The Promise of Baptism

DECEMBER 2008: REVIEW

by J. Todd Billings

What does it mean to be Reformed in our current American context? In a land where the needs of consumers make the market run, what would it mean to base our faith around God as the central actor in salvation? How should Reformed pastors minister to congregations that have little orientation to the Reformed tradition?

These are key questions for the Reformed tradition in America today. Christian messages pulsate on the airwaves and the Internet, catechizing our parishioners into an “American type” of Christianity. The Promise of BaptismThis catechism teaches something like the following: since Christian faith requires commitment and effort, I should try hard to maintain my faith and a godly lifestyle; when I face challenges, I can go to God to overcome these challenges; when I need a stable place for my family, the church is a place to go; when I feel discouraged, I can know that God is on my side.

Though this catechism has some positive elements, it also has assumptions that Reformed Christian should find troubling. Who is at the center? Me, my spiritual life, my decisions, my choices. God is important, but mainly as a God who responds to what I decide and to how I act. Is Christ really necessary? In this functional theology, Christ is necessary to open our access to God but there is usually not much of a sense that our life is united to the very person of Christ in his death and resurrection. What about the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit proclaimed on the airwaves tends to be connected with particular moments of spontaneity or insight. The idea of the Spirit as a day-to-day help in living our lives as united to Christ and Christ’s body, the Church, is a more foreign one.

Issues such as these give urgency to the message of James V. Brownson’s book, The Promise of Baptism. Brownson, a professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, presents a God-centered vision of the Christian life. To Brownson, our individual stories must be taken up into God’s story if we are to live into the gospel message. The most important thing in the universe is not me, my decisions, my choices. Rather, salvation is a matter of union with Christ in his death and resurrection, and a daily empowerment by the Spirit to live into this new life in Christ and God’s mission for the Church. In this view, a properly contextualized Christianity in America must critique aspects of American culture, including its individualism and its anthropocentricism. These are bold claims to make. But it is a territory that one cannot avoid if one is to discuss baptism in the Reformed tradition.

Brownson divides his book into six sections–the first of which deals with many of the “basic questions” of baptism: what does it mean to be a Christian? What is the Church? Each of the thirty chapters in the book is organized around a pointedly framed question like these. Brownson begins by explaining the question, along with its biblical and theological background. He then presents his constructive case on the issue. Each chapter ends with bullet points of summary, discussion questions for the chapter, and a resource listed for further study.

After exploring these basic questions Brownson moves to sections on “The Core Meanings of Baptism,” “Baptism, Faith, and Salvation,” “The Case for Infant Baptism,” “Disputes and Questions Surrounding Infant Baptism,” and “Pastoral Decisions Surrounding Infant Baptism.” Each of these sections fills a different function for the reader. The opening sections are essential in setting forth the key features of a biblical and Reformed theology of baptism. The later sections deal with special issues, problems, and challenges to a Reformed theology and practice of baptism.

The book often contrasts a Reformed covenantal theology of baptism (that includes the baptism of infants) with the theology that supports believer-only baptism. In places it would have been helpful to give a fuller account of this latter theology, though in truth this can be notoriously difficult to specify as most baptistic churches are nonconfessional and independent in character. In addition, Brownson’s concentration on comparing the Reformed and baptistic approaches sometimes underemphasizes the fact that the Reformed tradition walks a “middle way” on the issue of baptism. In contrast to Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran traditions, the Reformed tradition does not affirm baptismal regeneration. Yet, in contrast to baptistic approaches, the Reformed tradition does not think that the “signified” of baptism is the faith commitment of the believer, but God’s own promise of union with Christ, cleansing from sin, the gift of the Spirit, and new life. Brownson affirms that the Reformed tradition fills this middle place, but his focus on the baptistic challenges to the Reformed position may not always keep the “centrist” character of the Reformed account in view.

Overall, Brownson’s provides a superb resource for pastors, church leaders, and seminary students for how a Reformed theology and practice of baptism moves us deeper into the gospel of Jesus Christ. The simple practice of baptism is complex precisely because it is so important and fecund. Baptism points to the wild and gracious and wonderful reality of life in Christ, life in the Spirit, cleansing and newness. If, with many American Christians, we push baptism to the sidelines of the Christian faith, we risk turning our eyes from the great gift and promise of God who brings us into a gospel story that shatters our chains of selfserving, self-focused religion.

J. Todd Billings is assistant professor of Reformed theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.