RE:Baptism — reviewing Baptism in the Baptist church

rebaptismToday I had the plea­sure of being able to read a friend’s fresh­ly pub­lished book on the prac­tice of bap­tism with­in the Baptist church, and specif­i­cal­ly the ques­tion of rebap­tis­ing peo­ple to con­form with a mem­ber­ship require­ment in the church. Ben first pro­vides a his­tor­i­cal­ly ground­ed review of the sit­u­a­tion sur­round­ing bap­tismal prac­tice with­in the wider Baptist eccle­si­as­ti­cal struc­tures, before nar­row­ing focus upon Australia, and then to the Baptist Union of NSW. Following this is a pas­toral­ly sen­si­tive review of the pas­toral, the­o­log­i­cal, hermeneu­ti­cal and prac­ti­cal con­cerns around the prac­tice of rebap­tis­ing Christians in order to enable church mem­ber­ship. Ben final­ly con­cludes by look­ing at dif­fer­ent mod­els of eccle­sial mem­ber­ship avail­able to the Baptist church, options which both pro­tect the regen­er­ate nature of the church, while open­ing the doors for the increas­ing­ly porous eccle­sial bound­aries found in a mod­ern and post-mod­ern world.

I think Ben makes good points through­out the book, but it is also help­ful to address each sec­tion sep­a­rate­ly and high­light some ques­tions and per­haps add to his argu­ment in some places.

Firstly, in address­ing the his­tor­i­cal sit­u­a­tion regard­ing bap­tism, Ben does a great job at high­light­ing the ori­gins of the require­ment for believ­ers bap­tism in Puritan England as a sign that the church is set apart as a regen­er­ate body. However, I believe that this sec­tion could be strength­ened by address­ing oth­er meth­ods of ensur­ing a regen­er­ate church through­out the peri­od. For exam­ple John Wesley’s sys­tem of tick­et­ed mem­ber­ship, renewed every three months, had the same aim of ensur­ing the new com­mu­ni­ties remained regen­er­ate in their very nature. The con­sid­er­a­tion of these oth­er meth­ods of deter­min­ing mem­ber­ship would strength­en the final argu­ment for a dif­fer­ent mem­ber­ship sys­tem with­in the Baptist Union. Also some his­tor­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions regard­ing the Baptist pre­de­ces­sors, the European Anabaptists, would have strength­ened the case for the main­te­nance of the Baptist Union as a sep­a­rate regen­er­ate body, rather than a super­set lay­ered on the State church, a-la ear­ly Wesleyanism. Nevertheless this his­tor­i­cal back­ground pro­vides a good basis for the lat­er argu­ments.

Secondly, the sec­tion on the­o­log­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions wise­ly avoids most of the debate sur­round­ing the intri­cate hermeneu­tics of Paedo- vs Creedo-bap­tism, and help­ful­ly high­lights some of the hermeneu­ti­cal assump­tions of the Baptist church that are more opaque to an out­side audi­ence. However, I think this sec­tion could be strength­ened with a fur­ther con­sid­er­a­tion of the nature of the eccle­sial com­mu­ni­ty, and espe­cial­ly the covenan­tal over­tones present with­in the sacra­ment of Baptism. I think this would strength­en Ben’s argu­ment con­cern­ing re-bap­tism imply­ing ‘a sort of sec­ond-class cit­i­zen­ship in the church’ 4. In addi­tion some more sup­port for de-iden­ti­fy­ing with full immer­sion could have been found with­in sev­er­al works includ­ing the Institutes (IV.15.19).

Finally, in the pas­toral sec­tion Ben’s pas­toral heart shines through, and here the great impe­tus of the book lies. Within this care­ful­ly struc­tured argu­ment Ben charts a course acknowl­edg­ing the pas­toral dif­fi­cul­ties of church mem­ber­ship based on a spe­cif­ic imple­men­ta­tion of the sacra­ment of Baptism, while also try­ing to remain faith­ful to the regen­er­ate nature of the church. This course can be hard to chart, but I believe Ben does this with sen­si­tiv­i­ty to both con­cerns, with­out renounc­ing any inci­sive­ness to effect change. This final chap­ter is full of astute recog­ni­tions of the vis­i­ble and invis­i­ble church divide (to para­phrase Calvin), con­crete­ly applied to the issue of rebap­tism; such as:

immer­sion does not equate to a regen­er­ate church mem­ber. Immersion doesn’t pre­vent nom­i­nal mem­bers it just requires that mem­bers who are nom­i­nal be bap­tised. 5

and

Closed mem­ber­ship does not pro­tect a regen­er­ate mem­ber­ship as we have no means or rite by which one can judge the human heart, only God can know, beyond doubt, who belongs in the true church 6

Overall I think Ben has done a good job at stim­u­lat­ing what will hope­ful­ly be a respect­ful and fruit­ful con­ver­sa­tion with­in the Baptist Union of NSW, and the Baptist church as a whole. However, in that vein the book is slight­ly parochial; focus­ing pre­dom­i­nant­ly upon NSW and the local sit­u­a­tion. Nevertheless it is a use­ful and stim­u­lat­ing book, espe­cial­ly for me as I con­tin­ue to  con­sid­er bap­tismal issues for our forth­com­ing child, from a sim­i­lar per­spec­tive of a dou­bly bap­tised (infant and adult) and con­firmed per­son.

I award Ben’s short and insight­ful book Four out of Five Wet Regenerate Believers.

Ben’s book is avail­able here on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00FG2IEEQ

Chris

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Notes:

  1. 253/451
  2. 289/451
  3. 289/451
  4. 253/451
  5. 289/451
  6. 289/451