By Jonathan Leeman

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

Gavin,

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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Jonathan Leeman, an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church in Cheverly, MD, is the editorial director at 9Marks and the author, most recently, of The Rule of Love: How the Local Church Reflects God’s Love and Authority.

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  • Andy

    Jonathan, would you mind explaining what you think Catholics believe about baptism?

    • Jonathan Leeman

      “Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: ‘Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word'” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1213)…”The sacrament is also called ‘the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit,’ for it signifies and actually brings about the birth of water and the Spirit without which no on ‘can enter the kingdom of God'” (1215)…”Through the Holy Spirit, Baptism is a bath that purifies, justified, and sanctifies” (1227)…”Hence Baptism is a bath of water in which the ‘imperishable seed’ of the Word of God produces its life-giving effect” (1228).

      • Andy

        Thanks. But what about a person’s “intentions” or “faith”? (from the Catholic point of view). I mean, I’m pretty sure Catholics don’t think that you could take someone who’s a hardened criminal and baptize them against their will and “poof” they are a Christian. And they are always keen to call baptism the “sacrament of faith”. How would you tease out what they believe about the human response side of baptism?

      • Ian

        Copying lines from the catechism is not explaining what you think Catholics believe about baptism and if you don’t know that’s not equivalent, then you ought to.

  • Pingback: Church Membership and the Definition of Baptism – Mere Orthodoxy – Christian Article – Christian Blog()

  • Daniel

    Hm. I’m not sure that I think the argument about whether someone is “refusing” baptism is terribly germane. It seems like a purely terminological disagreement, which dissolves once we clarify our wording? I think Jonathan was probably correct in his second response.

    That is, if I, baptised as an infant, were to become involved with a Baptist church, the argument we’d have would indeed be:
    Baptist: “You have never been baptised, and therefore, if you wish to be Christ’s disciple. you must be baptised in obedience to his command. You refuse to do this.”
    Me: “I have been baptised in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and to demand a second baptism is to imply that my first baptism was not effectual, which in turn is to say that Lord has broken faith.”

    There is indeed a difference in terms of subjective intention. Even supposing the Baptist is objectively right, I am not – within my own mind – consciously refusing to be baptised. I believe (in error) that I am baptised. The problem here, from a Baptist perspective, is not with my intentions, for those are pure, but with my mistaken belief about a matter of fact.

    So, while I refuse to do the ritual that Baptist demands, and in that sense ‘refuse baptism’, in my own subjective frame I am not consciously refusing baptism at all, and indeed am trying to affirm and defend the meaning of baptism.

    Thus, it seems to me, the dispute dissolves entirely. In one sense of the word I am ‘refusing’ baptism; in another sense of the word I am not. What remains to disagree about?

    As regards Donatism:

    Interesting debate, but I tend to think Donatism still lies in the background here. For me, I think, the key point to make would be that baptism is a sacrament and there accomplished by divine rather than human action. Here I would tend to side with Gavin. (And to the extent that this makes Gavin a high church sacramentalist or a paedobaptist, I say “excellent!”) That means that the key question for me is then not “what was the baptiser’s state of mind, or intentions?” or “what was the baptisee’s state of mind, or intentions?”, but “what did God do here?”

    Within that context I would indeed like to take intentions as important, but not as the decisive factor in all cases. Which is to say that I can imagine a circumstance in which an insincere and un-believing minister, using a valid formula, baptises an equally insincere and un-believing layperson – and yet, through God’s free conferral of grace, a seed is planted within that layperson that one day matures into faith and indeed salvation.

    I also worry that an excessive focus on intentions can end up needlessly tormenting the poor believer. As beings subject to original sin, we will always be able to doubt the purity of our intentions. On a purely pastoral level, there is value to being able to say “it’s not about what you intended – it’s about what God did for you”. On a theological level, it seems more consistent with a robust doctrine of original sin and the notion that it is through grace alone that we able to choose righteousness to say that human intent is always secondary to the divine intent.

    That said, thank you to both Gavin and Jonathan for the stimulating discussion, and to Mere O for publishing them. There is definitely food for thought here, even for those who reject Baptist theologies.

  • Daniel

    (looks like a comment got lost)

    Hm. I’m not sure that I think the argument about whether someone is “refusing” baptism is terribly germane. It seems like a purely terminological disagreement, which dissolves once we clarify our wording? I think Jonathan was probably correct in his second response.

    That is, if I, baptised as an infant, were to become involved with a Baptist church, the argument we’d have would indeed be:
    Baptist: “You have never been baptised, and therefore, if you wish to be Christ’s disciple. you must be baptised in obedience to his command. You refuse to do this.”
    Me: “I have been baptised in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and to demand a second baptism is to imply that my first baptism was not effectual, which in turn is to say that Lord has broken faith.”

    There is indeed a difference in terms of subjective intention. Even supposing the Baptist is objectively right, I am not – within my own mind – consciously refusing to be baptised. I believe (in error) that I am baptised. The problem here, from a Baptist perspective, is not with my intentions, for those are pure, but with my mistaken belief about a matter of fact.

    So, while I refuse to do the ritual that Baptist demands, and in that sense ‘refuse baptism’, in my own subjective frame I am not consciously refusing baptism at all, and indeed am trying to affirm and defend the meaning of baptism.

    Thus, it seems to me, the dispute dissolves entirely. In one sense of the word I am ‘refusing’ baptism; in another sense of the word I am not. What remains to disagree about?

    As regards Donatism:

    Interesting debate, but I tend to think Donatism still lies in the background here. For me, I think, the key point to make would be that baptism is a sacrament and there accomplished by divine rather than human action. Here I would tend to side with Gavin. (And to the extent that this makes Gavin a high church sacramentalist or a paedobaptist, I say “excellent!”) That means that the key question for me is then not “what was the baptiser’s state of mind, or intentions?” or “what was the baptisee’s state of mind, or intentions?”, but “what did God do here?”

    Within that context I would indeed like to take intentions as important, but not as the decisive factor in all cases. Which is to say that I can imagine a circumstance in which an insincere and un-believing minister, using a valid formula, baptises an equally insincere and un-believing layperson – and yet, through God’s free conferral of grace, a seed is planted within that layperson that one day matures into faith and indeed salvation.

    I also worry that an excessive focus on intentions can end up needlessly tormenting the poor believer. As beings subject to original sin, we will always be able to doubt the purity of our intentions. On a purely pastoral level, there is value to being able to say “it’s not about what you intended – it’s about what God did for you”. On a theological level, it seems more consistent with a robust doctrine of original sin and the notion that it is through grace alone that we able to choose righteousness to say that human intent is always secondary to the divine intent.

    That said, thank you to both Gavin and Jonathan for the stimulating discussion, and to Mere O for publishing them. There is definitely food for thought here, even for those who reject Baptist theologies.

  • Ian

    If baptism communicates whatever that church teaches then it is ultimately impossible that there be “one baptism and one body.” We are all enisled from one another after all in our thousands of baptisms, and no church can ever recognize the validity of any other baptism. Baptism is completely eviscerated of its participation in the baptism of Jesus Christ, eviscerated of its content as the objective action of God in claiming human subjects as properly his own— it is only your signature of affirmation of any single church’s teaching. But Leeman is fine with that, as his church preaches the true gospel and baptizes with true baptism, other churches be damned. He can recognize the height of the bar and knows his assembly can clear it, and knows furthermore that most do not and can not. If this isn’t Donatism, then what is?

  • Ian

    As far as Leeman’s tired would-be silver bullet of a person “refusing” to be called a man by Leeman, this is teetering awfully close to border drawing and making too big of a stink when something more than body chemistry is on the line.

    https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/11/21/the-categories-were-made-for-man-not-man-for-the-categories/