Prof. Hendrick F. Stander
Prof. Johannes P. Louw
This Carey Publications reprint deals with baptism in the first four centuries, claiming that ‘the writings of this era are important since they reveal the origins and developments of Christian practices and dogmas.’ Such an examination is unhelpful in tracing origins and developments when isolated from the Biblical sources as in this work. Christian faith is not built on ‘practices and dogmas’ but on a personal relationship with Christ expressed in Christian doctrine. The work claims to adopt no ‘theological point of view’, yet dogmatises that baptism can only mean immersion; it is not for households but for single adults; there is no evidence that believing children were baptised; such references are later glosses or indicate false practice; and we must distinguish between ‘adult baptism’ and ‘infant baptism’, the first being orthodox practice, the second not. The authors both ignore the meaning of the Biblical words used for baptism, including those not found outside of Scripture, and the descriptions of family baptisms in the New Testament and the early church.
The overview begins with Colonel Henry D’Anvers who believed that the Church was a political institution and thus became John Bunyan’s greatest antagonist. The authors claim that D’Anvers’ A Treatise of Baptism (1673-74) provides the scholarly ‘tour-de force’ for believers’ baptism by immersion. This Fifth Monarchy man, was no scholar and did no scholarly research whatsoever, copying mostly from the Dutch Bloody Theatre (1660) which displays no original research either. Building on D’Anvers’ view of the Church and baptism, the authors argue incorrectly that second century Tertullian proves that baptisms of believers’ children were a novelty of his day. Tertullian writes that though such baptisms were Christian practice, he wished to introduce a postponement of baptism in both adults’ and children’s cases for recent proselytes. The authors claim that the Didache (I90-220?) points to immersion as the rule, though it only mentions pouring. Indeed, the Didache rules out customary Baptist baptismal procedure. Justin (100-165) is quoted as defending adult believers’ baptism only, though he does not distinguish between ‘adult’ and ‘infant’ baptisms, seeing baptism as a continuation of circumcision applied to both adults and children as a method of ‘regeneration’. The latter word, he explains, does not mean the New Birth but being put in the way of it. The authors ignore Justin’s teaching.
Hypolytus in his Apostolic Tradition (210?) refers to Christian parents being baptised with their infant children. This is explained away by arguing that translators must have messed up the text. Second century Origen’s multiple references to baptised infants is argued away by declaring that the usual Greek and Latin words for a new born baby can also mean ‘young children’ which does not help their cause at all. Stander and Louw find references to child baptisms in Cyprian’s early third century writings but question his testimony because he does not support immersion and adult baptism only. However, in Cyprian’s letters, scorned by the authors, there is a clear evangelical, Biblical stance that whether we speak of being sprinkled, washed or affused as a symbol for cleansing, it is only that and no more and this signifies according to Scripture the need to be washed, sprinkled or affused in the precious blood of our Saviour. It is neither the amount of water nor blood that saves but the precious quality of the latter which the former signifies. The authors claim that Basil the Great (329-379) was baptised as an adult and his writings ‘have no bearing on either the age of the baptismal candidate or the rite itself’. Yet, Basil’s Oratio Exhortatoria ad Baptismum deals with the responsibility of parents to have their children baptised and Gregory of Nyssa testifies to Basil’s baptism as a child. The authors ignore this statement but condemn Cyril for ‘swinging public opinion’ towards the ‘extreme’ of baptising children. The authors deal neither with Jerome nor Augustine, probably because there is too much material in them to be explained away.
The book argues that though second century children’s gravestones testify to their baptisms, these were merely superstitious exceptions. No such study of adult gravestones is made. The authors admit that all early Christian art points to sprinkling but argue that this proves the practice of immersion. Early artists did not show ‘an actual scene’ but ‘conveyed its notion or meaning’. The ‘meaning’ was sprinkling but the ‘mode’ was immersion. I finished the book exclaiming, ‘Now pull the other leg`. This book demonstrates how not to write a book on baptism. It is a piece of ill-researched, prejudiced pseudo-scholarship. The average Baptist in the pew is more able to attempt a Scriptural defence of the Baptist Way than these alleged ‘objective and scholarly’ authors.