My rating: 3 of 5 stars
For me, this book, like Leithart’s writings generally, was both a hit and a miss. Let’s take it from the top.
Chapter one, “Starting before the Beginning,” was intended to clear “enough ground to move ahead” to discuss the biblical texts about baptism. This chapter seemed a bit choppy, as Leithart’s hitting on different philosophical, ontological, and theological topics. It was intended to be controversial with section headings such as, “Why Sacraments Are Not Signs,” “Why Sacraments Are Not Means of Grace,” and “Why Sacraments Are Not Symbols.” That said, I found the concept of Sacraments as rituals to be compelling and helpful. Sacraments can, however, be signs, means of grace, symbols, AND rituals.
Chapter two, “‘Baptism’ is Baptism,” was very fine. Leithart is quite conversant with many exegetes. I think he shows with some conclusiveness that the great majority of the time the NT uses the term “baptism,” it means regular water baptism. This is important point. Since the NT attributes such impressive things to baptism, many folks want to make “baptism” mean “spiritual” baptism. Leithart shows that this defensive tactic is not generally exegetically justifiable.
Chapter three, “The ‘Body of Christ’ is the Body of Christ,” argues that when the NT refers to the church (or the Body of Christ), it generally means the historical, visible church. This chapter is a polemic against those who would want to import the “invisible” concept of the church into the NT text. Just like chapter two, the visible church is not ALWAYS in view in the NT, but it is usually in view. Again, Leithart examines many texts and interacts with various interpreters of those texts.
Chapter four, “Apostasy Happens,” is where Leithart muddies the waters a bit. First, he pulls together quite a handful of warning passages against apostasy to show that apostasy does indeed happen. So far, so good. The problem comes when Leithart seems basically unwilling to grant that there is any ontological or spiritual difference between the temporary believer who falls away and ends up in hell, and the believer who, by God’s grace, perseveres and ends up in heaven. He seems to want to hide in the grayness of the vast varieties of Christian experience, but he will not put his finger on a *real* spiritual difference between the one of perseveres and the who apostatizes. This is a problem. The Bible says that those who apostatize “were not of us” (1 John 2:19). They went out from us, but were not of us. If they had been of us, they would have remained with us. Thus, in one respect, the apostates were a part of us. They were baptized into the same body of Christ (the historic Christian church, the body and bride of Christ). They were sharers and partakers of the covenant mercies of Christ, just like us. BUT they went out from us, thus manifesting that they were not of us. This means that they were and are missing something that is essential to being one of “us.” This is the thing that Leithart can’t or won’t put his finger on. I suspect that part of the problem is that Leithart sees “regeneration” almost exclusively in terms of the life of the age to come in general (not individual) terms. The “regeneration” is the new age in Christ Jesus (Mt 19:28). This, without doubt, is true. What’s more, this sense of “regeneration” is almost entirely missing from most Evangelical thought, and is how the NT uses that specific word. It is not, however, all that Bible says about new life or being born from above. Individual people are born from above. Dead men are made alive together with Christ. There is a spiritual and ontological transformation that occurs in a person, when they are taken out of the kingdom of darkness and transferred into the Kingdom of God’s dear Son. There IS an individual component in “regeneration” that Leithart seems quite slow to acknowledge. I think this slowness accounts for his unwillingness to put his finger on an actual difference between those who temporarily believe and those who believe unto salvation. The latter has been born from above, while the former simply has not. Both are *really* baptized into the body of Christ, baptized into the regeneration. Both *really* share in the covenant. The apostate shares in all that grace unto his further condemnation, while the faithful one shares unto glorious salvation. The difference between those two, as they sit next to each other on the pew (before the one apostatizes – assuming that his apostasy is final), is that one has been born again and the other has not. Now, WE cannot see the difference as they sit there. WE must treat both men as covenant members and hold them to the standards of the covenant. But just because WE cannot tell the difference doesn’t mean that there is no difference. The whole of it runs back to God’s eternal electing love. The Lord knows who are his, and let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.
Chapter five, “A Tale of Three Servants,” is a small parable illustrating Leithart’s points above.
The Appendix, “The Sociology of Infant Baptism,” was simply excellent. It was a penetrating look into the realities of covenant nurture. It gives us a view of what infant baptism looks like with feet. Covenant baptism doesn’t just spin out there as an IDEA; it is the way of Christian life and nurture.
In a word, the book was good. Leithart mentioned in the preface that this book was hurried and unpolished. That seems true. Even so, it’s a useful addition to the conversation about baptism. I’m glad that I read it. The appendix alone is worth the price of the book.