Book  Review

The Promise of Baptism: An Introduction to Baptism in Scripture and the Reformed Tradition.  James V. Brownson.  Grand Rapids Michigan / Cambridge, U.K: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.  Pages xiii+223.  Paper, $16.00.  ISBN-10: 0-8028-3307-1.  ISBN-13: 978-0-8028-3307-5.

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A careful theologian answers questions in a way that reveals their importance.  James V. Brownson’s book shows he understands why baptism should matter to the reader.  His views will provoke theological discussion among Christians and nonbelievers alike.

A professor at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, Brownson has obviously confronted the questioning of students.  He can stand apart from his Reformed tradition enough to weigh the issues objectively; he can stand within his tradition to explain answers lucidly; he can stand on his own to share personal views sincerely.  His work will please professors, students, and all those yearning for a caring ear and a guiding light.

The introduction exemplifies the forthcoming topics: “What does Scripture teach about young children and their relationship to the church?  Should they be considered Christians (and therefore be baptized) because they are members of God’s covenant?  . . . And if baptism is withheld, does that mean that these young children are then to be considered as if they are not Christians at all until they are baptized?  If these young children die in infancy before they are baptized, are they therefore consigned by God to eternal judgment?  If these unbaptized children of believers are not consigned to eternal judgment, on what basis are they considered to be saved?” (x).  One need not be a theology student to have these questions.  Brownson does not disappoint.  He explores these matters with compassion, insight and zeal.

Brownson lays his foundation with basic questions, including what it means to be a a member of a Church.  The key question to the book appears in an early chapter: What Is a Sacrament, and How Does It Differ from an “Ordinance”?  Brownson writes, “Generally speaking, the word ‘sacrament’ places the focus on baptism or the Lord’s Supper as a means or instrument of grace, a sort of channel through which God’s grace comes to us in a unique way.  Those who prefer the word ‘ordinance’ emphasize instead that our celebration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper is an act of obedience to Christ (because these two rites are commanded or ordained by Christ – see Matt. 28:19, Luke 22:19, 1 Cor 11:23-25)” (22).  The author favors the word “sacrament” because in baptism “the emphasis falls on what God does” (26).  This distinction helps explain the title of the book, which presents baptism as a divine promise to be received by faith (see 32).

From there Brownson deftly analyzes penetrating questions with pastoral sensitivity and theological depth.  What is it to be born again?  Which method of baptism is best?  What do the words of baptism mean?  Which words should be used?  Can someone be saved without being baptized?  Can someone be baptized without being saved?  Should infants be baptized?  How does one discern readiness?  At the conclusion of each brief chapter Brownson summarizes his points, poses questions for discussion, and refers the reader to other resources.  His summaries get to the heart of his argument.  His discussion questions imply that baptism demands a community.  His references send the reader to web sites and internet searches.

As a Roman Catholic reader of this Reformed work, I was struck by the number of shared pastoral issues concerning our belief in one baptism.  However, I wished that the presentation of medieval Catholic theology hadn’t been left standing as though it were the last word on the topic (34).  The brief pruning of the thorn bush of confirmation left untouched its distinct meaning when celebrated together with baptism (175-182), and the number of questions surrounding infant baptism made adult initiation seem less important.  Brownson also has a tendency to proof text his arguments with references to single-line Scripture passages.

Still, there is much here to recommend.  Brownson’s book deserves a place in the classroom and upon the coffee table of those who ask penetrating questions about baptism because they know, somehow, that it matters.


Worship 32/1 (January 2008):91-92.

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