A Review of Dr. John Fesko’s Lecture on Word, Water and Spirit, part 1

On Friday, January 21st, 2011, Dr. John Fesko, Academic Dean and Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary California, was the featured speaker at Christ Reformed Church in Anaheim, California, pastored by Dr. Kim Riddlebarger. He was invited to speak on his comprehensive new book, Word, Water and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism (© 2010 by J. V. Fesko, published by Reformation Heritage Books). The link to Dr. Fesko’s lecture may be downloaded from this post at the Riddleblog. First, Dr. Fesko describes the background to his book, then he summarizes respectively the history of the doctrine of infant baptism (paedobaptim–Part I of his book), the Biblical-Theological Survey of the Doctrine (Part II), and finally he briefly describes Part III: Systematic-Theological Construction of the Doctrine. This first in a series of posts will review Dr. Fesko’s discussion of the background to his writing of the book.

The background, we learn, is ultimately connected to his upbringing. As an infant, Dr. Fesko was baptized in the mainline denomination of the Presbyterian Church (USA). His parents apparently held nominal ties to this Reformed heritage, and the Fesko family wound up attending a number of churches over the years, landing among the Baptists in the end. While in college, Dr. Fesko listened to R. C. Sproul tapes on his Walkman, which lead him to realize that he was more Reformed than he was Baptist, and so he resolved to examine the outstanding Reformed doctrines he’d yet to deal with to be sure they were true–issues like infant baptism, so that, were he to minister in a Reformed church one day, he would not have to “hold his breath” as he administered the sacrament.

After seminary, while attending the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, Dr. Fesko read a book by Paul Jewett which he says is called, A Case Against Infant Baptism, which inadvertently impressed upon him the indispensability of covenant theology and laid the groundwork to his finally embracing paedobaptism. In searching the web for this title, however, I was unsuccessful in tracking it down, but found instead a book by the same author called Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace: An Appraisal of the Argument That As Infants Were Once Circumcised, So They Should Now Be Baptized, which apparently argues for the practice. Unfortunately, Dr. Fesko has a little trouble with recall on this and another title below, but, we can afford to forgive him this minor oversight. I share a marginally similar experience to the one Dr. Fesko describes, in my own examination of the issues related to the biblical doctrine of baptism. Over the past several years since my transition to theologically Reformed convictions, including the truth of infant baptism, I would periodically revisit the case for the Baptist view of believer’s baptism (credobaptism). Each time, after re-exposing my newfound paedobaptistic persuasion to the critique of the Baptist doctrine, I would come away with new reasons to believe that Scripture in fact does command and exemplify infant baptism, although not in a manner that satisfies the Baptistic hermeneutic (method of interpretation) which emphasizes as central the differences between the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant, rather than their points of continuity.

The Reformed covenantal hermeneutic emphasizes how the nature, promises and signs of the Covenant of Grace outweigh the various administrative changes between the Mosaic and New Covenants. Big-picture issues like these bring into sharper relief the seemingly unclear Biblical testimony to infant baptism. In other words, with all due respect to my Baptist friends, when it comes to the Mosaic and New Covenant administrations of the overarching Covenant of Grace, they seem unable to see the whole covenantal forest for the New Covenant trees.

The second element in the background to Dr. Fesko’s writing of Word, Water and Spirit comes from his ministerial environment in the South. He says, “if you cannot throw a rock in the Bible without hitting a covenant,  in the South, you cannot throw a rock without hitting a Baptist church.” Many Baptists, who, in the providence of God, come to embrace Reformed theology and appreciate so much about the doctrine and practice of a Reformed Presbyterian church will hold out on the Reformed practice of infant baptism. In his ministry to such believers in his congregation, Dr. Fesko tried to provide comprehensive evidence to help his converted Baptist congregants understand and believe in infant baptism, and the degree to which he would prepare such material for their benefit also facilitated his desire to publish on the subject of the Biblical and historical case for infant baptism.

Dr. Fesko was also interested in making sure his congregants understood the Biblical doctrine of baptism as a whole, not just the aspect of it that related to its administration to the infant children of believers. He observes that there is a troubling trend toward church growth by downplaying more objectionable doctrines, like paedobaptism. He desired not only to help people understand infant baptism, he wants them to understand what a sacrament is, what Biblical covenants are, and even the true nature of God’s grace itself. Many struggle to understand what grace is. I, too, struggled to understand the classical definition of grace as “unmerited favor” until I was introduced to the Reformed doctrines of grace. Once I came to grips with the fact that a sinner is unwilling to believe because as one who is dead in sin, he cannot (“Total Depravity”); that God’s election of him is not conditioned on God’s foreknowing or foreseeing that he would receive Christ (“Sovereign Election”); that the atonement of Christ for the elect in particular is properly understood in terms of his mercy, rather than his resentfully seeing such an act as inherently unjust of God’s part (“Particular Redemption”); that when the Holy Spirit enables a sinner who was dead in sin to believe and to willingly embrace Christ as his own crucified and risen Lord (“Effectual Calling”); and that God will not only prevent me from “losing my salvation,” but will graciously preserve me in such a way that I will, by his grace, persevere in my faith in him (“Perseverance of the Saints”–for more biblical testimony on these doctrines of grace, see the link in my Featured Sites widget in the sidebar), then and only then did it make sense to me how it is that grace is God’s favor for me which I in no way earned. It is in this way that God’s grace is truly unmerited favor. Just as Reformed theology helps one truly understand the nature of grace, so does Reformed covenant theology as a whole help the believer understand the Bible’s full teaching on the significance, proper candidates and proper attitude toward the mode of baptism.

God’s progressive revelation of his redemption of the elect in Christ was something Dr. Fesko often found insufficiently treated in the typical book or essay promoting the Reformed doctrine of baptism. Why is redemptive history important in relation to baptism? It helps us to better understand the nature of circumcision and baptism, the connection between the two, and why the sign of the Covenant of Grace is changed from the former to the latter with the transition from the Mosaic to the New Covenant at the first advent of Christ. Dr. Fesko finds that Reformed presentations of infant baptism often focus more on the New Testament in defense of infant baptism, and not quite enough on the Old Testament revelation of the subject. He would remind his readers that as important as the New Testament witness to infant baptism is, Christians ought not to build their doctrines on only half of the Bible, but on the entirety of the Scriptures. Too many do not realize that indeed the doctrine of baptism is, in fact, found in the Old Testament. Pierre Marcel’s book, Baptism and the Covenant of Grace (actually, Marcel wrote Biblical Doctrine of Infant Baptism), which was possibly re-titled Infant Baptism (again, we’re apparently relying on Dr. Fesko’s memory), writes, for example, that for Karl Barth, the Old Testament matters little when it comes to most doctrines, with the possible exception of the doctrine of the atonement.

Dr. Fesko finds that theological journals provide perhaps some of the most helpful information on any doctrinal question, baptism among them. He therefore desired the readers of Word, Water and Spirit, who ordinarily have no access to such information, to benefit from such journals and show them where they can go to learn more on the subject of baptism. This was another compelling reason for him to write the book.

In the next post, we’ll follow Dr. Fesko’s summary of the historical-theological section of the book, which makes up roughly half of its contents.

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3 responses

  1. […] Read part 1 This entry was posted on Friday, January 28th, 2011 at 2:15 am and posted in Anabaptism, Baptism, Books, Church History, Preaching, Sacramentology, Westminster Books. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. « Scripture Enigma, No. 2 LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  2. Thanks for the review!

    Hey, quick note–” Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace: An Appraisal of the Argument That As Infants Were Once Circumcised, So They Should Now Be Baptized, which apparently argues for the practice. ” Does not argue for infant baptism… it is a reformed baptist perspective written to uphold believers baptism. Is that what you meant?

    -Chris

    1. Yes, that’s what I meant. I sent the review to Dr. Riddlebarger and he commented that Dr. Fesko gave his entire lecture extemporaneously. So, it appears he got that and another book title confused since he was speaking without notes.

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