Baptism is a matter often fraught with discord and strife. One popular book described it as ‘the water that divides’ (The Water that Divides: Two Views on Baptism Explored, Christian Focus, 2008). This is a tragedy, since it is the sign of our union with Christ and his church. It should be a focus for union rather than division. Yet I have known many people who have been excluded from church membership and ministry because their baptism was not held to conform to what was regarded as biblical. How can this division be overcome? Is this a simple matter, to be resolved if only everyone were to submit to the plain and obvious teaching of the Bible? Or are deeper questions involved?
When we disagree on biblical teaching it is important that we consider factors affecting the way we interpret the Bible, and so shape our understanding of doctrine. Our reading of Scripture is often governed by unconscious principles that influence what we can see in the text. Elsewhere I have argued that we can study the Bible until we are blue in the face but we will never come to an agreement on disputed questions such as whether infants are to be baptized until we have uncovered these factors (R. Letham, ‘Baptism in the Writings of the Reformers,’ Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology [SBET] 7/ 2 (Autumn 1989) 21–44). Only then will we appreciate what drove the biblical authors and the church down the ages in its interpretation of the Bible. A key to reading a book of the Bible— or any document, for that matter— is for us to determine, as far as we can, what was the intention of the person who wrote it. Often our own cultural and philosophical assumptions can hamper this process. In this first section, we will ask how far our reading of Scripture is to be taken into account in understanding what baptism means and who should receive it.
In the Western world, we are accustomed to viewing ourselves as individuals. In the world of the Bible, people thought rather differently than we do. This issue affects the question of how we view the family, the household, and consequently children. The conclusions we draw will affect who we baptize. So these foundational principles are vital to grasp, since they often govern the way we read the Bible, understand its teaching and implement it in practice.
Adapted from Part One: Foundational Principles in A Christian's Pocket Guide to Baptism: The Water That Unites by Robert Letham (Christian Focus 2012).
Robert Letham is the senior tutor in Systematic and Historical Theology at the Wales Evangelical School of Theology (formerly ECTW). Previously he was Pastor of Emmanuel Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Wilmington, Delaware. He has taught at London Bible College, is Adjunct Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia and Visiting Professor at Reformed Theological Seminary.
Praise for A Christian's Pocket Guide to Baptism:
"Here is a robust, articulate and biblical presentation of covenant baptism that avoids populism and individualism. Dr Letham has placed baptism in its covenantal and canonical context - a work of God rather than an act of obedience - no bare sign but an active means of grace - for believers and their children."
-Liam Goligher ~ Senior Minister, Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
"Rightly Letham seeks to understand the issue of baptism within the canonical framework of Scripture. He is hopeful that this is the way forward beyond the impasse that has stymied the church for centuries regarding this precious ordinance ....if you are searching for a well-argued, and irenic, approach to this subject from the vantage-point of infant baptism, this is the book for you."
-Michael A. G. Haykin ~ Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky
Other Books by Robert Letham:
Where to Buy:
A Christian's Pocket Guide to Baptism is available at any good Christian bookstore. If you don’t have a Christian bookstore near you, you may want to consider purchasing a copy from one of the online book retailers listed below: