Book Review: Believer's Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ.

October 25, 2019 | Pr. Finny Samuel |

Believer's Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ edited by Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn Wright, both professors at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, demonstrates that baptism is the initiation rite into the Christian church since the Scripture regularly connects it with belief and salvation.[1] It is organized as a collection of scholarly essays that discuss the theological questions which are much debated and often proved divisive among confessing Christians. Each chapter of this book is contributed by renowned evangelical theologians who promote ‘credobaptism,’ the doctrine that Christian baptism should be reserved for believers in the Lord Jesus Christ and hence believe that baptizing infants is a significant mistake in light of the New Testament scriptural teaching.[2] This paper critiques the book by evaluating its strengths and weaknesses and shows that the authors were successful in establishing the relation between willful faith and the rite of baptism.

Brief Summary

The first section of the book focuses on biblical exegesis of the subject matter defending the case of believer’s baptism based on the New Testament (NT) scripture. Each genre of the NT text is separately expounded to investigate the material regarding Christian baptism. Andreas J. Köstenberger walks through the passages in the Gospels that mention baptism and concludes that the rite of the water baptism by immersion which presupposes spiritual regeneration, is a part of Christian discipleship and is designed for believers who have repented of their sins.[3] Robert H. Stein sheds light into the topic from the backdrop of the historical NT narratives penned by Luke. Stein observes that the early church viewed the rite of baptism as part of becoming a believing Christian and administered it after the three-fold response of repentance, faith, and confession of an individual to the gospel message.[4] Thomas R. Schreiner, exploring the teaching of the apostles in the epistles on the subject of baptism, argues that since Church is the community of the Spirit and not the flesh, considering the unregenerate infants as members of the church goes against the core values of the new covenant in Christ as taught by the Apostles.[5] The covenantal relationship of the baptism is analyzed in the essay by Stephen Wellum, where he presents a comprehensive exegetical treatment of the concept of the divine covenant of Grace and thus refuting the usual covenantal arguments for pedobaptism.

The second section of the book deals with the theological and historical development of baptismal doctrines in the Christian church. Examining patristic writings of early Church fathers, Steven A. McKinion observes that the practice of pedobaptism was not widespread in the church until after the fourth century. The two essays by Jonathan Rainbow and Shawn D. Wright, in this section, explores the development of the doctrine of adult and infant baptisms during the golden years of the reformation. Duane Garrett and Ardel Caneday investigate two significant but controversial baptismal theological standpoints from both sides of the debate. While the former explains the defense of infant baptism by Meredith Kline, the latter expounds on the notion of baptismal regeneration by Alexander Campell. The book closes with an essay by Mark Dever, who sets forth some practical pastoral guidelines concerning the administration of believer’s baptism for the contemporary Christian churches.

Critical Interaction

The authors of the essays in this book maintain that the criticality of the rite of Christian baptism is that it is tied to the saving work of Jesus Christ accomplished through his death and resurrection.[6] For this reason, the overarching theme of the work is the connection between baptism and faith. The authors have extensively surveyed the NT texts to uncover the historical and theological narratives of the rite. According to Köstenberger, the gospels show that baptism is “designed for believers who have repented of their sin and have put their faith in God and in his Christ.”[7] Paul, in Romans 6:3, says that the baptism “into Christ Jesus”[8] is the baptism into his death. Based on similar NT passages, the theological perspective of the authors is that since the church is composed of members of the new spiritual covenant, baptism is to be administered to only those who have died and risen with Christ.[9]

The goal of the authors is to defend the believer’s baptism as the rite of initiation to the Christian church and to correct the infant baptist theology.[10] The authors prove their thesis through methodological handling of biblical, theological, and historical arguments, skillfully put forward by qualified biblical scholars. Not only do the writers attest to the believer’s baptism by immersion in water, but also they evaluate the various arguments by those who propose infant baptism. In their introduction, however, the editors limit the scope of the discussion in the book to refuting the arguments from reformed and professing evangelical paedobaptists. This view of paedobaptism distinguishes itself from the medieval and Romanist paedobaptist theology which hold a dangerous notion that the rite of baptism itself can automatically transfer the graces it represents (also referred to as the ‘baptismal regeneration.’).[11]

The primary argument of reformed Paedobaptists is the relationship between baptism and covenantal continuity. Their analogy between the circumcision and baptism, as Timothy George puts, is “just as the children of God's people were circumcised in the Old Testament as a sign of the covenant, so the children of believers in the New Testament should be baptized as a sign of their ingrafting into the Christian church.”[12] Schreiner and Wright set aside an entire chapter to evaluate the various aspects of God’s covenant with both the Old Testament and the New Testament saints and its significance in the Christian life. Wellum sketches the covenantal arguments for infant baptism from various proponents of reformed view of paedobaptism and argues that such opinions fail to acknowledge the progressive nature of God’s revelation and the degree of discontinuity inaugurated by the incarnation of Jesus Christ.[13] Even though the primary purpose of the book is not to respond to the view of baptismal regeneration, the editors did include the treatment of this theological stand, also known as “ex opera operato,” throughout the volume wherever required and appropriate.

The main strength of the volume is the scholarly treatment of the subject matter by the highly qualified evangelical theologians. The authors employ both textual and narrative criticism as needed in the interpretive analysis of the extensive survey of the NT text in the first three chapters. As an instance, Stein starts the essay by analyzing the word study of the various forms of the words used concerning the baptism and gives the reader an overview of Luke’s intention and presupposition when authoring the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. He also examines the patterns and aberrations in the narrative details of the early Christian history in the Acts to identify their theological significance. This treatment aids in his illustration of how repentance, faith, confession of Jesus as Christ and Lord, baptism, and receiving the Spirit are interrelated in the experience of becoming a Christian.[14] Another significant forte of the work is the extensive coverage of historical and theological dimensions of the doctrine. Both early church history and the period of reformation are treated equally and without bias for evaluating the standpoints of the prominent theologians of the past. The comprehensive essay on the relationship of baptism to the covenantal continuity is another major highlight of this volume. While acknowledging the analogy between circumcision and baptism Wellum argues that though circumcision can typologically point to the new covenant realities, it does not testify all that baptism stands for and hence NT baptism is not a replacement of OT circumcision.[15] Wellum was successful in proving that “regeneration, the inward circumcision not made with hands, is the New Testament antitype for which literal circumcision in the Old Testament was the type.”[16]

One weakness of the book is that most of the essays, except the one by Wellum, displayed an inadequate representation and exposition of the opposing views. Also, some critical issues like the mode of baptism and the relationship of baptism with the participation in the Lord’s supper were limited in scope and only treated in passing. At the same time, the readers were left to wonder why the views of Kline and Campell warranted a full chapter treatment. Despite these minor issues, the book provides a solid defense for the case of believer’s baptism.

Of the multiple published reviews of this work, two peer-reviewed scholarly critiques are those of Cornelis P. Bennema of Mid-America Reformed Seminary, Dyer, IN,[17] and Robert E. Sägers of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY.[18] Being a covenant theologian, Bennema criticizes the authors for not always representing the Reformed covenant argument for paedobaptism fairly. According to Bennema, in the Reformed covenant theology, “far from undermining the urgency of the gospel summons to faith and repentance, baptism, whether of adult believers or their children, requires the same response as the gospel, namely, faith and repentance.”[19] Thus, in Bennema’s point of view, Wellum wrongly accuses the reformed paedobaptists of severing the tie between baptism and faith. Bennema argues that the issue of admitting unregenerate members into the Christian community is not solved even in the believer’s baptism as “all the marks of regeneration can be counterfeited.”[20]

According to Sagers, “given the fact that even some Baptists are often cited in arguing against the necessity of believer's baptism for church membership and admittance to the Lord's table— including John Bunyan—it may have strengthened the overall arguments of the book to include an essay on what constitutes a ‘consistent’ Baptist.[21] While he admits that the book serves both as an apologetic for believer’s baptism and a challenge for paedobaptism, Sagers considers a chapter on Baptist confessional identity could have solidified some arguments.[22]

Some of the essential works that have been written on the same subject are Baptism: Three Views by Sinclair B. Ferguson, Bruce A. Ware, and Tony Lane,[23] Understanding Four Views on Baptism by Thomas J. Nettles et al.,[24] and Baptism in the New Testament by G.R. Beasley-Murray.[25] The uniqueness of Believer's Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ is in its focussed treatment of the believer’s baptism in light of the reformed paedobaptist view of covenant continuity theology. Schreiner and Wright also employed the contributions from multiple scholars who share the same conviction and view different aspects of the same topic from different angles. The organization of exegetical, theological, and historical dimensions of the issue in the same volume is another highlight of the book by Schreiner and Wright. The works by Ferguson et al. and Nettles et al. covers more diverse views within the evangelical Christian world along with the mutual responses from representatives of each viewpoint.

This work is appropriate as a scholarly reference guide for arguments for a credobaptist perspective, with focus on refuting reformed paedobaptism viewpoint. Also, Dever’s essay at the end of the book gives many practical advises to the leaders of the local congregation in the issue of baptismal administration. Pastors and deacons can use it as a handbook to answer questions like who should baptize, how should one baptize, when is baptism to be done, and who is to be baptized and as guidelines on the relationship of baptism with Lord’s Supper, age of discernment and church membership. In a relational realm, this book also gives sound advice to maintain Christian love and solidarity with those who differ in their views on baptism.

Conclusion

Schreiner and Wright, along with the other contributors, present a series of convincing arguments in favor of the believer’s baptism. With the focus on the different aspects of covenantal assertations, this book provides an excellent response to the otherwise compelling case presented by reformed paedobaptists. The journey from exegetical analysis through the historical and theological developments of the doctrine to the practical application of the believer’s baptism proves to be both exciting and enlightening to the readers. Though Schreiner’s assertion that “believer's Baptism is not essential for being an evangelical” struck as a surprise to this reader, the shock is alleviated when it is taken in a relational context of not condemning the fellow believers in Christ’s grace as heretics. Overall, Believer's Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ is an excellent scholarly resource to understand and advocate the rite of baptism for those who willfully accept and believe the message of Grace of Jesus Christ.


[1] Believer's Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, ed. Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn Wright (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2007), 20, accessed September 22, 2019, .

[2] Ibid., 22-23.

[3] Ibid., 38-39.

[4] Ibid., 63.

[5] Ibid., 85-87.

[6] Ibid., 20.

[7] Ibid., 38.

[8] Unless otherwise noted, all Bible references are from the New American Standard Bible (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995).

[9] Believer's Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, 83.

[10] Ibid., 20-22.

[11] Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell, Second ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 2001), 132, accessed September 22, 2019, https://app.wordsearchbible.com, WORDsearch.

[12] Timothy George, "The Reformed Doctrine of Believers' Baptism," Interpretation 47 (1993): 4.

[13] Believer's Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, 110.

[14] Ibid., 47.

[15] Ibid., 130.

[16] George,  4.

[17] Cornelis P. Bennema, "Believer's Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 52, no. 3 (Sept 2009), .

[18] Robert E. Sagers, "Believer's Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ," Southwestern Journal of Theology 48, no. 2 (Spring 2006).

[19] Bennema,  661.

[20] Ibid., 660.

[21] Sagers,  255.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Sinclair B. Ferguson, Bruce A. Ware, and Tony Lane, Baptism: Three Views (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), accessed September 22, 2019, .

[24] Thomas J. Nettles et al., Understanding Four Views on Baptism, ed. Paul E. Engle (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007).

[25] G.R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2006), accessed September 22, 2019, https://books.google.com/books?id=9rVLAwAAQBAJ.

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