In an attempt to explain why he wrote such an extensive presentation of the development of the doctrine of baptism in Word, Water and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism, Dr. John Fesko paints a picture of a pair of believers who begin discussing their differences on a given theological issue, and the lively conversation lasts a number of hours. When a third party approaches and asks what they’ve been talking about, they are faced with the daunting task of rehearsing the entire track of the conversation. On a broader scale, just such a conversation has been going on, not just for a few hours, but for nearly two thousand years. Getting his readers caught up on this conversation was Dr. Fesko’s goal for the historical-theological section of his book, which makes up roughly half of the book. This is intended to help the reader see that what the Roman Catholic believes about baptism differs from what the Reformed Protestant believes and teaches, and also the differences between Reformed and Lutheran, as well as Anabaptist and Baptist.
In Part I: “The History of the Doctrine,” Dr. Fesko covers early church witnesses such as Augustine and what the medieval church thought about Augustine’s doctrine of baptism. There is also a presentation of medieval theologians such as Bonaventure, Peter Lombard, and Thomas Aquinas. The bulk of the historical section covers Reformation views, with a chapter on the view of Luther and the later Lutherans. He also brings us through the developments of figures like John Calvin and Ursinus, with the contributions of the venerable Three Forms of Unity. His description of this development progresses on from the writers between the time of the Reformation and the production of the Westminster Confession of Faith, through the later development of the London Baptist Confession. Sketching the history up to the present day, theologians such as Moltmann and Karl Barth are treated.
Dr. Fesko introduces the Roman Catholic teaching that baptism literally cleanses the recipient of sin, introducing what is known as the “created grace” of God into him. He explains that uncreated grace is the Holy Spirit’s incommunicable power; created grace is created by God and infused into the recipient at baptism. This is said to then create a “habit,” the newly formed ability to do good works.
On the other end of the spectrum, Dr. Fesko describes how that the Anabaptists in Zurich, Switzerland developed the unintended consequences of Ulrich Zwingli’s doctrine of baptism. Zwingli did accept the term sacrament, but he emphasized the term’s patristic-era usage as an oath taken by a Roman soldier who swears loyalty to his commanding officer. From this, he concluded that baptism was no more than one’s pledge of allegiance to the Lord. While Zwingli did include more nuance than this in his own teaching, the first Anabaptists reduced his argument and developed a doctrine that featured exclusively this oath-taking emphasis. For the Anabaptists, baptism became no more than the believer’s pledge of fidelity to the Lord. In this view, there was no grace attached at all to the rite.
Thus, whereas the Roman Catholic formulates an undue admixture of grace and the water of baptism, the Anabaptist radically separates the water of baptism from almost any reference to the grace of God, making it merely a believer’s pledge and in no way God’s pledge. Insofar as modern Baptists generally tend to appear to hold a view that appears to broadly coincide with this Anabaptistic kind of emphasis, Dr. Fesko assures his Baptist friends that he understands that they teach what man is doing in baptism, but he would ask them what they believe that God is dong in baptism, if anything. Why water? Why not some other substance? Or, why not some other ceremony? Even Charles Ryrie, he indicates, suggested a non-water ceremony would be just as acceptable. Maybe this could be a viable option, if baptism is all about what the believer is doing, but the historical Reformed tradition calls baptism a sign and a seal. It signifies Christ, not a thing or a substance, but Christ himself. Dr. Fesko says that what he likes about the historical Reformed view is that it reflects the ancient view that baptism is the visible Word: that which is heard in preaching is seen, felt and tasted in the sacraments—baptism, no less than the Lord’s Supper—making them what some have called “the double preaching of the Word.” In this regard, the sacrament is dependant upon the presence of the Word preached for its efficacy. The Word preached may stand alone and retain its efficacy apart from the sacrament, but the sacrament has no efficacy apart from the Word preached and so cannot stand alone.
According to Dr. Fesko, contemporary theologians are trying to run as far away from tradition as fast as they possibly can. They’ll claim that previous ages engaged too much in bad philosophy, and simply desired to defend “the traditional view.” But to these innovators, Dr. Fesko says our generation was not the first to open the Bible. For example, the middle ages are maligned as always and only engaged in extra-biblical, or even unbiblical philosophical speculation. But consider, for example, the case of Aquinas, who, before he taught theology, was first required to teach exegesis, and wrote a number of Biblical commentaries. This does not mean we must uncritically accept everything he wrote, but it at least indicates that medieval theologians were not utterly disengaged from the text of Scripture, and many of their writings do contain Scripturally-based insights from which the church in all ages can benefit.
Next time, we’ll review Dr. Fesko’s description of Part II: Biblical-Theological Survey of the Doctrine.