The Historical Apathy of the Modern Evangelical: The Case of Baptism

Modern Evangelicalism is a hybrid of Christian traditions that came out of the Reformation. When I became a Christian in college I had no idea this was the case because I was taught that Christianity, the real kind, was just me and the Bible. My relationship with Jesus mediated through the Bible was the very definition of Christianity. Little did I know that the Christianity I was living in college had historical antecedents. Unfortunately, history wan’t real important to the Christians who introduced me to the Faith. Such historical apathy is indicative of far too much of Evangelicalism today, as it is of general American culture.

Modern Evangelicals have far more in common with 19th century revivalist Christianity than their Reformation forebearers. The Second Great Awakening transformed much of Protestant Christianity from a confessional (a la Lutherans and Presbyterians) and sacramental faith, to an experiential and conversionist faith. George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture is an essential read for anyone wanting to understand why conservative Protestant Christianity (i.e. Evangelicalism) is the way it is today. You’ll find out that modern Evangelicals are historical fundamentalists. In other words, our faith today is more informed by the revivalist Christianity of the 19th and early 20th centuries, than the Reformation of the 16th.

I thought of all this history as I read a tremendous piece by Carl Trueman in First Things. He was informed that some Evangelical leader had declared him, “the most dangerous man in Christendom.” His crimes are that he writes for First Things, a Catholic periodical, and that he’s “a high sacramentalist who denies the importance of Christian conversion.” He finds the latter charge less than credible because he’s a Christian convert from atheism. But the charge points out

that the relationship between American Evangelicalism, especially its leadership, and the Reformation, which is being commemorated this year, is a complicated one. And conversion is one of the most vexed issues.

Most Evangelicals would be puzzled that Trueman sees conversion as a “vexed issue,” so steeped have we become in revivalist theology. The Reformers were not “conversionist” because they lived in a Christian society where all infants were baptized, and thus considered Christians. If Christian missionaries went far away to try to convert the heathen, then those who converted were indeed baptized.

Part of the reason that infant baptism seems odd to so many Evangelicals today is their ignorance of history. When I claim that baptizing infants is biblical with Christians I know they look at me like they can’t believe I could say such a thing. It is that inconceivable to them. But the Church, both Catholic and Protestant, baptized infants for 1,800 years before revivalism turned things upside down. There were Anabaptists who came out of the Reformation period who believed in re-baptizing adults, but they were very controversial. Because of this history, R.C. Sproul has said that the burden of proof should rest on those who think infants shouldn’t be baptized. I agree.

I would argue that adult baptism became the default mode in Evangelicalism when the Christian faith become more about what I did to decide for Christ, than what God did for me in Christ. But baptism isn’t an affirmation of a decision I made, but an affirmation of God’s covenant promise to me in Christ. And God’s promises are not just to isolated me, but to my children. They are not, as I’ve said many times, strangers to the covenant. The promises of God in the Bible are always to a person or people, and their seed.

I asked a friend once why Jesus was baptized. He couldn’t really answer. I assured him it wasn’t because Jesus was affirming a decision he’d made to follow himself! Rather it was to confirm God the Father’s covenant relationship and promise to him in eternity. Baptism is all about God’s covenant promise to us Christ, not about the decision we made for him. It’s about the decision he made for us! That’s why my three children were baptized, because that decision for me included them.