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A Review of
It Takes a Church to Baptize:
What the Bible Says about Infant Baptism
Paperback: Brazos Press, 2018
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Reviewed by Ryan Johnson
It took only a few hours, but my life changed with one small event: the birth of my son, Judah. As it is with any new parent, I wrestled with many questions. Cloth diapers or disposable? Breastfeeding or formula? Which pediatrician should we got to? As a Christian, I face another question as well: Baptism or dedication? The last of these is of course a theological question, and a debated one at that. More accurately, the debate lies around infant baptism or believer baptism, where my own position has always favored the latter. So, when one of my favorite authors and theologians chooses to write a book in defense of infant baptism, I was eager to see what he had to say.
McKnight’s own journey to this position mirrors my recent journey. Growing up in a baptist setting, McKnight was firmly set against infant baptism. Over many years and personal study, he began to reexamine the practice more and more. It was through that study and a vast number of experiences that he began to see the value of infant baptism.
In It takes a Church to Baptize, McKnight lays the foundation for a robust understanding of infant baptism. His discussion centers on a few key themes: family, scripture, and tradition. He frames his discussion with the Anglican liturgy for baptism. He does this in order to demonstrate both at once the rich tradition behind the baptism service and to help explain the reasons for infant baptism. This structure gives the effect of sitting through an unfamiliar service with a guide to help translate both what is happening and, more importantly, why.
The beginning of the service is all about bringing the entire church together. This stands in contrast to the baptistic perspective which sees baptism as being a much more individual affair, where one person declares their commitment to Christ. The opening part of the Anglican baptism service on the other hand demonstrates two very important points. The first is that baptism is not about what we are doing, but about what God is doing. The second is that baptism involves the entire church and the entire family.
The service moves on to the presentation of the child along with commitments made by the church and the family. This is a wonderful covenantal perspective on baptism. The idea goes that baptism is the mark of the new covenant much as circumcision was the mark of the old covenant. McKnight backs up this understanding with verses that demonstrate the correlation between the two. Again, the importance of covenant between the church and the family on behalf of the infant is crucial to the service. I believe that this is where most people of the baptistic perspective begin to push back. There is a need for personal faith and conviction. Often people raised with infant baptism are not taught or raised up to have personal faith. This, however, as McKnight rightly points out is not the fault of infant baptism, but of the failure to live into the commitments made at that baptism.
Just before getting to the actual baptism, McKnight makes a slight detour to explain baptism followed by an apology for infant baptism. He offers several different themes that enhance our understanding. He says that baptism is the sign of the covenant, that it bring us into union with Jesus and the Spirit, that it leads us to becoming part of the church family, and finally that it leads to forgiveness and redemption. This last point is the one that most readers, myself included, can get a bit squeamish about. McKnight readily admits that uneasiness but also doesn’t allow us to pass by the verses that link baptism with the forgiveness of sins. He doesn’t go so far as to say that baptism forgives sin, only that baptism is connected to the forgiveness of sin. Indeed, of the points that he makes, this one is the vaguest and could have done with more explanation.
For McKnight, the crux of the debate lies in the overemphasis of the individual in modern society. This focus on the individual at the neglect of the family has raised suspicion regarding infant baptism. For many, infant baptism is questioned because it lacks the personal faith that the believer baptism is supposed to offer. McKnight eloquently and gently points out that this is a product of modernity rather than being the scriptural understanding of baptism.
For me personally, this book came at a perfect time. My understanding of this debate has been in flux for a few years as many of the theologians I trust have opened my eyes to a broader kingdom vision. This includes a shifting understanding of baptism’s role in that kingdom vision. The arguments that he uses aren’t new, but the way he gently guides the reader makes them far more palatable and persuasive. I especially appreciated his insights into the emphasis of the individual in baptistic traditions as opposed to the familial focus of scripture and infant baptism.
Whenever I review a book, I always seek to answer the question why is this book important at this specific time and place? On a personal level, it is easily answered by the fact that I have an infant who I now see as needing to be baptized. On a broader level however, the book hints a greater debate: the role of the individual versus the role of the family. On the surface it is a book that defends infant baptism yet digging deeper it is a book that defends the role of the family and the church in shaping the next generation of believers. From that standpoint, it is of paramount importance.
I appreciate McKnight and especially his latest book. He continues to stretch my own beliefs and offers challenges to some of my preconceived notions. His gentle style mixed with his scholarly study makes for a thought provoking and enjoyable read.
Ryan Johnson and his wife Lauren live and work in Nottingham, Maryland. They recently welcomed their first child, Judah and loving every moment of it. Ryan’s passion is for raising up disciples in the church and for leading people into a deeper faith.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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