Baptism is perhaps the most divisive issue of faith and practice in the Christian church, so a book, such as Believer's Baptism is sure to be received as decisive blow against paedobaptism by the Baptists, but as a non sequitur by the paedobaptists. While a convinced Baptist myself, I attend a paedobaptist church, so I'm in the unenviable position of being caught in the middle. It is true, and undeniable that the paedobaptist tradition--specifically the Presbyterians, have a near monopoly on the rich heritage of Protestant church and theology.
Nearly all my theological influences are drawn from the Reformed and paedobaptistic theologians. The Baptists, specifically the American Baptist legacy is largely a shallow, revivalistic, pietistic embarrassment. That being said, I have great respect their judgment on baptism and their faithfulness in the face of persecution.
Tom Schreiner and Shawn Wright have assembled a very competent cast of theologians, teachers, and pastors to give a defense of credobaptism and rebuttal of the paedo position. Kostenberger, Stein, and Schreiner show that "baptism is designed for believers who have repented of their sin and have put their faith in God and in his Christ." (p. 23) This is the central teaching of the New Testament in relation to baptism, and any attempt to separate the two is unbiblical. It is interesting that paedobaptists are forced to embrace this teaching, yet somehow squirm out of the implications of it. Calvin himself writes, in the Institutes, "Baptism is a symbol of the forgiveness of sins; and who could be admitted to receive the symbol but sinners acknowledging themselves as such?"
They each answer the paedobaptist arguments on matters such as household baptisms and Jesus' receiving children. The objections are solid and put holes in the paedo position, but they aren't sufficient enough in length to fully answer all the objections.
The crux of the book is Steve Wellum's chapter on the "Relationships between the Covenants." It is here that we find a full critique of the foundation of the Covenant Theology defense of paedobaptism. Wellum argues that Covenant theology fails "to do justice...to the progressive nature of God's revelation, especially in regard to the biblical covenants, the covenant community, and the covenantal signs." He argues that the term "covenant of grace" is "misleading, because Scripture does not speak of only one covenant with different administrations." He says, instead, that "Scripture speaks in terms of a plurality of covenants." The "covenant of grace" is a "comprehensive theological category, not a biblical one." He believes we should place a moratorium in using the term, as it tends to lead to a "flattening of Scripture."
Wellum then places the Abrahamic covenant in context, showing it is not primarily a spiritual covenant, but "national/physical, typological, and spiritual". Covenant theology places its emphasis on the spiritual aspects "and overlooks important differences between the Abrahamic and new covenant." This spiritual reading "takes the genealogical principle operative in the Abrahamic covenant--`you and your seed' (Gen 17:7)--as applicable in exactly the same way across the canon without suspension, abrogation, and especially reinterpretation in the new covenant era."
Wellum examines the Abrahamic covenant and then shows four ways the Bible talks about Abraham's "seed." First, "the `seed of Abraham' refers to a natural (physical) seed, second, to "a natural, yet special seed tied to God's elective and saving purposes, namely Isaac, and by extension Jacob and the entire nation of Israel", third, "the Messiah", and fourth, "the spiritual nature" including "believing Jews and Gentiles in the church." Paedobaptists lump them all together, or ignore them, and emphasize the "spiritual" aspects to the detriment of the others. This is the "flattening" to which he refers.
Wellum states, "Under the previous covenants, the genealogical principle, that is the relationship between the covenant mediator and his seed was physical (eg., Adam, Noah, Abraham, David). But now, in Christ, under his mediation, the relationship between Christ and his seed is no longer physical but spiritual, which entails that the covenant sign must only be applied to those who in fact are the spiritual seed of Abraham." He undergirds this claim by drawing Jeremiah 31 into the discussion.
This of course, leads to the bigger question of whether the new covenant community is to be a mixed one, as in the Old Covenant. Wellum answers no. He argues, "the church, by its very nature, is a regenerate community, the covenant sign of baptism must only be applied to those who have come to faith in Christ." This is "the crucial discontinuity between the old and new covenant communities". And this is "why paedobaptists consistently interpret the new covenant in `renewal,' rather than `replacement,' or better, `fulfillment' categories.
Wellum writes, "The `better' nature of the new covenant is seen in light of the perfection of Christ's work which is qualitatively better than all that has preceded. It has better promises and better sacrifices and therefore is a better covenant. What is the better nature of the covenant? It is this: because of who the Redeemer is and what he offers as a sacrifice we now have a more effective sacrifice and thus a more effective covenant; indeed, we have a covenant that `Is not susceptible to the breach perpetrated in the past.'"
Wellum then moves on to examine the relationship between circumcision and baptism. He concludes his survey, stating that circumcision and baptism "carry two different meanings. Circumcision, in a typological way, may anticipate and point to these new covenant realities, but it does not testify that all these realities are true of us." Baptism is "a covenantal sign, it communicates the grace of God to those who have faith, something which could not be said of circumcision of old."
Wellum's essay, as I said, is the covenantal backbone to the book. If you follow his argument, you'll be a persuaded credobaptist. The newer book, Kingdom Through Covenant, is a larger, more thorough examination of the covenants, and should not be missed.
McKinion's essay on the patristics and Rainbow's essay on the early Anabaptists are also critical essays in the book as they demonstrate that the early church only baptized believers upon repentance and confession. Infants were only baptized, as exceptions, when they were dying. As this practice developed, more and more churches began baptizing infants and by the time of Augustine the practice took preeminence in the church. He writes, "Prior to the third century, there are no patristic advocates for paedobaptism. Even if the inscriptions reflect an early practice of emergency baptism (which they do), they do not constitute an explicit rejection of a normative practice of believer's baptism." (p. 183)
McKinion writes, "Baptism in the patristic writings had less to do with the age of the baptized person than with the role of repentance, profession of faith, and entrance into the full life of the church."
Balthasar Hubmaier, at the time of the Reformation, began to question the practice of infant baptism and sought to restore confessor baptism. At the time, the Catholic church, argued that infants received faith upon baptism, ex opere operato (by the work performed, view.
Luther, while rejecting ex opera operato view of the Catholic church, argued that ", the infant's credo, even though not spoken by his own lips, is truly his own." (p. 183) It is clear, that the church, both Catholic and Lutheran, were faced with the dilemma of infant baptism and the New Testament requirement of faith.
Finally, it was Zwingli who brought innovation to baptism. As Rainbow writes, "he severed baptism from faith." He adds, "Zwingli identified baptism as an "external" material thing and faith as an "internal" spiritual thing, and concluded that the traditional theology had been guilty of mingling and confusing them."
He summarizes, "Zwingli concluded that just as "the Hebrews' children, because they with their parents were under the covenant, merited the sign of the covenant, so also Christians' infants, because they are counted within the church and people of Christ, ought in no way to be deprived of baptism, the sign of the covenant." But this innovation brought its own problems, as Rainbow writes, "this solution had as its price the integrity of Zwingli's exegesis of the baptismal passages of the NT and the very significance of baptism itself. For if baptism is a mere external thing, disconnected from salvation, why practice it at all?" (p. 188)
Having thus introduced the Reformed Paedobaptistic logic, Shawn Wright, evaluates the Reformers on baptism. He succinctly writes, "Reformed paedobaptists are inconsistent in relating their practice of baptism to their definition of the sacraments.3 They define the sacraments carefully and biblically. Then they contradict their own definition by their insistence that believers' infants should be baptized."
Wright notes that, "Calvin stresses the individual's active participation in the sacraments as we "attest our piety" to the Lord." He even adds Calvin's own words, "The sacraments properly fulfill their office only when the Spirit, that inward teacher, comes to them, by whose power alone hearts are penetrated and affections moved and our souls opened for the sacraments to enter in. If the Spirit be lacking, the sacraments can accomplish nothing more in our minds than the splendor of the sun shining upon blind eyes, or a voice sounding in deaf ears....the individual must exercise faith to make the sacraments effective."
Wright concludes that Reformed Paedobaptists are, "They are caught in the bind of biblically defining a doctrine and then attempting to justify an unbiblical application of it. The NT neither assumes nor justifies infant baptism." (p. 236)
Duane Garrett examines and then criticizes Meredith Kline for his novel understanding of the covenants and his consequent novel perspective on baptism.
Ardel Caneday reevaluates the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement and its emphasis on the connection between baptism and the remission of sins. He argues that the church is too eager to dismiss the Catholic doctrine of baptismal regeneration, and we consequently reject Scripture's teaching on the connection between baptism and the remission of sins. He writes:
"Some Christians, zealous to guard God's grace against any intrusion of works, regularly confuse faith and grace. Despite Paul's distinction of grace as the ground and faith as the means in Eph 2:8-9, they carelessly speak of faith as the basis of salvation and isolate faith from other biblically sanctioned means. Other Christians fail to account for Peter's startling words--"baptism now saves you"--as they confidently assert that baptism has nothing to do with salvation and that the gospel of Jesus Christ does not require it, except perhaps as a mere symbol, and that for church membership. Regrettably, confusion of instrumental cause and efficient cause leads some to regard baptism as itself accomplishing regeneration, and others to make baptism optional, with little, if any, meaning. The apostles make it clear that God saves whom and when he chooses, and that baptism is a sign of, but not the effectual cause of, regeneration. Yet, to embrace this truth and simultaneously isolate baptism from Christian conversion, whether in time or in theological expression, is an over-reaction to those embracing "baptismal regeneration." Worse, it divorces a symbol and reality that the NT holds together without embarrassment. The church and individual Christians suffer the consequences. This overly-zealous isolation of the symbol of baptism has degraded the distinguishing value and function of the symbol for individual believers and for the church."
This really cuts to the heart of the matter. Baptists, in an over-reaction to baptismal regeneration, disconnect baptism and the remission of sins, and leave the middle ground to the Reformed Paedobaptists who capitalize on this confusion and gain the upper hand against the Baptists.
And finally, Mark Dever takes up the practical questions of baptism in the church--who to baptize, when, how, etc. Dever argues for wisdom and patience in baptizing our children. He helpfully writes, "True conversion manifests itself over time. Children are childlike and trusting for a reason. To ask a pastor to try to separate out the tightly knit strands of affection for parents and for God, and to discern which is primary in a child is to ask more than may be best for the child. Time allows the child's faith to mature and evidence itself consistently."
This is an excellent volume that makes some bold arguments, particularly in laying out the groundwork for a response to covenant theology, and looks at the baptism question from a variety of angles. The structure of the book, namely that of ten different essays, all on different topics keeps the pace of the book brisk, and doesn't allow any one writer to go into great depth on any one topic. Thus the book is best viewed as an introduction to baptism. Both sides of the debate are deepy entrenched, and a volume like this is not likely to win anyone from the other side; but it does an able job of defending believers' baptism and laying the ground work for further study.