Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Baptism in the Theology of A. H. Strong - Baptism, Christocentric at its Core

In "The Ordinances of the Church," Strong continues to be Christocentric. Ordinances, like the sacramentum oath taken by Roman soldiers to follow their commanders to the death, are sacraments, not in a Romanist sense of conferring grace, but "in the sense of vows of allegiance to Christ our Master."[20] Strong, therefore, defines Christian baptism specifically as "the immersion of a believer in water, in token of his previous entrance into the communion of Christ's death and resurrection,– or, in other words, in token of his regeneration through union with Christ."[21] Garrett summarizes Strong's doctrine of baptism as: "baptism has immersion as its mode, symbolism as its nature, and 'only persons giving evidence of being regenerated' as its proper subjects."[22]

Central to Strong's view of baptism is the defense of baptism as "an ordinance of Christ," for Christ instituted it and intended it "to be of universal and perpetual obligation." This ordinance has as its mode "immersion, and immersion only." Strong defends his position on immersion based on the Greek text, figurative references to the ordinance, and the historical testimony of the practices of the early church. He argues against any church's modifying "the method of administering the ordinance, because such a change vacates the ordinance of its essential meaning."[23] Since the subject and the mode are what is essential in baptism, "mere accessories are a matter of individual judgment." Nevertheless, the formula should be "into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit," as prescribed by Jesus.[24] In addition, to relay better baptism's essential meaning, Strong advocates public baptisms and not relegating baptism to a private celebration.[25] He believes that baptisms "should follow regeneration with the least possible delay, after the candidate and the church have gained evidence that a spiritual change has been accomplished within him."[26] Strong also offers answers to common objections to immersion. It is in this section that one starts seeing Strong's focus on an individual's intent to obey Christ's command, over strict mechanistic obedience. It is also in the midst of this argument that Strong makes the first mention of baptism symbolizing the entrance into the church in addition to its primary meaning of symbolizing one's personal faith in Christ as Savior and Lord.[27]

Nevertheless, the believer's communion with Christ's death and resurrection constitutes the core of Strong's understanding of baptism.[28] Quoting Denney, in the Expositor's Greek Testament, Strong states: "baptism, inasmuch as one emerges from the water after immersed, is a similitude of resurrection as well as death." For Strong, though, baptism signifies more than just the death and resurrection of Christ. It also denotes the purpose of the death and resurrection of Christ, the accomplishment of that purpose and the method in which that purpose is accomplished in the believer, and the future death and resurrection of the body as a completion of the work of Christ in the believer. In addition, baptism, more aptly and accurately than the Lord's Supper, portrays Christian unity.[29]

[20] Strong, Systematic Theology, 930. Dargan in Edwin Charles Dargan, Ecclesiology: A Study of the Churches, 2d and carefully rev. ed. (Louisville: C.T. Dearing, 1905), also presents this etymology of the term sacrament.

[21] Strong, Systematic Theology, 931.

[22] Garrett, Baptist Theology, 301-02.

[23] Strong, Systematic Theology, 933-39.

[24] Ibid., 951. Here, Strong states his opinion that the use of natural, rather than artificial baptisteries, should not be "elevated into an essential."

[25] Ibid., 943.

[26] Ibid., 950.

[27] Ibid., 939-40. The objections to immersion tackled by Strong, and the summary of his answers are: 1) it is often impracticable - here the will to obey can be taken by Christ for the deed; 2) it is often dangerous - in this case it is no longer a duty, but it should not be replaced by something else, rather one should wait for a time when it is no longer dangerous; 3) it is indecent - therefore care should be taken to prevent exposure; 4) it is inconvenient - but Christians are not to consult convenience in matters of obedience; and 5) other methods have been blessed - only because God condescends to human ignorance.

[28] In Augustus Hopkins Strong, "The Baptism of Jesus," in Philosophy and Religion (New York: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1888), 235, Strong, speaking of the baptism of Christ which he deems a picture for us, states: "I also must die to sin by having Jesus' death reproduced in me. I must rise to a new life by having Jesus' death reproduced in me. I must enter into communion with the death and resurrection of my Lord–yes, I must participate in both."

[29] Strong, Systematic Theology, 940-02. His comment on unity obviously refers to the unity argument for open communion. Strong subsequently lists his objections to open communion at the end of his section on the Lord's Supper (977-980).

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