recovering baptism for a new age of mission

I so enjoyed recently re-reading David F Wright’s 1996 essay* by the same title, that I could not resist the temptation to share a few of his thoughts. His main contention in the essay is that …

neglecting or ill-treating baptism may have more serious consequences than losing one’s theological respectability: it may damage the church’s mission at a time in Western society when primary mission rises ever higher on the churches’ agenda. … belittling or ignoring baptism must prejudice its missionary integrity. For baptism is above all the sacrament or ordinance of the church’s missionary advance. (52) [Emphasis mine]

The centrality of baptism to being a ‘missional church’ [the evangelical buzzword] may sound strange to the ears of some. Perhaps to others not. The fun part of this essay is not that Wright is able to prove from the New Testament that this is indeed the case, enlightening and fresh as that is, but that he is able to uncover why some Christians find the link between baptism and mission an uneasy truth.

David Wright (not NT Wright) is a Church of Scotland man and a respected Reformation scholar. It comes as a surprise then that it his own tradition and that of general evangelical infant-baptism that he charges with displaying ‘low baptismal consciousness’ and for being complicit in ‘de-Christianising’ society. Research and analysis reflects, he argues, that

indiscriminate infant baptism has created massive obstacles to the evangelization of England. [And then a delightful metaphor!] … On this reckoning it has, alas, been only too effective; its injection of a minimal dose of the virus of Christianity has successfully inoculated generations of English men and women against catching the real thing in later life. (55)

In contrast,

a baptismal ministry which seeks to be faithful to the New Testament’s presentation of baptism cannot fail to run athwart the inclusivist spirit of the age. … Historical study is steadily consolidating the conclusion that infant baptism did not really come into its own, as the common practice, until after Augustine, perhaps in the sixth century. (57)

… What cannot be claimed for [Infant Baptism] on credible biblical grounds is that it is normative baptism, whether theologically or practically. That distinction must rest with believers’ baptism or conversion baptism. (62)

I.e., infant baptism belongs to Christendom, and to that part of “Western religious history marked by the coterminousness of the Christian and civil communities”. And, “for the first time for over a millennium and half, Christians in Western, or at least European, society now live in a post-Christendom world. To that extent, pre-Constantinian Christianity must come into its own again” (56-57).

I find these bold assertions from a pedobaptist in the light of the re-missioning task of Western society very exciting. It does mean though, that Wright has manoeuvred himself into a tight spot;

… my purpose in this essay is not reject the biblical and theological credentials of infant baptism … [but] to persuade us to face up to the connections between the prevalence of pedobaptism, not least in Reformed Christianity, and the strange silence on baptism in the church. (57)

Nonetheless, he continues boldly to argue that infant baptism has shrunk the apostolic testimony to a “compliant reductionism”, that its practice in Britain has amounted to a “colossal failure” for the church (59), and that evangelical churchmen are thus disabled from “believing and teaching the New Testament’s witness to baptism at anywhere near its face value” (62). In summary:

… the conviction has been growing on me for some years that the practice of baby baptism in mainstream Protestantism (including Anglicanism) in Britain in recent decades has been fraught with immense harm to the church of Jesus Christ. (61)

Perhaps the most provocative part of Wright’s essay, keeping in mind his expertise in the area, is his contention that the Reformers failed to apply to baptism the same level of biblical scrutiny they did to other areas of Christian practice. Hence their perpetuation of the practice and the necessitation for confirmation, itself a rite without scriptural warrant.

In the end, Wright’s ask is not to abolish pedobaptism (some will be relieved!), but for Christian baptism to be returned its primacy in gospel-proclamation. If the missional identity of the church is shaped around being a ‘baptismal community’ (see Matt 28:18-19; Acts 2:37-38; 1 Cor 12:13; Gal 3:26-27; Eph 4:4-6; 1 Pet 3:21; Acts 8:36; 22:16; Rom 6:2-4; Col 2:12-13), then the time is right to reclaim baptism for a new age of mission.

*David F. Wright, “Recovering Baptism for a New Age of Mission” in Doing Theology for the People of God: Studies in honour of JI Packer, ed. Lewis & McGrath, IVP 1996.

2 Responses to “recovering baptism for a new age of mission”

  1. Thought provoking article, James. Is there any way of getting the article over to me? I’m hoping to write and essay on the subject of the reformers view of baptism later this term and it looks fascinating.

  2. What a word for our generation. Not least the world of Europe where Christianity is becoming a bygone. I guess am in the group of the ‘some would be relieved’.