Just as Zurich (“Zwinglianism”) and Geneva (“Calvinianism”) found sacramental common ground in the Consensus Tigurinus, my paper at the 2009 Christian Scholar’s Conference explored whether such a rapprochement is possible between Southern Baptists and Churches of Christ who, in many ways, are the credobaptistic heirs of Zurich and Geneva. Since there is presently a renewed discussion among Southern Baptists and British Baptists concerning baptismal “sacramentalism” and there is also a new openness among Churches of Christ toward a more historic Calvinian understanding of baptism as a means of grace, there is hope for some kind of “rapprochement” between Southern Baptists and Churches of Christ in the United States. With historical perspective and theological reflection Churches of Christ and Southern Baptists are potentially on the verge of a Consensus Americanus.
Generally, the Consensus united the Protestant Swiss Cantons in their sacramental theology and offered a mediating position between Zwingli and Luther which was ultimately Calvin’s own position. In particular, the sacraments, according to the Consensus, offer (praestat) what the signs symbolize (Article VIII), the reality is not separated from the sign (Article IX), and the signs are themselves instruments of divine grace (Article XIII). The Consensus bridged a gap between Zwingli and Luther by stressing the instrumentality of the signs by the power of the Spirit. The signs effect nothing by themselves (Article XII) but “they are indeed instruments by which God acts efficaciously when he pleases” while at the same time “salvation” is “ascribed” to God “alone” (Article XIII) because “it is God who alone acts by his Spirit” (Article XII).
1812 was a significant year for both Churches of Christ and American Baptists. In that same year Alexander Campbell, Adoniram Judson and Luther Rice were immersed upon their profession of faith in Jesus and embraced credobaptism as biblical theology. Their heirs, however, engaged in hostile and sometimes bitter disputes over the design of baptism. Generally speaking, conservative Stone-Campbell adherents—particularly among 20th century Churches of Christ—moved away from Campbell’s own Calvinian understanding of baptism as a “means of grace” to a positivistic watershed line between heaven and hell and conservative Baptists—particularly Southern Baptists—embraced a Zwinglian understanding of sacramental theology. However, there are signs that there are converging interests and theology among leaders within Churches of Christ and Southern Baptists.
Since 1999 a large number of monographs and journal articles have appeared in British publications that have argued for baptismal sacramentalism, that is, baptism as the “evangelical sacrament” that is a normative part of the conversion narrative and a means of grace (cf. Anthony R. Cross, “The Evangelical Sacrament: Baptisma Semper Reformandum,” Evangelical Quarterly 80.3  195-217 which is available at Jay Guin’s website–see also his posts on Baptist Sacramentalism and the work of Stan Fowler). This movement has embraced a Calvinian sacramental theology. Indeed, the Baptist World Alliance has come to some agreement with the World Alliance of Reformed Churches on the meaning of baptism.
There are a growing number of Southern Baptists who are moving in this direction as well though they are reticent about sacramental language. Their linguistic hesitation is rooted in some of the same qualms and perceived baggage that is also current among historic and contemporary Churches of Christ. Nevertheless, there is a recognition that Southern Baptist practice has de-emphasized baptism. The most significant evidence of this shift is Broadman & Holman’s 2006 Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, edited by Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright.
Churches of Christ are more open in recent years to moving back to Alexander Campbell’s own original Calvinian understanding of the instrumentality of baptism as a means of grace. Campbell’s baptismal theology articulated an instrumental understanding of baptismal grace but at the same time valued character more than ritual and mercy more than sacrifice. A living faith that exhibited a transformed character was more important than the full enjoyment of assurance in baptism. However, few in mid-twentieth century Churches of Christ believed that faith without baptism was transformative. Baptism was regarded more like a line in the sand or, to mix the metaphor, a watershed moment.
“Convergence” (Stan Fowler’s word) or “rapprochement” (Caneday’s word in Believer’s Baptism, p. 304) is possible within the paradigm shift currently evidenced among some leaders of Churches of Christ and some Southern Baptists. In a paper entitled Consensus Tigurinus and a Baptismal Rapprochement Between Southern Baptists and Churches of Christ for the 2009 Christian Scholar’s Conference (which I have uploaded to my Academic page), I identified four points that are significant for this converging baptismal theology. I explored these in more detail in an earlier essay but in this new essay place them in the more specific context of discussion within the last decade. These four points are:
- Baptism is a normative part of the New Testament conversion narrative.
- Calvinian baptismal theology correctly identifies the soteriological significance of baptism as a means of grace.
- Baptism serves faith and is subordinate to faith’s soteriological function as baptism participates in the instrumentality of faith.
- Salvation, as a process of transformation into the image of Christ, gives baptism its theological importance and limits its soteriological significance.
As Southern Baptists move to recognize (1) & (2) and Churches of Christ are increasingly recognizing (3) & (4), convergence upon a biblical theology of baptismal grace is possible. While significant differences still remain (especially as Reformed notions of regeneration and election lie in the background of some of this theological shift among Southern Baptists), I am convinced a new consensus is possible with the self-conscious adoption of something akin to a credobaptist Calvinian baptismal theology—which, in my estimation, is a biblical theology. Southern Baptists and Churches of Christ have an opportunity to live in harmony, practice a shared biblical theology of baptism and together promote the kingdom of God for the sake of the world.