Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Federal Vision and Baptism: insights or deja vu?

It seems I have spent the last 24 hours familiarizing myself with the views of the Federal Vision movement, and so far I have come to two conclusions.

The first is that I am not a ‘Federal Visionist’ (I think that is probably a better term than ‘Federal Visionary’).

The second is that I agree with several things that the Federal Vision movement stands for, according to the ‘Joint Federal Vision Statement’ signed by some of its lead thinkers.

In particular, I have a lot of sympathy with their views on baptism, though once again I do not agree entirely. However, I was especially struck by the fact that so much of it represented ideas that I, and many others, took on board in the 1970s under the tutelage of the Revd Colin Buchanan, then lecturer at St John’s Theological College, Nottingham, and later Bishop of Woolwich.

In the 70’s Buchanan wrote, and published as Grove Booklets, a number of seminal works on baptism, in particular A Case for Infant Baptism and, jointly with David Pawson, Infant Baptism under Cross-Examination.

Unfortunately, I have mislaid my copies of these, but I still have his booklet no. 61, One Baptism Once (Grove Books: Bramcote, Nottingham, 1978), which builds on the ideas in the other booklets and considers their implications for Evangelical pastoral practice.

A summary of this booklet will hopefully give an idea why I find much of what Federal Vision is saying about baptism to be unexceptionable.

In One Baptism Once, Buchanan addressed first the question of baptismal efficacy, observing that “In the New Testament baptism is (usually) treated as effecting what it signifies.” (4). He notes, however, that whilst this is a comfortable idea for ‘Catholics’, it has raised distinct problems. First, regeneration cannot be regarded as present where there is simply no evidence for this in the life of the believer. Secondly, “if faith brings justification, then logically baptism tout simple does not,” (for which we may see also the Anglican Catechism). Thirdly (which may be an extension of the first point), a person cannot be regarded as grafted into the living body of Christ if there is no life in the person (5).

However, though these might be valid objections, Buchanan felt that Evangelicals have adopted a number of unhelpful ‘strategies’:

1. Not wanting to know what scripture says.

2. Arguing that only baptism which actually includes the inward gift of regeneration and justification is ‘true’ baptism.

3. Interpreting the baptism references as applying to ‘Spirit’ baptism.

4. Denying the efficacy of infant baptism

5. Viewing baptism as a mere ‘token’ of conversion.

These strategies, he said, have impacted on Evangelical practice in a number of negative ways:

1. We feel we cannot know when a baptism is a ‘true’ baptism if it must (but may not) be accompanied by regeneration.

2. We may omit baptism if there are other ways in which it may be witnessed that we are converted.

3. We value baptism primarily for the experience it provides, and judge it by the strength of that experience.

Over against this, Buchanan insisted that we must distinguish between ‘efficacy’ and ‘validity’ (9), and whilst it might not be possible to say that a baptism was efficacious, it was always possible to say it was valid, provided that it involved “the administration of water on a person, with sufficient wording to establish that Christian baptism is intended’ (10). To this, Buchanan added only that we must take into account the context when we consider the administration.

A baptism would thus be valid, for example, irregardless of the state of the person being baptized. Otherwise, it would only be invalid in very limited circumstances, such as being administered by an heretical sect.

We should, furthermore, take full account of the biblical assumption that baptism is the norm for believers. Baptism in the New Testament, “is a constituent part of the gospel” and “is universally practised among Christians,” whereas “the New Testament knows nothing of the unbaptized Christian,” but rather “Baptism identifies people as Christians.”

The Christian church, he concluded, “has only one message for [the unbaptized], and it is this: ‘Here is water —repent and be baptized.’”

What, then, were the pastoral consequences? Buchanan was a keen advocate of a ‘baptismal discipline’ which would restrict baptism to the children of practising churchgoers. This is a suggestion, it must be noted, which the Church of England has strenuously resisted. We must also, he argued, firmly resist any requests for ‘rebaptism’ by those who have previously received a valid baptism. But he also noted the New Testament approach on preaching to the baptized:

We have to steer between the Scylla of assuring congregations that all is well because they have been baptized, and the Charybdis of denouncing the baptized on the grounds that their baptism will have deceived them into thinking all is well! It looks as though the Pauline method was to use the fact of his hearers having been baptized to gain leverage to procure their growth. In effect he said ‘You have been baptized into Jesus as Lord —now live for Jesus as your Lord’. It will be seen that this sort of approach neither offers false assurance, nor unnecessarily denounces baptism. It treats it positively, as the starting-point of the Christian life, and as the permanent reminder to the believer of what the Christian life implies. (23)

In a footnote, he added,

The point here is that the preacher should rarely be saying ‘You have been baptized, and much good it has done you’ ... If the nature of the faith-relationship with Jesus Christ, the incorporation into his body the church, and his expectations and call to a life of holiness, are all built upon the meaning of baptism (and they are all there in the New Testament passages on baptism), then not only is the leverage of the word most operative (because it is treating the fulcrum of baptism as secure), but also any who are converted this way will not be denouncing their baptism as having misled them, but rather rejoicing that it has now come to fruition.

This, it seems to me, is similar to, but rather more positive than, the ‘glass half-empty’ approach of Federal Visionism, which focuses more on the notion that the baptized* who do not practice their faith are ‘apostates’ (an expression with unfortunate resonances, given the present problems with conversion from Islam being defined as ‘apostasy’).

I am sure I am right in saying that, on the basis of his views on baptism, Buchanan was also an advocate of paedo-communion. (I hope someone will put me right if this is not the case.) Certainly that is a view I have long taken myself. This is thus another part of the Federal Vision viewpoint with which I find myself in broad agreement.

This analysis also raises, I believe, serious questions about our own ‘programmes’ of evangelism. Why is it that, when we reach the point of calling for commitment, no-one asks us, as the Ethiopian eunuch did of Philip, “Here is water, what is to prevent me from being baptized?” If people do not ask the same question, then we cannot be making the same presentation. And that surely means we must be doing something wrong.

Thus, although I do not share the Federal Vision view that the result of baptism is entry into the Covenant, I do share their ‘high’ view of baptism, and their criticism of some Evangelical attitudes, including those amongst Evangelical Anglicans.

But this leaves me even more confused as to why Federal Visionism is apparently such a touchy subject. I’m left wondering if part of the problem is simply that it has been made into a package — a ‘movement’ instead of a discussion about a number of diverse points.

Revd John P Richardson
4 March 2009

PS: I'm sorry about the title, but I had to come up with something quick.

* I had erroneously typed 'unbaptized' here in the first version.

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  1. John, thank you for that. It looks like Bishop Colin is well-worth reading on the subject.

    I believe there's some variety amongst the FV types. The movement has sometimes been tagged "covenantal objectivism" and, as I'm sure you will have gathered, some of what they want to say about baptism is that it admits one to an objective covenant with Christ or to the covenant in its objective aspect. In other words, as you and Bishop Colin put it, the baptised are obliged to live out their baptsim. Baptism does not, of course, make someone eternally elect or garuntee their perseverence and final salvation, but it is a real change of status: the baptised are members (objectively speaking) of the visible / historical church and have the right to come to the Lord's Table unless excommunicated and so on. Baptism gives real privileges.

    Baptism is not a nothing and I don't think we want to say things like, "We're not doing anything here today [to this baby we're going to baptise]. We're just getting him wet" - which is the kind of thing I've sometimes heard from fellow Conservative Evangelicals. I reckon as evenagelicals we often emphasise what baptism is *not* (through a fair enough fear of RC Baptismal Regeneration) and its very helpful to be encoraged to think about what it *is*.

    Marc Lloyd

  2. Dear John,
    thank you very much for this clarification, as I was beginning to worry that I agreed with some the FV stuff (and I am certainly not used to agreeing with Mark Thompson but could get used to it!)
    I think +CB is yer man when it comes to this. I have a copy of "A case for infant baptism" if you would like to borrow it for a while.

  3. Thanks Marc, I've changed my tune on this in the last few years. I used to say "In Baptism the child gets wet", to prevent the idea of anything "magic" happening.

    The Puritans used to bang on about the sin of ingrattitude, which I think if very helpful. So if you are Baptised, or enjoy any other benifits of being part of the Church, but reject the gospel message you are more accountable/worse off.

    So I now say (this isn't perfect), think of Baptism as signing a contract between you and God. You can pull the wool over my eyes, but not his. Do you really want to sign up to this? What do you think will happen if you break the contract? & so on - proving quite fruitful, so far.

    Darren Moore

  4. Tim, I may be misunderstanding what you are meaning to say but just to be clear, Mark Thompson is not in any way an FV-proponent.

    Ros Clarke

  5. Ros,
    that's right, I was agreeing with him in not being an FV-ist. I just didn't agree with him much when we were at Oxford

  6. Dear John,

    from one who sees baptism as the sign and seal of the covenant, but rejects paedocommunion (which requires an ability to understand the meaning of the sacrament) here is the summary document from some US covenantal presbyterians (the PCA) rejecting various errors linked with the Federal Vison.

    Much of what Colin Buchanan writes I can agree with. In particular presbyterians, unlike anabaptists, would share the idea that the church is mixed and we need to exhort people not to rest in the fact that they have been baptised but to ensure that faith in God's covenantal promises accompanies their baptism.

    In Christ,

    John Foxe.

    PS Part of the problem with the FV is over-objectivising the God's covenant promises in baptism and failing to distinguish between the sign of the covenant and the reality to which it points which must be received in a faith.

  7. May I bring an experiential perspective on baptism to bear on the debate? I come to Christ from a Zoroastrian background. For my family, the crucial and decisive break with my old religion came with my baptism. Why? Because in baptism, I PUBLICALLY turned from my old faith to Christ. My experience of baptism will be understandable to all from a background in another religion.

    I suggest that the experiences of those of other religions may illuminate the NT practice (after all the NT is written in a religiously plural context). NT baptism saves precisely because in it the candidate turns away from, to quote the early church liturgy, "the Devil & all his pomp" (the early church liturgy alludes to the NT belief that Satan stands behind pagan religions, since a "pomp" was an idol procession through the streets). Further the baptismal candidate confesses Christ as Lord (Romans 10:9). It is this pledge of a good conscience that saves, not the water which cannot wash away moral filth (1 Peter 3:20-21). The water is merely symbolic of the confession made at baptism which does save.

    Ro Mody.

    PS. My take of 1 Peter is based on Karen Jobes' commentary.

  8. That is undoubtadly right Ro

    But Baptism and Communion are external signs which hold us accountable. If we take them without meaning them or with hypocracy etc. that would be quite serious wouldn't it.

    It's interesting for me having worked in Peckham, very diverse and Baptising formerly Muslim families - whole lot in a pool - family conversion, to Tranmere, white working class - everyone assumes that they are Christian, because they are Baptised, or just white for that matter. So in Peckham, infant or adult baptism was quite a dramatic testimony. Here it really has been undermined by those who do it for the "done thing" whilst larking around in the service and laughing at the questions adn even the water being poured on the Baby's head.

    So breaking with a religion is still an issue for families. There are still questions to ask about covenant community of the Church and the family, isn't there?

    I take John Foxe's comment about Communion, but Presbytarians don't insist on an understanding at the time of Baptism. I'm still agnostic on it, but following parrallel with Passover and circumcision - I find Paedo-communion quite persuasive.

    Darren Moore

  9. Thanks for this post John. Good insights.

  10. Hi John Foxe,

    When you write:

    "from one who sees baptism as the sign and seal of the covenant, but rejects paedocommunion (which requires an ability to understand the meaning of the sacrament)"

    I need to say that its not that simple nor apparent. For one thing, there is good exegetical evidence that the thing which is apprehended in 1 Cor. 11 is the Body of Christ (the church) not the sacramental elements themselves. Also, nearly everyone in my circles (High Churh Calvinists) administer communion to weaned children who are able to be be instructed as they take. This is a far cry from those who utilize intinction for infants. BTW I learned this position from the head of the OT department when I was a seminary student at the PCA denominational seminary, CTS. Paedocommunion has very broad minority support in the PCA.