Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Baptism Debate: Mark Dever on John Bunyan, Church Membership, and Today's Evangelical Leaders

Last month Mark Dever of Capitol Hill Baptist Church and Tom Nettles of Southern Seminary spoke at an Evangelical Forum hosted by Good News Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia. When you see the session titles, my guess is many of you will think "naptime." You really ought to listen at the very least to Dever's session on John Bunyan. Audio for all four sessions are accessible here.

The reason Dever's session on Bunyan is so relevant is that John Piper and his fellow elders' decision to recommend to their congregation that immersion not be universally required for church membership is very similar to Bunyan's position on baptism and church membership. Numerous documents on this matter are available on the Bethlehem Baptist Church site (none of which I have read in full), including two from the lone dissenting elder. The primary document refers to Bunyan occasionally, though not always in full agreement.

Dever specifically mentions Piper one time early in the lecture, but afterward refers only to modern evangelical leaders broadly. In a biographical sketch of Bunyan, Dever says that Bunyan rejected infant baptism, but he also rejected limitation of church membership to immersed believers, calling Bunyan an “E-Free minister before his time.” Bunyan saw infant baptism as nothing at all and was immersed himself. Below are three selections that summarize the core of Dever's critique of Bunyan, Piper, and others:
Is disobedience to a command of Christ a mere lack of light to be born with as Bunyan maintained, or is it a disciplinable sin—an offence? . . . Do we teach our children to mean well or to act well? Do we teach them that they must not hit their brother, or that there must be no malice in their hearts when they do?
. . .
The best of motives notwithstanding, obedience to God is not in the eye of the beholder. And particularly in our subjectivist age, no evangelical leader should be teaching that it is. So in this sense, . . . [Presbyterians are] much better theologically, I think, to actually think infant baptism is legitimately baptism and to accept it, than to do as John Bunyan was doing and as other evangelical leaders are doing today, who do not think infant baptism is baptism and yet say “If you think you’ve been obedient to this, we will accept you upon that basis.” Friends, that’s to subjectivize what we understand of obedience to God in a way Scripture does not allow us to do.
. . .
My conclusion on Bunyan’s position on baptism is that he was editing Jesus. Not that he was intending to, but that effectively that’s what he did. The Lord Jesus commanded it, and Bunyan even saw and acknowledged that the Lord Jesus commanded this, and yet he said he would not enforce that in terms of discipline in his own church and therefore in terms of church membership.
The recording quality of this lecture is poor but audible. It's worth accessing as well for Dever's discussion in the last few minutes of the necessity of a doctrinal hierarchy. It is just too long for me to transcribe. He doesn't offer a clear taxonomy, but he does introduce some crucial but thorny questions.


John said...

Thanks for the link. I was hoping someone would post the audio for Dever's talk.

The link is a little messed up, btw. It should just be this.

Ben said...

Thanks for the catch on the link, John. It's fixed now.

Gary said...

Maybe the Infant Baptism debate has been approached from the wrong direction. Instead of starting with our disagreements, let's start with what Baptists/evangelicals and orthodox Christians AGREE upon: All persons who believe and have faith in Christ as their Savior should follow his command and be baptized as soon as possible.

So the next question is: Can an infant believe and have faith?

Evangelical and Baptist brothers and sisters in Christ: If I can prove to you from Scripture that infants not only can but DO believe and have faith, would you accept infant baptism as Scriptural?