Dipping into baptism 8: the case for dual-practice

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

The Dual-Practice View

One thing Ferguson and Ware agree on – they don’t like Tony Lane’s position on baptism. But we’ll come back to their critiques; first what is it that Lane is proposing?

As a student, I always liked Tony Lane’s dry sense of humour. He starts here thanking his opponents for allowing him to defend the ‘correct position’. And wryly notes that both have to agree with much of what he has to say – since he agrees with both their views!

Personally, Lane says he has lived and thought both positions and found them to be wanting, hence his third way.

1. Christian initiation

He lays out the considerable evidence for a ‘fourfold initiation’ into the Christian faith:
– Repentance
– Faith
– Receiving the Spirit
– Baptism

These form a nexus around conversion in Acts and are continually reflected in the NT. Faith and baptism are like two sides of the same coin – inseparable. See Gal 3:26-7; Col 2:11-12 for example.

So far, so Baptist.

But Lane distinguishes this as ‘converts’ baptism’ [after Beasley-Murray] rather than believers’ baptism [where there is often a long delay between profession of faith and baptism]. In other words, pretty well every occasion of baptism in the NT is of immediate baptism of a new believer.

“Baptism was not optional. It was not left to the conscience of the individual believer. It was not delayed until the convert’s genuineness was proved. Instead, it was part of the gospel message.”

If this was the case, Lane says this must have raised the question of what happened to the infants and children of these new believers. The NT itself does not give an explicit answer. Lane says one thing is clear – they did not receive the converts’ baptism of Acts. So he turns to a long historical section on the evidence for whether the Apostolic Church baptised babies.

2. Historical Evidence

There’s a general consensus that the evidence from the first two centuries is too scant to make any definite conclusions.

By the third century there is evidence of an already established practice in Tertullian (who argues against baptism of infants for fear of post-baptismal sin), The Apostolic Tradition, in Letter 64 of Cyprian of Carthage and in Origen. The motive of the latter two was the infant baptism should be practiced due to original sin. Another strand of evidence is 3rd century Christian grave inscriptions, showing that infants were baptised, usually shortly before death. This sort of ‘emergency’ baptism fits well with Tertullian and the belief that baptism washes away all previous sin so is a good idea if you are about to die.

Lane’s point here is that there is no explanation of what was happening. It is certainly not clear that infant baptism was the norm. But it is clear that it was practiced and that there seems to be little dispute about it.

By the fourth /fifth centuries this dual practice seems established. David Wright showed how children of many leading Christian families (for whom there are records) were baptised as young adults. Yet infant baptism was practiced as well and there is no objection to it. There is strong evidence that the most common reason to delay baptism was post-baptismal sin, even adults delayed for this reason. Almost treating baptism like an ‘amnesty’ for all sinful behaviour up to that point!

By the fifth century infant baptism gradually had become the norm, especially due to fear of death for unbaptised babies and a stronger influence of the doctrine of original sin.

The first objection in principle to infant baptism does not come until some small medieval sects and more influentially, the Anabaptists of the 16th century.

Now that’s something to chew on.

In light of this, Lane offers 4 perspectives supporting a dual practice approach to Baptism.

Since this post is getting too long, I’ll come back to them next time.

What do you make of his fourfold initiation into the Christian faith that has an extremely high place for baptism and makes it ‘part of the gospel’?

There is strong biblical evidence for what Lane says. However, Ferguson points to 1 Cor. 1:17 and Paul’s remark that he came to preach the gospel, not baptise as evidence that baptism itself is NOT  an intrinsic part of the gospel itself.


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