Ben Witherington’s Troubled Waters: Rethinking the Theology of Baptism

When I saw an ad the other day for Ben Witherington’s new book on baptism, Troubled Waters: Rethinking the Theology of Baptism, I knew I’d have to read it.  Witherington is a tremendous New Testament scholar and I’ve benefited personally from his work, especially his commentary work.  He’s a Methodist, I believe, and I knew, judging from his past work, that his treatment of baptism would be fair and, likely, provocative.  It proved to be both…and a bit frustrating.

Published (ironically?) by Baylor University Press, Troubled Waters seeks to show that traditional credobaptist and traditional paedobaptist arguments have been stunted by allowing theological assumptions and presuppositions (as well as no shortage of hot air and idiosyncratic exegesis) to trump the witness of Scripture.

Over against credobaptist claims, Witherington seeks to show that the normal pattern throughout most of the New Testament is “water baptism” then “Spirit baptism”.  Water baptism therefore precedes that which truly saves:  Spirit baptism.  This is evident, Witherington says, first and foremost in the baptism of Jesus.  Baptists, of course, reverse this order and ask for saving faith before baptism.  Witherington sees this as violating the biblical norm.  (One caveat:  some of Witherington’s views of what Baptists believe struck me as frankly very odd and did not sound like anything I’ve ever heard in a Baptist church…and I IS one!  He almost seems to think that Baptists believe that baptism saves ex opera operato.  I think in some ways he has confused us with the Church of Christ or other groups along those lines, but I may have misread him.)

Anyway, I get the general point about the order of the baptisms, but I do feel that for Witherington’s argument to stand he must show that there is a substantial significance in the order, and probably that significance will have to be shown in a period of time between the two to prove the point that I think he’s wanting to prove.  This becomes problematic, though, when you look at Jesus’ own baptism and other biblical examples.  Sure, it was water baptism then Spirit baptism, but Witherington’s attempt to highlight the fact that the Spirit came not as Christ was coming up from the water, but up out of the water, seems too strained and forced to me.  Even granting the point, I don’t really get it.  It does not seem to do justice to the language of “immediacy” that both Matthew and Mark use.  The fact is, the coming of the Spirit in the case of Jesus came at the baptism, not some years later, and, frankly, it would have been difficult to do while Christ was under the water (Witherington grants that he was under the water).  Furthermore, using Christ’s baptism as a norm is problematic on a number of fronts, but, to Witherington’s credit, he does not appeal only to this example.

A number of things about Witherington’s book I really did like:  he says more than a couple of times that the New Testament mode was almost certainly immersion, but then he lets it die “the death of a thousand qualifications” by talking about the mode being determined by the amount of water available (with the customary appeals to the conditional language of The Didache).  Allow me to put on my crusty Baptist hat and say that one does grow weary of these rather frequent paedobaptist admissions of immersion, only to see it die the death of qualifications.  The fact is…now watch this…there is no water shortage in North America(though there’s getting to be one in South Georgia).  Please understand that this point is coming from one who believes in immersion, but does not believe that immersion is salvific or primary.  I’m almost tempted even to call it adiaphoric, but it was the biblical practice, and there is more than a bit of evidence that it was practiced in the early church, so I don’t see why we should have such a problem immersing.  (Above all, it fits with the symbolism of the death of Christ perfectly, a point that Witherington himself makes.)

Witherington also shows through careful exegesis that the household baptisms not only don’t mention infants, they also almost certainly could not have involved infants.  This is an honest admission, and says a great deal about the integrity of Witherington’s exegesis.  Furthermore, sounding like a good Baptist, Witherington calls on paedobaptists to consider how much more meaningful for the baptismal candidate postponing baptism will be than if they are baptized as an infant.

Yet, Witherington ultimately sees in the aforementioned order (water then Spirit) as well as in the Pauline parallels between circumcision and baptism enough evidence to warrant the baptism of infants, so he does allow it, with cautions.

One point that I didn’t quite get is the argument that in Acts we are dealing with first generation missionary baptisms and therefore not so much with the question of what to do with children who are born into the church.  I agree with that and I think I get the gist of it, but I keep coming back to this thought:  what of those among the 3,000 that Peter addressed who were capable of “repenting” and “being baptized” (and, in fact, did so) who were holding babies on their hips when Peter answered their question about what they should do to be saved?  If paedobaptism is warranted as a New Testament parallel to circumcision, would not Peter have simply asked them to baptize their whole families?  What does the fact that they are first generation or missionary converts have to do with their children being baptized?  I think Witherington would harken us back to Jewish proselyte baptism, which he shows to be the antecedent model of Christian baptism, but I never could quite get this straight in my head.

As an aside, I found one of Witherington’s most powerful points in his argument that the church has become primarily a nurturing body for families that are already Christian and not a missionary body as it clearly was in the New Testament.  This was, in my opinion, profound and really raised the whole level of discourse above the technicalities of the baptism debate.  The fact is, says Witherington, we ought to be bringing in non-believers and having to baptize non-believing adults, but, as a rule, we are not.  So we’re left with a question that was never the main question for the early church:  what to do with the infants of believers?

Witherington calls on Baptists not to treat the children of Christians as pagans, an idea I certainly agree with.  He also calls on us to have dedication ceremonies to draw these children into the fellowship, which we do.  I agree on both counts.  He also wisely cautions about the impossibility of knowing who really has saving faith, pointing out that a confession of faith is not faith.  I agree, but the conclusion that we should never proceed to an act on the basis of another’s faith simply because we cannot know with certainty that they do in fact have faith seems odd to me.  Wouldn’t this train of thought keep any pastor from ever administering the Lord’s Supper to anybody at all because he could not know if he was giving it to a saved person?

Witherington also speaks of the possibility of causing the children of Christians to feel guilty because they have not had a dramatic conversion experience.  This is right on and I think he’s wise to point this out, though I fail to see that credobaptism necessarily causes this.  (I do not, however, deny that it happens.)

I really enjoyed this book.  It challenged me and it really made me appreciate some paedobaptist arguments, while it failed to convince me on other points.  I appreciate the point about the order of the baptisms, and I certainly concur about which is salvific.  This is something I’ll definitely have to chew on.

This book was thought-provoking, challenging, and edifying.  I recommend it wholeheartedly as a fascinating and balanced look at baptism from an author who takes the text seriously and is equipped to take those of us who are not New Testament scholars below a merely surface reading of the text.

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