Response to Brad Trout on Baptism

TW Cover FinalBradley Trout very kindly reviewed my book on baptism, Troubled Waters, from a Baptist perspective, and his responses are certainly very heartening. You can read it here. He was subsequently kind enough to clear up some of my minor misreadings of his post in private. What follows is my response to him, and many thanks to him for his time and generosity.

Troubled Waters argues that the two major ways of understanding baptism—what we’ve labelled believer’s baptism and paedobaptism—are incompatible all the way down to their foundations, and so it is at the foundational level that discussion needs to be had, otherwise we will continue to talk past one another. Brad’s review was appreciative of this approach, and agrees that it does offer a way forward for the discussion.

Perhaps the main point of difference between our two baptism traditions is over what baptism does. Obviously, if we don’t agree on what it does, it is pointless to go on to ask whether the children of believers can also be baptised (because that question depends on the answer to the first)—and yet most discussions of baptism fail even to consider the first question.

Perhaps this question gets glossed over because on one level, both sides agree about what baptism does—it is a sign of regeneration (that is, the gift of the Spirit by which one is ‘born again’), and it initiates a person into the Christian church.

However, when one looks more closely, the agreement that we seem to have is perhaps not as complete as one would like.

Firstly, the sign: baptism is a sign of regeneration, but believers baptists tend to see it as a sign that the individual baptismal candidate has become regenerate (or is at least claiming to be regenerate). Paedobaptists rather think of it as a sign that may be fulfilled only in the future. Think of it like this: imagine you reach a fork in the road, and there is a sign that reads ‘New York’ (for the sake of argument) pointing down one path. It may not tell you how far down the road New York is, but this is the New York road.  The paedobaptist believes that the sign of baptism may be of this kind—pointing to a road (and the destination is simply ‘this way’). If you can recognise that a sign is able to function like this—marking a change in direction rather than a destination—you are closer to understanding how paedobaptists typically understand baptism and regeneration.

Why do paedobaptists try to make this seemingly odd distinction? It is because of the second point of disagreement: the way in which baptism joins one to the church. The camps disagree over whether baptism:

  • recognises a person’s wish to become a follower of Christ and bonds them to the visible church community (as paedobaptists typically believe); or
  • celebrates a person’s regeneration and marks their entry into the true church (as believer’s baptists typically believe—see for example Troubled Waters, pp. 65-66).

Paedobaptists do not believe that it is possible to know at what point someone is regenerated, and so baptism can’t function as the sign of the destination; it functions as the sign that points in the correct direction.

This long preface is an attempt to explain why Brad and I disagree about baptism, in spite of our many areas of agreement.

Brad is a slightly unusual case, because he sees himself as a visible-church Baptist. As such, he chiefly disagrees with my book’s characterisation of believer’s baptists. Troubled Waters says that the believer’s-baptist view sees baptism as for the born-again only, and that they must examine candidates to see if their profession is credible. For Brad, it is enough that someone claims to believe and that there are no obvious impediments to that claim. Brad says:

“[Believer’s baptists] recognize that we can’t [test for regeneration] with great accuracy, and so we generally baptize anyone who professes faith and gives us no reason to doubt it (i.e., the visible church).”

Although Brad sees his form of baptism as being into the visible church, his assumptions seem to me still to operate within a true-church paradigm. What I mean is, he still sees the sign as pointing to the individual’s regeneration (the true-church view); he merely agrees that we can’t be fully sure that that has happened for someone else, and so we need to take their word for it.

Let’s look at how these views differ.

True Church vs Visible Church

Look at the diagram of the true-church view below:

00blog_tc_view

In the true-church paradigm, there are really only two categories: those who are regenerate Christians and those who aren’t. Baptism should take place shortly after someone has converted, and so someone’s personal declaration of faith is all-important. Under this paradigm, baptising babies is clearly illegitimate, because before they are reasonably self-aware they are not capable of declaring faith or being regenerate. This is why believer’s baptists accuse paedobaptists of baptising non-Christians when they baptise infants:

“Baptists are… men and women who do not wish to confuse the church with the world… Baptism stands at the door of the church; a church that opens to receive believers and closes to exclude unbelievers. Once a Christian community begins to welcome the unbeliever, the half-believer and the infant incapable of belief within its actual membership, that community will begin to lose its spiritual zeal and evangelical experience.” (Bridge & Phypers, quoted in Troubled Waters, p. 113f)

Brad shows vestiges of this binary view (Christian / non-Christian) when he says [emphasis mine]:

“Saying that people who receive the sign should be Christians and making sure they’re Christians are not the same thing.”

“Surely the fact that there are two types of seed in the field [in the parable of the wheat and the weeds] does not lead to shoulder shrugging about whether our churches ought to consist of true Christians or not?”

In Brad’s view—it seems to me—the church may in practice consist also of impostors, but at least in theory and in what we aim for it to be, it should consist of true Christians. As Brad said to me privately, baptism as a sign should point to a reality: salvation.

But look at the visible-church view (as it is understood in Troubled Waters) below:

00blog_vc_view

In this paradigm, it is acknowledged that there is a true church made up of the regenerate, and anyone who is unregenerate is on the outside, but it is also acknowledged that the identity of this community is known only to God. How do we know when salvation takes place? Is it possible for baptism to signify an individual’s salvation if we don’t know when it takes place?

So in the visible-church view (or my preferred term—in discipleship baptism), we don’t see baptism as celebrating salvation (the unseen changing of the heart); we see it as formalising the commitment to follow Christ (the changing of the mind).  The sign does indeed signify salvation (‘this way’), but in its function, it marks that observable transition from outsider to disciple. The individual’s profession of faith is still important, but the thing that the church is looking for from the candidate is personal commitment to take up their cross and follow Christ—that the person wishes to be on the road to salvation (wherever the definitive salvation event actually takes place for that person).

In discipleship baptism, it is recognised that a person’s actual spiritual state before God is unknowable except to God, and so it affirms what can be known about a person’s status from the outside; namely:

  • Their profession—we can know whether they claim to follow (to be disciples) or not;
  • Their fruit—we can know when their behaviour matches or doesn’t match their profession (see Matthew 7:20; but bear in mind, the very next verse (7:21) implies that some church superstars will be strangers to Christ at the End; so even fruit is not an infallible indicator); and
  • Their perseverance—we can know whether they persevere or leave (As 1 John 2:19 says: “[Antichrists] went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.” According to John here, being in the church or out the church is as sure a sign as we have that someone belongs or not).

As I tried to demonstrate in the book, the latter two criteria are the best indicators that someone is truly Christian, but neither of these is available at the start of one’s walk. Baptism therefore seems not to be for marking salvation but only the personal commitment to be on the road.

The discipleship-baptism paradigm is not resigned to a church made up of Christian and non-Christian (the ‘shoulder shrug’)—this paradigm is merely taking seriously that we have no view of someone’s true status.  And discipleship baptism does play a role in keeping the church pure by being the ‘contract’ on which church discipline is based—when a disciple behaves as a non-Christian, the church is able to call a person to account for the promises made at baptism.

It’s not that regeneration is irrelevant to discipleship baptism; it is just that regeneration is God’s work within the church—at some point along the road and not uniformly at its beginning. Discipleship baptism understands the rite in terms of what can be known about a candidate at the start of the Christian walk—that they are professing to follow Christ and must be held accountable to the terms of that profession. It makes baptism as a rite more significant, because rather than merely celebrating a conversion that hopefully proves genuine, baptism actually does something—it enters a person into the church. And when someone leaves the church and the faith, they are not proving their baptism false; they are revoking it.

So we would merely wish that both traditions could unite in using baptism to mark the beginning of the road, which is what it seems to be for in the New Testament.

So what about children?

The biggest sticking point, then, and the main expression of our division over baptism, is the matter of the children of believers. As mentioned above, Baptist heavyweights Grudem and Ware insist that infants cannot be baptised, because babies are incapable of profession of faith, and incapable of being individually regenerate.

However, if we are correct that baptism signifies simply the entry to the visible church and the personal commitment to follow Christ, then the stakes are significantly lower. Neither camp seems to contest that the children of believers belong in the visible church—in other words, neither camp sees it as strange for children to attend church meetings, nor treats them as outsiders to the faith. Paul, for example, addresses children with instructions in his epistles, which implies a form of discipleship. Because kids follow their parents into the church and because they are held accountable to the terms of Christian discipleship, they should be baptised as disciples and thus be held accountable (in an age-appropriate way).

Or one could approach the matter from a different direction—what is lost if one baptises children as disciples when it really ought to be only for adults? We haven’t in baptism declared them to be regenerate; only followers whom we believe will become regenerate by grace if they persevere along the road of discipleship. The only thing that is lost, really, is that they are robbed of an occasion on which they can personally declare that they wish to be members in their own right. (And there is nothing stopping us making a ceremony for that purpose if we feel its loss.)

Conclusion

In conclusion, the believer’s baptist need not be cynical about discipleship baptism, as though it makes the church impure, or represents the entry of ‘non-Christians’ into the church, or represents indifference to the holiness of the community. None of those things is implied.

The point is that scripture and reason both point to baptism as a rite for disciples, and if we can agree on that, we are still free to determine by our own conscience whether or not infants can be default disciples (by virtue of their obedience to Christian parents), or if discipleship needs to be consciously chosen. At least we’ll be able to acknowledge that very little of consequence is at stake in that discussion, and we’ll be able to unite without conflict under the gospel.

Troubled Waters is available for pay-what-you-like at Smashwords, or for nominal money at Amazon.com and other major retailers.

A Bridge over Troubled Waters?

Brad Trout

Brad Trout

By Bradley Trout

Pastor Bradley Trout is one of the elders at Mountain View Baptist Church in Lakeside, CT. In this post, he reviews and critiques Troubled Waters from a Baptist perspective. Many thanks to him for taking the time to engage with the book. Read more from Brad at Subtle Manifesto. Did the book persuade him to change any of his views? My responses will follow in a later post.

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“Troubled Waters” is an apt description of the centuries-long baptism debate in which people have argued, heaped ridicule, and even killed each other over the issue of whether or not to baptize babies. Jordan’s book attempts to bridge these troubled waters (apologies to Simon and Garfunkel); does it succeed?

A Voyage over Troubled Waters

The main section of Troubled Waters (TW) gets going with a discussion about where baptism originated. Here it is argued that baptism is a sign of cleansing, with the purpose of signalling initiation into the church (chapter 4). Chapters 5 and 6 form the heart of the book’s approach. Chapter 5 shows that the promises made to Abraham are also foundational to the new covenant and that circumcision was a sign of righteousness by faith. This means that there is a precedent for the inclusion of infants into biblical covenants. Chapter 6 – possibly the most important chapter of the book – looks at the nature of the church. While both believers’ baptists (BB) and paedobaptists (PB) agree that baptism makes a person part of the church, they differ on what kind of church is being referred to: the visible church (i.e., those who claim to be Christians) or the invisible church (i.e., those who are really regenerate Christians). Here we get to the essence of the difference in approach between the two major baptism camps:

The groups disagree about which of these two kinds of church baptism is used for. Paedobaptists see baptism as initiation into the visible church. Believers’ baptists see it as an initiation into the true church. (p. 63)

The issue, then, is whether or not the NT expects us to be able to recognize the true church or only the visible church (p. 65). Yet this key issue is often ignored in the discussion over the nature of baptism.

This leads to what is perhaps the book’s central argument: The NT is pessimistic about our ability to ascertain whether or not people are regenerate and actually discourages us from trying to do so. Instead of thinking, therefore, about who is and isn’t regenerate, we should think in the categories of who is a disciple (considered as one inside the church community) and who isn’t (considered as one outside the church community). This means that the purpose of baptism is to initiate disciples into the visible church, not to initiate the regenerate into the true church (pp. 63-78).

Chapter 8 fills in what this means for children. Children are included in the (visible) church because they follow their parents as their parents follow Christ and are therefore also disciples.  This is why the NT treats children as part of the church of disciples. So, in short, TW presents a case for discipleship baptism – the view that anyone associated with the church community, whether by choice or birth, should receive the sign of entry into that community. Progress could be made, Jordan suggests, by recognizing that the issue lies in whether baptism is for the visible church or the true church. The waters have remained troubled for failing to locate the discussion on this point.

Blessed are the Peacemakers

I really appreciated the tone of this book. Anyone who has been traumatized by reading Jay Adams’ rather vitriolic Meaning and Mode of Baptism may experience a measure of healing as they read TW. The work is even-handed, generous, and sincere in its attempt to lay out the issues as fairly and accurately as possible. This is rather unusual for a book about baptism – a topic renowned for polarisation. It is therefore refreshing to read things like this:

These days, we have generally got past the desire to kill those who disagree with our positions on baptism, but we have not entirely left behind the nastiness that has for so long characterised this debate (p. 10).

Kudos to Jordan for the call to generosity in this discussion, and then for exemplifying it throughout TW.

Baptized into what church?

I want to focus this review on what I think is the nub of the issue, as TW presents it.  At the heart of the argument is what PB’s and BB’s believe about the relationship between baptism and the church. According to TW, PB’s baptize in order initiate someone into the visible church, whereas BB’s baptize in order to initiate people into the invisible church.

So, PB’s do not see baptism as necessarily correlating with regeneration – it is for all who call themselves Christians. But the corollary of the BB position on the church, TW suggests, is the need to ascertain who the true church are before giving them the sign of entry:

Believers’ baptists aim to determine with as much certainty as possible that the person seeking baptism is actually born again and therefore a member of the true church (p. 64).

But is this true? I know I don’t speak for all BB’s, but I’ve never been part of any inquisition into who is of the ‘true’ church and who is not. We simply recognize, as do our PB brothers and sisters, that people need to profess Christ and live lives in keeping with that profession. TW quotes Grudem and Ware to illustrate the Baptist position that those who enter the church should be regenerate, and that baptism should be given only to those who both profess faith in Christ and produce fruit.

But is there a logical connection between saying “those who receive baptism should be truly regenerate” and saying “we need to seriously examine everyone to see if they’re truly regenerate”? TW seems to assume that the latter statement flows from the former. However, BB’s recognize that we can’t do this with great accuracy, and so we generally baptize anyone who professes faith and gives us no reason to doubt it (i.e., the visible church). In the years I have worked as a Baptist minister I have never gone through any lengthy process to find out if the applicant is ‘really saved.’ Saying that people who receive the sign should be Christians and making sure they’re Christians are not the same thing. So, is this not a non sequitur?

This leads to a discussion of what the Bible suggests (note: not says), and here TW is at its least compelling. At issue is whether the NT expects us to recognize the true church or only the visible church (p. 65) – an issue not often dealt with in discussions about baptism. If it could be demonstrated, TW argues, that the church does not need to identify regenerate believers, but only baptize people into the visible church, then the arguments against infant baptism dissipate. This is clearly a very important point for Jordan:

The thing that persuades me most entirely that believers’ baptism is not a coherent explanation of the Bible’s teaching is this: not only does the New Testament give us no support for the idea that baptism initiates people into the true church, but it gives us repeated warnings that the attempt to do so is dangerous. (p. 66)

Space forbids a detailed discussion of the relevant Bible passages. Suffice it to say that for TW, Matthew 7:21-23 (“not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’…”), the parables of the sower (Matt. 13:20-22), the wheat and the weeds (Matt. 13:24-30), the wise and foolish virgins (Matt. 25:1-13), and the example of Simon the Magician (Acts 8:9-25) demonstrate that it is neither easy nor desirable to try to distinguish between the visible and the invisible church. It can be known only after a time of trial whether a disciple is in fact a true believer (p. 75). In response, we could point out the following:

  1. If my observation above – about BB’s seeing little need to determine accurately who the regenerate are – is correct, then it is not necessary to demonstrate something BB’s don’t in fact do.
  2. None of these passages is dealing with what ought to be the case (ought we to find out who the regenerate are?); they are dealing with what is the case (there are both the regenerate and unregenerate in the church). Surely the fact that there are two types of seed in the field does not lead to shoulder shrugging about whether our churches ought to consist of true Christians or not?
  3. It is premature to look at the parables as pictures of the church. For example, Matthew 13 follows the conflict stories of the preceding chapters. It addresses the question: if the kingdom is indeed here, why has it been met with such hostility? To move from this point to the question of the nature of the visible/invisible church is anachronistic.
  4. Finally, one could certainly make a biblical case for the need to test regeneration, at least to some extent. In the passage right before Matthew 7:21-23, we are invited to test people by their fruit (7:15-20). This call is echoed elsewhere in the NT (Gal. 5:19-25), and when considered along with several passages suggesting we check or work out our salvation (e.g., 2 Cor. 13:5; Phil. 2:12; 2 Peter 1:10), an NT case for not being gung-ho about handing out baptism to any self-identifying Christian can certainly be made.  In any case, as a friend of mine points out, the Book of Common Prayer doesn’t ask whether candidates (who ae able to answer for themselves) have attached themselves to a local church, but whether they have repented and believed (i.e., what BB churches also do). Does not the presence of such tests among PB’s vitiate the argument against such tests?

Less Troubled Waters

So do we have a bridge over troubled waters? Yes and no. “Yes,” if we are referring to progress in where this discussion should take place. TW has given focus to an important question often neglected in this discussion: is baptism for the visible or invisible church? This is the first time I have been forced to think through this, and doubtless there is much more to say on the exegetical level, dabbled in above. “Yes,” furthermore, when it comes to setting the tone for this conversation. This is a fair and generous book, in which the author appears to genuinely wish to think carefully through the matter, as opposed to simply holding the party line. I hope our discussions on baptism continue in this vein.

But does the bridge lead to infant baptism? We must answer “no.” From a BB perspective it remains problematic to take a sign that implies entry into the new covenant promises of God and to apply it to those who are evidently not yet partakers in that covenant. If baptism signifies our union with Christ, as Romans 6:3-4 suggests, it makes little sense to give it to any except those whose faith has united them to Christ. Surely baptism should celebrate being in Christ before being in the church?

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Troubled Waters is available for pay-what-you-like at Smashwords, or for nominal money at Amazon.com and other major retailers.