Wednesday, November 04, 2009
Book Review: Troubled Waters
The problem with creating a biblical theology of baptism is simple: ". . .no New Testament document addresses itself to water baptism for its own sake." As Ben Witherington sums up the issue in the closing chapters of this book, "it is no wonder that we have been debating baptism for two thousand years now, with no sign of the debating abating. The New Testament does not answer all of our modern questions about baptism, and it especially does not answer questions about what to do with Christian children when it comes to baptism."
Troubled Waters: Rethinking the Theology of Baptism is one of three 'little theological books' penned by Ben Witherington III, Professor of NT at Asbury Theological Seminary, dealing with issues at the core of Christian theology and practice - The Lord's Supper, Baptism, and the Word of God (see my earlier review of Making a Meal of It here). In this book, Witherington seeks to review our theology of baptism, and to move us forward in a healthy direction, by dealing with all the pertinent texts within the canon.
However, as already stated, the problem is the seemingly small sample of texts with which to work. In fact, much of this book is given to showing why many of the texts upon which baptism theology has been built do not, in fact, speak to the issue, and should therefore be kept out of the discussion.
For a true biblical mining of these texts, this book is a gem. For a solid exegesis of these texts, this book is essential. For any seeking to plumb the depths of baptism, its relation to the OT and its use in Jewish communities at the time of Christ, its connection to salvation and spirit baptism, this book is an important addition. For any seeking to have a 'biblical' discussion on baptism, this book deserves to be part of the conversation.
However, unlike Making a Meal of It, this book is dense and intricate, referring often to Greek nuance and textual variations; in addition, much of the book is carried on in conversation with, and reaction to, earlier texts on the subject (primarily Beasley-Murray's Baptism in the New Testament). Thus, anybody looking for an introduction or broad overview of the subject will find themselves quickly floundering. It is certainly a book for theologians and pastors eager to broaden their understanding; it is not a book for beginners looking for a primer on the subject.
13 years ago, when I was coming into the Covenant Church, I was challenged to do some reading on the theology of baptism. The theology of baptism has played a distinct role in the founding and history of the Covenant Church, and has caused no little amount of friendly bickering along the way. My own background was from a non-sacramental world, so they wanted to make sure I 'got' the sacramental nature of baptism. So I did some reading. I did some studying. I read Beasley-Murray's book, among others. And I came to an interesting conclusion: most of our theology is read into the text, depending on our pre-suppositions. In fact, one of the issues I recognized was that, in the days the NT was written, baptism and salvation were almost synonymous. People weren't 'born into' the faith - they all came to it later in life just by fact of the church being such a brand-new thing. Thus, people were saved and baptized within mere moments of each other; it was not a long, drawn-out process of discernment, nor was it an act for infants born into the church.
Which is almost exactly where Witherington comes to in this book. The NT writings are missional writings, given to a church still in its own birth; all converts were first-generation converts. There is nothing written regarding how to carry out ministry within Christendom, because Christendom didn't exist yet. Our troubles have been with the question "what do we do with further generations?" And the NT writing don't address that question, something I am glad Witherington pointed out.
So what does he conclude? Essentially, that believer baptism is the norm, but there is certainly room for infant baptism for children of believers. That baptism is sacramental in that it is an act of obedience; that it is a sign of a request for God's guidance and protection; that it is right to baptize even the earliest of converts or most serious of seekers, rather than forcing people to endure a months-long review of their faith; that baptism makes most sense in a missional context, in that it is a sign of dying with Christ into the Body of Christ; that baptism is NOT an act of God, but the act of the Body upon the believer, welcoming them into the community of faith, seeking God's forgiveness (judgment) upon the sin of the past.
As in Making a Meal, Witherington chooses a position that will challenge people on both sides of the issue, and does so strictly by wrestling with the texts. He himself admits that where one comes out depends on one's view of soteriology, and thus those coming from a higher church, higher-sacramental approach may just come out at a different place. However, he has done well to show us just how much of our theological position comes from places outside the texts, which ought to force us into a humble acknowledgment that, just maybe, we're not completely right and they're not completely wrong.