Posted tagged ‘dogmatic theology’

William Lane Craig on Baptism

August 9, 2012

William Lane Craig is one of the best Christian apologists in the world, and I’ve learned a lot from his books, debates, articles and podcasts. I also had the opportunity to see him in Finland not so long ago, and it was a very cordial and inspiring meeting. Having listened to all of his Reasonable Faith podcasts, I finally started listening to Craig’s Defenders podcast, which is really where finally touches on my area of specialty, that is, dogmatic theology.

Dogmatic theology is not Craig’s own area of specialty, he is more at home in philosophy of religion, the resurrection of Jesus and various scientific issues. I feel rather unqualified to comment on most of Craig’s work, in those areas I am just happy to be able to learn from him. But when it comes to dogmatic theology, I feel I can make a contribution, and so I’d like to post a series of articles in response to William Lane Craig’s Defenders lectures, starting from the Doctrine of the Church.

Sacraments and ordinances

I was a little disappointed when I realized that the lectures are not really on ecclesiology as such but simply on the two ordinances of the Church, baptism and Lord’s supper. What about the nature and unity of the Church, the local and the universal Church, the visible and the invisible, the authority of the Church and its leadership, etc? These to me are questions of primary interest, and I think that Craig’s reflections ultimately must lead to them. For the masses of people that read and listen to Craig, I think it would be very useful to give some food for thought concerning these issues.

Craig does a good job in structuring his lectures: first he presents the biblical material on the topic in question, then he explains the various theological positions and gives arguments for them, and finally he explains why he prefers the view that he personally takes on the issue. He tries to be fair to the various positions, and he often gives the listeners a chance to ask questions. This is definitely the kind of doctrinal formation Christians are in need of.

In the first lecture Craig defines the terms and explains the difference between sacrament and ordinance: if you are a sacramentalist, you think sacraments are means of grace, whereas on the ordinance view (which Craig as a Baptist takes) we are dealing with confessional acts, signs or symbols that are of special importance for the Church.

Although Craig mostly does a good job in defining the terms, he makes a couple of basic mistakes in presenting the Roman Catholic view. First he confuses the doctrine of penance with the sacrament of penance (i.e. the sacrament of reconciliation or confession), and then he says that the sacrament of ordination is about religious orders, which is not the case at all (it is only about being consecrated as deacon, priest or bishop).


Craig does a fairly good job in presenting the biblical material, although he (understandably, as a Baptist) omits a lot of the indirectly baptismal passages that sacramentalists read sacramentally (a lot could be said about Ephesians, for example, and about OT prophecies).  It was interesting to note that the force of the baptismal passages and the sacramentalist case made Craig appeal to the audience to get baptized if they hadn’t yet – Craig seems to respect the sacramentalist view here as a viable option, although he rejects it in the end.

I enjoyed hearing a systematic argument for the ordinance view as well, and it does seem like a good case can be made for it. 1) There is the explicit Pauline teaching that grace has been given in Christ through faith, which puts a question mark to the teaching that the sacraments should be means of grace. 2) There are several cases in Acts where baptism occurs at a different point than the reception of the Holy Spirit. 3) Baptismal regeneration is contrary to Christian experience – many have experienced the transforming power of the Holy Spirit before baptism, and it is implausible to think these believers were still unregenerate enemies of God up to the time of their baptism.

I think I and Craig could agree that a good case can be made for both positions. But how then are we to decide what to believe? Here we come to the central problem, which I think Craig dismisses all to easily. As a Protestant he tries to find the answer in “what the Scripture teaches”. But it is left up to the individual to decide which arguments are the most compelling, and here Christians are devided. But 1 Cor 1 and other texts should make it clear that we shouldn’t allow for such division.

God didn’t drop the Bible down from heaven and say, ‘now figure out what Scripture teaches on this or that’. Rather, Jesus sent the apostles to baptize and to teach, and we want to know what those apostles believed and taught. Now of course the primary sources are the NT documents, but if and since they alone do not force us to a unanimous conclusion, we must look at the communities those apostles started and their faith, the faith of their followers.

When the issue of the Church fathers was raised, Craig said that their opinion is interesting but still a matter of indifference, because if they taught something contrary to Scripture, then they simply erred and we should go with Scripture instead.

But as we’ve seen it is not that clear what Scripture teaches here, arguments go both ways, and God started a historical Christianity, he did not give a textbook in year X to his chosen people to figure out how the Church works. Rather, the Scriptures were born in the community of believers, and that community passed its faith along by mouth to the heirs of that community, the next Christian generations.

Now the astonishing fact is that there is a very early, very widespread unanimity on baptismal regeneration in post-apostolic times. The Shepherd of Hermas, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, just to stay in the first two centuries. Is it plausible that Irenaeus, the disciple of Polycarp, the disciple of John, would have lost the apostolic teaching on baptism? Sure, Irenaeus said some weird things, too, but there you won’t find him confirmed by the Church fathers before and after him in both East and West, as you do with baptism.

The same goes for infant baptism. Craig is clearly uninformed about the history of infant baptism, claiming that it became common only with Augustine and his doctrine of original sin. In fact it was the other way around, Augustine argued for original sin based on the already existing liturgical practice of baptizing infants “for the forgiveness of sins”. Cyprian, Hippolytus and Origen testify to infant baptism in the 3rd century, and Irenaeus in the 2nd, again, a disciple of a disciple of John the Apostle.

Craig’s arguments

What about Craig’s arguments against sacramentalism and for the Baptist view? First I think we should accept the argument that faith in Christ itself is salvific and that the Holy Spirit can be received apart from Baptism. An honest reading of the New Testament requires this. This means that faith cannot be reduced to a mere “preparation” or precondition to justification (as at Trent), God really does justify by faith (as the Joint Declaration teaches), giving us the Holy Spirit to call and equip us to good works.

But now does this have to mean that we should abandon the testimony of the sources of faith to the rich theological significance of baptism? Not at all! The Lutheran-Catholic solution is to keep both, and I think Craig helps us out by pointing out that we can apply the gifts of God both to faith and to baptism because of their close link. In fact it is all Christ, faith and baptism communicate the same Christ to us. There will always be some tension left because of the unsystematic nature of the NT treatment, but the way out is definitely not to empty baptism of its power.

I might join James White in criticizing Craig for elevating philosophical reasoning above the sources of faith. Here, for example, Craig argues from 1 Pet 3:21 and Acts 2:38 that baptism is a human work (an appeal to God for a good conscience) and that it follows repentance, and that therefore it cannot be administered to children. But why should we think we can draw such generalizations from these passages? I see no good reason.

In Acts adult Jews ask what they should do, and Peter tells them to repent and to be baptized. Peter is not giving a systematic treatment on baptism but preaching about its salvific value. He doesn’t teach that baptism must follow repentance, he just tells these Jews who had Christ’s death on their consciences to turn around and get baptized, to join the Church. 1 Pet 3:21 doesn’t force us to see baptism as a human work to the exclusion of its being a divine work, in fact it says baptism “saves you”, which Craig simply passes over without any commentary.

Craig goes on to say that what is “really fatal” is the combination of sacramentalism and infant baptism, because it leaves us with a Church full of nominal Christians who think they will be saved by their baptism although they have never really come to a saving personal conversion. My first reaction is to ask why the sovereign Lord would let his Church take just that view from the very first centuries on. This is the practice and belief of the vast majority of Christendom: Catholics, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, Lutherans and Anglicans.

Now I admit the problem of nominal Christians, coming from such a country myself, but I can also tell that these nominal Christians don’t usually think they will be saved by their baptism. Either they don’t know what they think about the afterlife, or if they think they’ll be saved, it’s usually based on a vague concept of God’s love.

Nominal, baptized but untransformed Christians definitely constitute an experiential problem for the sacramentalist paedobaptist. But the solution is not to abandon the Christian tradition, rather, the necessity of personal faith and conversion must be emphasized. I should like to add, however, that the experiential problem actually goes both ways.

What about children who grow up in good Christian families? In these countries there are many who have always believed, and it would be flatly contrary to their experience to tell them that if they are really Christians, there must have been a moment in their conscious life when they came to believe in Christ and received the Holy Spirit and turned from enemies of God to children of God. No, they became God’s children in their baptism and received the grace to believe even before they can even remember. This is much more in line with their experience.