Books Calvinism The Free Church Theology

Letter from Australia 109 – Missionary Baptism and Evangelical Unity.

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Australia is paradise.  But perhaps paradise lost!  Since we came here in 2019, we have had fire, plague, war and now floods!   The amount of rain that fell on Queensland and New South Wales in the past couple of weeks was extraordinary.  After 13 days of rain people were saying to me ‘you must feel at home…you will be used to this!).  I had to point out that whilst we often had rain in Scotland, Dundee was the sunniest city in Scotland (200 days with sun per year!) and that our home in Highlands would only get 25-30 inches of rain per year.   Some areas in NSW had that in one day in the past week!   Thousands of homes have been destroyed, and several lives lost.

Speaking of water, we were on door duty at St Thomas’s yesterday.  One couple came in and asked if this was ‘where the Christening was’.  I wanted to inform them that it was baptism – but thought better of it!  It’s interesting being with Sydney Anglicans – in general they seem to take the low view of the sacraments.  I think that this was partly as a response to the high sacramentalism of some previous generations and because of the influence of Broughton Knox’s ecclesiology.  As a result, baptism, especially infant baptism, seems to me to be played down a lot.  Adult baptism is much more dramatic and seems to offer more evangelistic potential, so it seems t to have a higher significance within most of the Anglican churches here.

As it happens, I have been reading a fascinating book on the whole subject which I would love my Anglican brothers and sisters to get a hold of. J. Cameron Fraser’s ‘Missionary Baptism and Evangelical Unity’ is a helpful and unique contribution to our understanding of Baptism – and how, what can often be a dividing subject, could become a unifying one.   This book as already been favourably and well reviewed in The Record by Thomas Davies.

It’s a short book – only 94 pages.  Well written and packed with stimulating theology and history combined with practical applications. Cameron is a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church, but comes from a Highland Presbyterian church background.  He discusses the theology of baptism from a variety of historical perspectives especially Cunningham, Bannerman, Hodge, Kuyper, Barth, Jeremias, Sinclair Ferguson, the Westminster Assembly, David Wright and the Dutch Reformed.   Although at times a bit dense (understandable in such a short book), I actually found the bringing together and discussion of these views helpful.  Not least the discussion about Cunningham, but also the explanation of Joel Beeke’s and David Wrights views.

The book addresses the issues through looking at the historical understandings of the main questions.  What does baptism actually do?  What does it mean?  And who is it for?   I won’t detail the whole book (it’s well worth you getting it for yourself) but instead I offer these personal reflections.

‘Cheap’ Baptism?

Cameron confirms something I had thought for many years.  Dr John Kennedy’s teachings on baptism did a great deal of harm in the Free Church.  He distinguished between what was required for communion (an accredited profession of faith) and what was required for baptism (an uncontradicted profession of faith).  In other words, someone who professed belief in the Christian faith and lived an outwardly moral life could have their children baptised.  My father-in-law once commented to me that in Stornoway he sometimes wondered that that there were so many getting baptised that they could just line them up and baptise them with a hose.     This view that you were entitled to baptism even if you didn’t normally attend church or make any profession of saving faith caused us difficulty in Livingstone Free Church.  There was for example one couple who came asking for their child to be baptised – they were not members, did not attend and were not professing Christians.  So, we did not give them baptism.  However, they just went to another Free Church and got it ‘done’ there.     This position led to a frightening nominalism.  I once did some work for a declining Free Church – seeking to work out why they were declining and what could be done.  One factor was that in the previous 15 years they had had 40 baptisms – not one of whom now attended the church.   Of course, you can get nominalism in a Baptist set up as well.  The Baptist church in Edinburgh I attended for a couple of years had a surprising number of nominal ‘Christians’ who had been baptised.  There was a time when getting baptised as a teenager was the thing to do.  So much so that I recall one man who had been baptised as an adult nine times!

Baptismal Regeneration

Cameron also raises the issue of baptismal regeneration.  When Annabel and I were involved in leading the international youth camps we went to the Netherlands for several of those.  At one the question was asked of a young Dutch teenager – ‘when did you become a Christian’?’  – ’16 years and six months ago’.  ‘How old are you?’.  ’16 years and six months’!  He was referring to his birth and baptism.  That was when he became a Christian and was ‘presumed regenerate’.  A presumption without substance!

I found Cameron’s analysis of William Cunningham the great Free Church theologian, insightful.   Cunningham did not accept the view of his friend, Princeton Seminary Theologian Charles Hodge, that a child should not be presumed to be regenerate when baptised, but they should be presumed to be elect.  In either case they were assumed to be a child of God until proven otherwise.  Cunningham argued that the primary mode of baptism was adult – but that children of believers should also be baptised.    “Cunningham was insistent that no sharp distinction should be made between the qualitifications for baptism and the Lord’s Supper.”

(a small aside – on p.69 Cameron states that ‘church planting is often the most effective means of church growth’.  I am not convinced that that is the case.  It can be effective but there are others just as effective means of church growth.  But that is a subject for another day!)

Infant Dedication

Cameron then refers to a wee argument I had with Donald Macleod who “expressed strong opposition to ‘a growing demand for Baptist style Services of Dedication for Infants’ in the Free Church.  Macleod, in my view, is ably refuted by David Robertson in ‘The Downgrade of the Free Church – A Response to Donald Macleod”. (p.62) (if you click the link and also ‘When the Levy Breaks’ you will see the issues discussed in much more detail).

It may be that some readers, who don’t have a bent for historical theology, might struggle with the first half of the book – but I would urge you to persevere.  The practical outworking of this theology in the second half is excellent.   For example, Cameron argues that   Believer’s baptism is the norm.  “The New Testament pattern was of families entering the church by baptism.” (p.69) Believer’s baptism does not just mean ‘adult baptism’.

Child Communion

What about child communion?  By definition a baby cannot take communion.   Cameron states that the emphasis on baptism being for believers and their children “makes it perfectly reasonable for infants to be baptised as part of a Christian family, but to make their own profession of faith in later years. That said, such a profession need not await adulthood or late teenage years, as has traditionally been the case in the CRC. The issue is not age but genuine faith an age-appropriate spiritual discernment, whether at 6 or 60.” (p.78).  I remember when our son Andrew became a communicant member, aged nine.   When he came to the Kirk Session, they had to ask him to remove his chewing gum!   But he gave a clear and adequate understanding of the faith.  It was our practice in St Peters to allow young children to take communion, if they could give an ‘accredited’ profession of their faith.  This in practice meant that they had to have a basic understanding – and that at least one of their parents could testify to their life and doctrine.  I recall baptising a primary school girl on the basis of her own profession of faith – not her parents.

The Wright Points

I found the penultimate chapter – with the same title as the book, Missionary Baptism and Evangelical Unity, particularly helpful – not least because Cameron explains the views of my old history teacher, David F. Wright, of the University of Edinburgh.  The six ‘Wright’ points are worth listing:

  • Only those parents who are regularly worshipping church members would expect to have their infants baptised
  • The adoption of a service or services to mark the birth of a child, (for those who cannot accept infant baptism) to enable ministers to escape from the straitjacket of an all or nothing choice.
  • There should be an unambiguous owning of baby baptism as New Testament baptism – period.
  • This should lead to the nurture of baptised children as members of the church and the people of God which includes early admission to the Lords table as entirely consistent with such a stance.
  • The making of baptism an explicit and frequent reference point in Christian education from the earliest stages. The baptised must grow up knowing that they are in Christ by baptism, that in baptism they died and rose again with Christ, and that through baptism they are his forever.
  • Baptism should be a congregational rather than a family event.

With a couple of caveats, I would agree with these points.   I am encouraged that in Scotland there are a growing number of Baptist or Independent churches who accept those who have been baptised as infants as either associate or full members, on their profession of faith – without requiring them to get re-baptised (‘properly done’).  Likewise, there are those who, like St Peters, have sought to accommodate those who are unable by conviction to have their children baptised.  Baptism should not be ‘the water that divides’, but rather the water that unites.  J. Cameron Fraser’s wee book is an important work in enabling to see how that can work out in practice….

I leave you with the quotation with which he finishes the book. ‘Rabbi’ Duncan’s famous aphorism –

“I am first a Christian, next a catholic, then a Calvinist, fourth a paedobaptist, and fifth a Presbyterian. I cannot reverse this order”.

See you next week,

Yours in Christ

David

If you are interested here is the story on how I changed my view on baptism… – Baptism – A personal Journey in which it is discovered that infant baptism is Biblical!

Letter from Australia 108 – Ukraine – How Should the Church Respond?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

18 comments

  1. I fear this article will cause far more problems than it solves.
    There is only one form of “baptism”, and that’s the Biblical one. Likewise “missionary work” and “unity”.
    I have also always understood “regeneration” to be solely a work of the Holy Ghost, and not Baptism which is more a statement & witness of the new birth the Triune Godhead has worked through the Gospel..
    Everything else is Church & denominational tradition, which is why the visible Church is in such a mess and so divided.
    Let’s get back to the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible.

    1. Yes – I agree that there is only one form of baptism – the biblical one – and that we should get back to the whole Bible. Which is why I accept the covenant baptism of the Bible and baptise children of believers who are part of the covenant. I don’t just go along with the Baptist denominational tradition! (See how that works? Of course I accept that Christians disagree about this and I would not be so arrogant as to claim that none of those who disagree with me are being unbiblical).

  2. The Services of Dedication I have seen are mainly for those parents who are not regularly worshipping church members. They are seen as a second class, ‘dry baptism’ and lead to feelings of inferiority and confusion about what infant baptism is From personal experience dedications is often about keeping granny happy or getting dressed up and having a bit of a do.

    I agree with The Wright Point that ‘Only those parents who are regularly worshipping church members would expect to have their infants baptised.’ I see so many baptisms where the parents profess to be Christians and take the vows and yet they are never seen again at Church services.

    Many years ago a minister I knew was asked to baptise a child – the parents said they were Christians but were obviously not. After the baptism the minister preached on 1 Corinthians 11 on the abuse of the sacraments – that was the end of unbelievers asking for baptism.
    29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31

    1. And yet I have seen infant dedications which did not lead to feelings of ‘inferiority and confusion’. I know of parents who really appreciated it…

      1. For Christians, whose first choice is infant dedication, I agree that parents will appreciate the service of dedication.
        However it is common for those who are not Christians and are refused baptism to be offered a service of dedication. This may enable ministers to escape from the straitjacket of an all or nothing choice, but it is meaningless – are the parents dedicating or giving thanks for their child to a God they do not know?

  3. Thanks David. I’m not sure where you get the Biblical support for “covenant baptism of the Bible and baptise children of believers who are part of the covenant”?
    I’ve just been reading Acts 10:24-48 as my daily reading, where Peter concludes in verses 47 & 48, “Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptised, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we. And he commanded them to be baptised in the name of the Lord. Then prayed they him to tarry certain days” (AV). This follows the Gentile believers having the Holy Ghost falling upon them who heard Peter’s preaching, to the astonishment of the Jews present, as the Gentiles spoke with tongues.
    I cannot find any Biblical support for any other practice, certainly not for infant baptism commonly referred to “Christening”, though children can undoubtedly be born again & baptised in the Holy Ghost. Our own eldest son was born again aged 8 years & baptised as a believer by full immersion (not sprinkling).
    Both my wife & I were Christened as babies & confirmed in the Anglican Church as teenagers, but it did not make us Christians, indeed quite the contrary as I was “degenerate” & not “regenerated” ’till 42 years of age, and my wife at 30 years of age. We were then both properly baptised under full immersion as a statement & witness of the work of the Father through the Son in the power of the Holy Ghost.
    I would be interested to see Biblical support for any other form of baptism, other than those baptised in the name of Jesus who were then prayed for to receive the Holy Ghost?

    1. I have already written extensively about this…https://theweeflea.com/2016/12/06/baptism-a-personal-journey-in-which-it-is-discovered-that-infant-baptism-is-biblical/

      I think you should be careful about assuming that your position is THE biblical one and automatically dismiss every Christian who disagrees with you as unbiblical. Never judge others by your own experience. The fact that you cannot find any Biblical support all depends what you are looking for. For example you cite Peter in Acts 10:24-48 – missing out Peters words in Acts 2:39 – or the fact that the majority of baptisms in the NT were household baptisms….

      I note from your post that you assume that baptism is something that we do as our witness. Whilst there is an element of truth in that – what if baptism is something that God does for us. It is his mark on us…

      And we are Trinitarians. We don’t baptise people just in the name of Jesus. But in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28)…

  4. One further comment David. I fear it is a mistake to confuse (or connect) baptism with communion, as they are two separate ordinances As I see it you don’t have to be baptised to join communion, but have to be a true disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ, as we see in Jesus’ instigation at the “Last Supper” which was doubtless before the disciples were born again & baptised in the Holy Ghost.
    We really need clarity Biblically as to who can & should receive “communion” (namely breaking bread & sharing the cup) as well as those who should be “baptised” as true believers in Jesus Christ.
    Please correct me if I’m wrong!

  5. We are not part of Christ’s Church by “baptism”, but by being “born again”, and when born again we are automatically part of the Body of Christ, His Church which He said He would build that the Gates of Hell will not prevail against. I fear we are confusing the true Church that belongs to Christ with the denominational churches like Roman Catholic & Anglican which belong to men.

  6. No David. It’s not a confusion between the “visible and invisible church”. It’s the confusion between the “true Church and the false church” !!
    I’m looking & praying at the Acts 2 reference you gave, along with all the other issues, as I’m more concerned not that I am right, but that I’m wrong. The Acts 2 reference clearly denotes those “called” by God, which suggests it cannot include ALL children carte blanc.
    I do believe infants & children are sanctified by a believing parent (presumably because of the parent’s faithful prayer & upbringing & witness) but as alluded by other respondents that does NOT mean the infants or children are saved & born again. They too MUST be “born again” if they are to be saved & enter God’s kingdom (John 3).
    I’m about to listen to what hopefully will be some helpful teaching from Anton Bosch on the 3 forms of baptism to see if that throws more clarity on the issue(s). and will let you know the outcome. Thank you for your patience David.

    1. We are not in a position to know exactly the ‘true church’ or the ‘false church’. Only the Lord knows those who are his. John the Baptist and Jeremiah were called from the womb! Children of Christians belong to the church – until such time as they reject Christ or come to a living and saving faith in him. We both agree that baptismal regeneration is wrong…

  7. Hi David. I’ve looked at this extensively, and have watched Anton Bosch’ teaching on this which I thoroughly recommend.
    I cannot come to any other conclusion that the only baptism in water that is valid is believers’ baptism by immersion. Where “households” were baptised, the inference from the text & context, along with other references, is that the whole household believed.
    All other forms of baptism seem to originate more from church or denominational practice & misapplication of the Scriptures, as do the other forms of connection(s) you have alluded to such as church membership.
    There is only one form of membership the Bible appears to recognise (and Jesus), and that is being “born again”, as Jesus clearly instructed Nicodemus in John 3; and that relates to the practice of baptism & the Lord’s Supper.
    Anything else causes confusion, and indeed can be very dangerous as it often gives participants the impression they are saved or Christians when they are not. This is why it is essential we have clear teaching & practice on these essential issues, which sadly has been anything but the case with virtually all the main denominational churches.
    As for personal experience, if it is Biblical it is very relevant; as you have referred to your own experiences as moulding your views & understandings. Being saved & born again is very experiential, indeed it is life changing & radical, and we ignore that at our peril.
    We may have to agree to differ on these matters.

  8. NB My references to “baptised in Jesus” was Acts 16.
    I absolutely agree we only baptise by full immersion in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost after making disciples who are taught to obey Jesus’ teaching, as per Matthew 28:18-20.

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