The Anglican Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism
by John Stott and J. Alec Motyer
Why publish together these two papers on the Anglican Evangelical doctrine of infant baptism? First, there is still relatively little written from an Anglican Evangelical viewpoint on the subject of infant (or paedo) baptism. We remain grateful to Michael Green for a helpful chapter on the subject in his little book, Baptism: It’s Purpose, Practice and Power (first published in 1987), yet it is a pity not to see this joined on the bookshelves by many other volumes from evangelicals on this controversial and sometimes perplexing subject. Baptism is of course one of those subjects on which we have obvious differences with many of our closest friends and gospel partners in non-Anglican evangelical churches. So perhaps a certain reticence to discuss this potentially divisive ‘distinctive’ is therefore understandable. Yet secondary issues are not unimportant issues, and with care it should be possible robustly to expound a view on such matters while graciously maintaining fellowship with brothers and sisters who read the Scriptures differently at this point.
Second, there is some confusion regarding baptism in a number of our churches at present, with many lapsing into a kind of default anti-paedobaptism (sometimes misleadingly called credobaptism, as if Anglicans did not also baptize adult converts!). This mystification in the pews may be due partly to the absence of seemingly trustworthy material on the subject. There are many Presbyterian works of great value, clarity, and erudition, but less from a distinctively Anglican perspective that is dependable. Our modern liturgies are often deliberately ambiguous and usually left unexplained, while few expository preachers would pause in a standard Sunday sermon to unpack the implications of their text for the doctrine of infant baptism. It is to be feared, therefore, that congregations are not often exposed to the biblical and theological reasoning behind the practice, which leaves them only with superstitious or erroneous explanations from less reliable sources that can quickly be dismissed by the biblically literate. It may also be that uncertainty in the pews is due to uncertainty in the pastor’s study.
In the light of these two considerations then, to continue publishing solid teaching in this area is vital for thinking laypeople, ministers, and especially ordinands, some of whom will not have come to settled convictions regarding the propriety of baptizing infants prior to being accepted for training.
Furthermore, there are movements within Reformed and conservative evangelicalism at present, with support from certain circles in the United States, which are strongly and passionately paedobaptist but which also defend some less mainstream evangelical views. ‘Federal Vision’ theology, for example, has proved to be somewhat divisive and controversial in some quarters, as has the so-called ‘New Perspective’. Yet it would be a mistake to so associate a belief in infant baptism with the Federal Vision that holding to the former was thought to implicate every paedobaptist in the perceived peculiarities of the latter (be it post-millennialism, preterism, or paedocommunion). Some critics can see a Romanizing ‘high church’ drift or an American home-schooling conspiracy behind everyone who holds convictions regarding infant baptism (even just standard Anglican convictions)!
It is refreshing then, in such a context, to read again the following papers by two fine scholar-pastors of unimpeachably evangelical credentials. John R. W. Stott CBE is Rector Emeritus of All Souls, Langham Place in London and over the last 60 years has been one of the most influential leaders of evangelicalism worldwide. J. Alec Motyer is the former Principal of Trinity College, Bristol, and was for many years incumbent of St. Luke’s, West Hampstead and later minister of Christ Church, Westbourne. Both have been awarded a Lambeth D.D. for their scholarly contributions to the church and are respectively the New Testament and Old Testament Editors of the widely-acclaimed Bible Speaks Today series of evangelical commentaries. Their reputations were not gained by importing the traditional frameworks of systematic categories onto Scripture but through rigorous devotion to the hard work of exegesis in the context of the whole Bible, which is the hallmark of all truly evangelical hermeneutics.
In what follows, Drs. Stott and Motyer defend biblically the doctrine of infant baptism and its proper evangelical practice within the Church of England. Since these papers were originally written well before any current furore they demonstrate effectively that covenantal infant baptism is a reliably evangelical and Anglican view to hold, and has been for quite some time. Whilst they may not answer directly more recent arguments that have been brought against infant baptism, they certainly do set out (in a characteristically lucid fashion) the broad parameters of the traditional Anglican Evangelical approach. There may be other approaches to defending the truth of infant baptism, and alternative ways of understanding the texts which still reach the same ultimate conclusions. More recent discussions may at times provide more compelling syntheses. But Stott and Motyer speak to reassure a new generation of Anglican Evangelical paedobaptists that theirs is no new or peculiar doctrine, and to persuade those who may not have fully appreciated the Reformed heritage we in the Church of England enjoy.
I am grateful to the authors for their kind permission to reproduce these articles which were both originally published elsewhere. I have indulged in only light editing of the text for the sake of readability (e.g. removing capital letters from pronouns referring to God), and in Dr. Motyer’s chapter I have substituted the English Standard Version for the original Authorised Version in quotations from the Bible. I am delighted to commend these expositions to a new and wider audience,conscious of these wise and inspiring words from the great Anglican Evangelical, J. C. Ryle:
“The subject of infant baptism is undoubtedly a delicate and difficult one. Holy and praying men are unable to see alike upon it. Although they read the same Bible, and profess to be led by the same Spirit, they arrive at different conclusions about this sacrament. The great majority of Christians hold, that infant baptism is Scriptural and right. A comparatively small section of the Protestant Church, but one containing many eminent saints among its members, regards infant baptism as unscriptural and wrong… But the difference now referred to, must not make members of the Church of England shrink from holding decided opinions on the subject. That church has declared plainly in its Articles that ‘the baptism of young children is in any wise to be retained, as most agreeable with the institution of Christ.’ To this opinion we need not be afraid to adhere” (J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Mark (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1985), page 204).
May this small book go some way towards helping us as Anglican Evangelicals to recover that same gracious yet unashamed confidence.
The book can be ordered by clicking here.