Running Heads

From the editors of Cascade Books and Pickwick Publications at Wipf and Stock Publishers

The failure of evangelical approaches to baptism

I come from a credo-baptist tradition and we pride ourselves on “doing baptism the Bible way.”  But there is a wee problem: . . . we don’t. You see, as good evangelicals we have a view of Christian initiation as simply a matter of faith in Christ and repentance. If you turn to God and “ask Jesus into your heart” then you are a Christian. So we are then a little unsure what to do about baptism. It cannot be about becoming a Christian because we only baptise those who are, in our theology, already Christians.

So what we do is that we say that baptism is an outward symbol of what God has already done in converting us. As such it is primarily an act of witness and testimony. Thus the tradition has grown up that a key part of the rite of baptism is the person getting baptized offering a testimony of what God has done in their lives. Baptism is all about giving testimony — in word and act — to what God has done for us.

The great irony of this modern baptistic evangelical approach to baptism is that it is only a shadow of the NT theology and practice. It may not be completely unbiblical but it is certainly sub-biblical. In the NT baptism is very much about being initiated into Christ, about conversion, about becoming a Christian. It is, to use later language and conceptualizing, a sacrament — a means of grace. I think the NT churches would have found the idea of unbaptized Christians — something evangelicals usually take for granted — an odd one, perhaps even incomprehensible.

The problem is that much evangelical theology simply makes baptism unnecessary (and this applies to many evangelicals in paedo-baptist traditions too — evangelical Anglicans, for instance, are so terrified of baptismal regeneration that they often water down NT theology too). We do it because Jesus told us to but for many of us, in our heart of hearts, we consider it an optional extra. After all, the important stuff is repentance and faith and while baptism offers testimony to God’s work in our lives we hardly need to get batised to do that.

A plus point of this sub-biblical evangelical approach is that it allows evangelicals to work well together across denominational divides without falling out over side-issues (like baptism!!!).

The minus point is that an impoverished theology and praxis is rarely a recipe for  living the Christian life.

I am not calling for credo-baptism here — I suspect that a good biblical-theological case can be made for both credo- and paedo-baptism (and I myself and becoming an Anglican) — but I am suggesting that evangelicals of both persuasions do need to do some serious rethinking of the meaning and place of baptism.

13 Comments

  1. Is this influenced by the cerebral nature of Evangelicalism, it’s all about what you “believe” (= a list of doctrines = “think”). Thus the material “means of grace” are downgraded. E.g. communion and unction, see Jam 5:14, also… rather than needing to rethink (irony intended) baptism do we need to rediscover the power of the material in (spiritual) life?

  2. Tim,

    perhaps so. I certainly think that evangelicalism needs to grasp again the mediation of the spiritual through the material. I think that all good charismatics ought to be sacramentalists (though not all good charismatics seem to agree with me there!)

    Robin

  3. Robin,

    If I may, Pickwick Publications has recently put out my book on the meaning of credobaptism in which I strive to address that “sub-biblical” view that I too received growing up in the Baptist tradition.

    Here’s the link: https://wipfandstock.com/store/Waters_of_Promise_Finding_Meaning_in_Believer_Baptism

  4. Brandon,

    excellent.

    There is a lot of good work being done by Baptists in this area now. I am thinking of people like Stan Fowler, Steve Harmon, Anthony Cross, and the like. And, of course, we must not forget George Beasley Murray. So there is a move towards a more sacramental view of Baptism among some recent Baptist theologians. See esp the two volumes on Baptist Sacramentalism edited by Anthony Cross and Philip Thompson. All for the good.

    I also think that evangelical paedo-baptists have some work to do here. It is a tradition that I am less familiar with so my knowledge is more anecdotal. But I hear that some good work is going on.

  5. Hello All,
    I am writing from the perspective of the churches of Christ (just to be forthright about my religious background), and as nauseating as it may be for some to admit that our theology is accurate on a given subject, perhaps our understanding on this subject should be closely examined. Our understanding of the conversion/salvific event is that such occurs at the time one exercises their faith through repentance and water baptism. I believe that the “conundrum” of what to do with baptism is easily solved when, as men and women under the authority of the Word, we simply permit the language of the NT to shape our theology (instead of prior committments to religious traditions, etc). When this occurs (all prior religious tradition to the side), one notices a pronounced connection between baptism and the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38). One notices a connection between baptism and the washing away of sins (Acts 22:16). One notices a connection between baptism and induction into Christ (Rom 6:3-4, Gal 3:26-27). One notices a connection between baptism and salvation (Mk 16:16 [ignoring all controversy on the authenticity of this passage], 1 Peter 3:21). Letting the Bible explain itself is always a better and easier option than committing first to a religious tradition and then attempting to figure out what to do with the “leftovers” of Biblical doctrine. I recognize that the simplicity of this procedure may itself be distasteful to some. However, it seems to most readily apply itself to such “dilemmas” as this one.

  6. Richard Worden Wilson

    October 14, 2012 at 1:27 am

    Hey Matt Carver,
    Would you back off this “denominationally” promoted perspective if one scriptural example gave evidence that it ain’t always necessarily so? It is not difficult to bring up a number of texts that seem incontrovertibly to demonstrate the validity of a particular perspective if one is not open to including all of the scriptural evidence in the discussion. Commit to changing your mind if a counter-example is demonstrated and I can just about guarantee you that you’ll get some respondents.
    All the best to all in Christ,
    Richard

  7. Dear Baptist/evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ,

    I ask you to consider these points:

    1. When God said that he would preserve his Word, what did he mean?
    Did he mean that he would preserve the original papyrus and parchment upon which his Word was written? If so, then his Word has disappeared as none of the original manuscripts remain.

    Did he mean that he would preserve his word in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek only? He would not preserve his Word when it was translated into all the other languages of the world?

    Or did God mean that he would preserve his Word…the message/the words…the Gospel: the free gift of salvation, and the true doctrines of the Christian Faith? Would God allow his Word/his message to mankind to be so polluted by translation errors that no translation, into any other language from the three original languages, continues to convey his true words?

    2. There IS no translation of the Bible, from the original ancient languages, into any language, anywhere on earth, that translates the Bible as the Baptists/evangelicals believe it should be translated.

    No Bible translation on earth translates Acts 2:38 as, “Repent and believe in Jesus Christ every one of you and you will receive the Holy Ghost. Then be baptized as a public profession of your faith.”

    There is no translation that translates, into any language, Acts 22:16 as, “ And now why tarriest thou? arise, believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord. Then be baptized.” Not a single translation in the entire world translates that verse in any way remotely resembling the manner in which Baptists believe it should be translated.

    Isn’t that a problem?

    And this verse, I Peter 3:21 as, “Asking Christ into your heart in a spiritual baptism, which water Baptism symbolizes, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,”

    And Mark 16:16 as, “He that believes will be saved, and then baptized, but he that does not believe will be condemned.”

    Why would God allow EVERY English translation of the Bible throughout history to be mistranslated or use such confusing language as to suggest that God forgives sins in Baptism? And not only all English translations, ALL translations of the Bible have retained these “mistranslations or confusing wording”.

    Do you honestly believe that God would allow his Word to be so polluted with translation errors that EVERY Bible in the world, if read in its simple, plain interpretation, would tell all the people of the world that God forgives sins in water baptism??

    3. Why is there not one single piece of evidence from the early Christians that indicates that ANYONE in the 800-1,000 years after Christ believed that: Water baptism is ONLY a public profession of faith/act of obedience; sins are NOT forgiven in water baptism? Yes, you will find statements by these early Christians that salvation is by faith, but do Baptists and evangelicals really understand how a sinner obtains saving faith? THAT IS THE MILLION DOLLAR QUESTION, MY FRIENDS! Does the sinner produce faith by his own free will or does God provide faith and belief as a gift, and if God does provide faith and belief as a free gift, with no strings attached, when exactly does God give it?

    4. Is it possible that: Baptist-like believers, at some point near or after 1,000 AD, were reading the Bible and came across verses that read “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” and “Call upon the name of the Lord and you will be saved” and established their doctrine of Salvation/Justification first, based on these and similar verses alone, and then, looked at the issue of water baptism, and since the idea that God forgives sins in water baptism doesn’t seem to fit with the verses just mentioned, re-interpreted these verses to fit with their already established doctrine, instead of believing the “baptism verses” literally?

    Is it possible that BOTH groups of verses are literally correct?? If we believe God’s Word literally, he says that he saves/forgives sins when sinners believe/call AND when they are baptized? Why not believe that God can give the free gift of salvation in both situations: when a sinner hears the Gospel and believes and when a sinner is baptized?

    Should we re-interpret God’s plain, simple words just because they don’t seem to make sense to us?

    Dear Baptist/evangelical brothers and sisters, your doctrine is very well thought out and very reasonable…but it is wrong. Do you really believe that God would require an education in ancient Greek or a Greek lexicon to understand what he really wants to say to you? And do you really believe that Baptist “Greek” scholars understand Greek better than the Greeks themselves? If the Greek language, correctly translated, states in the Bible that Baptism is only a public profession of faith as Baptists say, then why do the Greek Orthodox believe that the Greek Bible plainly says, in Greek, that God forgives sins in water baptism? Somebody doesn’t know their Greek!

    Please investigate this critical doctrine further. Do you really want to appear before our Lord in heaven one day and find out that you have been following a false doctrine invented in the sixteenth century by Swiss Ana-baptists?

    God bless you!

    Gary
    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals

  8. > Not a single translation in the entire world translates that verse in any way
    > remotely resembling the manner in which Baptists believe it should be
    > translated.

    > Isn’t that a problem?

    As a Baptist, though probably not the (US “Southern”?) sort you have in mind the short answer is “no”.

    My problems are the ways you seek to argue:
    (a) you keep referring to Bible “verses”, small fragments of text are near meaningless except when used like the I Ching as the starting point for fortune telling.
    (b) you seem to use the Bible only as a tool to beat your opponents with. That is not an appropriate way to read Scripture.

    Despite these problems I will, however, happily accept, and return your blessing (for blessing is an important and useful activity).

  9. I’m not trying to beat anyone over the head, brother. I’m trying to bring unity to Christ’s body…which is fragmented today by so many Christians following false teachings. The new trend among some conservative Christian groups, is to adopt the liberal mantra of: “Let’s downplay our differences and all just try to get along.” Is that why so many evangelical churches nowdays leave Baptism and the Lord’s Supper off their “beliefs” page, and place it on a pdf file that one must click on somewhere off in the corner?

    Doctrine matters. Without doctrine, the Christian faith is just going to devolve into a bunch of “Jesus lovers” who have no idea what the Doctrines of the Faith even are.

    Why are you unwilling to answer my points?

    1) Did God preserve his Word or not? Do we really need to speak Greek to know what he says to us?

    2) Why do Baptists and evangelicals read “their” verses literally and “our” verses symbolically…or claim mistranslation has occurred. We orthodox believe all verses literally, unless it is very clear God is speaking allegorically, symbolically. We Lutherans do not re-interpret verses. If God says “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved”, we believe it…literally. If a sinner believes on Christ and then dies, before being baptized, he will go to heaven, he is a Christian.

    3) Why do Greeks not interpret the original Greek as do “Baptist Greek scholars”?

    4) Why is there ZERO historical evidence that anyone in the first 800-1,000 years of Christianity believed that baptism is only an act of obedience/public profession of faith?

  10. > 1) Did God preserve his Word or not? Do we really need to speak Greek to
    > know what he says to us?
    (a) Pretty much, though with multiple endings to Mark and the pericope adulterae etc. obviously not perfectly.
    (b) no, but it can help with the details especially in the NT.

    > 2) Why do Baptists and evangelicals read “their” verses literally and “our”
    > verses symbolically…or claim mistranslation has occurred.
    How would I know?

    > We orthodox
    > believe all verses literally, unless it is very clear God is speaking
    > allegorically, symbolically. We Lutherans do not re-interpret verses. If
    > God says “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved”, we
    > believe it…literally. If a sinner believes on Christ and then dies, before
    > being baptized, he will go to heaven, he is a Christian.

    To summarise Lutherans are right, everyone else is a bigot, but if they “believe on Christ” we will “go to heaven” anyway. Thank you, so kind!

    > 3) Why do Greeks not interpret the original Greek as do “Baptist Greek
    > scholars”?
    Again, how should I know? I don’t know which Greeks, nor which Baptists, nor which text. But interpreting language from many centuries ago and a totally different culture is never easy.

    > 4) Why is there ZERO historical evidence that anyone in the first 800-
    > 1,000 years of Christianity believed that baptism is only an act of
    > obedience/public profession of faith?
    Perhaps because it is not now nor has it ever been such?

    Now you have got your rant off your chest is there any chance or reasonable discussion or should I “go” elsewhere? I don’t have to stay here to be insulted, I can be insulted anywhere

  11. Why do you feel insulted, brother?

    I believe that Baptists and evangelicals are some of the most devout followers of Christ on earth. I respect and admire their emphasis on evangelism. Lutherans could learn some things from them.

    I believe that persecution is coming for all conservative/orthodox Christians. We are seen as intolerant, sexist, elitist bigots. Since we refuse to believe that “all roads lead to God…whoever she or he is” we are becoming the scourge of society. We refuse to conform to the mantras of “live and let live” and “anything and everything is ok as long as you don’t hurt anyone else.”

    Liberal Christians will soon blend into secular humanism. In a generation they probably view the word “Christian” as too non-inclusive. So that will leave: Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, conservative/confessional Lutherans, and evangelicals. It would be nice if we all could agree on he fundamental doctrines of the faith, in unity, before the onslaught of hate, discrimination, and persecution that is coming.

  12. Sorry for the typos. Its late.

  13. Can you really trust your English Bible to be God’s true Word?

    Have you ever had an evangelical or Reformed Christian say this to you:

    “THAT passage of the Bible, in the original Greek, does NOT mean what the simple, plain reading of the passage seems to say in English.”

    It happens to me all the time in my conversations with Baptists, evangelicals, and fundamentalists on my blog. They state: “Repent and be baptized…for the forgiveness of sins” was mistranslated. “This is my body…this is my blood” is a metaphorical expression, “Baptism does now save us” is figurative speech for what happens to us spiritually when we ask Christ into our hearts.

    What they are basically saying is that unless you speak ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek…you can’t read and really understand the Bible without the help of an educated Churchman!

    This morning I came across an excellent article on this subject, written by Jordan Cooper, a Lutheran pastor. I am going to give the link to his article below. I have copied a couple of his statements here:

    “So here is a question that we all need to ask ourselves when doing this (refusing to accept the simple, plain, English translation of a passage of Scripture): If a verse seems to disprove your theological beliefs, and you translate it in some way that doesn’t fit with any of the dozens of major English translations of the Bible, and that unique translation just happens to fit your own theological biases, could it be that it is in fact you who are in the wrong? Could you be reading your own preconceived theological convictions back into the text?”

    ” I know it can be frustrating when you are constantly told that Scripture can’t be understood unless you learn (an ancient) language or read ancient documents that you don’t have either the time or the energy to study. Honestly, if you have a few good English translations at your side, and you take the time to compare them to one another, you have all the tools you need to understand the meaning of the Bible.

    Link to Pastor Cooper’s original article:

    http://justandsinner.blogspot.com/2013/08/the-wrong-use-of-biblical-languages.html

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