith, but waiting until there is evidence of maturity in faith – often in the teenage years.

Finally, he says Ware overeggs his case in arguing that the evidence conclusively shows that the early church held exclusively to believers’ baptism. Silence on infant baptism is not the same as evidence of absence.

Now that’s a lot of data to take in but we’ll come back to these points again and unpack them, as we look next at Ferguson’s chapter (with responses) and then Lane’s chapter (with responses).


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