Book Review: “Believer’s Baptism” by Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright (2006)

“Sign of the New Covenant in Christ”

The authors of Believers Baptism essentially purpose to validate believer’s baptism (credobaptism) (6) as a believer’s “initiation rite into the Christian church” (1) in contrast to infant baptism (paedobaptism), which some evangelicals, specifically those within the Reformed tradition, promote as a sign of faith that introduces unbelieving infants into the covenant community (7). They also desire to thwart the continued minimizing of baptism in Christian practice (xvi, 1), and as a result call for a reform of baptismal practices (xvii). This paper will, from a layman’s perspective, seek to answer whether the authors of each chapter have achieved this purpose, while also evaluating the value of the book for potential readers.

The ten chapters of Believer’s Baptism are loosely organized into three sections: arguments for believer’s baptism from the New Testament (chapters 1-4), witness for believer’s baptism from history (chapter 5-9), and practical application of believer’s baptism in the church today (chapter 10) (7-8). The following paragraphs will evaluate each chapter in light of the book’s proposed thesis.

In Chapter 1, Andreas Köstenberger details the role of baptism in the Gospels. After describing the cleansings and immersion practices for Jewish rituals (11-13, Köstenberger focuses on the three types of baptism which can be found in the collection of the Gospels: those of John the Baptist’s, Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist in particular, and the figurative baptisms which Jesus and his disciples either performed or experienced (11). Throughout the Gospels, Köstenberger contends, baptism signifies spiritual purification from sin and spiritual renewal (17). Although baptism as the church knows it today is seen very little in the Gospels (32), this chapter necessarily adds to the discussion by laying the grounds for what the apostles would later practice and teach. Thus, perhaps the most vital portion of Chapter 1 with regards to the thesis of the book as a whole is Köstenberger’s section on Matthew 28:18-20 and his response to Daniel Doriani’s dangerous opinion that parents should baptize their infants for the sake of education and possibly even regeneration (24). Instead, Köstenberger concludes from the Gospels that “water baptism presupposes spiritual regeneration” (34), a strong initial contribution to the book’s thesis.

In Chapter 2, Robert H. Stein emphasizes how true conversions occurred “in Acts,” a phrase he uses throughout his chapter in order to distinguish that which was once normative in the earliest church to what occurs in conversions today (58). “In the experience of becoming a Christian [in Acts], five integrally related components took place at the same time, usually on the same day: repentance, faith, confession, receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, and baptism” (52). Stein expounds upon this mini-thesis in correlation with his section on the historicity of immersion in Acts in order to develop his argument for believer’s baptism as historically and theologically more normative than infant baptism, even when considering the “whole households” being saved and baptized in Acts (61, 63).

In Chapter 3, Thomas R. Schreiner describes baptism in the Epistles. Schreiner focuses on five passages depicting the centrality of baptism, two describing the theology of baptism, and two warning against the overvaluing of baptism (81). All but one of these passages comes from the writings of Paul, a man who presupposed that his believing readers had already been initiated into the church through baptism (68). After detailing the mode, cleansing, and sealing of baptism in the Epistles (81-87), Schreiner then orients this baptism in redemptive history, concluding that baptism “functions as a reminder of the eschatological reality that has been obtained with the death and resurrection of Christ” (89). Schreiner’s research offers “compelling grounds to reject infant baptism” (93), emphasizing the discussion’s import and supporting the book’s thesis (96).

In Chapter 4, Stephen J. Wellum closes this first section on baptism as depicted in the New Testament and yet introduces the remainder of the book by analyzing baptism’s relationship between the covenants (97). Wellum masterfully compresses into just over sixty pages what could easily grow into volumes of material as he depicts the major threads of argument for infant baptism from a Covenant theology standpoint and then critiques these arguments from what he judges to be a better understanding of the “proper relationships between the covenants and the degree of continuity and discontinuity between them” (125). Of all the chapters in this book, Wellum’s is by far the most scholarly in that it takes a great deal of prior understanding of Covenant and Dispensational theologies to follow his reasoning. His chapter is key, however, to one’s ability to properly combat errant views of baptism, a rite which, when properly obeyed, “signifies a believer’s union with Christ, by grace through faith, and all the benefits that result from that union” (159). Wellum’s chapter offers perhaps the most essential backdrop for this book’s thesis.

In Chapter 5, Steven A. McKinion begins the book’s second section which argues from history by testing the patristic writings for their attitudes regarding baptizing only believers (163). He begins by contending against the historicity of infant baptism delineated by Joachim Jeremias in the form of “missionary baptism” (168), and then works chronologically through the patristic writings from the second to the fifth century in order to uncover what these church fathers believed regarding infant baptism. He uncovers that the Western church grew to support paedobaptism in light of its power to cover original sin, while the East began applying the theology of credobaptism to infants (186). These changes came not from the patristic writings but rather in spite of them (187). In fact, McKinion concludes that “the ancient practice of the church was to baptize only those who had repented of sin [and] placed their faith in Jesus Christ” (188).

In Chapter 6, Jonathan H. Rainbow details the doctrines of the early Anabaptists (189), specifically Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and Balthasar Hubmaier. He opens by defining the medieval opinion of the Roman Catholic Church with regards to baptism in order to show how drastically each theologian’s position changed from the norm. Catholicism held to both fides infusa (faith infused into the infant by baptism) and fides aliena (the faith of others for the infant) (190-192). Martin Luther retained fides infusa for infant baptism with the addition that God’s Word actually infused the faith, not the baptism itself (195). Zwingli took the opposite approach by severing all ties between faith and baptism (197), though he retained infant baptism on the grounds of a form of Covenant theology (199). Hubmaier’s doctrine landed between Luther’s and Zwingli’s with regards to faith (200), and yet left both far behind with regards to who could be baptized, that “only the person who confesses faith in Christ can be baptized” (203), and thus not an infant. Rainbow also encourages his credobaptist readers to educate themselves biblically and historically concerning the true tenets and background of paedobaptism (203-205) in order to both understand and challenge it intelligently, and his chapter is an excellent place to begin.

In Chapter 7, Shawn D. Wright tackles the challenging doctrine of Reformed paedobaptists and its inconsistency with regards to infant baptism. Wright discusses the Reformed doctrine of the sacraments, their definition of baptism and practice of infant baptism, their defeatist attitude about the makeup of the church, the covenant of grace, and their misuse of the New Testament to support infant baptism (208). Throughout his chapter, Wright utilizes the writings of John Calvin, Pierre Marcel, and John Murray as expert witnesses to Reformed doctrine before critiquing their misguided conclusions at every turn. Wright’s appeal for biblical consistency in all matters of doctrine (253) underpins his article and supports the book’s thesis.

In Chapter 8, Duane A. Garrett continues the historical argument against paedobaptism with an article opposed to the Covenant theologian Meredith Kline’s suzerain-vassal theology which he applies to all Scripture (257-259), his impossible interpretation of circumcision (269), and his belief that baptism is a “water ordeal” (272-273). With regards to the book’s thesis, Garrett argues against Kline’s belief in compelling an infant to be baptized into the Covenant (284). Because this mentioning of infant baptism seems to be merely a side issue, however, this chapter offers the least applicable evidence against paedobaptism in the book.

In Chapter 9, A. B. Caneday approaches the earliest tenets of a seemingly aberrant theology, the Stone-Campbell movement, in a way dissimilar to the methods of previous authors in this book. With much supporting evidence, Caneday argues that Alexander Campbell, contrary to popular Baptist opinion which stems from an understanding of the misguided doctrine of Campbell’s followers only (the Churches of Christ),  did not believe that baptism regenerates a soul (327-328). Caneday does not call for an open acceptance of Stone-Campbell theology, but rather for charitable dialogue with the tradition’s theologians (328). This chapter’s intimate dealing with the  baptismal flaws of an evangelical tradition adds to this book’s thesis.

In the final Chapter, Mark E. Dever concludes the book with a biblical and properly modern application of how baptism must function within the local church as it both leads believers to Christ (352) and protects the church from nominalism (330). He does so by answering some of the most common questions regarding baptism, the lesser common having already been dealt with in the previous chapters: Who baptizes whom? How and when is it to be done? Should the unbaptized partake in communion or join the church membership? Should a church accept baptisms from other churches or ever delay baptism? Should one not joining a church be baptized? (330-350). As Dever answers these questions, the reader can easily recall the biblical and historical background for each answer from the previous chapters, making this certainly the most applicable yet also most dependent chapter of all. Dever’s answers remain faithful to the support of believer’s baptism over infant baptism, and his chapter completes the thesis first proposed in the book’s introduction.

Believer’s Baptism provides one of the strongest collection of arguments for believer’s baptism available, specifically as it uncovers the theological holes within arguments favoring unregenerative infant baptism in evangelicalism. That this book argues first from a biblical perspective and then from an historical perspective is important, for it shows that while the biblical practice of credobaptism is not dependent upon tradition, it is certainly supported by tradition, a claim quite impossible for paedobaptism to make. Because this book fulfilled its promise to not only validate the biblical faithfulness of believer’s baptism over infant baptism, but also to heighten the importance of baptism in Christian practice, it will prove essential to anyone, minister or layperson, who seeks the biblical basis and historical background of both believer’s baptism and infant baptisms.

©2012 E.T.

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