Downplaying baptism

As we saw in my previous post, the “conservative evangelical” tradition within Anglicanism tends to deny the effectiveness of baptism, emphasising the need instead for personal conversion. Before looking at the Lutheran perspective, some further thoughts on this downplaying of baptism among Anglican evangelicals.

There are a number of theological arguments behind this, but in practice what gives the issue its traction for evangelical Anglicans is the perceived gulf between texts stating that baptism saves us or washes away our sin or unites us with Jesus’ death and resurrection or clothes us with Christ or cleanses and sanctifies us or regenerates us or causes us to be born again, and the reality of the lives of many who have been baptised but whose lives show little sign of these promised effects.

The conclusion is that those passages must be referring to something else: a “baptism of the Spirit” – identified, in this tradition, with conversion rather than with any post-conversion charismatic experience – which is contrasted with “baptism by water” in the same way that St Paul contrasts “circumcision of the flesh” with the “real circumcision” which is “of the heart”.

On a more practical level, expressing confidence in one’s baptism becomes an indicator of unconvertedness (in stark contrast to Luther’s “I am baptised!”). A classic illustration of this can be found in Norman Warren’s widely-used evangelistic booklet Journey Into Life, which includes the following example response to the question, “Are you a Christian?”:

I was baptised and confirmed.
So are thousands who care little about Christ. That doesn’t make you a Christian.

As a result of this, more time is spent explaining what baptism is not than what it is; what it doesn’t do, as opposed to what it does.

However, it seems to me that the Lutheran perspective on baptism provides a means by which these theological and rhetorical denigrations of “water” baptism could be avoided, without losing the pastoral and evangelistic concerns of conservative evangelicals. In my next post, we’ll look at what the Small Catechism has to say on the subject of baptism, and how this could be applied in a conservative evangelical context.

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11 Responses to Downplaying baptism

  1. SimonPotamos says:

    I’m glad you bring this topic up. I have often been frustrated at the baptisms of friends’ children, where the whole sermon is on the topic of Nothing: “Don’t worry folks, nothing will happen.” Or, as a friend who was getting baptised in one such church told me in advance, “All that will happen that’s new is that I’ll get wet.” (Thankfully, he now confesses something quite different!). At one such service, I got so upset that I actually plucked up the courage to challenge the preacher at the door on the way out (very out of character for me), only to be (a) queried what denomination I might come from (surely the best explanation for such silly views) and (b) to be told with perfect confidence that Paul in Romans 6 clearly states that baptism is symbolic. “Why don’t you go and check it once you get home.”

    Anyway, zu Sache: I think you are onto something with your ‘socio-theological’ explanation of the malaise. It’s further supported by the existence of e.g. Baptism Integrity (which exists, inter alia, “to bring to an end the indiscriminate administration of infant baptism”).

    However, there are two other factors that I would like to propose:

    First, there is a rampant Platonism in much modern evangelicalism. Being a Christian is holding on to invisible (usually called ‘spiritual’) realities, which unbelievers call thoughts. Having the right thoughts in your head mean you are a Christian; the wrong thoughts or the wrong sequence means you aren’t. It’s not spiritual to look to matter. This kind of Platonic spiritualising is very much behind Zwingli’s thinking, and Calvin’s too, though slightly less. It’s running amok among evangelicals.

    Secondly, there’s the age-old anti-Catholicism. If the Catholics do it, we mustn’t. If Catholics cross themselves, have altars, wear vestments, say the Creed (or even Lord’s Prayer) – or indeed believe something about the Sacraments, the truth must be the opposite. This is a crass way of putting it, but whatever the level of sophistication in its expression, it has never gone away. It has even found its way into Lutheranism over the past couple of centuries. I remember being shocked reading Martin Lloyd Jones’ What Is an Evangelical?, when Lloyd Jones declared that to be an evangelical one must not believe in baptismal regeneration. He then proceeded to define baptismal regeneration in a kind of cod-mediaeval-Catholic moral improvement way, and thus had the question dealt with. It was hardly worthy of the great man’s intelligence and learning.

    There are groups within the evangelical movement that have cottoned onto this—and tended to move in the direction of ‘continental Reformed’ theology, including the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. They are a minority, though, and often not well liked by their fellow evangelical Anglicans. [I always think someone must a pretty good evangelical theologian if he gets accused of Lutheranism, as has been the case in one recent row!]

  2. John H says:

    SimonPotamos: thanks for your comment. How’s life down in Fareham?

    The lack of a significant Lutheran alternative in the English church has been hugely damaging. It has driven “evangelical” Anglicans away from the sacraments and “catholic” Anglicans towards Rome.

    If there has been a significant movement towards “continental Reformed” theology among C of E evangelicals, then I’ve never noticed it myself. I think we need to distinguish between the continental Reformed tradition of (say) the Heidelberg Catechism, much of which is very “Lutheran” in tone and content, and the Puritan Reformed tradition on display in the Westminster formularies.

    The latter has had some popularity in the C of E (though not a great deal – which is one reason why J.I. Packer moved to Canada in the 1970s), the latter very little as far as I’m aware.

  3. John H says:

    Talking of evangelical hostility towards “Romish” views on the sacraments, I don’t know if you’ve ever come across J.C. Ryle on the subject of the Real Presence, on which I blogged a few years ago.

    Sample quote:

    There is a voice in the blood of the martyrs. What does that voice say? It cries aloud from Oxford, Smithfield, and Gloucester,- “Resist to the death the Popish doctrine of the Real Presence, under the forms of the consecrated bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper!”

    Ouch. You can see why I had some difficult wrenching myself away from those views towards the Lutheran understanding. To find myself apparently on the same side as Bloody Mary and Cardinal Pole – and against Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer – was a painful experience.

    I don’t recall encountering anything in Ryle that engages with Lutheran views on the Supper. There is the Reformed view; there is Rome; there is nothing in between.

  4. SimonPotamos says:

    Life in Fareham is good, thanks. Come and visit.

    Yes, the absence of the Lutheran voice is indeed glaring. Which is presumably behind Lloyd Jones’ bizarre part-definition of an evangelical, too.

    As always, Lutheranism has got it in the neck from the ‘High Church’, at least since the time of the Tractarians for ‘solafideism’ and from the ‘Low Church’ for ‘sacramentalism’. And I get the impression that neither side really understands that to which they are so opposed.

    When I said that there had been a move toward continental reformed theology among some Anglicans, for ‘some’ you can substitute ‘a small handful’. In my limited experience, most confessing Anglicans are quite happy to stay with the broad terms of the 39 Articles. I have heard it referred to as ‘moderate Calvinism’. Packer himself in his younger days was a staunch defender of the sufficiency of the Articles of Religion:

    As their title declares, the Articles were drawn up ‘for the avoiding of diversities of opinions, and for the establishing of consent touching true religion’ … Moreover, their determinations of these disputes are such as to line them up at every point with the rest of the confessions of the Reformed (Calvinistic Christendom).

    It is not true, then, that the Articles are ambiguous. But what is true is that they are studiedly minimal in their requirements, and conscientiously leave many secondary questions open.

    … the Articles are nowhere narrower or more exclusive than they have to be, and their definitions were, it seems, always made as broad and comprehensive as was thought consistent with theological safety. (J.I. Packer, ‘The Status of the Articles’ in J.C. de Satgé, J.I. Packer, H.G.G. Herklots, G.W.H. Lampe, The Articles of the Church of England, 30f.

  5. Being on the other side of the globe to most of you chaps I had to go to bed just as the conversation was taking off. I’m glad to see you’ve expanded the discussion to a new post, John, and I look forward to seeing how you think the Lutheran teaching might apply in a conservative evangelical context, a subject I am often thinking about, as we have plenty of evangelical Anglicans down here. In fact before too long I think they’ll be the only Anglicans left!

  6. Chris Jones says:

    There is a voice in the blood of the martyrs …

    The blood of St Justin Martyr says otherwise.

  7. Peter Ould says:


    It might be really helpful for us if you were able to spell out what the Lutheran position on Baptism is, what it does and doesn’t achieve.


  8. Chris Jones says:

    Fr Ould,

    From Dr Luther’s Small Catechism:

    What does Baptism give or profit?

    It works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.

    And from the Large Catechism:

    For to be baptized in the name of God is to be baptized not by men, but by God Himself. Therefore, although it is performed by human hands, it is nevertheless truly God’s own work.

    … Therefore state it most simply thus, that the power, work, profit, fruit, and end of Baptism is this, namely, to save. … But to be saved, we know, is nothing else than to be delivered from sin, death, and the devil, and to enter into the kingdom of Christ, and to live with Him forever.

    Or as the Creed more succinctly puts it, ??? ?????? ????????.

  9. Chris Jones says:

    Well, that last bit didn’t work. Better to stick to English, I suppose:

    … As the Creed more succinctly puts it, for the remission of sins.

  10. John H says:

    Chris: thanks for jumping the gun on my latest post! 😉

    Peter: I’ve just put up my latest post, which addresses this question.

    Please don’t read this as an outsider being critical (or, worse still, condescending). I’m a former Anglican conservative evangelical (or “ACE”) myself – so St Helen’s was far from an alien environment for me 🙂 – and have a lot of sympathy with the pastoral and evangelistic concerns of ACEs on this issue. But I do think the Lutheran position – which is not so different from the teaching of the Prayer Book – helps address those concerns in a way which doesn’t involve “talking down” baptism.

  11. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive » Lutheran baptism for Anglican evangelicals

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