The past sixty years have witnessed quite an upsurge of interest in the subject of baptism among Protestant denominations. When it comes to Baptists and their treatment of baptism, both doctrinally and in practice, the 20th century was a period of significant change, even schizophrenia.
For example, H. Wheeler Robinson rightly championed the necessity of believer’s baptism as the foundation of a biblical ecclesiology:
“The Baptist stands or falls by his conception of what the Church is; his plea for believer’s baptism becomes a mere archaeology idiosyncrasy, if it be not the expression of the fundamental constitution of the Church.”
Yet it was Wheeler Robinson who first challenged the symbolic nature of baptism by arguing for a sacramental dimension as well (Life and Faith, 146).
R. Beasley-Murray’s pilgrimage towards a more liberal understanding of baptism is evidenced when one compares what he wrote in his Baptism in the New Testament (1962), his Baptism Today and Tomorrow (1966), his “The Authority and Justification for Believers’ Baptism” at the Consultation on Believers’ Baptism held at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville in 1979 and then his “The Problem of Infant Baptism: An Exercise in Possibilities,” in the Festschrift for Günther Wagner in 1994.
In Baptism in the New Testament, after an eighty page discussion and rejection of infant baptism, he penned these strong words:
“It seems that a small amount of water is bestowed on a small infant with a very small result. And this, it is alleged, is baptism! Can it be wondered at that Baptists should be strengthened in their determination to strive for the retention of the fullness of baptism, ordained of the Lord and continued in the Apostolic Communities, and that they should continue to lift up their voices among the Churches to plead for a return to this baptism.”
Four years later, in Baptism Today and Tomorrow, he was beginning to call on Baptists: 1) to opt for a moderate position that holds together the sacramentalist and symbolic views of baptism (23-24); 2) to view conversion and baptism as inseparable (37); and 3) to yield to a more open membership stance (which was already the norm in England). In his “The Problem of Infant Baptism,” (1994) he explored the possibilities of a rapprochement between believer’s baptism and paedobaptism, where one views infant baptism as
“the commencement of the work of grace within the baptized with a view to its blossoming into fullness of life in Christ and in his Body the Church as the individual’s life progressively opens to Christ.”
He also stated:
“churches which practice believer’s baptism should consider acknowledging the legitimacy of infant baptism. . . .
Whereas once in English Baptist life, the question of open membership in Bunyanesque fashion was a minority viewpoint, today it is the norm in the Baptist Union of England. Yet, in spite of this, in that very Baptist Union, infant baptism continues to be rejected as a valid form of baptism. Roger Hayden correctly noted with respect to English Baptists in the 21st century:
“[A] common understanding of the meaning and practice of baptism has remained elusive.”
For a helpful survey, consult Stanley Porter, “Introduction: Baptism in Recent Debate,” Baptism, the New Testament and the Church: Historical and Contemporary Studies in Honor of R. E. O. White, S. Porter and A. Cross, eds., JSNTSS 171 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 33-39.
Two significant studies covering a wide range of issues concerning baptism are S. Porter and A. Cross, eds., Baptism, The New Testament and the Church; and S. Porter and A. Cross, eds., Dimensions of Baptism: Biblical and Theological Studies in JSNTSS 234 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002). Among more recent Southern Baptist treatments, consult James Leo Garrett’s massive Systematic Theology: Biblical, Historical and Evangelical, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 502-36, especially 529-31 on the mode of baptism. See also R. Stanton Norman, More Than Just a Name (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001), and his The Baptist Way: Distinctives of a Baptist Church (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2005), 129-45; Malone, The Baptism of Disciples Alone (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2003); and Russell, Baptism: Sign and Seal of the Covenant of Grace (London: Grace Publications Trust, 2001).
Baptism in the New Testament, 385-386.
H. Wheeler Robinson began this trend in his The Life and Faith of the Baptists, revised edition (London: Kingsgate Press, 1946), 146.
“The Problem of Infant Baptism,” in Festschrift Günther Wagner, ed. by the Faculty of the Baptist Theological Seminary, Rüschlikon (Berne: Peter Lang, 1994), 13-14.
A. R. Cross, “Baptists and Baptism: A British Perspective,” Baptist History and Heritage (2000): 116. His entire article along with his Baptism and the Baptists: Theology and Practice in Twentieth-Century Britain (Carlisle, Cumbria, U.K.: Paternoster, 2000) are helpful summaries of the present state of affairs in Britain.
Roger Hayden, English Baptist History and Heritage, 2nd ed., (Oxfordshire, UK: Nigel Lynn Publishing & Marketing Ltd. on behalf of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, 2005), 224.