Friday, March 24, 2006

Benjamin B. Warfield

For six or seven months I've been reading and studying the writings of Benjamin B. Warfield. Look out for more posts on Warfield soon, including sections from my dissertation on Warfield's theology of history.
Here are 2000 words surveying Warfield's accessible articles on baptism.
Benjamin B. Warfield was Professor of Didactic and Polemic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary from 1887 to 1921. He was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1875, but within three years he was working as a theological educator. Warfield is now known through the influence of his writings on Reformed and evangelical thinking. In particular, his writings on the doctrine of scripture have contributed to the ongoing discussions within evangelicalism about the nature of biblical authority. One dividing line is whether or not Warfield’s doctrine of inerrancy is a useful way to understand the truthfulness of scripture. Another discussion revolves around whether his work represents a development of Reformed doctrines of scripture, or whether it is an innovation that breaks with the Reformed tradition.

However, Warfield’s writing covered the whole field of theological discussion. The most accessible of his collected works contain several articles on Christian baptism. These articles represent a case study of how evangelical Presbyterians have defended their baptismal practices. Warfield discussed both the mode and the proper subjects of baptism, and he did this from biblical, theological, and historical perspectives. This essay describes and analyses these articles from the perspective of someone who is sympathetic to Warfield’s position.

The mode of baptism

In an article first published in 1896, ‘The Archaeology of the Mode of Baptism’, Warfield discussed the history of how baptism has been practised in the church. He acknowledged and described the diversity of baptismal administration throughout the church, including the differences between the Eastern church and the Western church. His starting point in this was to suggest a broad division between the trine immersion of the Eastern church, and the affusion of the Western church. (IX: 345-347) Warfield believed that English Baptists in the seventeenth century were the first to declare that immersion was essential to valid baptism, and that this was ‘a survival from an earlier time only in the sense that it was a return to an earlier custom, although with the variation of a single instead of a trine immersion.’ (IX: 347) Throughout the article there is a tension between Warfield’s discussion of history and his attempt to defend his own practice.
Warfield had to acknowledge that the Eastern tradition was older than the Western tradition, although he was well aware that there was no uniform practice in the Western church. He could allude to ‘survivals of an older custom’ along side the common practices in these two traditions, but he did not believe that the baptismal practices of Protestant Baptists could be included among these. He seems to have believed that immersion was the tradition found in Roman and Anglican Prayer books, and that affusion was an exception to the general rule that had become the common practice. All this discussion is illuminated when we discover Warfield’s belief, described below, that the New Testament does not provide enough information about the mode of baptism for churches to copy. At the end of a fascinating but verbose discussion on the history of baptism, Warfield concludes that only the New Testament itself can provide satisfactory guidance on the matter. (IX: 386)

The evidence of the references in various English confessions and prayer books to immersion prepared the way for learning that ‘there was a time when immersion was universal even in the West as in the East.’ (IX: 349) History showed that within the first thousand years of the church’s life the ordinary use of trine immersion defined Christian baptism. At this point, Warfield takes two lines of further inquiry. Was the universality of trine immersion itself the result of ecclesiastical development; and was conformity to trine immersion held to be essential to the validity of baptism, or only necessary to the good order of the church? Before discussing the evidence, Warfield simply states that there never was a time when immersion was held to be the only valid mode of baptism. To defend this statement he refers to cases of necessity, for example, Cyprian’s clinic baptism. (IX: 352) There follows a strange discussion where Warfield mentions other exceptions to immersion in order to make the case that immersion was never held to be the only valid mode. He distinguishes between ‘the necessity of order’ and ‘the necessity of means’. (IX: 358) Trine immersion was held up by the church for the purposes of keeping good order in the church, but single immersion and affusion were allowed and were valid when circumstances pointed to such baptismal practice.

In the article Warfield next discusses the archaeological or monumental evidence. Study of ancient baptismal fonts seems to imply affusion, since they tend to be too shallow to allow for immersion. Yet, this conclusion contradicts the weight of evidence that shows that the Church Fathers understood affusion as an extraordinary and unusual form of baptism. After a discussion about theories attempting to explain this anomaly, including an intriguing section where Warfield discusses the history of art images depicting baptisms, he comes to the conclusion that the monumental evidence represents the actual practice of the church, while the literary evidence preserves the canonical form of baptism. Warfield comments: ‘It would be no unheard-of thing if the actual practice varied from the official form: indeed, we know as a matter of fact, that not only have such changes in general, but that this change in particular has usually taken effect in practice before it has been recognized in law. It was only because actual baptism had come to be by affusion that the Western Church was led in later ages to place affusion on a par in her formularies with immersion: and the same history was subsequently wrought out in the English Church.’ (IX: 367)

However, Warfield then claims that the only theory that does full justice to the facts is one that supposes that normal baptisms in the early church were performed by a mode that united immersion and affusion in one single rite. The subject of baptism would stand in the font, perhaps up to his or her knees, and either duck their face in the water or have water poured over their head. The rite would represent an entire bath, fitting the symbolism of baptism being a cleansing or purifying rite. This triune immersion of a standing catechumen was, according to Warfield, the normal patristic baptism. (IX: 372)

Having acknowledged the historical evidence pointing in favour of immersion, Warfield then asks whether this mode ‘represents truly the original mode of baptism as handed down to the Church by the apostles.’ (IX: 376) Warfield is unable to answer this question. His discussion turns to the question of ‘Jewish’ baptism, including the rabbinical custom of initiating prosolytes into the Jewish faith by an ablution. But Warfield is cautious about assuming any links between Jewish lustrations and Christian baptism. He is also very reluctant to assume that the practice of the early church is traceable to the apostolic practice. Obviously, Warfield cannot claim that the earliest known practices are apostolic without having to change his own preferred mode of baptism.

In fact, Warfield, in an article published fifteen years later, wrote that the New Testament had little or no concern with the mode of baptism. It was unclear how the rite was performed in the New Testament, and so there could be no authoritative directions taken from it to apply to baptism in the church. Even the ten accounts of baptising in the book of Acts did not provide sufficient information to describe how the baptisms were administered. References to water did not imply immersion. (SSWW II: 335-337) Believing that the New Testament gave no definite instruction on the matter, Warfield argued that ‘the nature of the ordinance itself’ had to be considered to discover appropriate modes of administration. (SSWW II: 348) The most important aspect of baptism was that it was a washing or a cleansing that symbolised the cleansing of the soul by the blood of Christ. In the Old Testament, cleansing could be symbolised by rites such as a complete bath, affusion, or sprinkling. Warfield comes to the conclusion ‘we are clearly within the bounds of decency and order when we follow their suggestions.’ (SSWW II: 349) Before finishing the article he manages a dig at current norms of Baptist administration, commenting that it was never normal in the ancient church ‘to baptize by laying fully clothed recipients down on their backs in the water.’ (SSWW II: 349)

The subjects of baptism

Warfield’s views on the appropriate subjects of baptism are a good example of a doctrine of the church upholding the continuing practice of a tradition. It is interesting to see the reversal in Warfield’s arguments. In discussing the mode of baptism, he is reluctant to press the historical evidence too far in his defence of Reformed Presbyterian practice. However, in an article entitled ‘The Polemics of Infant Baptism’, he is quick to state the historical prevalence of baptising infants in the history of the church. (IX: 390) However, before stating this, Warfield has already described how the doctrine of the church is of central importance in the discussion of the matter. He distinguishes between ‘the Puritan idea of the Church’ and ‘the general Protestant doctrine’, concluding that it is only on the basis of a Puritan conception of the church that Baptists exclude infants from baptism. (IX: 389) Warfield adds two general ideas to these in order to state his summary of ‘a convincing positive argument … capable of being set forth for infant baptism, to the support of which whatever obscure allusions to it may be found in the New Testament itself may then be summoned.’ (IX: 391) These are the continuity of God’s purposes among the Israelite people with his work in the church of Jesus Christ, and the equivalence of circumcision in the Old Testament with Christian baptism in the New Testament church.

It is remarkable that Warfield cannot point to the clear teaching of the New Testament text, but that he is happy to interpret ‘obscure allusions’ in the context of historical and theological ‘facts’. Warfield’s article becomes a review of A.H. Strong’s arguments against infant baptism in his Systematic Theology. Warfield acknowledges that there is ‘no express record’ and ‘no clear example’ in the New Testament about infant baptisms taking place. He states that the household baptisms in Acts are at best neutral on the issue, and that they are passages that ‘will support any other indications of infant baptism which may be brought forward, but which will scarcely suffice to prove it against evidence to the contrary,’. (IX: 396) Nevertheless, Warfield discusses these passages before discussing the argument based upon the assumption that Old Testament theology helps to defend the doctrine. Yet, his strongest argument rests on the attestation of infant baptism in the early church, even though he is conscious of the same gap that exists in the case of the mode of baptism between the early church practice and apostolic practice. The ‘ambiguous evidence of Tertullian’ is the only exception to the prevalence of infant baptism in the early church, ‘so that our choice is to follow history and baptise infants or to recontruct by a priori methods a history for which we have no evidence.’ (IX: 403)

Warfield’s arguments for infant baptism come under the type of defence that Beasley-Murray describes under the heading ‘The Covenant, Circumcision and Baptism.’ (Beasley-Murray 1976: 334-344) In a later discussion of baptism in general, Warfield described eligible subjects for baptism as ‘those who are the Lord’s’, a subtle shift from his own discussion of baptism being about union with Chirst. (SSWW I: 327,328) Those infants who belonged to the Lord were worthy to receive the sign of baptism, but infant baptism itself becomes a sign of salvation being ‘altogether of the Lord.’

Warfield was part of a tradition that upheld and defended the Westminster Confession of Faith. It is difficult to read his work on baptism without thinking that he was bound to interpret all the evidence for infant baptism in the context of a Presbyterian commitment to that doctrine. The fact that little of this evidence comes from the New Testament did not concern Warfield because he believed that all facts had to be systematised. All that Warfield wrote, including his thoughts on baptism, was within his controlling Westminster framework. This brought occasions where he appeared to reinterpret the Westminster tradition to suit his own view of the evidence. His discussions on baptism interpreted the evidence to fit the undeniable Westminster line on the mode and subjects of baptism.


WBBW The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield 10 vols. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker House (reprint, 1981) (Originally published 1927 – 32 by Oxford University Press, New York.)
IX Studies in Theology

SSWW Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, ed. John E. Meeter, 2 vols. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R 1970, 1973.

Beasley-Murray, G.R. 1976 Baptism in the New Testament. Exeter, Paternoster Press

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