The baptism debate seems to be in a different place than it was twenty years ago. This is a good thing. It is an indication of progress. We should be comforted. In the early stages of Christendom, a once squishy doctrine of the person of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit and God the Father became a solid confession of the church (the Trinity) through debate and the progress of theological thought. This advance in terms of the interpretation and application of scripture has pushed the church forward throughout history and is occurring at record rates in a number of arenas within the Body of Christ.
In regards to the paedobaptism vs. credobaptism debate, the discussion is moving past the familiar technical discussions surrounding proof texts and arguments over tradition to more fundamental presuppositions. “Nuh uh, that’s not what it says” has given way to “your position violates the integrity of scripture as a whole”. We are now wrestling closer to the foundation of the issues. Where we have been beating the bushes, we are now exposing the roots. One of these fundamental aspects is the objectivity vs. subjectivity of the church on earth.
The local church in which I serve as pastor practices the baptism of believers, so we might be considered “Baptists.” But we also receive as members believers who have been baptized as infants. For that reason, you might call us “baptists with a small ‘b.'” How do we justify such a hybrid position in the spectrum of church practice?
I appreciate two aspects of Kynes’ practice here. First, he recognizes the baptism of other Trinitarian churches. He keeps himself from making the bold declaration that defines most Baptists churches. By not accepting the baptism of other Trinitarian denominations, most Baptists proclaim sacramentally (whether they recognize the sacrament or not) that they in fact are the only legitimate Body of Christ. “If you are not baptized with us, you ain’t in”. Secondly, I appreciate the practice of accepting a professor’s infant baptism because it is a trajectory that ends up unraveling the legitimacy of credobaptism altogether.
Kynes goes on to say that the gospel of Jesus Christ involves three dimensions – the objective, the subjective and the social. First, the objective:
…it involves something outside of us. The gospel is first of all an objective declaration of what God has done in Jesus Christ.
Yes, and Amen.
Second, the gospel has a subjective dimension—it involves something in us. The gospel involves a (Spirit-empowered) subjective response to that good news. A person must personally entrust himself to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord as he commits to follow him in faith as a disciple.
Again, well put. Certainly the gospel of Christ must be embraced by grace through faith. But, one question…who on earth discerns this hidden dimension within the hearts of men? Answer – no one. “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever…” (Deut. 29:29). So, if we cannot see this subjective response in any given person, what defines the boundary at the entrance to the church in history? Answer – confession. But where does this take us back to? You guessed it – the land of objectivity. The gospel has a “subjective” or hidden component but it is evidenced through objective reality.
But the gospel also has a social dimension—it involves something among us. The gospel creates a new community, united in Christ by the Spirit. A person joined to Christ is also joined to other believers into a new family, the body of Christ. Consequently, a third aspect of the gospel involves a recognition and affirmation of a person’s faith by the church.
Yes, a new community. The gospel is lived out among the community of faith – men, women and children joined together in union with Christ and with one another. Kynes states that this must be recognized and affirmed by the church. I agree wholeheartedly. The community is marked-out through this objective “recognition and affirmation”.
So, what we really find is that all three dimensions Kynes discusses are in the end objectively affirmed in time and space. He states this for himself.
All three of these aspects of the gospel are displayed in a visible and tangible way in the baptism of a believer.
So, what does this look like for Kynes and why is he a baptist?
I am a baptist, because I believe that the New Testament is best understood to unite all three of these aspects of the gospel in the one act of baptism—the objective declaration of the gospel, the subjective response to it, and the social aspect of the church publicly recognizing and affirming that response of faith and welcoming that person as a fellow believer into the visible body of Christ.
This gets to the heart of the issue. Kynes baptizes on the basis of an unseen, “subjective”, response of the heart. He states that this decision is publically recognized and affirmed. So, the question is, how does the church discern this response so that it can be publically recognized? He gives us the answer in his appraisal of the paedobaptist practice.
They baptize the infant children of Christian believers—objectively declaring the gospel to them before they can understand it.
Don’t miss this. Kynes baptizes at the point in time when a person can “understand” the gospel. Since we cannot see a subjective response of faith, there must be an objective indicator. For Kynes, and every other Baptist brother, this objective indicator is intellectual in nature. I deal with this in my recent book on Baptism.
The question of qualification for being incorporated into or retaining membership in the church is most commonly dealt with through two categories of response. One might be labeled rational standards and the other experiential standards. Rational standards for church membership would be based on some measure of intellectual ascent. In some church circles, for younger candidates this ties directly into the notion of an age of accountability. It is thought, if they are smart enough to understand, then they are liable for their sin. Many a reformed Baptist who may not buy into this from the standpoint of salvation will travel down this road in regards to church membership. From a rational or intellectual standpoint they require the passing of a test of some sort. For children this may take the form of quizzing on doctrinal questions or requiring the memorization of some body of knowledge. For the adult it would take a similar form. This is a rational test. The resulting question is what questions make for a sufficient quiz? How much knowledge is enough to qualify someone for baptism and church membership? In this category, faith is intellectual.[ii]
An intellectual or rational boundary that marks-out the church is problematic not only for discerning the hearts of children, but also for the mentally handicapped and senile. So, what is the Biblical alternative? Covenant. The structure of God’s covenant institutions, including the family, has not changed with the coming of Christ. Covenant headship is a reality. Just as children in the the Old Covenant could be consigned to the assembly (church) by the confession of their covenant head, a child today can be consigned to the body of Christ. Does this denote an elect status of the child? Absolutely not. Will a child’s faith or lack of it be demonstrated over time. Most certainly. As such, the boundary of the covenant community in time and space becomes ethical.
We take this structure for granted in our family. Does my child have to intellectually grasp what it means to be a Crawford? No. Yet they bear my name regardless. One day they may choose to change their name, but in the meantime, I am going to relate to them as my own and as a member of my household community.
We also take this structure for granted in the civil realm. Does an alien who wants citizenship in this country have to profess allegiance publically under oath? Yes. If that new citizen subsequently bears a son or daughter, do they have to become intellectually capable of taking an oath for themselves before they will be considered a citizen? Of course not. They enjoy all of the benefits of citizenship unless at some point they opt for renunciation. The same is true with our earthly citizenship in the church. We must leave the heavenly citizenship to the eyes of the only one who can see it.
When marking out an earthly church institution, there is no escaping an objective indicator of individual faith. As good, rugged American individualists who are heirs of the First and Second Great Awakenings, we tend toward pulling ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps. We want our children to be old enough and smart enough to declare God’s name for themselves. This tendency is out of line with a scriptural understanding of covenant. We have grown unfamiliar with God’s corporate realities.
I do want to say that I appreciate the posture of Kynes. His humility and charity are commendable and quite frankly we need more of our intermural debates tempered with both qualities. He also ends his article in such a posture and with an important challenge regarding the unity of the church.
That’s how I operate as a “baptist with a small ‘b.'” I recognize that this understanding has its own problems as we seek to work it out in the life of our church, but I offer it as a way of allowing our common grasp of the gospel to overcome our historical and theological differences with regard to baptism that prevent us from welcoming one another in the fellowship of the church.
I hold the same sentiment. In fact, it is the quest for unity and welcoming fellowship that I press forward in the debate with regard to baptism. In seeking to avoid a barrier to “welcoming one another in the fellowship of the church”, the small “b” baptist tells would-be members of God’s economy that they do not bear his name. At best we communicate to our children that they are second-class citizens. At worst they are pagans outside of the camp. The truth is, a misunderstanding of covenant reality can be the most divisive of all – a public declaration that our children are separated from God and the Body of Christ on earth until which time that they are intellectually fit for the Kingdom of God.