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.

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Exodus: Of Gods and Kings

I have yet to see Ridley Scott’s film, so I’m not commenting except to say that you should not fail to read the review from my friend George Athas over here:

http://withmeagrepowers.wordpress.com/2014/12/22/a-review-of-exodus-gods-and-kings/

He manages to set aside the inevitable griping about its accuracy and to judge it for what it is actually trying to say. The review helped me to understand why Scott made the movie and why he did so with so little concern for preservation of the biblical account. Good read.

Music Reviews: Josh Garrels and Mumford & Sons

JoshGarrelsI don’t do too much reviewing on this site, and I don’t really have the time or expertise for a good blow-by-blow evaluation of these albums, but I thought I’d draw attention to a couple I’ve been listening to lately.

I make no secret of the fact that I typically dislike Christian pop music. It is usually very derivative, very safe, and very corny. I’d rather listen to someone interesting with whom I disagree any day. So, when a friend claimed that Josh Garrels’ album was his favourite of any kind ever, and when he said it’s a free download, I thought I’d check it out (I’m also pretty stingy).

Having given it a few listens, Josh seems to me to be the born-again lovechild of Jack Johnson and Tracy Chapman, sometimes being the acoustic guitarist, sometimes donning a 10-gallon New Country hat, and sometimes unexpectedly breaking out into how I think Aretha Franklin might sound if I ever listened to her.

Although that ought to endear him to me about only one-third of the time, the combination is pleasant, if not always as musically challenging as it might be, and there are some strong songs on the album. For my money (oh wait, I didn’t pay!), the album is never better than on the first track, and (perhaps as a function of his over-generosity), the album feels  a couple of tracks too heavy to be able to get one’s head around it in a single listen. Nevertheless, I rate it pretty highly, especially given how totally free it is. Get the album here (or from me, but I think Josh wants you to sign up for the album. Sign up then get it from me):

http://joshgarrels.bandcamp.com/

If his guitar were any bigger, he'd have to charge you for his songs

If his guitar were any bigger, he’d have to charge you for his songs

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Mumford & Sons: Sigh No More

English folkster types, Mumford & Sons, are not trying to fish in the Christian music pond — their album even contains swears on at least one track — but on their way to critical acclaim in Britain, they’ve managed to turn out some very interesting Christian-themed songs.

I have to say at the outset that their success is surprising to me, because I didn’t know the UK was so broadly in favour of quite that much banjo or mandolin or whatever it is they keep playing, and the rhyme schemes can be annoyingly two-dimensional at times. Nevertheless, the depth evident in their album outweighs those gripes, and thoughtfully putting Christian ideas and songs based on Plato’s Republic out there on the radio when other artists are singing about whipping their hair or lipgloss does set them quite far apart.

The Cave (excerpt)

So come out of your cave walking on your hands
And see the world hanging upside down
You can understand dependence
When you know the maker’s land

So make your siren’s call
And sing all you want
I will not hear what you have to say

Cause I need freedom now
And I need to know how
To live my life as it’s meant to be

And I will hold on hope
And I won’t let you choke
On the noose around your neck

And I’ll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I’ll know my name as it’s called again

And another one:

Roll Away Your Stone (excerpt)

You told me that I would find a hole,
Within the fragile substance of my soul
And I have filled this void with things unreal,
And all the while my character it steals

Darkness is a harsh term don’t you think?
And yet it dominates the things I seek

It seems that all my bridges have been burned,
But, you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works
It’s not the long walk home
that will change this heart,
But the welcome I receive with the restart