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Baptism: Three ViewsA number of Christian publishers have begun releasing books that include various essays and interaction between opposing viewpoints. Zondervan began with the “Counterpoint” series; Broadman & Holman now has a “Perspectives” series. IVP has long had a “Spectrum” series. Last year, they published The Lord’s Supper: Five Views and Baptism: Three Views (2009).

The IVP book on baptism is unique in that it does not focus on all the different views within Christendom. Instead, the focus is squarely on the question most relevant to most evangelicals: Do we baptize infants or not?

Baptism: Three Views does not discuss baptismal regeneration (thus excluding the Churches of Christ, the Anglicans, and Roman Catholics from the conversation). But the narrow focus on adult versus infant baptism actually enhances the book by keeping the discussion pinpointed on the question of who should be baptized, not what is happening in the baptismal font.

Bruce Ware, a professor at Southern Seminary contributes an essay that explains the Baptist position. Sinclair Ferguson, the senior minister at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, SC, describes the infant baptism view. Anthony Lane, Professor of Historical Theology at London School of Theology, outlines a proposal he describes as “dual practice.”

When I first glanced at the table of contents, I thought to myself, Oh no! There are three views here – two of which are directly opposed and a third that appears to be a hybrid. I can already assume that the book will lead to the third view as the “best of both worlds.” Thankfully, this book stays much more objective than I anticipated. (Furthermore, Lane’s contribution is significant enough in its own right to be taken as a distinctly third view, not merely as a hybrid.)

I was glad to see the strengths and weaknesses of each view presented well. For example, Tony Lane points out one of the weak spots in the Baptist understanding – the baptism of small children:

“The problem with this policy is that few small children reject the views of their parents. In practice it can end up being not too different from the paedobaptist position.” (68)

Very true. Few Baptists today are willing to challenge the recent development of baptizing small children, and because of our enthusiasm for this relatively new practice, we undermine our overall position.

Bruce Ware ably puts forth the Baptist view (which is the one that I hold). Sinclair Ferguson also does an admirable job of making a case for the baptism of infants. If you are looking for a succinct explanation of the paedobaptist position, you will need to look no further than Ferguson’s essay.

The frustrating part of Ferguson’s essay for me (as a Baptist, remind you!) is his tendency to merely state the assumptions that I want to see him prove. For example, take this statement:

“Baptism functions in relationship to the new covenant in Christ in a manner analogous to the function of circumcision in the Abrahamic covenant. In a word, baptism has the same symbolic significance in relationship to fellowship with God as did circumcision.” (87)

I understand that the infant baptist position hinges on this assumption, but this kind of statement is exactly that which needs to be proven from Scripture, not merely stated. Several times, Ferguson uses the phrase “by parity of reasoning” or “through reasoning,” which helps to shine light on how he arrives at seeing baptism within his covenantal framework, one which has much merit to it, but which (on the issue of baptism) seems to me to impose a foreign paradigm on the text.

Tony Lane’s chapter is unique. In a nutshell, he says that the Bible does not specify whether infants can be baptized or only believing adults. Pointing to the early church’s apparent variety of approaches on this issue, Lane believes that we too have freedom to choose:

“The silences are there to leave the church liberty to vary its practice to suit different circumstances. They sanction the variety of practice that we see in the early church.” (166)

Lane’s view is intriguing, but it seems too individualistic for me. He argues that churches should allow freedom even to their members to decide what they want baptism to mean. That sounds like a perfect solution for an individualistic society where people construct their own meaning, but woefully inadequate for those of us trying to be faithful to the Scriptures on these very important matters. I cannot imagine that Paul would not desire uniformity among the churches when it comes to this issue.

Overall, this book is a helpful explanation of the different views of baptism. No matter which position you hold, if you are interested in finding out something about the other views, you will find this book to be a good resource.

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10 thoughts on “Infant Baptism? Believer's Baptism? Or Both?”

  1. John says:

    This sounds like just what I need.

    My wife and I recently joined a PCA church after always having been baptists. The baptism issue has been our major question now for months. I’ve been reading everything I can find, but I’m yet to be convinced by the Paedobaptist position, though I’m closer than I used to be.

  2. joey says:

    Last night, after a conversation with a good friend of mine about his potential baptism, I spent an hour or so digging through what Stanley Grenz has to say on Baptism (Theology for the Community of God). I highly recommend reading Grenz on any issue but his stuff on Baptism was just wonderful. Amazing insights and comparisons and some strong justifications.

  3. Paul says:

    Our Colossians Bible study focused on chapter 2 – the circumcision and baptism of Christ. The greek, albeit I’m no expert, seems to suggest both 1) that Christ’s circumcision was his being cut off through the cross, and 2) his baptism was his being cut off through the cross. So in practice, baptism seems to be the new covenant circumcision to me.

    Who should receive the sign? No one reading that text, however, would be convinced of a particular baptism mode (infant/believers), primarily because it doesn’t describe who should be considered as God’s covenant people – individual believers or families headed by believers.

    At this point, I’m not sure what position to take on this later issue!!!

  4. EricW says:

    My question for Evangelical Protestants (which I basically am) is:

    If baptism doesn’t effect anything, but it’s simply a symbol or perhaps an act done in obedience to the Lord’s command to baptize people, then what difference does it make whether it’s done to an infant or to an adult? The first “symbolizes” circumcision, and the second “symbolizes” one’s personal commitment to Christ. End of discussion.

    I.e., if baptism is just a “symbol” (and by “symbol,” I mean the way we use the word, not what sumbolon meant to the ancient Greeks – which was more than simply a “symbol,” e.g., the Orthodox Church calls the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed The Symbol of the Faith), then why argue about why and when it’s done?

    In fact, just to make everyone happy (or unhappy), why not baptize people twice – once as infants to “symbolize” the circumcision of Christ and again as adults to “symbolize” a personally-made commitment to Christ? Surely Evangelical Protestants aren’t hung up on the idea of what to do re: post-baptismal sin, and whether a person can be rebaptized or if there can only be “one baptism for the remission of sins” – esp. since baptism isn’t considered to effect the remission of sins, original or otherwise.

    IMO, until one decides what baptism “does,” then one can’t answer the question of whether or not infants should be baptized. And if one says that baptism does NOT “do” or “effect” anything, then I think it’s a false controversy or dilemma or hang-up.

  5. Chas says:

    Eric W makes some good points. Perspective is everything here. The free church/evangelical movement, being very “decisional” oriented with respect to being saved, predictably emphasizes one’s commitment to Christ, hence adult baptism. Confessional/mainline churches tend to emphasize the covenantal aspect of our relationship with God and as such see baptism as a sign (circumcision) of the covenant, hence, the baptism of infants. Bottom line, both modes seem to have a place in Christian obedience.

  6. Eric Stampher says:

    Maybe we should consider that those scriptural “baptism” words often intended and implied more than the earthly action — sometimes even absent them! What is and was going on behind and above the splash here. Hence the Baptist position feels a bit anemic tracing it’s meaning to what a person attests as his own personal & historic experience of redemption. Who said you had to wait until you had to feel it? How much do you have to feel it? That’s why you see Baptists of renewed vigor and faith jumping in many times, whereas the Liturgites like me want to trail my redemption (and my kids’) back to the cross — no matter when or if I feel it.

  7. Bentley Crawford says:

    Sounds great! Thanks for the review!

    For anyone who respects or holds to the reformed paedobaptist understanding of the covenants and wants to see an informed interaction with it in defense of believers baptism; the book “Believers Baptism” edited by Tom Schreiner is very helpful. Really helpful in thinking through the implications of the covenants on our current New Covenant reality.

  8. Eric Stampher says:

    Maybe a touchy question for clarification only, but do Baptists hold that infants can’t “believe”? Or could their definition of the term “Believer’s Baptism” also be render3ed: “Presumed-Believers-Who-Can-&-D0-Articulate-Belief Baptism”?

  9. John Palmer says:

    Hi Trevin, Your comments on Sinclair Ferguson’s views prompted me to think that an interview with NTW on being “true to Scripture” would be a very timely addition to the current discussion on hermeneutics! (Maybe you can catch him on his sabbatical at Princeton!)

  10. Bud Bester says:

    Infant baptism was maintained by the Magisterial Reformation because those Reformers had decided to maintain the Roman Catholic tradition of union of Church and State. Infant baptism was part and parcel of a Nation with a National Church: citizenship in the Nation and membership in the National Church were seen as necessarily one and the same thing–for the sake of national unity, strength, and harmony. The church in New Testament times was not National Church, and never anticipated being such. That’s why there is no mention of infant baptism in the New Testament–there was none taking place. Infant baptism today is simply a leftover artifact from the old days of the vital union of Church and State. In those former times, in the early days of the Protestant Reformation, churches simply could not survive without a powerful National government to authorize them and protect them. Well, some of the Anabaptists did survive, but barely, and they were persecuted horribly by both the Magisterial Protestants and the Roman Catholics.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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