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believe that its essential message is still central to understanding and practicing baptism and the book hasn’t really been replaced by more recent treatments.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.
IP: A number of your perspectives in the book appear to be driven by theological concerns. What new theological insights do you think are now relevant to the practice of baptism?
SK: The major factor in making me want to revise Believing in Baptism was the greater support offered to its thesis by developments in biblical theology over the last thirty years. This particularly went for the scholarship of Tom Wright. I had already written a book on the impact of Tom Wright’s theology upon the local church but saw it as crucial to add his insights to Believing in Baptism. The theme of the covenant, already a strength of the original version, has thus been considerably expanded in the light of Wright’s work. Integrating Wright’s insights on the importance of biblical cosmology (the relationship between heaven and earth) and eschatology (the Christian hope) has also been crucial. The original edition of Believing in Baptism was written in a context where sub-biblical understandings of both heaven and the Christian hope were still largely present leading to sacraments (as well as many other important areas such as holistic mission) making little sense.
These changes are the biggest reason for the book now being three times as long as the original edition and the length of its third and fourth chapters. At points readers may think that the new edition has become a book on the covenant rather than baptism! But this is done because of the conviction that pretty much every misunderstanding of baptism is rooted in a failure to engage with the nature of the covenant narrative that binds the whole of the biblical story together and the cosmology and eschatology underlying and shaping this story. Readers are being encouraged to soak or immerse themselves (do you see what I did there!) within the covenantal theme of the Bible and then see how baptism should be understood in the light of this.
The reason for this approach (in line with that of the first edition) is because, largely unnoticed, many Christians of all traditions still approach baptism with a very flawed methodology. This is often based upon first deciding at what age baptism is appropriate and second, and on the basis of their answer to the first question, deciding what baptism is. This approach is taken by advocates of both infant baptism and believer’s baptism. The book seeks to reverse this process by first seeking to establish the Bible’s perspective on what baptism is and only then turning to the various issues concerning its administration.
IP: You give considerable space to exploring the origins of baptism and the practice of the early church. How confident can we be of aspect of this, and how does this shape our thinking about baptism?
SK: The book is actually very careful not to make historical claims about baptismal practice in the early church. There are other books that seek to take this approach which is not without value. The focus within this book, however, is instead upon the theology of baptism reflected within the New Testament documents and the foundations of this within the Old Testament. We can, I believe, be very confident about establishing the theology of baptism that is presented in the New Testament before, and on this basis, seeking to work out our practice of baptism in the light of this theology. Rather than seeking a uniformity of approach to baptism, the book is trying to establish a greater recognition and consensus from all Christians on the theological basis of baptism.
This is the reason for the presence within the new edition of a narrative introduction and epilogue where six different ministers in the same (fictional) town meet together to discuss and make progress on baptism. Whilst the ministers retain the approach to baptism which safeguards their greatest concerns, they all shift through their dialogue with one another’s positions and the consensus they reach. The narrative here is also seeking to make the issues involved as accessible as possible to readers, particularly those coming from a less theological background and make it easier for them to approach the rest of the book.
IP: Not surprisingly, you address the issue of infant baptism. Is this still an important question in a smaller church where more people are coming to faith later in life?
SK: The book indeed seeks to address infant or family baptism and the host of issues connected with this but only, as emphasised, via a sustained focus on baptism itself. The second edition, like the original, argues that infant/family baptism is appropriate for a child being brought up within the covenant family of God. It argues on the same basis that, within a missional context where people are coming to faith in later life, adult baptism is very often the most appropriate form for it to take.
Matters are made somewhat more complicated, however, by the fact that the path of many adults to (or back to) faith is often influenced by the birth of a child. I have already explored this theme in my 2009 Grove Book Church Growth through the Full Welcome of Children: The Sssh Free Church. When people’s children are born, a whole number of factors occur to make them more open to God and when churches seize the opportunity that this provides the missional implications are vast. Frequently the whole ‘household’ will join the church together with the baptism of its youngest member(s) part of the expression of this faith. The conviction of the book is that God’s ‘best’ is for children to grow up never knowing a time when they didn’t belong to him and continuing making an age appropriate response of faith to their baptism. This is undermined, however, by a great deal of baptismal practice within the church.
This leads to a major theme of the second edition (and particularly its later sections) in its claim that infant baptism is only being practiced with integrity when it goes hand in hand with an absolute commitment on the part of the church to the nurture of baptised children aimed at enabling them to respond to their baptism with a life of faith. Sadly churches with the most ‘open’ approach to baptism are also the least committed to such nurture and the book seeks to show how infant baptism and ‘child friendly church’ belong completely together. This reflects my own attempts to implement this over a number of years at Christ Church New Malden and the book reflects many of practical lessons learned here.
IP: You press the case for baptism as ‘full Christian initiation’. Why do you think this is important, and what difference might it make?
SK: Others have blazed the trail on ‘baptism as full Christian initiation’, most notably Colin Buchanan. The second edition, like the original, is indebted to Colin’s insights on baptism and the courage and clarity with which he has pressed them. The issue is crucial for the full emancipation of baptised children within the church and their status as full rather than provisional members. Lots of brilliant resources are now being produced to encourage child friendly church but the critical issue is the theological one of their status within God’s family.
Once any ambiguity about this is cleared up, the practical steps that need to be taken on the basis of the full membership of baptised children become obvious. Just one of these is infant (as opposed to just child) communion which, unlike the original edition, is also explored in the book. The relevant chapter also responds to the arguments for a distinct ‘Baptism in the Holy Spirit’ or Confirmation being needed to complete initiation and the considerable damage both of these (whether expressed overtly or simply in terms of practice) inflict upon the integrity of baptism. It also has major implications for safeguarding and the present debacle in regard to this within the Church of England – issues I plan to address in another forthcoming book.
IP: Do you sense there is now more or less agreement about baptism across the denominations and traditions?
SK: The influential report of World Council of Churches, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry in 1982 did bring a greater measure of consensus to baptism across the churches. A significant development within baptist theology in recent years has been the shift to the more sacramental understanding of baptism reflected by George Beasley-Murray. Anglican thinking, at a theological and liturgical level, has also placed greater emphasis upon the importance of baptism needing an active response of faith. In all of these ways, a pragmatic approach to baptism does seem to be giving way to a more theological one.
However at a popular level, the consensus on baptism is often not to ask searching questions about it. One of the things that prompted me to revise the book is the collusion across very diverse traditions in this regard. Baptists avoid questions about baptism in case infant baptism turns out to have stronger foundations than they are prepared to engage with but also because of the uncomfortable issues it raises about their ecclesiology. Evangelicals and charismatics, including many Anglican ones, avoid questions about baptism in case there turns out to be a greater biblical basis for sacramental theology than they are comfortable with.
Liberal Catholics (and perhaps an increasing number of evangelicals) avoid questions about baptism because families approaching them for this is one of the few times that they feel relevant to the outside world and something they dare not jeopardise through asking questions about what baptism actually is. The book is trying to cut through such avoidance-driven agendas and appeal to all Christians (including my own evangelical Anglican tradition) to be prepared to think again on baptism and realise its huge and very practical implications for ‘doing church’ differently in the light of the biblical material concerning it.
SK: Within this overall approach, issues of efficacy (what, if anything, baptism brings about), discrimination within baptism and rebaptism are also addressed. Just as significant, however, are those very practical sections of the new edition that, expanding upon the original version, address how the church should teach and live out baptism. It also seeks to address issues of Christian parenting in the light of baptism. Like other things that I have written, the book is trying to integrate biblical theology with the very practical issues of how to be and do church in a local setting and, in this case, the paramount importance of baptism to shaping and directing this calling.
IP: Thanks very much for your time, Stephen—and for all the thinking that you have done that has gone into this important book.
Stephen Kuhrt has been Vicar of Christ Church since April 2007, having been curate there since 2003. Stephen loves cricket, watching films of the 1930’s and 40’s, reading about history and anything to do with Robin Hood. He is married to Katie and they have three children. Stephen has a particular passion for finding ways to implementing the insights of fresh biblical scholarship within church life, particularly in mission, and has written a number of books, including Grove booklets on church growth through welcoming children, using film to minister to and reach older people, and developing a social mission project in the local church.