Book Review: Restoring Integrity in Baptist Churches, ed. by Thomas White, Jason G. Deusing, and Malcomb B. Yarnell, III
It’s hard to assess the health of Baptist churches with any claim to accuracy.
For one thing, there are just so many of them in so many different places with so many different ideas. For another thing, it seems that for every step Baptist churches take in a good direction, there’s often another step in the opposite direction.
There’s also the not-unusual-but-still-frustrating fact that most Baptists’ formal doctrinal statements, which are often good, aren’t lived out. Sound formal statements don’t necessarily translate into sound practices.
REARTICULATING BAPTIST DISTINCTIVES
The editors of Restoring Integrity recognize that fact up-front, but they hope that rearticulating several Baptist distinctives will remind members of Baptist churches who they are and how they are supposed to live as Baptist Christians.
The book has eleven chapters. John Hammett and Mark Dever write on regenerate church membership, what Hammett calls “the Baptist mark of the church” (21). Daniel Akin, David Allen, Thomas White, and Jason Lee write on baptism, and White and Emir Caner write on the Lord’s Supper. Greg Wills and Stan Norman each offer chapters on church discipline, and Malcolm Yarnell contributes one on the priesthood of believers (not, he insists, the priesthood of the believer).
Restoring Integrity doesn’t really break new ground, nor does it take head-on any of the more high-profile controversies which have roiled the Baptist world recently. Danny Akin mentions the International Mission Board’s baptism policy as an instance of the confusion that results from misunderstanding the doctrine of baptism, but he does not address it any further. Malcolm Yarnell puts a final stake through the heart of the old moderate idea of “soul competency.” David Allen mentions the controversy over baptism at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis (John Piper’s church), but he wrongly characterizes it as primarily a dispute over immersion rather than paedobaptism.
A GOOD REFRESHER
As a compendium of exegetical and historical arguments for Baptist distinctives, the book is good. Probably its best use would be as a quick resource for reminding oneself of what Baptists believe about the five major issues it addresses. John Hammett’s chapter on church membership is systematic and clear; Dever’s is pastoral and practical. Akin’s on the meaning of baptism is comprehensive, succinct, and preachable. White gives a careful and nuanced treatment of six different categories bearing on the validity of baptism. Wills’s chapter on church discipline is typically excellent, especially his description of the factors which led to the Baptist loss of church discipline. And Yarnell’s chapter on the priesthood of believers is a very good exegetical, historical, theological, and practical treatment of the subject.
I was somewhat surprised by just how colored the book is by Anabaptist and Landmarkist sources. Balthasar Hubmaier makes an appearance in two of the chapters, and Pendleton and Graves both seem to show up at regular intervals, too. That’s a different emphasis than I am accustomed to seeing.
A SPRINKLING OF UNIMPRESSIVE ARGUMENTS FOR IMMERSION
I was also surprised at the relative weakness of David Allen’s chapter on immersion. I have read good arguments for immersion as the only valid baptism, but this is not one of them.
Most importantly, Allen constantly confuses the questions of subject and mode. When he cites, for instance, the debates between Baptists and paedobaptists about the nature of the church, he concludes that biblical ecclesiology “includes a return to believer’s baptism by immersion.” But logically speaking, “by immersion” is sort of smuggled in there, isn’t it? The early Baptists didn’t argue so much that immersion got at the nature of the church; rather, whether you baptize unbelieving infants gets at that issue. They may have argued the two points, subject and mode, at the same time, but that doesn’t mean both questions bear in the same way on what the church is.
In another place, Allen states that “Our Anabaptist and Baptist forefathers were mistreated, imprisoned, tortured, and murdered by Catholic and Protestant alike over their commitment to a New Testament ecclesiology centered on believer’s baptism by immersion.” Again, “by immersion” is smuggled in. The persecution our forefathers (if Anabaptists truly count as such) endured was not because they insisted on dipping, but because the whole idea of Christendom was threatened by their insistence on baptizing only those who professed faith in Christ.
Finally, Allen closes by quoting from Charles Spurgeon, but the quote argues against infant baptism, not against sprinkling. None of this is necessarily to say that one or the other of these issues is unimportant. It is simply to recognize that they are in fact two issues, and that to prove one is not to prove the other.
This is not nearly so important, but Allen also uses several times what may be the all-time worst argument for immersion. It goes like this: In the story of Philip and the eunuch, the text uses the Greek words for “to go down [into]” and “to come up [out of]” water. Going down into the water and coming back up—that’s immersion.
Well, no. That’s a bad argument. Here’s what the text says (Acts 8:38-39):
And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.
Now if “went down into the water” and “came up out of the water” refer to the baptism itself, are we to understand that both Philip and the eunuch were baptized? The text, after all, says that “they both went down into the water” and that they both came back up. Surely the text is not saying that both were baptized. Also, look carefully at the text’s sequence; it’s very precise. They went down into the water, he baptized him, then they came up. If “went down” and “came up” refer to the immersion itself, then we’re left with the ridiculous picture of Philip pushing the eunuch under (presumably going under himself, too), then immersing him while they’re both under water, and then both of them coming up together out of the water. What sense does that make? It’s much easier to understand “went down into the water” as referring not to immersion, but to stepping down into whatever body of water the eunuch saw. Then Philip baptized him, and then they both stepped out of the body of water.
Finally, Allen’s charge that any failure to translate baptizo as “immerse” must be motivated by “bias, cowardice, or even misrepresentation” is surely far overstated. That would indict as liars or cowards the translators of every major English translation in history, including those of the Holman Christian Standard version. Surely Allen does not mean to go so far.
BAPTISTS NEED THIS
Allen’s chapter aside, however, Restoring Integrity is generally a well-articulated statement of some important Baptist distinctives. If nothing else, having these ideas republished in the modern era is a useful thing. Pastors seeking to reform their churches can point to the book as proof that regenerate church membership and church discipline, for instance, are not strange new ideas.
Incidentally, I wonder if it might have been even more useful in that regard if the book had been published by someone like Broadman & Holman rather than Kregel, especially if the hope is to reassure long-time Southern Baptists of the essential Baptist-ness of these ideas.