Theology Thursday - John Smyth on Baptism

On “Theology Thursday,” we feature short excerpts on various areas of systematic theology, from a wide variety of colorful characters. Some are orthodox, but decidedly outside the Baptist orbit. Others are completely heretical. Regardless of heresy or orthodoxy, we hope these short readings are a stimulus for personal reflection, a challenge to theological complacency, and an impetus for apologetic zeal “to encourage you to contend earnestly for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints,” (Jude 3).

John Smyth on Believer’s Baptism

“[B]aptism is the external sign of the remission of sins, of dying and of being alive, and therefore does not belong to infants.”1

“The Holy Baptism is given unto these in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, which hear, believe, and with penitent heart receive the doctrines of the Holy Gospel. For such hath the Lord Jesus commanded to be baptized, and no unspeaking children.”

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A Study of Baptism in Scripture, Part 1

The investigation of historical evidence for believer’s baptism1 has been less profitable than one might wish. It did little to persuade my paedo-baptist friends to convert to credo-baptism. And the ensuing discussion made me a little concerned about whether they are still my friends. Before going forward with the last part of the discussion, let’s look at biblical evidence for infant and believer’s baptism.

Apostolic practice

First, what do the Scriptures say was done under the supervision of the apostles? The book of Acts tells of new believers who were baptized and welcomed into the church. The baptism of believing adults was part of the missionary endeavor of the church. Jesus commanded it in the Great Commission.

In Acts 8:36-38, Philip finishes explaining the gospel to an Ethiopian eunuch.

And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he replied, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”2 And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him.

Baptists sometimes point to v. 37 as a clear statement about what it takes to be baptized: faith. But a closer look will show that it doesn’t logically exclude infant baptism. The eunuch asks, “What prevents me from baptism?” Peter answers: faith. “Me” in this question is an adult. What prevents an adult from being baptized? Faith. Reformed paedo-baptists would give the same answer today. Like Philip, they refuse to baptize an adult who does not give a credible profession of faith. But the eunuch only asked about himself. He didn’t ask about infants.

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The Reformers' Defense of Infant Baptism

Reprinted with permission from Faith Pulpit (Apr-Jun, 2011).

Sola Gracia, Sola Fide. Sola Scriptura. These affirmations are held to be the guiding principles of the Reformers. However, one of my professors in graduate school, a Catholic scholar of the Reformation, openly questioned the Reformers’ commitment to the last of these principles: sola scriptura. At the time I quickly dismissed his query, considering the source of the objection. But later, as I studied the Reformation at another university, I began to rethink his idea, especially regarding infant baptism. I concluded it was important to revisit the 16th century baptismal controversy in order to understand how the Reformers justified infant baptism.

Baptists see the Reformers’ defense of infant baptism as a concession to a historical practice over the Word of God. Is that a correct assessment? Did the Reformers violate their own guiding principles in defending infant baptism?

The issue of infant baptism affected many other areas of doctrine in the Reformation, including the use of church discipline, the concern for the purity of the lives of church members, and especially the practice of allowing the unsaved into the membership of the Reformers’ churches. All of these issues in the Reformation have left tangible results in the contemporary church scene and deserve further investigation.1

This article will briefly explore how the Reformers defended infant baptism.2 The three major recognized Reformers are Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Luther, and John Calvin. I will add a lesser-known Reformer, Martin Bucer, who also was prominent in the controversy over infant baptism.

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Baptism in History, Part 4: Historical Arguments for Believer's Baptism

Read Parts 1, 2 and 3.

Either we should baptize only believers or we should baptize believers and their babies. One of these must be right; the other must be wrong. One is old and apostolic; the other is newer. For the purpose of this paper, assume this much: The very early church practiced one teaching; the other developed later in the life of the church.

In the baptism debate, history seems unsatisfactory for two reasons. First, history is not clearly on either side of the debate. There were at least a few ancient Christians who seem to have practiced each baptismal system (or something near to it). And many old sources are vague enough that both sides claim them. Together, these mean that everyone comes away believing that they are in agreement with the vast majority of historical figures.

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