Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Pulpit Review: On Baptism

Wright, David F., Editor. Contributions by Sinclair B. Ferguson, Anthony N. S. Lane and Bruce A. Ware. Baptism: Three Views. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009. 200 Pages. Paper. $16.00. 

Aland, Kurt. Translated with an Introduction by G. R. Beasley-Murray. Preface by John Frederick Jansen. Did The Early Church Baptize Infants? Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2004. (Previously published by SCM Press, 1961.) 120 Pages. pdf review copy. $16.00 for paperback.  (P)

Jeremias, Joachim. The Origins of Infant Baptism: A Further Study in Reply to Kurt Aland. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2004. (Previously published by SCM Press, 1962.) 91 Pages. pdf review copy. $13.00 for paperback. 

Great academic debates are fascinating. Consider Erasmus and Luther on the human will. Luther's publications were decisive, yet Erasmus' position tends to dominate American Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism today.

Baptism remains a controversial topic not because Scripture is unclear, but because some who bear the name of Christ are uncomfortable (an attempt at putting the best construction on this :) ) with all that Scripture says Holy Baptism is and what Holy Baptism does for the Christian.

Consider this perspective on the book edited by Wright:
The Christian church confesses "one baptism." But the church's answers to how, whom and when to baptize, and even what it means or does, are famously varied. This book provides a forum for thoughtful proponents of three principal evangelical views to state their case, respond to the others, and then provide a summary response and statement. Sinclair Ferguson sets out the case for infant baptism, Bruce Ware presents the case for believers' baptism, and Anthony Lane argues for a mixed practice.
As with any good conversation on a controversial topic, this book raises critical issues, challenges preconceptions and discloses the soft points in each view. Evangelicals who wish to understand better their own church's practice or that of their neighbor, or who perhaps are uncertain of their own views, will value this incisive book. (publisher's website)
As a Lutheran Christian, I am not fully pleased with any of the views advocated. I can hear confusion in each of the passionate voices eager to defend their own theology and practice, yet willing to give benefit of the doubt to the others before offering gentle rebuke. The Zondervan Counterpoints volume, Understanding Four Views on Baptism left me similarly frustrated, but at least Dr. Kolb gave me a "dog in the fight" with which I could fully identify and confess.

Why the continuing confusion? History. Records are minimal from the early church. This is in part to the time that has passed since. It is also due to the need to keep an illegal religion's teachings and practices safe from government persecution.

Enter Joachim Jeremias' first book on the topic:

This volume is a landmark in its field of study. And all the better, is is again available in reprint. QBR reviewed this one some time ago. I have to be honest: it is dry and detailed. The conclusions, however, are edifying and exciting. He has the data to back up his claims. And although he is not a Lutheran, we have common cause with him in defending ancient and modern Christian theology and practice. Infant baptism is Biblical!

The confusion in so many books on baptism has to do with Christianity being largely a convert religion for its first few centuries, and even some time after legalization. Most converts were adults who were taught and then baptized. When they had children to raise in the faith, the children were first baptized and then taught. I'm not willing to call that "dual practice," but apostolic. For a thousand years, infant baptism was the norm. Now, in an age similar to that pre-Constantine in many ways, I have more adult baptisms. I see that as the growing trend as many adults have no Christian background whatsoever.

For me, this clarifies and explains the confusion. But, others had a different approach:

Though Joachim Jeremias' 'Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries' was originally published in 1938, an English translation did not appear until 1960 (based on the revised German edition of 1958). In 1961, Kurt Aland published his response to Jeremias' assertions. This English translation of 'Die Sauglingstaufe im Neuen Testament und in der alten Kirche' originally appeared in 1963. In this point by point refutation of Jeremias' main contentions, Aland insists that there is no direct evidence of infant baptism prior to the third century. (publisher's website)
Aland is more famous for his noted edition of the Greek New Testament. From my perspective, his "refutation" of Jeremias is academically disappointing bordering on embarrassing. I say this 50 years after its publication with the full benefit of hindsight.

Those in ancient times advocating for the delay of baptism in some cases have always troubled me. Constantine is but one example. Antiquity does not mean this was the Biblical position. Tertullian had strong opinions. But his antiquity does not necessarily mean his was the majority opinion. Aland is particularly weak here.

And then Aland concludes his booklet with an extended quote of Martin Luther, a quotation that is more supportive of the position Aland is trying to refute. Curiouser and curiouser!

And so we need Jeremias' response:

In the early 1960's, two prominent New Testament scholars went head to head over the issue of infant baptism. Here is Jeremias' response to Kurt Aland's 'Did the Early Church Baptize Infants?', which had been a refutation of Jeremias' earlier work, 'Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries'.

"I would have preferred to meet [Aland's] attack by silence. I hate controversy and unfortunately Aland, by the tone of his argument, did not make the decision to reply to him an easy one. But the subject obliges me to express my opinion."
And so he does, briefly and with vigor! 

Scripture gives no age limit. It advocates no false "age of accountability." See 54ff. 

Jeremias eviscerates Aland and his compatriots in Chapter V, dismantling faulty logic and holding up clear Scripture (84-85).

If I might add to his conclusion: the very Gospel is at stake!

The polite argument in Baptism: Three Views is interesting to overhear, but will fail to satisfy Lutheran readers who are without a voice.

Both Jeremias volumes and the middle Aland book are essential reading. Get them today from Wipf and Stock.

If you are interested in Bible Studies that explain the "Lutheran Difference," consider the new CD-Rom from CPH called The Lutheran Difference. Our congregation is going through the Baptism study right now!

The Rev. Paul J Cain is Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming, Headmaster of Martin Luther Grammar School, a member of the Board of Directors of The Consortium for Classical and Lutheran Education, Wyoming District Worship Chairman, and Editor of QBR.