Tuesday, November 15, 2011

"One Baptism": A Study Text for Baptists (full text)

In connection with the recent release of the WCC study text "One Baptism: Towards Mutual Recognition," here is the full text of my Baptist World article "'One Baptism": A Study Text for Baptists" (vol. 58, no. 1 [January/March 2011], pp. 9-10), which offered a Baptist perspective on the final draft of the document in advance of its release:

“One Baptism”: A Study Text for Baptists
By Steven R. Harmon

In December 2008 veteran Methodist ecumenist Geoffrey Wainwright shared his perspectives on the progress and challenges of the modern ecumenical movement with the delegations to the conversations between the BWA and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Members of both delegations were taken aback by his opening observation: “As far as the issue of baptism goes, the Baptists have won.”

Professor Wainwright was referring to the current ecumenical consensus that believer’s baptism by immersion is the normative biblical practice from which the practice of infant baptism derives its significance. The widely acclaimed convergence text Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry issued by the World Council of Churches in 1982 states, “baptism upon personal profession of faith is the most clearly attested pattern in the New Testament documents.” Many Baptists would be surprised to learn that the Catechism of the Catholic Church now regards immersion as the mode most theologically expressive of the significance of baptism and insists that those baptized as infants must go on to have personal experience of God’s grace. The wildest hopes of the seventeenth-century Baptists could not have imagined the degree to which much of the church today has converged toward important aspects of their historic dissent from the majority of the Christian tradition.

The WCC study text “One Baptism: Towards Mutual Recognition” stands in continuity with these encouraging ecumenical developments, and Baptists will be able to recognize themselves in its pages. It recognizes the concerns that churches that baptize only believers have about the adequacy of infant baptism as a disciple-making practice, and it asks infant-baptizing churches to consider how their communities might more intentionally help those baptized as infants become committed disciples.

Baptists will also appreciate the rich engagement of Scripture throughout the document. The fathers and mothers of the church from the formative centuries of Christian history after the New Testament era are also the common heritage of the whole church and could have been cited in this connection, but instead “One Baptism” is rigorously biblical in its appeal to authoritative texts. Section II, “Baptism: Symbol and Pattern of the New Life in Christ,” can provide Baptist pastors with more inspiration for preaching and teaching on biblical baptismal themes than they can exhaust in a lifetime of ministry.

“One Baptism” also poses hard questions to Baptists regarding our recognition of the baptisms of other churches. Many Baptist churches have required candidates for church membership who were baptized as infants but now testify to personal faith in Christ to be rebaptized, inasmuch as personal faith precedes baptism in the New Testament pattern. By shifting the emphasis from chronological orderings of faith, baptism, and formation in faith to the whole journey of the Christian experience in the company of the church, “One Baptism” offers a way for Baptists to discern in other patterns of baptismal practice comparable journeys of Christian experience, even while Baptists continue our internal practice of baptizing only believers as a witness and gift to the rest of the church.

On the question of rebaptism, “One Baptism” calls churches that require those previously baptized as infants to be rebaptized as a condition of membership and churches that require the same of those previously baptized as believing adults but in a church of differing faith and order to reflect on the implications of those requirements. The document fails, however, to address a variation of the latter scenario with which many Baptist congregations must deal: members of Baptist churches who were baptized as believers, but at rather young ages, who later in life question whether they really understood the commitment they were making and now wish to be baptized following their more mature embrace of faith. Baptists may nonetheless find help in “One Baptism” for addressing such cases pastorally, for both the steps toward faith taken by young children who are then baptized and the mature faith of adults can be related to the baptism near the beginning of their journeys, which need not be repeated.

“One Baptism” is a study text rather than a proposal for ecumenical convergence. The appropriate Baptist response to it is to study it! Some Baptist churches are struggling with debates over whether church membership policies should be revised so that candidates who were baptized as infants in other churches but now profess personal faith in Christ may be admitted to full membership without rebaptism. Careful study of “One Baptism” will help everyone involved in such deliberations think through the implications of their decisions about this matter for their stances on the legitimacy of non-Baptist churches and their members’ faith. Whether all Baptists find agreement with it or not, the study of “One Baptism” by Baptist ministers, laypersons, and whole congregations will yield a greatly enriched Baptist theology of baptism and potentially a more powerful baptismal practice.

Steven R. Harmon is Adjunct Professor of Christian Theology at Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity in Boiling Springs, North Carolina.

© Baptist World Alliance 2011

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