William R. Baker, ed., Evangelicalism and the Stone Campbell Movement, vol. 1 (Downers Grove: IVP, 2002).
Rather than review Evangelicalism and the Stone Campbell Movement (EatSCM hereafter), I would like to reflect on a number of the essays that comprise the volume as they relate to the doctrine of baptism. While baptism was not the emphasis of all of these articles, it nonetheless came to the fore repeatedly. Jack Cottrell puns that baptism is “the watershed between the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement and almost all evangelicals” (84). In that the comparison and contrast of the SCM with evangelicalism clarifies what Restoration is and is becoming, it is important for neo-restoration to note that baptism, an issue of no small historical significance, continues to be vitally important as a talking point between the two groups.
This is all the more so in light of contemporary attempts to address the CofC identity crisis by reemphasizing a few long-cherished NT patterns, baptism among them (see the “Christian Affirmation“). In the course of the quest to understand whether or not the CofC and CC manifestations of the SCM are properly evangelical, the distinctives of historical restorationism come into focus, and we are better able to see how those inform our view of baptism as well as what place they hold in the emerging restorationism. Therefore, we are grateful to have a variety of perspectives and emphases regarding baptism surface in the course of this scholarly dialogue.
The general goal of this article is to systematize somewhat the bits of insight on baptism sprinkled throughout the various authors’ contributions. We have in the editor’s concluding chapter the beginnings of such, but he himself is undoubtedly hopeful that there is gleaning yet to be done by the reader. Specifically, I intend to look at some particular arguments and statements in relation to one another—statements that were, in fairness, not necessarily made in relation to each other originally. I have three primary goals in so doing:
(1) To reflect on the actual view of baptism represented collectively by the authors, particularly in relation to evangelical authors’ perception of the SCM view.
(2) To raise a question from a missional standpoint that is broached but not yet developed in the volume.
(3) To draw out what (1) and (2) imply for neo-restoration.
Facets of a Middle Ground
Responding to Jon A. Weatherly and James Baird’s articles on baptism, evangelical representative H. Wayne House states:
I concur that following Beasley-Murray’s book, evangelicals and Baptists (including myself) are more disposed to allowing baptism in the conversion-initiation event for Christians. However, having done my master of arts in Greek at Abilene Christian University, I am aware that many scholars and people among Churches of Christ have moved away from a strict separatism and are less insistent on water baptism as an absolute requirement for justification. Perhaps we are seeing a healthy move to the middle on both our parts (188, emphasis added).
This middle is what EatSCM effectively presents, yet it is a multifaceted middle rather than a simple compromise. It seems, in fact, that the emerging middle is really just movement in the same direction (from different starting points), without the assurance that an actual convergence will result, for there are a number of curves along the path.
Baptism in relation to faith and works
The traditional context of the disagreement over baptism is the evangelical commitment to the salvific binity of sola gratiaand sola fide. Sorting out baptism’s relation to these nearly universally accepted slogans is, therefore, where much of the burden has fallen in the past. It is Cottrell’s article in EatSCM that tackles the problem most directly. While his overall point of view is questionable, we may extrapolate a number of helpful points from his work.
Evangelicalism overcomes the false dichotomy
One of the most important points to take from Cottrell is that “the more common view” (78) among evangelicals finds no contradiction between sola fide and repentance or obedience. While the minority evangelical view would see the placement of repentance or obedience within the realm of saving faith as patently “works righteousness,” the majority view understands repentance as the requisite of faith and obedience as the sine qua non of faith, thus absorbing them into a total definition of saving faith (79-81).
Cottrell’s subsequent treatment of typical restorationist articulations of baptism is frustrating, however, as it seems terribly inconsistent. While on one hand he promotes the majority evangelical view and desires that baptism be added to the “list of conditions for salvation” (89) on the same grounds that repentance and obedience are, on the other hand he dismisses as “works righteousness” restorationist viewpoints that effectively do precisely that. Cottrell’s first example he calls justification “by faith and works,” wherein baptism is considered a saving work: “Thus, Fred Blakely concludes, ‘So the doctrine of justification by both faith and complete obedience can be harmonized on the simple ground that both are taught in the Bible'” (85). “A second faulty attempt to reconcile ‘saved through faith alone’ with ‘saved in baptism’ defines faith itself as including obedience, especially the obedience of baptism” (85). Cottrell states that this too is “works-righteousness and a nullification of grace” (86). The third restorationist view is represented by this quote from K. C. Moser: “We conclude, therefore, that baptism, meaning repentance and faith, must be a condition of the remission of sins” (87). Equating baptism with repentance this way makes baptism a “work of man rather than a work of God.”
At this point we may easily observe that Cottrell’s objections make no sense in light of the majority evangelical procedure discussed above, which absorbs both repentance and obedience into a whole definition of faith. This is explicitly what his second restorationist example claims to do. His first example uses the language of “obedience” (assuming he is not nitpicking the word “complete”) whereas Moser’s view emphasizes “repentance,” both precisely the words used in the evangelical lordship view that Cottrell does not accuse of works righteousness. How can this be? The fundamental move in all three restorationist examples, though articulated in different ways, is to conflate faith, repentance/obedience, and baptism into one item in the same way as evangelicals are want to conflate faith and repentance/obedience. In fact, Cottrell’s own proposal, opting for the phrase “list of conditions,” is more reminiscent of the stereotypical SCM “five steps” than of the definitional shift of “faith” he observes among evangelical theologians.
Regardless of the unnecessary confusion Cottrell creates, the idea we may extrapolate from his work is very helpful. It comes in the form of a question: If evangelicals can understand faith to include both repentance and obedience without compromising the sola fide principle with “works righteousness,” why can’t baptism also be understood in the same way? It is well that the majority of evangelicals have, to some degree, overcome a false dichotomy between faith and other aspects of “conversion.” As the discussion intensifies, it usually comes down to some nuancing that amounts, in my opinion, to semantics.
The semantics of salvation
The fundamental issue, as I see it, is that “justification” or “regeneration” or “atonement” (or any number of other words) represent a singular moment of salvation with which most theologians engaging this discussion are concerned. It is the moment of an ontological transition that is at stake when it comes to who is in and who is out, or who is right with God, or just (as has too often been the case) who is right. It is the boundary marker implicit in the exclusivity of the Christian religion, and, judgmentalism aside, it is quite reasonable what we should desire to be clear on when and how that boundary is crossed. Thus, despite the conflation in the definitions above of a number of things that do not occur simultaneously, the discussion naturally returns to parse out the pieces and find the moment of transition among the facets of faith.
“Condition” versus “instrument.” Naturally enough for those committed to the sola fide principle, it is the moment of faith (whether meaning belief, assent, trust, or some particular combination) that counts for the transition. Repentance (as in a change of disposition) remains logically prior, and obedience remains a necessary “condition,” but the true “instrument” of salvation is faith. The upshot of this is a question that tends to arise over and over when we settle on answers to reductionistic queries: If faith is the actual instrument of salvation in the temporal sense of the moment of transition from not saved to saved, then is anything else is logically necessary for or, perhaps more accurately, proper to salvation per se?
“By,” “through,” “in,” and other prepositions of dubious importance. Cottrell, recognizing the implications of the temporal concern, carries the nuancing a step further. “A suggested (revised) ‘plan of salvation’ is that a sinner is saved by grace (as the basis), through faith (as the means), in baptism (as the occasion), for good works (as the result)” (89, emphasis original). Clearly, while faith remains the means (instrument) of salvation, the moment (occasion) is transfered to baptism. This clarifies the fundamental difference between evangelical and SCM views. For evangelicals, sola fide means “justified as soon as one believes” (85, emphasis original); for the SCM, sola fide means justified through faith alone as soon as one is baptized. The SCM view carries with it some obvious questions, which will be discussed more below. For now, suffice it to say that the real issue is seen to be the occasion of salvation, not “works righteousness.” For the SCM, baptism is no more works righteousness in the evangelical sense than obedience is for those evangelicals who hold obedience to be integral to saving faith. Thus, the restorationists who attempted, in one way or another, to conflate faith and baptism were accurately (if not clearly) representing the SCM viewpoint, and it is strangely similar in kind to the majority evangelical view. Yet, another semantical point proves vital.
What is “works righteousness”? There are two important senses of “works righteousness.” There is, first, the broad Reformation sense, which had as its context medieval abuses of granting salvation (whether through sacrament, penitential act, indulgence, or whatever). The emphasis here falls on the through. Such “works” were co-opted as means (instruments) of salvation in themselves. Thus, the evangelical perspective on baptism has its deepest roots in a Zwinglian view of the Roman church’s baptismal sacrament as a “work of man” (84). Second, out of this developed the refined, contemporary evangelical sense of “meriting” salvation. Note well, the meritorious element was not necessarily a part of the initial Reformation critique of “works righteousness.” The impossibility of being “good enough” (meriting) is a distinct concept that was also subsumed under the rubric of “works righteousness.” It is clear from our discussion above that the SCM view of baptism is characterized by neither of these notions. Baptism is not an instrument of grace administered by man (ex opere operato), nor is it a meritorious act. This observation sets us up nicely, however, to consider another facet of the SCM viewpoint captured in EatSCM.
Baptism as a sacrament
The emphasis on God’s working. John Mark Hicks champions a “sacramental” view of baptism that resonates deeply with SCM heirs, although it is not precisely the traditional articulation of the doctrine. Nonetheless, it is a theologically rich contribution to the SCM’s high view of baptism, and it gives occasion to engage further with the Reformation critique that is so often applied to the SCM viewpoint. For Hicks, baptism cannot be “works righteousness,” because it is God’s work. This is the proper definition of “sacrament,” which therefore defies the Reformer’s problem with the sacrament becoming a means in itself (almost a magical rite). God is the one who saves.
It is preferable to see baptism as a ‘sacramental’ moment where God gives his Spirit to believers through faith in God’s work at the cross. It is not sacramental in the Roman Catholic sense but sacramental in that it is a ‘holy moment’ where God acts to unite us to himself in the baptismal symbolism of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a divine means of grace. God truly does something gracious in the moment of baptism (116).
Here the trajectory of our previous observations takes an interesting turn. The temporal language (“moment”) so important to the discussion remains prominent, but it is now combined with the instrumental language (“means”) reserved only for faith in the evangelical view. While Cottrell’s expression helped us see the distinction between instrument and occasion, Hicks’ language makes clear that the occasion of faith’s instrumentality is, more significantly, the occasion of God’s doing, which minimizes the importance of the semantic distinction.
In other words, assuming the critical concern is still the moment of transition, which practically identifies the essential elements of conversion, then God’s doing in the moment of baptism helps us see something. Faith that serves “instrumentally” in the moment of baptism (because that is when God works on the basis of said faith) is effectively inseparable from baptism and therefore not a properly distinguishable means in any meaningful sense. If this is so, why make the distinction? When it comes to describing the transition, it is only beneficial to emphasize the absolute condition of “faith alone” in a context where baptism does not assume faith. Biblical baptism does assume faith, however, and Hicks’ emphasis on God’s doing helps us to reorient to the truly foundational principle: solo Deo. Salvation is by God alone, and our doctrine of faith should not overshadow that fact. It is indeed problematic to treat faith as a mechanism (ex opere operato) such that one is saved “as soon as” one believes. Rather, faith continues to be a basis or requisite for salvation, but it is God who saves on that basis when and through what means he chooses. Getting hung up on rigid classifications of instrument, occasion, etc. does not deal adequately with the solo Deo principle. This will be important in the discussion of normativeness below, but for now we turn to another facet of the sacramental understanding of baptism.
The necessity of assurance. Another dimension of the concern about the moment of transition is assurance. While it is very popular in the postmodern context to disavow any role in “judging,” Christianity, and congregations in particular, must practically determine who is a Christian, who has actually become a member of God’s people. On the personal level, the individual also seeks assurance about himself. Have I actually become a member of God’s people? Am I saved? The question can take many forms, but the answer must take the form of an identifiable transition from not saved to saved, from unregenerate to regenerate, from guilty to forgiven, from not a people to the people of God, and so forth.
The majority of Hicks’ article is dedicated to a historical review of the purpose of Alexander Campbell’s view of baptism. In a time when subjectivity ruled the Christian’s perception of his own salvation, Campbell proposed baptism as “God’s sensible pledge”—a biblical, reasonable way to identify the transition in question (91-110). Although the later SCM obscured this piece of Campbell’s theology with a more patternism-for-patternism’s-sake stance on baptism, there is an insight afforded by Campbell’s pastorally motivated viewpoint. We find again that God is the subject in the phrase “God’s sensible pledge.” When struggling with the relationship between faith, baptism, and the moment of transition, the question is rightly asked as to why God, being the agent of salvation, should choose to act in the moment of baptism. This is the question not because “God decided so” is an inadequate answer but because the complexity of Christian history and experience calls for such clarification both ecclesiologically and pastorally. Amid the various answers, we my postulate that God understands the need for assurance and affords it in baptism. This is also an act of grace—a sacramental function. Assurance is a real and profound need, and God addressing it with such clarity and, what is more, symbolic power is a gift that is too easily underestimated. Whether evangelicals will find need for more than simply to ask the question “Did you believe,” or, need aside, will find baptism more compelling (or biblical) a marker of transition than the answer to that question remains to be seen. At this point, the grace of assurance may be noted as a significant aspect of SCM’s understanding of the doctrine of baptism.
Baptism as a sign, efficacious though it be. We may offer another answer as to why God should choose to act in the moment of baptism. One of the peculiarities that comes with the traditional cautions about undermining grace is a kind of paranoia that sees “works righteousness” under every rock. This is seen in both the unreflective categorization of baptism as a “work of man” as well as the reemphasis on the work of God in baptism that demonstrates it is not a “work of man.” All of this hinges on the priority of avoiding “works righteousness” at all costs. The unfortunate upshot of an unbalanced emphasis on God’s work is the loss of a well rounded perspective on baptism’s sacramental nature. For while God works in the sacrament, the believer and the church have roles as well. Obscuring those roles and their meaning for fear of the slippery slope of “works righteousness” seems undue.
Traditional definitions of “sacrament” include “efficacious sign of grace” and “outward sign of inward grace.” These ancient ideas point to something that should be obvious: a sign may not be efficacious; the sign and the grace are logically separable. The difference between what happens and how it is signified should give us pause to consider the role of that signification. Why not just bald efficaciousness? Why not just the inward grace and be done with it? That God chooses to make a sign efficacious—rather than granting an unseen transition in an unseen realm through an unseen faith—is at once missional and holistic.
It is missional in that it represents the same principle at work in the incarnation—the accomplishment of God’s purpose through creation. Moreover, as with every extension of the principle of the incarnation, baptism happens through the doing (work) of God’s people. That another believer administers baptism in the presence of the church is not to be minimized. The sign is not realized if not for the doing of the church; cooperation in God’s work is the essence of Christian mission.
It is holistic in that it challenges the false dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual. Given the nature of creation, it is (at the very least) fitting that a “spiritual” moment should have a physical expression. While we may presume in the abstract that the transition happens regardless of the sign, that the symbol is not necessary, we must admit in the concrete that baptism as sacrament represents the unity of the two rather than the distinction. That we so easily disassociate the “inward” and the “outward” may be another bit of residual neo-platonism.
One Reformation viewpoint, which emerged in the rebound from the medieval church’s erroneous sacramental doctrine, saw baptism as the purely human work of covenant-making. While the reactionary nature of this teaching unbalanced it, the turn reintroduced an important point about baptism. The believer does make covenant with God in baptism. There will more to say about this from an exegetical standpoint, but for now the point adds to the total picture of the transition happening in conjunction with a number of human works that, given their place in the process, cannot simply be dismissed as nonessential to (much less contrary to) salvation “by faith.”
None of this is to say that we should confuse God’s work and our own. Nor is there anything stated here that suggests human work is either meritorious or efficacious in se. Instead, the suggestion is that baptism, as a sacrament, does entail both the work of God and the work of man. Even if we go so far as to say that the rite of baptism is ordained by God, we must admit that the symbolizing realized in baptism is done by humans. God’s prerogative to make human doing efficacious cannot rightly lead to labeling such as “works righteousness” any more than the missionary in a position to say, “that I might save some,” threatens the solo Deo principle. That God may choose to save through an instrument, and in so doing grant that instrument an integral role in salvation, is God’s prerogative. That God could save without it does not mean that he in fact does save without it (as the typical semantics are used to prove). That human work, as an instrument, might then be misconstrued as “works righteousness” is not the ruling concern.
Therefore, another answer to the question as to why God should save at the moment of baptism is that God may choose to make his work contingent upon the work of both the church and the new believer. That he may, by implication, choose not to employ such means is not grounds to create a fundamental doctrine of salvation apart from those means, if we intend to leave the prerogative with God. The SCM disposition to observe the forms of the NT gave the movement the advantage of seeing God’s prerogative as having priority over an articulation of solo fide in abstraction from the historical role of baptism reflected in the NT and beyond. This, in fact, points toward the discussion of normativeness that will ensue below. But first, we must consider another perspective.
Baptism in relation to the New Perspective
Beyond “works righteousness”
“Works righteousness” has become the bogey man that drives much of evangelical theology. This seems to be so with the doctrine of baptism in particular. It is bad enough that fixating on “works righteousness” obscures important aspects of baptism, but the real problem is worse: the idea itself is scarcely found in the NT. Scholarship in recent years has exposed many of the faulty assumptions that have ruled Protestant thinking. Chief among them is the idea that Paul and Martin Luther had similar things in mind when it came to “the righteousness of the law.” The so-called New Perspective on Paul has given us the opportunity to consider what is at stake in the NT view(s) of salvation apart from the current paranoia about “works righteousness.” Baptism is thus further removed from that slippery slope and placed within a rather different framework than that which has controlled observations to this point.
Jon A. Weatherly’s article moves directly toward a New Perspective framework with his interested in “the broad reorientation of New Testament studies to the social and political matrix of Second-Temple Judaism” (160). He reviews “conversion” in light of Krister Stendhal (161-62), widely considered a major forerunner of the New Perspective, and he turns to N. T. Wright, a chief New Perspective spokesperson, when dealing with the Second-Temple milieu. Ironically, the New Perspective has come under considerable heat from mainstream Evangelical representatives since EatSCM’s release, precisely on the the issue of what Paul means, and therefore what the gospel means, in relation to “works righteousness.” Nonetheless, the SCM represented in this volume takes the recent turn in NT studies seriously, and that may be a critical road sign for neo-restoraiton.
The two points that Weatherly highlights are (1) that “conversion” did not mean to be (or become) something other than an Israelite per se but instead meant to be a recipient of the promises made to Israel and (2) that “post-exilic restoration” in the Prophets’ terms was the basic expectation of Second-Temple Jews. In total, salvation was understood as God fulfilling his promises to restore Israel and thereby fulfill all other promises, and becoming a follower of the Messiah who would bring about this fulfillment would be “conversion.” Considering the meaning of baptism within this matrix sheds light, in the first place, on the relationship between John’s baptism and Christian baptism. The point to emerge is that a hard distinction between their fundamental meanings is inaccurate. Weatherly states concisely, “The adoption of John’s action performed in Jesus’ name attests to the fulfillment through Jesus of the promises John’s preaching elicited” (164). John’s baptism was not something categorically different from Jesus’. We will have to consider how it went beyond John’s, but on a primary level baptism in Jesus’ name is still a baptism “of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” as both the repentance and the forgiveness remain integral to the fulfillment of the post-exilic restoration realized in Jesus.
The second and most important upshot of Weatherly’s view is that baptism functioned instrumentally as an initiation rite. Weatherly contends that “. . . baptism ‘in the name’ here was applied formerly to excluded peoples as they submit to the authority of Jesus.” “By this act of submission,” he says, “they are joined to the people of God and so bring to fulfillment the repeated scriptural promise that Israel’s God will be worshiped among the nations” (165). Thus, in Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthians, “The act of baptism becomes definitive for their identity as people under the authority of Jesus” (166). The transition, viewed in this light, is into the people of God—into the covenant people, to put it in the preferred language of the New Perspective. While very different in substance from traditional views, it is no less a transition from excluded to included, not saved to saved. There is a good deal of nuancing to do here in terms of the overall view of “salvation” this entails, but we may already note that the emphasis on covenantal initiation into God’s people is a significant contribution to the total understanding of baptism.
What Weatherly calls “Identification with Jesus’ death and resurrection” constitutes the third aspect of his view. Here the significance of Christology in relation to inclusion in the fulfillment of God’s promises finds expression. There is a strong case textually for “the believer’s participation in” Jesus death and resurrection proleptically through baptism (167). Though Weatherly does not spell this out in any depth, the point is difficult to deny prima facia, and with a little more exposition it comprises another vital component of baptism. Without doing a great deal more exegesis here, we may relate the point more directly to the covenantal inclusion discussed above by virtue of the well-known notion of being “in Christ,” who is the culmination of the covenant’s purposes, whose covenantal faithfulness is that in which we participate. While this is substantially distinct from the idea of receiving Christ’s “imputed righteousness,” it is still an expression of a saving transition to being in Christ. We naturally think of this transition as a moment of change—a temporal marker. The point is that the NT writings clearly take baptism as that marker.
Naturally, the reception of the Spirit is another important part of what actually happens to the Christian, without which we would not consider a person “saved” in the biblical sense. By implication, the moment that the Spirit is gifted may also be taken as a temporal marker of salvation. Weatherly’s fourth point, then, is to consider baptism in relation to the Spirit. His discussion of the “exceptions” in the Acts narrative, which have always been a sticking point in the discussion, highlights the issue of normativeness, which we will come to at length below. The idea, stated generally, is that even the passages where baptism and the Spirit are separate, it is clear that the two were expected to go together—that they did not in those instances is precisely what emphasizes the exceptional nature of what is happening in those episodes. The exceptions do beg a question that we cannot ignore, but that will come later. In our haste to answer that questions, we should not miss Weatherly’s basic point about the Spirit:
That such a gift should be typically predicated on an act like baptism is surprising only for those who have assumed that such divine gifts must be by definition separated from any particular form of response to the divine initiative, including one that by its nature portrays that divine initiative (171).
That is much the point I have been making, but it is comprehensible only within a framework that does not disdain any “form of response” as “works righteousness.” Thus, the one of the chief contributions of Weatherly’s article is to appropriate the New Perspective framework, from within which it is possible to appreciate baptism apart from fear of “works righteousness” and in terms other than purely “sacramental” ones (which ultimately also serve to avoid that chief evil).
Weatherly’s final initiative is to affirm the textual connection between baptism and “cleansing from sin.” He does this quickly, more as an assertion than an argument, though his implicit (or rather, footnoted) reasoning is not unsound. Most significantly, he takes the article full circle, back to the substantive overlap of John’s baptism with that done in Jesus’ name. That both, rooted in the conceptual soil of Second-Temple Judaism, signified a “washing” for forgiveness is clear. What we might say about baptism’s temporal relation to the washing it signifies hangs largely on the implications of the grammar of the passages at issue. In conjunction with the observations so far, the grammar points to a temporal coincidence. In this textually based sense, baptism is indeed an efficacious sign.
We have in Weatherly’s article a tremendous step in the direction of exegetical renewal in the SCM discussion surrounding baptism, though it does no result in a highly evangelical move. There may yet be a stepping stone on the way to a middle ground, however, in that the New Perspective is not without acceptance among evangelical scholars, though it remains to be seen who among either of these groups will ultimately accept so explicitly non-traditional a framework. In my opinion, it will be most salutary for neo-restorationism not only to move beyond undue emphasis upon Reformation notions of “works righteousness” in favor of concerns more indigenous to the biblical texts but also to consider all the implications of the whole framework articulated by the New Perspective scholars.
One point particularly important for the doctrine of baptism, emphasized especially by N. T. Wright, is that at least Paul’s terminology has been misappropriated by the Reformation tradition. The conceptual clarifications he offers in reference of the New Perspective’s typical discussion of covenantal “boundary markers” in Second-Temple Judaism are important for a biblical understanding of baptism. There are two sub-points to make here.
One, the conceptual distinction between “justification” and “salvation” leads again, implicitly at least, to the temporal question. Given that Wright’s explanation of justification is deeply rooted in eschatological concerns, the temporal issue is naturally heightened. To oversimplify, justification is the declaration in the present of God’s judgement in the future. It is not synonymous with forgiveness, inclusion in Christ, or “salvation,” but it is predicated upon the death and resurrection of the Messiah just as those are. The role of baptism in fact clarifies some of the ambiguity that plagues the discussion of these conceptual nuances—that forgiveness, inclusion in Christ, and justification are all associated with baptism creates the temporal coincidence that often causes their conflation. In baptism, washing for forgiveness, initiation into the covenant people, the beginning of participation “in Christ,” the reckoning of “righteous,” and the reception of the Spirit all happen.
Two, while the doctrine of “faith alone” is explained in contrast to ethnic “boundary markers,” thus making pistis the Christian boundary marker—the declarative badge of covenant membership—baptism is usually spoken on the same breath with faith. That is, as a covenantal initiation rite, the question regarding who is “in” is not (in NT terms) simply “do you have faith in the Messiah?” but also “Were you baptized?” This is because the problem was not that the boundary markers were boundary markers. It was that they were a particular kind of boundary marker with particular problems. Baptism then, as much as faith, functioned as a Christian covenant boundary marker. To say that the question was not “simply” about faith is to say that it was not about faith alone, and it is not my intention to downplay that fact. It is important to see the statement for the warning that it entails: while baptism served as a Christian covenant badge, it too can become a “work” in the properly Pauline sense as much as erga nomou ever were, and the SCM must not fail to see that in the wake of movement beyond erroneous notions of “works righteousness.” To claim, therefore, that baptism is the moment of transition into the covenant because it is the moment of transition into the covenant is no more faithful to God’s purposes than to assert, as Paul’s opponents did, that circumcision was such because it in fact was. The SCM has never advocated a doctrine of baptism apart from faith, and reasserting that belief within the New Perspective framework seems promising, to say the least.
Baptism in relation “normal” Christianity
Restoration in relation to normalcy
The concern for the “normative,” “normal” or otherwise norm-related understanding of baptism arises consistently among restorationists. This concern makes sense in light of the restorationist impulse toward authoritative NT forms. Yet, aside from the question of authoritativeness, it is important to recognize that the “normal” understanding of baptism (and its relation to the moment of transition) is first and foremost a matter of exegesis. This, in turn, causes us to admit that the NT writers (and likely NT Christians as a whole) were not concerned with our questions about the precise moment of salvation or our nuances regarding the instrumentality of faith in relation to the rite of baptism. That is, there was no cause in the NT context to make the point about faith saving over against baptism. NT Christians simply were not Protestants. This does not mean that the distinction does not exist; it only means that it may not be exegetically defensible, as previous comments indicate.
Hicks, who believes baptism to be the “ordinary or normative instrument of . . . grace” (115), hints at the foreignness of our contemporary dichotomies in his comment on the “proof of remission of sins”: “Immersion without lifestyle is clearly condemned in Scripture, and lifestyle without immersion is unknown in Scripture” (117). And yet, when stated this way, there is nothing objectionable to a great many evangelicals, because the statement itself does not speak to the temporal concern that causes them to make their usual qualifications. Consider Robert C. Kurka’s statement:
This articulation of a normal pattern of faith (including baptism) and ecclesiology may yet be the Stone-Campbell Movement’s chief contribution to evangelical theology, adopting normal expressions of New Testament Christianity that can potentially unify believers (150).
Blomberg’s response as a Baptist is significant, for his perception of Kurka’s wording is that “there is nothing uniquely Restorationist about it; it is what Baptists, like their Anabaptist forefathers, have been affirming at least from the beginning of the Radical Reformation onward” (158). What would be particularly restorationist is to make the same statement in relation to the specific temporal concern at issue: Concern for a normal pattern of faith (including salvation at the moment of baptism) . . . . For, despite the aforementioned tendency toward patternism, what the SCM position is really after is not the practice of baptism merely because it is a “normal expression” (a la Baptist tradition in Blomberg’s estimation) but a practice of baptism rooted in a normal understanding of baptism that does not permit it to be marginalized as even Baptist theologians are want to do when the questions of instrumentality and temporality arise.
This is important, because, again, the proclivity to ask, “Why bother with something that is not strictly necessary for salvation?” is a powerful one, even in the face of a strong preference for the “normal.” Ironically, the heart of the restoration plea—the hope of Christian unity—is what truly drives that question for most. Blomberg himself ultimately relegates baptism. “Once it is admitted that baptism is not regenerational, no compelling reason remains for why these doctrines should continue to be so central or devise” (158). We will consider Blomberg’s alternative proposal below. For the moment, we merely note that the quote demonstrates how the plea for normalcy is not sufficient, because the norm at issue does not have the ultimate importance of “regeneration” (i.e., it is not necessary, therefore not worth arguing over). This is another expression of the belief that what God does (here called “regeneration”) is not tied to the moment of baptism. For Blomberg, it obviously happened at another time.
Despite the traditional rhetoric of the SCM, the restorationist position represented in EatSCM does not strive merely “to move further and more consistently” (14) toward the “primitive” norm than others with similar tendencies. The point is not just that baptism was normal but rather that salvation at the moment of baptism was the normal assumption of NT Christians: a normal theology rooted in God normally doing in baptism what he does. This brings us back to the question raised by the erratic reception of the Spirit in Acts.
The implication of the exception
Weatherly argues convincingly, to my mind, that the baptism narratives of Acts indicate a normal expectation among first generation Christians that the gift of the Spirit (and implicitly, its corollaries) would be given at the moment of baptism. The exceptions themselves do much to prove this point. At the same time, however, any exception brings to the surface a truth that is already implicit in the solo Deo principle. God, as the agent of salvation, is not bound to any moment, baptism included. He may save when he chooses. The issue of normativeness reframes the question to be, Does he save at other times in other ways than what appears to the be the norm? That he verifiably does, both in terms of the biblical narrative and the evidence of the Spirit in the lives of unbaptized believers, leaves us wondering what use there is in talking about a norm. God is certainly not fretting about the normativeness of his actions.
It is important to see that the question following the exception is not about whether an exception means that there is not, therefore, a norm. The very meaning of “exception” clearly rules out that possibility. Instead, the point at issue is how the “normal” functions in relation to other matters of importance. That is, it is not clear that achieving the “normal expression” should be the priority, given other concerns (not least, unity). What, in other words, is the point of the norm?
The restorationist assumption has typically been that God is concerned about our normativeness, which neatly settled the matter for many, regardless of exceptions. The thinking goes like this. The prerogative is not ours—that’s precisely the point when it comes to the teaching and practice we take from Scripture being normative. Conforming to the norm is the priority, because it is God’s intention; expecting something outside the norm is presumptuous. We see in Blomberg, however, that because God can and does save outside of baptism, it is not presumptuous to expect him to do so for the many who faithfully expect to be saved apart from baptism. In effect, God does whatever they believe or expect, which becomes the new norm. Thus, Blomberg is ready to jettison the baptism discussion because it makes no practical difference when God disregards the supposed norm.
This does not deal adequately with the basic restorationist concern, however. For the SCM, baptism is a norm because God wants it to be a norm—not because he is unwilling to be gracious to those with different expectations. A norm is not made by virtue of God having a legalistic disposition toward it. Hicks contends that the evidence of salvation apart from baptism should not result in the loss of baptism’s theological meaning. We have already seen at least some of that meaning in the assurance and the symbolic efficaciousness baptism affords, and there are surely depths yet to be plumbed. But beyond the theological meaning we may articulate, there is the powerful reality that what God seems to do “normally” in the NT points to his desire, for all of his reasons, to use baptism as the means and moment for bestowing his grace on one who would be his. It may be that one of the SCM’s best contributions to evangelical theology is a special degree of loyalty to God’s desire—to say nothing of his willingness to be flexible—in regard to the aspects of church life that emerge as “normal” in the NT.
As something of an aside before moving on to missional considerations, to speak in terms of “exceptions” implies one more thing, which the editor brings out in his concluding remarks. “If those in the Stone-Campbell Movement can keep the discussion centered on the role of baptism in the life of the believer and not insult every unbaptized believer by putting him or her in a salvation ‘exception clause,’ discussions could be much more fruitful for all concerned” (242). Yet, we might ask, how should we speak about such Christians if there is in fact an understanding and experience rightly called normal, meaning that those Christians with another understanding and experience are in fact exceptions? Is there anyway to articulate that conclusion without giving offense? And if not, should avoiding offense be centrally important?
The Implications of Mission
The discussion to this point, particularly of normativeness, must be reconsidered from a missional viewpoint. House broaches the subject in response to Baird’s article: “Baptism was an early Jewish way of expressing the external, visible symbol for an inward experience. Might acceptable alternatives exist today” (187)? Baker highlights this insightful question in his concluding remarks:
Baird’s article, as House points out, does raise the issue of whether baptism is the only acceptable initiation rite into Christianity or whether in certain cultural contexts, substitutes of any kind should be acceptable. This is an issue that requires more attention from Stone-Campbell Movement missiologists as well as biblical scholars (241).
The following thoughts attempt to move toward a missional hermeneutic that can properly frame baptism. The appropriate starting point for those students of Scripture who are automatically on guard at the mention of “cultural context” is to recognize that the questions posed above arise not because the interpreter wishes to be freed from biblical authority and finds “culture” a handy point of departure but because, in answer to the question about priorities, the missional interpreter finds the mission of God to be the unchallenged priority and proceeds in light of that commitment.
The unfortunate upshot of concern about culture in the biblical studies of the last century was that the biblical authors and texts, and thus the “pure gospel,” were something like victims of culture, which has to be peeled away in order to reveal untarnished principle or truth. Those with less inclination to peeling saw (and still see) this as a tactic to ignore the so-called cultural parts, which are in fact just the parts that such interpreters do not prefer, and remake doctrine after their own whims. That sort of critique is clearly reactionary, and there are innumerable insights gleaned from proper exegesis, which must take into account the cultural contexts of NT writers. But the exegetical vantage, with its concern for the influence of culture upon the text, is different from the perspective of the missional interpreter, and they are not subject to precisely the same criticisms, though both share a common basis in the reality of the cultural relativity into which the Word was incarnated.
I stated above that, for the SCM, conforming to the norm was historically the priority, because it was God’s intention. The fundamental missional affirmation is, rather, that God’s mission is his intention, and in relation to that, the church’s priority is participation in that mission. Naturally, the question that follows is, What is the mission of God? That will require considerable clarification for a functional missional hermeneutic, but for now we only need state that God’s mission is not to achieve the church’s conformity to the ritual or ecclesial forms found in Scripture, nor is that the means proper to accomplishing his mission. Admitting only that much is enough to bring us freshly to the question of baptism’s (or any other norm’s) relationship to what God is trying to accomplish.
The mission of God
The goal in this section is to represent the movement from God’s primary agenda to its implications for biblical forms such as baptism. This is not the place, therefore, to attempt to do justice to the articulation of the missio Dei, which means that I will only trace its broad contours.
The mission of God has historically been understood in reference to the Father sending the Son, and the two sending the Spirit. In the last century, this concept provided the theological foundation for a great deal of renewed reflection within missiology. A renewed understanding of “sending” has been critical for a many reasons, among them a clearer understanding of the purpose of “sending.” “Mission” in the English language has already taken the logical turn, telescoping the sending and its purpose. We say that a solder is sent on a mission, meaning not that he is sent on a “sending” (as the etymology would suggest) but that he is set upon a task, sent with a purpose. The sending always connotes the purpose for which one is sent. In common English usage “mission” has come to denote that purpose. “The mission of God” likewise denotes the purpose for which the Son and Spirit were sent and for which disciples are sent as Jesus was (Jn 17:18; 20:21). God has an agenda.
The NT understands this purpose, or telos, of God in terms of the OT. Jesus’ message about the Kingdom of God was a message of fulfillment, albeit in unexpected ways and with considerable redefinition. Jesus’ inauguration of the Kingdom is the purpose for which he was sent; the Kingdom is the teleological reality that God purposes to bring about. It is a total state of affairs, previewed in the life of Jesus, made possible through his death, resurrection, and exaltation, in which the rebellious are called to participate. This reality is what Luke calls “the restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21), recapitulating in Christ the prophetic voices that longed for Israel’s “restoration” and understood it in reference to God’s intention for all creation. The vital point is this: the reality that is the Kingdom—the state of affairs that is saved, renewed creation—is the telos; the many things that we understand theologically to be means to that end are not.
The secondary point is that the means to God’s end find their meaning within the history of creation. This is logical in one sense, as it is precisely creation that needs saving, therefore the means to salvation must correspond to the historical situation in which creation finds itself. On another level, God has chosen to operate within the bounds of creation and creation’s contingencies rather than saving it by divine fiat. This is reflected in a diverse array of theological topoi: the analogical nature of theology (and thus revelation), the election of a historically and culturally particular people, the cultural-linguistic bounds of Scripture, and the incarnation itself, to name only a few especially significant items.
The election of Israel has special significance for the understanding of God’s mission, particularly in the way that election plays out in the theology of the NT. Jesus announced the gospel in terms of the Kingdom, and Paul went on to identify that good news in the promise to Abraham that he would be an instrument of blessing to “all nations.” Perhaps no theme is as pervasive in the pages of the NT as the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. This conflict is often discussed in abstraction in NT studies literature, but it should be clear that the conflict, the pastoral concern, the sociological dynamic—however one chooses to describe it—is born out of the missional context of the NT churches. As Abraham’s blessing played out in the church’s participation in mission, a great many boundaries were crossed culturally, and that is, in fact, the logical trajectory of God’s mission. Because God works the way he has shown himself to do, through historically bound people, there were inevitably two possibilities: Israel would be the instrument of blessing either by absorbing other nations into a monoculture or by finding a way to bring their relationship with Yahweh into other cultures. To bless the nations as the nations, God made a way in Christ for the religious dimension of Israel as a nation to transfer into other contexts. One facet of what we witness in much of the NT is the painful, messy process of the early church differentiating between the religious and other dimensions of the total Judaism embodied in the man Jesus of Nazareth and then contextualizing that religious dimension in other cultures.
That is an admittedly retrospective way of putting it, and there are many religious anthropologists who would take issue with the dichotomy. I believe it is a way of getting at the point, however. It is true that the religious dimension of a culture is integral to the culture and not a compartment to be excised. That is precisely why the problem was so messy. Some of the very things distinguished from the religious “faith” of Israel that was carried forward in Jesus’ followers were themselves patently religious (e.g., circumcision, Sabbath, ritual purity, holy days). They were, in fact, divinely revealed religious requirements. But in the context of the early church, at least, they were also about ethnic identity and distinctiveness over against “the nations,” thus they were bound to be a missional problem for a church that did not understand the Christ to have instituted a Judaistic monoculture as God’s instrument of blessing. That Paul, as a representative theologian, was willing to struggle so mightily to free the religion of Jesus’ followers from Jewish cultural and ethnic barriers for the Gentiles’ sake presents a corollary implication for the church’s interaction with the varied Gentile cultures: the goal was not to change the other dimensions of their culture and ethnicity. Again, I grant that a religious change must affect the whole cultural system. And yet, to the extent that the religious can be differentiated from the rest, a total cultural shift is not the goal. Rather, the communication of the message of Jesus and about Jesus, as well as the church life that follows it, take shape within those diverse cultures. This is contextualization, which is, at root, about meaning.
A missional hermeneutic, then, begins with a historical observation about God’s and, by extension, the biblical authors’ commitment to the telos, as well as the particular way that commitment plays out. Scripture presents both the story of and many examples of the process of communicating and realizing the telos. The meaning of both the communication and the realization is determined by historical and cultural frames of reference. Moreover, this is emphatically the mode of operation—the means—God chooses to achieve his telos rather than revealing meaning in abstraction. The part the church plays in communicating and realizing meaning—the theological task—must be modeled on both God’s and the biblical authors’ modus operandi.
Returning to the difference between this missional view of culture and the usual concern about culture in NT studies, the missional perspective understands there to be some level of conscious, proactive theological engagement with gentile cultures in the NT that resulted in appropriate expression of meaning. That is, the cultural bounds of the NT writings are not the inevitably obfuscating limits of Apostolic communication from which the gospel must be liberated. At the same time, the culturally bound expressions of meaning recorded in the NT are relatively meaningful by virtue of a commitment to the missio Dei that forces theology in the direction of contextual meaningfulness. Contextual meaningfulness is relative meaningfulness, which brings us to the substantial difference between the traditional SCM hermeneutic and the missional hermeneutic proposed here.
If the traditional SCM hermeneutic believes the function of Scripture to be the preservation of acceptable (divinely approved) forms of expression and realization of the gospel, a missional hermeneutic takes a distinct view. In light of the mission of God, the decisions resulting in the forms and expressions that are part of the biblical material are seen as theological decisions the likes of which the church must continue to make. Even in the case of what God himself commands, there is an implicit “theological” decision operating within the confines of God’s commitment to his own purposes and his historically demonstrated modus operandi. Take, for example, John the Baptist. The Gospel of John describes him as “a man sent by God” (John 1:6). All of the Gospels describe the Baptist in prophetic terms, confirming the idea latent in John’s wording. The Baptist was sent to speak on behalf of God what God had commanded him to speak. Following Luke’s phrasing, the Baptist was “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” It is possible, without he benefit of John quoting God, to conclude that this baptism was part of what God had explicitly sent John to proclaim and do.
But why baptism? Is it, in itself, the symbolic action that necessarily corresponds to repentance and forgiveness of sins? The answer lies, at least in part, in the examination of first century Judaism. Without ruling out that baptism may be the rite proper to the purpose God intended to achieve through the Baptist’s preaching, we can affirm that ritual cleansing—possibly even ritual immersion (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikveh; see also Bill Grasham, “Archaeology and Christian Baptism,” RQ 43, no. 2 : 113-16)—was intelligible to John’s audience. If baptism is God’s theological choice, it proves yet again that he works within the bounds of meaning available to the culture. Could another action have expressed repentance? Could God have granted forgiveness at another moment? There seems to be little doubt. A missional hermeneutic asks, therefore, not simply what God chose (as though that settles it, much less helps the church in its theological task) but why, assuming that the reasoning is accessible on some level because both the guiding telos and the historical bounds are accessible.
At the heart of the hermeneutical shift proposed here is the issue of authority. The traditional SCM hermeneutic assumes that even if we could get at the why, and even if we were capable of making appropriate decisions in similar fashion, the problem is that we do not have the authority of God (or, by extension, the biblical authors) to do so—at least in regard to certain things. Indeed, when it comes to something like baptism, which is tied up with God’s work, it seems plainly arrogant to assume that we could decide for God when he will act. God could grant forgiveness at another moment, it is true, but is it for us to decide that he will? Is it even possible to “force God’s hand” on such a matter? There are two points to deal with here.
The first is the understanding of inspiration that props up the traditional SCM hermeneutic. The Bible is understood to be the repository of definitive forms given by God’s authority because this (usually unarticulated) doctrine of inspiration places the burden of authority with God and not the authors. That is, even when—unlike with John the Baptist—there is no evidence that a particular form or decision is precisely “God-ordained,” this doctrine of inspiration grants everything in Scripture the status of God-ordained. The second point is about God’s disposition. Does God himself considers the “uninspired” church’s participation in what we might rightly call contextualization to be an affront to his authoritative prerogative. In other words, is God disposed to work redemptively through the theological decisions generated in the church’s participation in his mission? Restorationists have usually acted as though God is not disposed to affording such license. Combined with their doctrine of inspiration, contextually determined variations of form were out of the question.
A missional hermeneutic assumes that Scripture bears witness to God working contextually and, subsequently, the biblical authors (and the church) working on the same model, so to speak. This witness provides an example of faithful contextualization that leads to new, often unexpected ways of proclaiming and realizing the Kingdom. Therefore, while this hermeneutic considers both God’s decisions and the biblical authors’ on par with each other, it does so for drastically different reasons than the traditional hermeneutic. The procedure is not to subsume all theological decisions under the authority of God and then make it a dividing wall between the “inspired” and the “human.” Nor do we make a strong distinction between God’s and the biblical authors’ decisions in order to substantiate a legitimate “mere human” modus operandi that we might imitate. Rather, a missional hermeneutic seeks to see God’s own choices and actions as missional in nature and then understand the appropriateness of the church’s missionally motivated decisions in the same terms. The second point is already addressed implicitly. If that is what the biblical authors did in their missional contexts, and if the biblical witness serves as a model for our own theologizing, then God’s disposition is not contrary to the ongoing task of missional contextualization. We have the authority to make contextually determined decisions, though authority really is not what is at stake. In truth, we have a theological vocation to contextualize.
It is vital to recognize, however, that just because a missional hermeneutic opens the way to consider the possibility that God has acted contextually, that does not mean he has not acted transculturally. What is truly behind any single theological issue is a matter of careful discernment. We do not rule out the possibility that, in baptism, God has ordained a rite with transcultural significance for those who will accept it. We do recognize that the transcultural is difficult to come by and that God has consistently operated contextually instead. With these ideas in mind, we can more profitably turn to James Baird’s article.
Ritual forms that serve baptism’s function?
Baird’s article, “The Role of Baptism in Conversion: Baptism and Its Substitutes as Rituals of Initiation in American Protestantism,” is incredibly profitable and, at the same time, incredibly easy to summarize. American Protestantism has always met the need for a ritual of initiation in one way or another. Baird identifies two sets of needs driving the historical phenomenon: “the needs of the anxious sinner and the needs of the congregation” (185). These practical, pastoral needs were realities that baptism would have addressed had it not been “theologically off limits for most of the evangelical heirs of the Puritans” (186). This brings us back to Hicks’ point about assurance. The struggles Baird reviews were precisely those Campbell felt baptism should have addressed among his contemporaries. From the congregational side, we come again to the idea of covenant initiation present in the NT documents. As Baird points out, there will never cease to be a need for a recognizable initiation into the church as long as the church has a sense of identity over against those who are not the church (186). It is no overstatement to say that whatever Protestantism has used to express the moment of transition from anxious to assured, from out to in, has been a substitute for baptism.
Yet, these needs were met by the substitute rituals. The SCM has usually addressed this point in two ways. One, it has offered criticism on the level of actual salvation. Those subject to substitute rituals should not be assured, because they have not actually received anything, been initiated into God’s people, etc. It is not that baptism offers assurance; it is that only baptism offers assurance. Hicks’ point regarding the fruit of the Spirit stands, however, and we must ask whether God’s missional disposition does not take priority over a supposedly ordained form. God has, it seems, acted redemptively through these substitutes, which were the result of contextually appropriate, missionally motivated decisions. Taking the evidence of the Spirit’s work together with the effectiveness (in reference to needs) of appropriate substitute rituals and a clear view of God’s missional m.o., a judgement based solely upon nonconformity to supposedly authoritative forms seems nearsighted by comparison.
Two, the SCM made a call to unity upon the biblical form. That is, whether needs such as assurance were met was ultimately secondary to unity through uniformity of practice. Inversely, contentment with substitutes, however effective, was acquiescence to disunity. While I find the expectation of unity through uniformity to be dubious at best, I cannot help but think that the only initiation ritual found in our shared Canon must be the only viable candidate for a “standard” form and that we lose a powerful common experience when we opt for other ritual forms. In one of the most provocative parts of EatSCM, Blomberg goes in quite the opposite direction, suggesting that emphasizing a normative form is precisely what perpetuates disunity (158). He suggests that we consider baptism an “ideal.” His use implies that an ideal is something that cannot be achieved, which removes the demand for conformity and, thus, the division. This is highly realistic on Blomberg’s part (rather than idealistic!), and the SCM cannot deny that contending for particular forms has historically led to more disunity than unity. Yet, it is also highly relativistic, and we can rightly ask whether ruling points of disagreement to be unimportant is actual progress. Blomberg’s argument stands upon the belief that God works through other means, making baptism practically of little importance. Why argue about it if God is willing to be flexible? The point he misses is that there are other things at stake than the end game of “regeneration.” But if we adopt his terminology from a different disposition, a door does open for progress. Baptism is the ideal, not merely because it is the biblical form, but because it offers more than its substitutes can. One of those benefits is that, by virtue of being a biblical form, all Christians can understand it in terms of the Christian story. It is common heritage. As each missional church decides how to proceed, it is necessary to discern both the ecumenical value of common sacramental experience and the missional value of contextually motivated decisions.
Finally, one other major benefit—symbolic efficacy—demands more consideration. To my thinking, there is no substitute ritual that achieves what baptism does in terms of symbolism. The importance of symbolism cannot be overestimated for a public ritual linked with an unseen transition. As a communicative act, the ritual serves the need for a clear moment of transition, but baptism in particular also serves the need to link the act meaningfully with the spiritual reality and express it visibly. Certainly, that is not a need in the sense of “requirement.” But compared with the alternative, I consider that kind of symbolic efficacy very needful for both convert and congregation. Thus, the missional value of contextually motivated decisions must also stand alongside the communicative value of baptism as a symbolic act.
Toward a Neo-Restoration Understanding of Baptism
(1) Baptism is an efficacious sign: in the biblical texts, the moment when God chooses to act, effectively making the church’s ritual the moment of transition commonly referred to as “conversion”
- The transition consist of a number of effectual changes, including movement from:
- Outside of Christ to in Christ
- Outside the covenant people of God to inside the covenant people of God
- Guilty to forgiven
- Unrighteous to declared righteous
- Without the Spirit to with the Spirit
- This salvation is predicated on the solo Deo principle
- God only can save
- The use of baptism instrumentally and temporally is God’s prerogative
- The NT presents baptism as the normal moment of transition, with well known exceptions
- Exceptions are also predicated on the solo Deo principle
- Exceptions do not rule out the existence of a normal procedure but raise questions about the value of identifying a normal procedure
(2) Baptism is an efficacious sign: a symbolic act performed by convert and church in continuity with the expectation that God will act through it
- As a symbol, baptism signifies meaningfully what God is doing
- Substitute symbols symbolically communicate meaning as powerfully as baptism does with tremendous difficulty, if at all
- Baptism is a public ritual that provides the opportunity for both convert and church to participate in what God is doing<
- It is the moment when the convert publicly makes covenant with God
- It is the public ritual of initiation that identifies the convert with the gathered covenant people, the church, which fulfills the church’s need for a boundary marker
- Baptism fulfills the need for the convert’s assurance of salvation
- It provides an identifiable moment of transition
- Although other rituals can fulfill this need, baptism does so in continuity with Scripture and Christian history
(3) Baptism finds its meaning and fulfills its role only in relation to the telos of God, which demands a missional hermeneutic
- Other symbolic acts might function as efficacious signs in other contexts
- Commitment to the mission of God precludes making the imitation of a biblical form a priority over the biblical telos if it is better served by another form
- The solo Deo principle precludes the belief that God can not make other signs efficacious; the prerogative is his
- God’s own commitment to his telos as it has played out in his historical dealings with human beings precludes the belief that God will not make other signs efficacious; his disposition is gracious
- The church’s theological vocation includes the task of appropriately contextualizing the meaning found in the biblical practice of baptism
- The church’s participation in making the symbolic act culturally meaningful is consonant with the nature of Christian missions
- The church must discern the value of shared Christian experience and the inherent symbolic efficacy of baptism in relation to the value of contextually appropriate ritual symbolism
The well-known traditional restoration hermeneutic of command-example-necessary inference (CEI) has been under attack for some time, and rightly so in my view. Yet, it has wisely been stated that rejecting CEI is not enough—not even helpful—if we do not have a hermeneutic to replace it. I believe that the identity crisis discussed by so many SCM leaders is, at root, a hermeneutical crisis. The attempt to clarify the identity of Churches of Christ, for example, in terms of imitating first century church forms implicitly acquiesces to an idea of restoration that finds its essence in CEI. Restoration of ancient forms is inadequate at least, out of touch with God’s mission at worst. How then can a movement defined by “restoration” understand itself? It is a crisis-inducing question.
“Neo-restoration” designates an attempt to redefine the plea of the SCM, to come newly at the idea of restoration. The historical reality is that the SCM will always be the SCM; historical continuity is inevitable. But we find that there is more than just historical continuity. Coming freshly at the idea of restoration, it is apparent that many facets of the historical restoration plea should continue to define the SCM, not least the commitment to Christian unity. But history also demands growth, maturity, change—which amount to discontinuity. The SCM can continue to be a restoration movement, but it must proceed with a new way of restoring. The above proposal deals head on with one of the most cherished and biblically defensible forms of the NT church and suggests that neo-restoration must not consist of merely reproducing even that kind of pattern. Instead, we must restore the biblical meaning of the form, the biblical practice of contextual theologizing, and the biblical commitment to the mission of God.