Thursday, July 27, 2006

Review: Thomas White, "What Makes Baptism Valid"

Thomas White has written a paper on the validity of baptism over at I wish to review it here for several reasons:
  1. Dr. White is an exceptionally learned and reasoned commentator, especially on this subject. His dissertation analyzing James Pendleton has brought him into close contact with the subject of baptism.
  2. The subject matter could hardly be more relevant to current events in the SBC.
  3. Aspects of White's paper overlap with my recent blog series on church validity.
  4. White was one of the graders of my dissertation, and therefore any opportunity to critique his work will serve as a welcome vengeance and catharsis. :-) (Actually, I consider Dr. White a friend)
Unfortunately (for that last reason offered), there's not much to critique. White's work is thoughtful and thorough. Some will certainly disagree with his conclusions, but no one can accuse him of ignoring the Bible, of being a closet Landmarker, of being a blind traditionalist, or of not considering other points of view.

White posits six attributes that make valid baptism: subject, mode, meaning, church, administrator, and formula. I do not see how any thinking Baptist can disagree that each of these categories impacts the validity of baptism. Many will perhaps differ as to how right baptism must be in each of these areas in order to be valid, but can any say that any of these areas is irrelevant? To be baptized in the name of Elvis Presley would surely not be valid Christian baptism. To be baptized by a Buddhist monk could not be Christian baptism, could it? To be baptized under the auspices of a Mormon temple is not Christian baptism, is it? To be baptized by waterslide would hardly be recognizable as valid baptism. Each of these categories rightly belongs in this discussion.

Under the category of "church," White gives a significant essay regarding what differentiates a true church from a false church. His definition differs from mine, and is therefore, by definition, wrong. :-)

But I enjoyed White's argument greatly. White stands on solid theological and historical grounds for his conclusions. He employs the time-honored distinction between attributes that impact the "being" of a church and those that impact "well-being." I would join him in his exact definition, but for the fact that none of the items White has in view under the "being" category seem to have been on the line for the Ephesian church of Revelation 2. I like his system a lot better than mine; I just don't think it answers the questions that Jesus' lampstand admonition raises in my mind.

I'm not sure whether it is possible for Southern Baptists to read this article with an open mind. So many of us are so committed to our personal beliefs about baptism. But I want to encourage you to click the link above, visit Thomas's paper, and read it carefully. Even if you differ at a few points, as I have done at one point above, you will be much the better for having read it. If this vital (in both senses of the word) discussion continues in Baptist life, perhaps we will learn a great deal in spite of ourselves.


Unknown said...

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Bart Barber said...


Normally I remove comment spam, but yours is so ironic that I cannot help but leave it up.

Could I order those invitations with prose similar to...

"Although it is entirely contrary to the teachings of the New Testament and is a deformity of the ordinance instituted by Christ, we have determined to sprinkle our infants in water contrary to their will and pretend that it is Christian Baptism. Won't you come and join us on this special day?