An extended review of a 2021 book by J. Cameron Fraser
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Book by J. Cameron Fraser. Wipf & Stock, 2021. 126 pages. $21 (e-book $10
It should come as no surprise that baptism is a hot-button topic among Evangelicals today. Differences there are aplenty, but there’s not plenty of unity in Christ’s body, the Church.
Earlier in my own life I remember listening to a radio preacher from a mainline denomination speaking on infant baptism. As a doctrinaire Pentecostal, I got my hackles up. My reaction was, “Infant baptism? How can he teach such false theology? Believers’ baptism is where it’s at.”
Having outgrown my denominational parochialism, I now see things differently. Today I would stress the common ground Evangelicals share, and the unity we all should strive for – a type of mere theology, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis.
This book on baptism looks at a single question – Which sacrament (or ordinance) should be practised, infant or believers’ baptism? On a subject that often generates more flame than heat, this author makes an impassioned plea for all believers to clearly demonstrate visible unity (in line with Jesus’ prayer that all those who believe in him “may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity”).
J. Cameron Fraser, who has served in pastoral and related ministries in Alberta and Saskatchewan, offers a middle ground, making a strong case for accepting both infant and believers’ baptism, so that baptism is no longer the water that divides, but the water that unites. He develops a series of principles that, if followed, will serve to unify, rather than divide, the Church. This can only be a commendable aspiration.
This brief book packs a wallop in just 94 pages. Portions of it, especially the first half, are not for the faint of heart, what with chapter titles like “A Highland Presbyterian among the Dutch Reformed” and “William Cunningham and Missionary Baptism.” However, the reader will be richly rewarded after slogging through the historical theology and continuing to the end. The second half of the book is the practical outworking of this theology, including implications for evangelical Christian unity. He promotes “the same significance to infant baptism as to believers’ baptism.”
Fraser wishes “to discuss the faith we hold in common.” He takes the reader on a journey of discovery. The questions he addresses are threefold: What does baptism actually do? What does it mean? And who is it for?
He understands Christian baptism as missionary baptism, hence the title. It is also known as household baptism, following the pattern of New Testament baptisms. His preference for this term stems from his observation that such baptisms “involved new converts and their households undergoing the rite of admission into the Christian church.”
He develops his theology of baptism from a variety of historical perspectives, focusing especially on William Cunningham (1805-61), the Scottish theologian and co-founder of the Free Church of Scotland, to whom he devotes 24 pages. He also devotes substantial space to several contemporary figures, from the American theologian Lewis Bevens Schenck (1898-1985) to the provost of the Christian Leaders Institute, David Feddes.
Fraser suggests that a view closer to Cunningham’s, who urged a “more modest place” for infant baptism, will help clear up misunderstandings between fellow believers. Further, a dual practice of infant baptism and baby dedication will promote the unity of Christ’s Church, especially among Evangelicals.
Fraser proposes that the concept of missionary baptism should be the biblical norm. The New Testament refers to people with no prior knowledge of Christianity coming to faith and being baptized, along with their whole households.
The author does not avoid difficult questions. Despite his tight and rigorous argument, he refrains from attacking those of differing persuasions. His charitableness is worthy of emulation. Verve and vigour mark his presentation. His even-handed treatment of a controversial subject leads to clearer understanding.
Fraser’s thesis, both provocative and insightful, will not resonate with all readers. “Still,” he says, “one has to start somewhere.” He engages both the heart and mind. Be prepared to have your mind stretched but, at the same time, your heart warmed. Fraser’s little book can play a key role in enabling Evangelicals with divergent views of baptism to seek a middle ground which, he believes, can indeed be worked out in practice. “Make us one, Lord, make us one: Holy Spirit, make us one.”
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