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SEEKING CONSENSUS: A “KINDER, GENTLER” CAMPBELITE BAPTISMAL THEOLOGY—By John Marks Hicks

I have just recently read the above titled article by John Mark Hicks.  The brother is correct, the title is offensive.  Many of us Campbellites resent being called “Campbellittes” but the better  course is to realize that we are blessed when insulted and belittled.  This article is the  musings of an old Campbellite who is neither a minister nor theologian, who struggle with words like “soteriology.”

 

What is the “Campbellite baptismal theology?

I didn’t realize that  Campbellites had a baptismal theology, that’s how dumb I am. But I suppose we do.  JMH is probably referring to the idea that most Campbellites believe one must be baptized in order to be saved.  Would it be “kinder” to say that in the New Testament those that were saved, were baptized?  I know I need to work on my kindness factor, so bear with me.

 

What is the “kinder, gentler” baptismal theology proposed by JMH?

The baptismal theology proposed by JMH is:

(1)   baptism is a part of the New Testament conversion narrative.

(2)   Calvinian baptismal theology correctly identifies the soteriological significance of baptism as a means of grace.

(3)   Baptism serves faith and is subordinate to its soteriological function.

(4)   Salvation is a process of transformation into the image of Christ which gives baptism its theological significance and limits  its soteriological importance. 

JMH adds a “kinder, gentler” baptismal theology  is one in which (1) baptism is a means of grace and (2) it recognizes and values the process of spiritual transformation that many believers experience without or prior to immersion in water.

 

Is baptism a part of the New Testament conversion narrative?

JMH lists the conversion narratives in Acts; Pentecost, Samaritans, eunuch, Lydia, Philippian jailor, Corinthians  and the Ephesians in Acts 19, omitting the conversion of Saul of Tarsus and Cornelius.  We  suppose he omitted Cornelius because he received the Spirit before he was immersed in water.

We all understand that the conversion of Cornelius, a Gentile, was a momentous event requiring extraordinary circumstances to convince the Jewish mind that this was God’s will. Nevertheless Plain Talk includes the conversion of Cornelius also as an example of baptism being a part of the conversion experience.  We recall the words of Jesus  that one must be born of water and the Spirit to receive entrance into the kingdom of heaven.  We believe that this promise was not fulfilled until Cornelius had been baptized in the Spirit and in water.

JMH recounts how Alexander Campbell came to affirm that a complete biblical conversion narrative included baptism and to reject the Calvinistic view that regeneration precedes faith.  Early in life he embraced the Puritan model of conversion but at sixteen began an arduous study while living in Northern Ireland.  By the age of twenty he felt as if he was “perfectly indoctrinated into the right faith, as evangelical Christians called it.”  By age twenty-four he explicitly rejected the popular understanding of conversion.  He no longer sought a subjective religious experience to confirm his regeneration and assure him of the forgiveness of his sins.  On the contrary, he now regarded immersion as that objective moment which assured him of God’s forgiveness.

Campbell was not the only one making adjustments.  We have Charles G Finney with his “making a decision for Christ,” Dwight L Moody  with “stand up for prayer,” Billy Sunday with “coming down the aisle,” R.A. Torrey with “ confession of the name of Christ before men,” P. E. Burroughs with “the prayer of committal” which became the “sinners prayer.”

 

What special importance does JMH attach to the conversion of Saul of Tarsus?

When was Paul converted?  On the road to Damascus or when he was baptized.  JMH says Saul was a changed man before his baptism.  He had come to faith  in Jesus.  JMH places much emphasis on the “transformative nature of his experience” before baptism.  And we agree Paul undoubtedly experienced a great change before baptism, but was he saved, were his sins forgiven,  was he born again, had he  received the newness of life,  had he been translated into the kingdom,  was he in Christ?

JMH and apparently Alexander Campbell attempt to use this account to show that great changes occur before baptism and that great changes are really what God wants, baptism is secondary.  Plain Talk must reject this line of reasoning as all these great changes would be for naught unless they lead to baptism into Christ through faith.  All spiritual blessing are in Christ, outside of Him there is only desolation and emptiness.

 

What does JMH mean by Calvinian Sacramental Theology?

JMH contrast the sacramental theology of John Calvin with that of Huldreich Zwingli.

Zwingli, Zurich reformer, denied that baptism or the Lord’s Supper conveyed or conferred God’s grace or blessing.  External things, according to him, are nothing and avail nothing for salvation.  He believed that faith experiences salvation prior to baptism and baptism was primarily a sign to “fellow-believers.”  On the other hand Calvin, Geneva reformer, held that the baptism should first serve our faith before God and secondly attest our confession before men.  Apparently Calvin believed that baptism is a genuine means of grace that is effective through faith and the internal working of the Spirit.

Thomas Campbell and his son Alexander were Scotch Presbyterians, strongly influenced by Scotch Baptist. 

 

Does baptism serve faith and is baptism subordinate to the soteriological function of faith.?

When you say that baptism serves faith most of us immediately think that the lesser serves the greater, therefore baptism is subordinate to faith.  Perhaps that is the reason the Scriptures do not describe the relationship in that way.  James describe the relationship between faith and works of faith (which I believe includes baptism) as faith working with his works (baptism) and as a result of works faith was perfected.  This gives quite a different flavor, not of subordination but of synergism.  Baptism compliments faith by completing faith.  You see that faith without works of faith (repentance and baptism) is dead and useless.

Paul instead of looking at the end product looked to the factors that activate and energizes faith so that it is productive.  His assessment was that faith without love is nothing, of no value.  But what does the love of God have to do with the relationship between faith and baptism?  Much, it turns out!  Jesus said if you love Me you will keep My commandments and the Apostle John tells us that the love of God is keeping his commandments.  Faith without love produces zilch and as a result faith is not perfected and is dead and useless.  How JMH could conclude that baptism is subordinate to the soteriological function of faith is beyond me, when faith without baptism has no soteriological function.  Faith without baptism is ineffective in regard to remission of sins, justification and salvation.

Even though love also “serves” faith, in this comparison between faith and love, we know that love is greater

(4) Salvation is a process of transformation into the image of Christ which gives baptism its theological significance and limits  its soteriological importance. 

JMH’s argument seems to be that salvation is a process that began before baptism and continues after baptism in transformation into the image of  Christ, the greater goal of the whole process.  Therefore baptism is of lesser importance.  The fallacy of his reasoning seems that he does not recognize or minimizes the fact that according to Scriptures you get to the transformation aspect of the process through the punctiliar work that God performs when our faith, motivated by love, leads us to be baptized in accordance with His commandments. Before baptism we are dead in our trespasses and sins; after baptism we are alive in the Spirit who has been given to us.  Before baptism we were lost; after baptism we are saved and we are being saved.  Before baptism we were alienated from Christ and God; after baptism we are a new creation in Christ.  Now the renewal by the Holy Spirit can begin.  This renewal will go one until our death and we are given a new body.  But if this renewal process should be shortened by an early demise. We will still be saved.  No, I personally do not agree that the soteriological importance of baptism has been diminished by the transformation.

 

Were Paul’s sins forgiven when he believed?

JMH claims that Alexander Cambell emphatically stated in a debate of 1823 that this was so.  In the debate he supposedly said that nothing is essential to salvation save the blood of Christ.  Baptism, he maintains, is a pledge, an assurance of their actual pardon, of the remission of all their sins.  Alexander Campbell seems to be saying, wait, don’t you understand that it is not baptism itself that saves but it is the blood of Christ.  If so, we can certainly agree.  We would hasten to add that God in his wisdom has given the promise  of salvation  to those that believe, “the just shall live by faith.”  If salvation were grounded on our works, none would and could be saved.  But the blood of Christ was shed some 2, 000 years ago but God ordained that the benefit of the shed blood is only  to those that believe, not to those who work.  But paradoxically He established that that faith is perfected and completed by the obedience of faith. This is why Peter would write, “that you may obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His Blood.”  Is baptism essential to salvation?  Certainly it is not the essence of salvation but just as certainly faith- baptism is the way God appointed for that grace to be appropriated.

 

Do we need a kinder, gentler theology of salvation?

Has God given us an effective theology of salvation?  Can we understand it and implement it is our life.  Is salvation a smorgasbord?  Doe we get to pick and choose that which pleases?  Do we love God if we do not keep His commandments?  Are we trusting in God if we don’t obey?

Friends I know I need a better understanding and I know I need to be kinder and more gentle.  I know that I don’t have the answers to the many things we can speculate about.  But I don’t necessarily believe my task is to speculate, my task is to present the gospel in a loving way to the best of my understanding.  I believe a righteous, loving God will give to each that which is appropriate but I also believe He offers mercy and grace to those who will accept it.

 

Conclusion:

JMH tells us that both John Calvin and Alexander Campbell held that faith-repentance-baptism were the normal conversion narrative under the new covenant, but neither would insist baptism is absolutely necessary based on the reality that the blood of Christ is the true essence of  salvation and that baptism is of lesser value than faith in regard to salvation.  JMH seems to suggest that the conversions of Paul and Cornelius hint at another way.  While Plain Talk agrees that the blood of Christ, not baptism, is the essence of salvation, the same charge could be laid against faith.  Neither is faith the essence of salvation, but it like baptism is the God appointed way of receiving the grace of salvation.

Plain talk does not agree that Paul was saved by faith before he was baptized.  When Paul is told to “Arise, and be baptized, and wash away  your sins, calling on His name,”  this statement strongly indicated he had not been saved, unless he was saved in his sin.  Baptism saves us in that it is an appeal to God for a good conscience.  Why ask God to forgive your sins if they had already been forgiven.  Baptism also saves of by perfecting our faith; at baptism, faith becomes effective in regard to the remission of our sins.

 

Neither do the Scriptures tell when Cornelius was saved.  The Scriptures do say, “He shall  speak word to you by which you will be saved.”  Plain Talk holds this occurred when Peter ordered them to be baptized in water, thus completing the water- Spirit connection that Jesus made to Nicodemus.  One must be born of both water and the Spirit to enter the kingdom of heaven..

 

Plain Talk also disagrees that baptism is of less soteriological value than faith.  When James tells us that faith without works of faith (repentance and baptism) is dead and useless then such a comparison is ill-advised.  Without faith it is impossible to be pleasing to God but biblical saving faith is a perfected faith.  Biblical faith occurs at different levels and has definite limitations; it is not the all encompassing factor that some of the reformers made it out to be. Paul put it all together when he said the faith that means something, works through love.  (Galatians 5: 6)

 

PS

This is the reason I do not like to be called a Campbellite.  Although I respect and am greatly indebted to Alexander Campbell, he does not define my faith such as it is.

 

God bless,

Arland Pafford,

 

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Last Update   09/26/12