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Baptist Sacramentology and the Concern with Donatism

January 8th, 2019 | 8 min read

By Jonathan Leeman

(1: Gavin Ortlund’s Initial Post, 2: Jonathan Leeman’s Response, 3: Gavin Ortlund’s Response)


Thanks for your elucidating and studied replies. Good conversation. Here are some brief responses to the various points you brought up.

“The” Baptist View on Membership

I was not arguing that my view on baptism and church membership was “the” Baptist position. I was arguing that the necessity of personal faith at the time of baptism is “the” Baptist position. Specifically, I said, “baptists of every stripe and shade have always taken from these verses that subjective faith at the time of baptism is a necessary element of the essence of baptism. It’s definitional.” Those various options listed by the Australian writer were interesting, but besides the point. Have I misunderstood you? Now, there may be a few Baptists who even dismiss the necessity of subjective faith at the moment of baptism. But I would argue that such a person is like the pre-millennial who believes we live after the millennium, or like the Protestant who denies sola fide, or like the egalitarian who doesn’t believe in women pastors. I’m sure you can find people arguing all of these things. I’m just telling you how I use “baptist” and “premillenneal” and “Protestant” and “egalitarian” and how I think the vast majority of Baptists (99.99 percent?) use “Baptist.” (Admittedly, I haven’t taken a survey.)

As you say, defining the borderline between essential and accidental can be tricky, but that’s precisely what theological labels are for if we’re to use them at all. Now, do I think excluding paedobaptists from church membership is “the” Baptist position? I continue to assume that it’s the majority position historically. I also assume that that would be a strong majority. But like most doctrines, I also assume you can find individuals and groups who slice it a hundred different ways. More significantly, I assume over fifty percent of Baptist churches these days would hold my position, but I wouldn’t be shocked if the number has dipped beneath that—Baptists are so often a-theological and pragmatic nowadays. In fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find Baptists in the UK who hold my position. It’s definitely the minority position over there.  Thanks also for your other examples.

Baptists and Donatism

It’s funny you mention the Donatists. I thought about bringing that up in my response because it’s a common Presbyterian argument against Baptists, and I thought someone might mention it. But I didn’t for time’s sake. Briefly, I’m with the church and Augustine against the Donatists—with a qualification. Like them, I do not think the subjective faith (or holiness) of the baptizer is what counts, much less where that person is in six months’ time. You’ll notice my piece referred to “a right proclamation of the gospel by the baptizer.” In other words, what counts is the doctrinal statement and proclamation of the baptizing church at the time of the baptism. Hodge and the early church said that that doctrinal statement and proclamation must be Trinitarian. I would tweak or qualify this by saying that that statement and proclamation must be the gospel, as historic Protestantism has defined it. If I wanted to risk sounding even more sectarian, I’d say the baptizing church should be properly triune, i.e. gospel-affirming.

The wordless oath of baptism communicates its meaning, in part, through the statement and preaching of the church which is doing the baptism. If that church teaches a false gospel at the time of the baptism, its baptisms communicate that same false gospel. I’m not so much interested in the faith of the minister or even of the members of the church. I’m interested in what a church preaches, because baptism is a public act that communicates something. What does it communicate? It communicates whatever that church preaches. In other words, I’m arguing that we should not de-link a church’s preaching from its use of the ordinances, and Hodge, I dare say, does.

The Question of Subjective Faith

In general, brother, your arguments against the necessity of subjective faith at the time of baptism are the classic paedobaptist ones (which is not to say right or wrong). For instance, the reductio ad asbsurdum about the zealous individual who gets re-baptized three times is common among my presbyterian friends, and I see the logic of it. That said, Baptists have been around for centuries, and never once have I heard of this actually happening (twice, yes. Not three times). Even if it has, can we agree it’s not an epidemic? On the other hand, what shall we say about the problem of people being baptized as infants, growing up, and calling themselves Christians because they were baptized as infants, even though they’ve never been born again? I’d say that that’s an epidemic. And I’ll take your hypothetical (non-existant?) problem of the brother with a sensitive conscience who gets baptized 3 times over the quantifiably verifiable problem of nominal Christianity any day. (Not that I’m blaming nominal Christianity entirely on infant baptism.). That said, okay, let me put my irenic back on. The larger picture is that everyone’s doctrines and practices are subject to abuse. So let’s assess one another’s doctrines and practices less by their hypothetical or real abuses and more by their biblical fidelity.

Another example: your arguments that the ordinances are “not something that primarily we do, but that God does” strike me as typically high church in the sacramentalist sense. And like so much Protestant sacramentalism, I confess I find such language both pious-sounding and vague. More, I simply don’t know what this phrase means. Obviously, we baptize and we administer and we receive the Super, just like we preach and we evangelize and we make disciples. Jesus explicitly authorizes us to do all of this. Does Jesus say and do certain things through our actions? Of course, that’s why he authorized them. But trying to take all the emphasis off of us and put on him, in my mind, risks succumbing to a Roman Catholic ex opere operato or mystical-transfusion-of-grace per perspective.

Here’s another crucial piece of is: what’s unique about the ordinances, relative, say, even to preaching, is that the ordinances designate not just what the gospel is, but who belongs to the gospel. They “seal.” They say, “These people, here, are the church. They belong to the gospel. They are citizens of the kingdom on earth.” That’s why Paul could say of the Supper, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17). Partaking of the bread reveals, illumines, shows, makes visible in time and space, who the church is. This at least is what I mean when I say the ordinances are a “seal.”

You might say they “bind” or “fasten” or “stick” the gospel to someone, like a nametag. The Supper is something Jesus authorized, yes, and in that sense he “does” it, whatever you mean by that. But it’s also something that we do in order to affirm that we who are many are one body. I’d even say that the Supper is “effectual” in that we effectually constitute a church as a church. We make it a public and visible thing. So it is with baptism. We baptize people into Christ’s name so that they are identified as Christ’s, and so that they might then gather in Christ’s name.

Bottom line: I appreciate the fears many high-church sacramentalists have about radical individualism in the West (one reason I think we see a resurgence of interest in liturgical sacramentalism). I, too, think that’s a problem. But eradicating the personal, the subjective, the individual from the ordinances is not the solution. I prefer the classic Baptist solution: viewing the ordinances in the context of covenantal, regenerate church membership. This is how we corporatize the faith and say, “Here are Christ’s people.”

Do Paedobaptists “Refuse” Baptism?

I maintain that the person who was sprinkled as an infant and does not want to be baptized before joining my church is “refusing” baptism, just like the man who says he’s a woman, sincerely believing himself to be a woman, “refuses” my argument to the contrariwise. I think the only way you would say otherwise, is if you conceded that, yes, in some sense he is a she. Or that this person, in some sense, has been baptized. If you move “faith at the time of baptism” from the essential bucket to the accidental bucket, I can see why you would object to the word “refuse.”

Grateful, again, for the conversation.

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