Rethinking Baptism

I like people who think, and I especially like people who rethink. I like Ben Witherington III, and subscribe to his blog. He’s an educated guy who still likes to think (it sounds funny but actually, that seems to be much more rare than you would expect).

Mr. Witherington has written a book entitled Troubled Waters – Rethinking the Theology of Baptism, and provides a short summary of the book today on his blog. What I especially like about Witherington is that he is not afraid to talk about what we don’t know, or about what isn’t specifically spelled out in the Bible. It seems as though he is actually more concerned with truth than with a certain theological position. Again, a quality too rare among theologians and teachers.

Prior to reading about this book today, the only book I had ever found that was in any way reasonable was Geoffrey Bromiley’s Children of Promise: The Case for Baptizing Infants (now out of print). Clearly Bromiley was arguing a certain position, but still he remained honest with regard to the Scriptures and treated various positions, I believe, fairly.

Both Bromiley and Witherington, from what I read in today’s post, see baptism as being understood only in the context of covenant and the community which results from covenant. An excerpt to whet your appetite:

I am also stressing that too often both the Baptist and Paedobaptist practices have, for the sake of regularity and control, misunderstood the meaning of baptism. Baptism is neither a Christian dedication ritual nor a Christian equivalent to a bar mitzvah– a rite of passage for a young adult prepared to assume the mantle of his faith consciously and on his own. Baptism in the NT is a rite of initiation, and should be practiced on anyone who is at the point of entering the covenant community or has already done so, whatever their age. Once one has crossed the boundary from the world into Christ one should already have the initiation ritual, the rite of passage into the community. All the baptisms in Acts are missionary baptisms. The book of Acts neither raises nor answers the second generation question– what do we do with children born into and raised in Christian families who know no other way of life? Should we treat them like little heathens, or are they already a provisional part of the covenant community?

When I became a parent I was forced to rethink baptism, and based on what I saw (and didn’t see) in the Bible, I became an infant baptizer. All three of my children were baptized as infants, even though the churches we were attending (Vineyards) were not necessarily of that position. However, we were fortunate in that the 2 pastors we had were honest enough to see that there was nothing unscriptural about it. Witherington hit on the exact issue that I came to: do we raise our children as heathens, outside of the covenant, or raise them according to what most of us believe (that our young children are beneficiaries of grace from birth)? It’s always amazed me how Christians in charismatic churches expect their children to be “filled” with the Holy Spirit, but not have them baptized with water. (Of course, I’ve come to expect Christians not to think logically about many things.)

I encourage anyone who is open to really understanding baptism to grab this book and take a look; and I really, really hope that many of those who have been entrenched in various baptismal ideologies will also dare to pull their heads out of the ground and at least consider what Witherington has to say.

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