Questions around the meaning and practice of baptism have divided the church, and until recently questions around its importance, its efficacy, and key issues such as the baptism of children have led to heated debate. Stephen Kuhrt, vicar of Christ Church, New Malden, thinks these questions continue to be important.
This led him to the unusual step of revising and expanding his father’s book Believing in Baptism which was a key resource for a previous generation considering these issues. I asked him about the new edition of the book.
IP: Your father’s book on baptism was published over 30 years ago. What impact did it have and why? What made you want to revise and update the book?
SK: The original edition of Believing in Baptism was published in 1987. It made a significant impact being the first book on baptism by an evangelical Anglican for some thirty years—although, like London buses, another arrived at the same time by Michael Green! The success of Believing in Baptism chiefly lay in its careful and thorough treatment of the biblical material and particularly in the seriousness with which it addressed the concerns of Christians of a more baptist persuasion.
My father’s upbringing as a Strict Baptist was critical here and the major emphasis (reflected in the title) upon God’s promises in baptism needing to be received through a response of active faith was especially helpful to those perplexed at how often infant baptism, in particular, is practised without any emphasis upon such faith. In the years after its publication, I met a number of people who expressed their gratitude for how much the book had helped them. Some have even said it played a crucial role in helping them to minister with integrity within the Church of England. The book was less well received by Anglicans who favoured a completely open/indiscriminate approach to baptism and Open Baptism by Mark Dalby was partly written in 1989 to oppose its case.
I was motivated to revise and update Believing in Baptism by several factors. I believe that its essential message is still central to understanding and practicing baptism and the book hasn’t really been replaced by more recent treatments. The revisions were driven by the significant changes that have occurred in the last thirty years. Partly in terms of the cultural ‘landscape’ but also in terms of the very significant developments in biblical theology during these years which I saw as adding considerable weight to the book’s presentation of baptism.
IP: How do you think the ‘landscape’ in thinking about baptism has changed since the first edition of the book?
SK: There is now a much greater recognition than in 1987 that the church is in a missional context. This shift was anticipated within the original edition but thirty years of living through this change has reshaped a good deal of the book, particularly in terms of its more practical sections about implementing baptism in the local church. Much of the recognition of this different context has produced positive results within the church. However, increasing insecurity about the church’s relevance has also worked to prevent questions about baptism being fully engaged with. Debates about baptism can also be seen as insular rather than concerning the very practical issues of ministry and mission. These perspectives were ones that I was keen to challenge.