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There is One Baptism, but Not One Baptist View of Baptism

January 7th, 2019 | 15 min read

By Guest Writer

By Gavin Ortlund

(1: Gavin Ortlund’s Initial Post, 2: Jonathan Leeman’s Response, 4: Jonathan Leeman’s Final Response)

Thanks Jonathan for your irenic and thoughtful response. I, too, am grateful for our time together in D.C. and our friendship and partnership in the gospel. Here are a few thoughts by way of rejoinder.

Is There Only One Baptist View?

There are a couple of points where you define something as the Baptist view when I think it would be better called the “majority Baptist view” (or, in some contexts, simply “a Baptist view”). There is diversity within the Baptist tradition, as well as diversity among Baptists today, on questions of mode, membership, the Lord’s Supper, classification of infant baptism, and ecumenical cooperation.

In our American horizon of awareness, we sometimes think of those practices and confessions emerging from England in the 17th century as definitional of all Baptists everywhere, but there is a broader global picture. Things play out differently in Australia, for instance, where on the membership question one Baptist minister demarcates six discernable Baptist options:

[1] HARD CLOSED: Here members are only those baptized by someone with authority in one’s own Baptist denomination.

[2] SOFT CLOSED: These churches will not re-baptize someone already immersed as a believer, unless the baptism took place in a sectarian group.

[3] MODIFIED CLOSED: This – with the ‘soft closed’ position – is the stance of most Australian Baptist churches. Here a believer who is unbaptized, or was baptized as an infant, is given ‘associate’ status, and may vote on secondary matters in church meetings, and generally will not be eligible for the office of deacon or elder.

[4] MODIFIED OPEN: In these churches only those who are baptized can be members, provided the individual regards their baptism – of whatever kind – as valid for them. This is the position of about 70-80 of our Australian churches.

[5] PLURALIST OPEN: These churches (eg. in parts of the UK and in North India) go one step further and allow options for either infant or adult baptism, choosing sprinkling, effusion or immersion.

[6] WIDER OPEN: This position allows the individual, in consultation and prayer within the community of faith, to reach a conclusion about baptism that is valid for them, but may be a full member of the church during this process.

Looking at the whole of the Baptist tradition, the Swedish Baptist theologian Torsten Bergesten identified three broad Baptist views on how to classify infant baptism:

  1. “No” to Infant Baptism as a Christian Baptism. Closed Communion.
  2. “No” to Infant Baptism. Open Communion.
  3. “Yes” and “No” to Infant Baptism. Ecumenical Inter-communion.

He points to examples of the different positions existing throughout Baptist history and today (e.g., the Danish Baptist Union as an example of option 2, uniformly so). Bergesten is himself undecided on the question of whether infant baptism is invalid.

The Baptist theologian Thorwald Lorenzen, who taught for twenty years in Zurich, Switzerland and ministered internationally, identified three Baptist views among Baptists around the globe: open membership, closed membership, and modified-open membership. This third option he describes as follows:

if a person was baptized as an infant and considers his or her infant baptism after the experience of faith to be relevant and valid, these churches would accept the applicant on that testimony.

Even within the United States there have been a range of positions on baptism and membership/communion, with such issues being a major point of difference between Northern and Southern Baptists.

One can, of course, claim that all these schemas are wrong. I am not trying to privilege any of them. My point is simply that there is no single Baptist view on the relation of baptism to membership, or the Lord’s Supper, or the validity of infant baptism. So, it is inaccurate to claim that “baptists of every stripe and shade” are in uniformity about such matters.

Jonathan, you raise a concern that my view of baptism is effectively a paedobaptist one, and I’m metaphorically kicking the ball in our own goal. Now, let me assure you that I am very capable of kicking the ball into my own goal – I did it very handily once in 6th grade (except it was hockey not soccer). However, since the issues we are engaging have historically been debated among Baptists, I would think that at the very least more would need to be said to establish this claim.

It is worth noting that historically, many Baptists would classify both you and me outside the camp, since we occasionally recognize non-immersion as baptism, which has typically been classified (at least in America) as an “alien baptism.” Today also, many assert that “Baptists have universally held that immersion is the only proper mode of baptism, and without immersion there is no true baptism” (italics added). This claim is made on the basis of some fairly weighty considerations in line with the same texts you cite: the meaning of baptizo, significant Baptist confessions, and appeals that this mode is essential to the meaning of baptism (for instance, death, burial, and resurrection in union with Christ in Romans 6:2-4 and Col. 2:11-12).

There is no universally accepted definition of the precise parameters of the term “Baptist.” For myself, I define a paedobaptist as, quite simply, one who affirms and practices paedobaptism, and a baptist as one who believes in and practices credobaptism (passing over other issues like church government at this moment). On this view, the precise degree of error one sees in paedobaptism is not definitional to being a Baptist (important as that question is). Additionally, views on membership and mode are not definitional to being a Baptist (important as they also are). I am aware that my definition is on the looser side in our Baptist traditions in England and America, but it is still within the bandwidth, and definitely so when you take into account the global picture.

I recognize that you draw the lines differently, and I respect where you are coming from. And if I bump into the immersion-only folks claiming you are actually a paedobaptist, I will happily defend your Baptist identity!

My Driving Concern

Your response treated my post as two parallel arguments, the definitional argument and the unity argument. I actually intended my first point less ambitiously. My interest was furthering awareness of the valid/proper distinction. Of course, that distinction, in itself, is not decisive about paedobaptism—it was given as a response to those who claim “there are no examples in the New Testament of unbaptized people being admitted to the church,” and think that making this claim settles the question. As I indicated, I was attempting to show why I feel this claim is inconclusive.

I’m not settled on whether to call paedobaptism “improper” or “aberrant” or some other better adjective. Defining the borderline that distinguishes accidental from essential is tricky. My driving concern is that however we classify our paedobaptist friends, we must in the meantime figure out how to treat them in the context of the local church. This problem especially stings in geographical regions where gospel-believing churches are thin. Consider the following scenario to make this point:

You live in a context in which there is only one gospel-believing church. A retired Presbyterian minister wants to join this (Baptist) church. He is in every respect qualified to be a member, even a leader, within the church. In fact, he preaches there on occasion. However, he was baptized as a baby.

It seems to me that whether you call him “unbaptized” or “improperly baptized” is to a degree semantics with regard to the real practical point: can he partake of full membership and Lord’s Supper within the church, or not?

The Dangers of Donatism and Repeat Baptisms

Jonathan, you cite Gal. 3:27, Rom. 6:2-4, Col. 2:11-12, and 1 Peter 3:21 to advance the claim that faith is an essential part of baptism. If I understand you, you understand gospel faith in both the administrator and the recipient of baptism to be essential to a valid baptism (please correct me if I am wrong on that).

Now, I am in enthusiastic agreement with you, from these Scriptures and others, that baptism should administered to those who make a credible profession of faith. I do think we would need to say a bit more to cement this conclusion, since our paedobaptist friends will point out that circumcision is also spoken of as signifying spiritual realities (e.g., Romans 4:11, Jeremiah 9:26, Deuteronomy 30:6, 10:16), which its recipients did not typically enjoy at the time of its administration. However, passing by this point for now, I have two worries.

First, involving the faith of the administrator can open the door (depending on how it plays out) toward Donatist tendencies. For those reading along, the early church condemned the Donatists’ claim that a sacrament was invalid if performed by a traditor (that is, a bishop, priest, or deacon who renounced the faith or surrendered Scriptures or volunteered Christian names in order to avoid persecution or martyrdom; later, clergy in any kind of mortal sin). To make this case, Augustine and others asserted that what makes the sacrament valid is not human sincerity or godliness, but God’s faithfulness and promise.

Calvin devoted a section of the Institutes to pick up this claim in his own context, arguing “baptism does not depend upon the merit of him who administers it” (4.15.16). Here he compares a sacrament performed by a bad minister to a letter being carried by a bad messenger, applying this metaphor to both the Donatists as well as those insisting on rebaptism in his own day.

Provided the handwriting and seal are sufficiently recognized, it makes difference who or what sort the carrier is. In like manner, it ought to be enough for us to recognize the hand and seal of the Lord in his sacraments, whatever carrier may bring them. This argument neatly refutes the error of the Donatists, who measure the force and value of the sacrament by the worth of the minister. Such today are our Catabaptists, who deny that we have been duly baptized because we were baptized by impious and idolatrous men under the papal government.

When you write, “we insist on the subjective role of faith at the moment of baptism in order for that sign and seal to objectively ‘speak’ and ‘seal’”—this does not sound, from my vantage point, like objectivity. It’s like saying, “free, with certain conditions,” or “guaranteed, with good odds.” So, what do say about a woman is baptized by a minister who 6 months later comes apostasizes, and says he never believed? Does this nullify the baptism? And if she is rebaptized, what if it happens again?

The second worry is about the person being baptized. Like you, I believe baptism should be received with faith, but if we make faith definitional of baptism, I worry we might inadvertently encourage unnecessary rebaptisms. For instance, consider this scenario:

A young man is baptized at age 7 when he professes faith. However, there is no evidence of saving faith at this time. Subsequently, at a youth summer camp at age 14, he gets fired up for the gospel and after a prayer of rededication baptized again, considering his first baptism invalid on the grounds that his faith was not genuine at the time. He has a Christian walk for many years, though he struggles in it. In his early 20’s, he walks away from his faith and lives a sinful lifestyle for several years. He is now in his later 20’s and experiences a great spiritual awakening. He genuinely suspects that only now he has become regenerate. Does he gets baptized for the third time? How many times could such a process repeat?

The early church was much less eager to “rebaptize” than many of us today. As Hodge points out, at the Council of Arles (314), the church determined that a person returning to the church from a heresy should only be re-baptized if their initial baptism was administered by an anti-Trinitarian. Similarly, at Nicaea 11 years later, and in subsequent councils, the church decreed that all heretics and schismatics should not be re-baptized unless their first baptism had not been in the name of the Trinity. Hence, a convert from strict Arianism was “re-baptized;” a Novatian or Donatist was not, since their initial baptism was considered valid. In his day, Francis Turretin appealed to this fact for his own case that Socinian baptisms were invalid; Roman Catholic and Arminian baptisms, valid.

I worry greatly that evangelical instincts about rebaptism are generally more Donatist than catholic!

My hope for those reading on is that, whatever view we hold, this discussion encourages greater consideration of the objectivity of the sacraments. The sacraments are not primarily something we do to show our faith, but primarily something God does that is accessed by faith. Their validity ultimately rests upon his faithfulness, not ours. Thus, just as someone can be truly edified and even converted through the gospel proclamation of an unregenerate preacher, so can someone be truly edified and even converted as they observe a sacrament administered by an unregenerate minister.

Jonathan, if I misunderstood you on any point here, please forgive me and help me understand. I’m not confident whether I’ve got you right.

Do Paedobaptists “Refuse” Baptism?

One final point. You classify paedobaptists as “not having been baptized and as refusing to be baptized.” To my mind, the verb “refuse” seems odd to use with respect to unintentional sins (such as you consider paedobaptism to be). The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word refuse as to “indicate or show that one is not willing to do something.” It’s difficult to see how something can be willful if not intentional. I’d be more comfortable with language like “error” or “bad practice” or something like that.

Thus, when you ask a paedobaptist, “would you accept someone into membership someone who refuses baptism,” of course they will say no, but this is not exactly the same thing as closed membership among Baptists. This was the burden of my first point: the danger of smuggling in an equivocation with our language. Both a strict Baptist and a Roman Catholic can say, “baptism is an entrance to church membership,” but they mean something very different. We have to gloss over the difference to affirm that “everyone for 2000 years has insisted that baptism must precede membership and admission to the Lord’s Table.”

So I’d see a dis-analogy here: a Baptist being asked to receive the Presbyterian into church membership is being asked to bend their one conscience in one particular way. The Lutheran (for instance) who is asked to receive someone who is unwilling to be baptized into membership is being asked to bend their conscience in a different way. There is a superficial similarity of language, but the actual circumstances are different and to my mind, the Lutheran is being asked to countenance a much more serious error.

Jonathan, I appreciate your fair and insightful interaction with the article and your wrestling with the second point especially. You guys are 9marks are doing wonderful work for the kingdom. Thank you and bless you!

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Gavin Ortlund (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) is a husband, father, pastor, and writer. He serves as senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Ojai in Ojai, California. Gavin blogs regularly at Soliloquium. You can follow him on Twitter.