November-December 2012 saw the 250th issue of Reformation Today (RT). We feature Erroll Hulse’s editorial (with permission). While Evangelical Times does not align itself with secondary distinctives that separate Reformed Evangelicals, it commends RT for the eirenic spirit with which it here reviews books on baptism.
RT is a 40-page magazine which began in 1970. The 250th issue is a landmark, recalling the reasons for starting this bi-monthly, international magazine, aimed at both pulpit and pew.
During the 1960s and 1970s the Reformed faith spread widely. The impact among Baptists was such that they had to re-evaluate their position. Since Baptists find their doctrinal beliefs firmly rooted in the legacies of the Reformers and Puritans, does that not mean that they should go all the way and become Paedobaptists? There are Presbyterians who maintain that you cannot call yourself ‘Reformed’ and be a Baptist at the same time.
However, that claim loses sight of Reformation history. In 1689, Calvinistic Baptists (then called Particular Baptists) published their confession of faith. It was based almost entirely on the Westminster Confession of Faith.
A primary reason for the formulation of the 1689 Confession was to prove that Calvinistic Baptists are Reformed, not only in the doctrines of salvation and the doctrine of the church. They denied the sacral concept that the whole of society forms the church.
Presbyterians maintain that their practice is based on the covenants. In the Old Testament, circumcision was the rite which applied to all male infants. Some like Herman Hoeksema chide Baptists as being ignorant about covenant theology. But that is not true, because Baptists base their practice firmly on Hebrews 8:8-13, which affirms very emphatically the discontinuity of the old to the new covenant. The new covenant is not like that old covenant, ‘which they broke’.
Have any changes taken place with regard to baptism since the 1970s? Presbyterians often claim to have the edge historically. Baptism in the early church by Stander and Louw1 documents that the early church practice was to baptise believers by immersion.
‘Baptism was a matter of personal belief — while immersion seems to have been the regular practice; the mode was never a real issue’ (p.185). The recently published study by Everett Ferguson is an important resource. His 963-page work flies under the same title Baptism in the early church. It has the sub-title, ‘History, theology and liturgy in the first five centuries’.
A short summary of Ferguson’s conclusion reads as follows: ‘The most plausible explanation for the origin of infant baptism is found in the emergency baptism of sick children expected to die soon, so that they would be assured of entrance in the kingdom of heaven.
‘There was a slow extension of the practice of baptising babies as a precautionary measure. It was generally accepted, but questions continued to be raised about its propriety into the fifth century. It became the usual practice in the fifth and sixth centuries’ (Everett Ferguson, p.857).2
A new paperback by Dr Robert Letham, contending for infant baptism, has been published by Christian Focus.3
This is reviewed in ten pages in Reformation Today by Dr Gary Crampton, whose book From Paedobaptism to credobaptism was published in 2010.4 Dr Crampton is an enthusiastic believer in the Westminster Confession of Faith. However, he maintains that he cannot find any reference in the Bible to infant baptism.
Whether Paedobaptist or Credobaptist you will find his book compelling. Even at midnight you will want to read on into the night. Dr Crampton’s background as a Paedobaptist ideally equips him to review Robert Letham’s book.
Unity of faith
Unity of those who share the Reformed faith is vital. As asserted above, the principal reason for the original publication of the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith was to demonstrate that Calvinistic Baptists hold the identical framework of belief with Presbyterians, infant baptism excepted, together with the implications of that in church government.5 The 1689 has 15 paragraphs on the church to 6 in the Westminster Confession.
The number of books published on both sides of this question are about equal according to Prof. Francis Nigel Lee (5 December 1934–23 December 2011) … Dr Lee’s contribution to the subject came in the publication of Rebaptism impossible!, subtitled ‘The biblical unrepeatability of baptism in Presbyterian church history, with particular reference to the validity of Roman Catholic baptisms.’
Dr Lee was himself the subject of Roman Catholic infant baptism. Dr Lee argued strongly against the move among some Presbyterians to infant communion. Baptists find the notion of Roman Catholic baptism unacceptable to say the least. At this point, enters Reg Burrows, who has just published his 110-page work Why baptise babies?, www.lulu.com
This is a most friendly, highly commended, fervent effort to promote unity between Credobaptists and Paedobaptists. It concludes with a helpful summary of the most recent books and articles on both sides of the subject.
In his 22 years as a Church of England minister Reg Burrows, on a covenant basis, confined infant baptism exclusively as the right for both or one parent practising believers.
Reformed Baptists have multiplied in many countries. It is important that they maintain unity with Reformed Paedobaptist denominations. As for Reformed Baptist identity in 2012, Reformed Baptists are on average clearer about their basis of faith, re credobaptism versus paedobaptism, than they were in the 1970s.
With regard to confessional Christianity, Presbyterian churches are often strong and clear in expository preaching and in maintaining their confessional foundations, while some Reformed Baptist churches are weak and hardly remember that there is a Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, namely the 1689. For that reason, and not paedobaptism, some leave Baptist ranks to join Presbyterians.
1 Prof. Hendrik F. Stander and Prof. Johannes P. Louw, Baptism in the early church, 192 pages, Carey Publications and ARBCA, 2004.
2 Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the early church — history, theology and liturgy in the first five centuries, 963 pages, Eerdmans, 2009.
3 Robert Letham, A Christian’s pocket guide to baptism: a water that unites, Christian Focus Publications, 2012.
4 W. Gary Crampton, From Paedobaptism to credobaptism. A critique of the Westminster Standards on the subject of baptism, 126 pages, 2010. RBAP, 1694 Wrights Landing Road, Owensboro, KY 42303. [email protected]
5 Ed. Erroll Hulse, Our Baptist heritage. Issues facing Reformed Baptists today, 117 pages. Available from Chapel Library, [email protected]