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01
Jun

On Baptism

Posted by on in General Secretary's Blog
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Recently, I was at the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky to deliver the E. Glenn Hinson Lectures for 2016. Introduced in 2009 with celebrated church historian Hinson as the presenter, this series of lectures has attracted such scholars as Loyd Allen, McAfee School of Theology, 2010; Stephanie Paulsell, Harvard Divinity School, 2011; Don Saliers, Emory University, 2012; Robin Jensen, Vanderbilt University, 2013; Willie Jennings, Duke University Divinity School, 2014; and Molly Marshall, Central Baptist Theological Seminary, 2015.

The 2016 Hinson lectures focused on the status of the baptism question among Baptists today. This was undertaken through a review of bilateral and trilateral dialogues at the local, national, regional and global levels. It also involved an evaluation of recent developments especially among Baptists who are renewing the earliest Baptist understanding of the sacramentality of baptism.
 
Perhaps the time is right for Baptists united through the BWA to revisit the question of baptism. To what extent do we Baptists share a common understanding of the meaning and practice of baptism?

As the eighth Baptist World Congress drew near, BWA established a Commission on the Doctrine of Baptism. One of the findings of the commission was the diverse ways in which Baptists make the case for their approach to the subject of baptism.
 
After the congress, which took place in Cleveland, USA, in 1950, BWA issued a questionnaire – The Doctrine of Baptism (1951) – to stimulate discussion on the subject among its constituent members. The outcome was an increased awareness of the diversity that BWA member organizations exhibit in their understanding of baptism.

Since 1959, much has changed in the way Baptists think about the meaning of baptism. In a groundbreaking and controversial book, Christian Baptism: A Fresh Attempt to Understand the Rite in Terms of Scripture, History, and Theology, edited by Alex Gilmore, some 10 British Baptists made a strong case for Baptists to consider the sacramentality of baptism. In the event of baptism, not only is the candidate for baptism acting in response to God’s gracious offer, but God also is at work in the baptismal event.

Since that major work appeared, a number of important works have been published to advance the agenda of what has been called Baptist sacramentalism. George Beasley-Murray’s outstanding book, The New Testament Doctrine of Baptism (1962), is perhaps the seminal statement in support of Baptist sacramentalism. Not surprisingly, Beasley-Murray was invited to deliver a lecture on baptism at the eleventh congress in Miami Beach, Florida, USA, in 1965.

More recently, major publications by such scholars as Anthony Cross, Stanley Fowler, Philip Thompson, John E. Colwell, and other historians, theologians, biblical and liturgical scholars have made significant contributions to advancing a sacramental understanding of baptism among Baptists.

While this is happening, much work has been done to address the Baptist attitude toward infant baptism and confirmation. Leading Baptist theologian, Paul Fiddes, and others, have contributed in important ways to the discussion. They point to the possibility of understanding baptism within the wider process of Christian initiation as offering a pathway to improving the possibility of rapprochement between those who baptize only persons who can speak for themselves and those who also baptize infants. This hopeful proposal is being undermined by the re-evaluation that has been taking place of the meaning of confirmation in various traditions.

On April 19, 2015, a Baptist pastor in Dayton, Ohio, USA, administered the baptism of an infant whose parents had made the request. Asked the reason for this innovation, the minister explained that the leaders of the congregation he serves engaged in a month of prayer and discussion that led to the decision to conduct the baptism. Baptist News Global reported the pastor as saying, “there was an overpowering sense that this was the right thing to do, and there was a sense of God’s presence there…. It was just a really high and holy moment,” he added. According to Baptist News Global, one Baptist seminary president in the USA has lamented the “steady march towards infant baptism, routinely baptizing children younger and younger in age.”

Has the time come for Baptists to once again revisit their understanding of the meaning and practice of baptism? Such a process could contribute to the deepening of our theology of baptism and our appropriation of the richness of New Testament teaching on the subject. It could also lead to the strengthening of our historic emphases.

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Neville George Callam, a Jamaican, has been serving as general secretary and chief executive officer of the Baptist World Alliance since his election in Accra, Ghana in 2007.

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