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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Troubled Waters: eBook Now Published

TW Cover FinalOver the last few years, I have been working on-and-off on the topic of baptism. As someone who grew up on the Baptist side of the fence but, after moving city, found myself in a paedobaptist Anglican church, I have an appreciation for the perspectives–and the accompanying strength of emotion–of each ‘camp’, which has helped me understand how each side argues, and why each side is unable to properly understand the other.

More than this, my work has led me to a point where I believe I have been able to make some headway through an argument that stands at something of an impasse. Indeed, the fashion in publishing on these kinds of issues is to have scholars from each camp present their views side-by-side (such as Bridge & Phypers’ 1998 book, The Water that Divides, or David Wright’s 2009 edition, Baptism: Three Views). All this really achieves is to further entrench the tendency to talk past one another. In Troubled Waters I have focused on the causes of misunderstanding and the flaws in traditional arguments, while trying to build a better argument from the ground up.

The major reason for our inability to understand one another lies in the fact that even Bible-believing Christians on either side base their beliefs about baptism upon at least two foundational doctrines that rarely if ever are discussed: baptism is founded on our beliefs about the covenants (particularly whether Old and New Covenants are more continuous or more discontinuous) and beliefs about the nature of the church (particularly whether the church is made up of regenerate [born-again]  members only, or whether the church should be understood as mixed). Because we differ on these matters, our beliefs about baptism are incompatible with the other camp’s foundations, and therefore appear foolish (or even heretical). And so our discussions for about 400 years have been frustrating attempts to make our view of baptism seem sensible to the other camp, without any attempt at laying the foundations upon which our view depends.

This book is (among other things) a discussion of those foundations, and so it examines biblical evidence that is not usually associated with baptism. This evidence, however, seems properly to support only one of these baptismal camps, and thus may provide a way forward to settle the baptism debate once and for all.

You can get Troubled Waters as an ebook directly from Smashwords, or soon from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and several other retailers.