In my previous post, I repoduced two responses to a question asked by J. Wesley Smith of Lynchburg, TN, in 1905. He asked: “Is it right to make a knowledge of baptism for remission of sins a test of fellowship?”
David Lipscomb, editor of the Gospel Advocate, answered in the negative and George W. Savage, editor of the Firm Foundation, answered affirmatively. Those polar opposite responses represented the real danger of a significant division among Churches of Christ in the late 19th and early 20th centuries on that precise question.
But my interest is not so much in the potential division or the explicit answers to the question. Rather, I am interested in the theological method each used to answer the question.
On the one hand, David Lipscomb started with a theocentric principle that Jesus fulfilled. The “desire to obey God is the highest” motive as this “leads to an humble and trusting walk with God” and “to the enjoyment of all the blessings God has in store for those that love” him.
This motive was enacted by Jesus and he thus modeled it for all his disciples. Jesus was baptized to obey God, to “fulfill all righteoueness.” The baptism of Jesus testifies to the authentic and central nature of this motive. Jesus was not baptized for the remission of sins, but to obey God. Jesus loved the Father by obeying him.
Further, when people are motivated by love (the core value in obeying God) rather than by fear (to escape hell through the remission of sins), they imitate Jesus and exhibit the “higher motive.” When one’s baptism is rejected because it was motivated by the “higher” motive rather than the “lower” one, it undercuts the baptism of Jesus himself since this “is the motive that moved Jesus to be baptized.” At the same time, if one is baptized simply for the remission of sins without a sense that this obedience to God–as if one is baptized simply to escape hell or simply to have their sins remitted–this is an improper approach to baptism. It turns baptism into an expiatory rite.
Lipscomb’s argument is rooted in God, Christ and the central value of loving God. It is, essentially, a theological argument.
On the other hand, George Savage is concerned primarily with a single text: Acts 2:38. His argument is radically textual and rooted in understanding “for the remission of sins” as part of the command to be baptized. For Savage the command is not “be baptized,” but “be baptized for the remission of sins.” Obedience, then, entails an understanding that this obedient act involved a movement from lost to saved, from sinner to saint, from guilty to forgiven. If believers do not understand that baptism involves that transistion, then their baptism is invalid because they were not taught correctly.
Construing “for the remission of sins” as part of the command itself, he atomizes this text so that it stands in isolation from the theology of baptism. In essence, by lifting a singular phrase from the text and giving it an absolute meaning indepedent of the context and biblical theology as whole, his argument is a proof-text. His construal of the text, then, becomes a measuring rod for everything else one might possibly say about baptism. Whatever else may be true about baptism, it is fundamentally true for Savage that only those who are “baptized for the remission of sins” are truly baptized.
He does not grasp Lipscomb’s theological argument about love and fear in terms of the motive of obedience. Savage simply flattens everything into obedience and says that the motive must be more than obedience. Thus, he makes room for the atomized text, Acts 2:38, to judge every baptismal response to God. Obedience is a given, but the specific design is something that is equally necessary to true obedience. Obedience is insufficient per se–it must be obedience for the specific design God intended in that ordinance. It must be obedience with understanding–a very specific understanding that Acts 2:38 dictates.
Difference. Part of the faith of baptism for Savage, then, is a faith in the design of baptism, that is, believing what baptism effects. For Lipscomb it is simply trusting in God’s saving work through Christ as we act in obedience. For Savage faith is partly an intellectual affirmation of the true understanding of baptism’s specific design. For Lipscomb faith is personal trust in God as one acts in obedience to the command of God to be baptized.
The nature of baptismal faith has a different meaning for Lipscomb and Savage. Lipscomb’s sense of faith is oriented toward God as trust and follows Jesus’ own baptism; “it is the baptism of Christ.” Jesus’ own baptism is Lipscomb’s model for effectual baptism. Savage’s sense of faith is oriented toward a particular intellectual understanding of baptism; “faith in the design” is “necessary to the validity of the act.” That faith is not a personal trust, but an intellectual assent to a specific teaching about baptism. Lipscomb begins with Jesus whereas Savage ends with a specific intellectual understanding (it is “faith in the design”!).
This exchange illustrates, to some degree, how soteriology (and a theology of grace) differ between the Tennessee Tradition (Lipscomb) and the Texas Tradition (Savage). Lipscomb’s soteriology is grounded in a personal trust in God’s work exhibited through loving obedience while Savage’s soteriology involves a creedal affirmation of a specific design for baptism rather than simple trust in Jesus. Lipscomb follows Jesus but Savage authors a creed to be signed by a baptismal candidate.
Lipscomb is true to the heritage of Alexander Campbell’s restoration agenda on this point. For Campbell the only required faith for baptism was the credo: “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.” Savage continues McGary’s hijacking of the Restoration Movement to serve a sectarian end so that the credo for baptismal faith is no longer centered on Jesus but on what one believes about the design of baptism.