Anthony R. Cross, Recovering the Evangelical Sacrament: Baptisma Semper Reformandum (Pickwick, 2013), 403pp
Anthony R. Cross has been thinking and writing about baptism for well over twenty years. His doctoral studies were published as Baptism and the Baptists (Paternoster, 2000) and he has now followed that with Recovering the Evangelical Sacrament, the product of his work done since then. Cross is an evangelical about baptism and, what he argues, as a proper evangelical understanding of baptism, which he says is the New Testament understanding of baptism, which is conversion-baptism. The book is a collection of essays and articles (some published) in the last ten years, which offer a sustained argument for conversion-baptism. In this Cross is a disciple of George Beasley-Murray, who argued to his own generation for a rich theological and biblical understanding of baptism. Beasley-Murray is the most cited name in the numerous (and often long) foonotes.
Cross demonstrates that he has read almost everything possible on baptism - the biblography stretches to forty-two pages! The opening chapter sets the book in the context of ecumenical and evangelical studies of baptism, claiming that the baptism debate as been predicated on there being two forms of baptism - credo- and paedobaptism. Cross wants to question those presuppositions and argue for 'one baptism', so Ephesisians 4.5. From an evangelical perspectice, Cross believes evangelicals have not paid enough attention to baptism, it has been sidelined, to avoid it being a faultline within the movement.
Chapter 2 makes the argument for conversion-baptism, and then the following chapters argue that there is one baptism (chapter 3), and so no division between water-baptism and Spirit-baptism (chapter 4), baptism is properly understood as sacramental (chapter 5), and it is ecclesial (chapter 7). Chapter 6 makes the case for the possibility that baptism is regenerational and thus should not be dismissed out of hand by evangelicals and by Baptists. Chapter 8 offers some of Cross' most recent work on the ethical and political dimensions and implications of baptism. Cross presents a detailed, step-by-step approach, depending on the skilled scholarship of others, to make his case. This is generally convincing, although I think he too quickly (reduced to a footnote, p.99) dismisses a christological reading of Paul's pistis Christou phrases, which could have implications for his reading, which could either strengthen or weaken it.
The final chapter culminates in Cross' argument for the reform of baptism, both in theology and practice. As he shows he is not alone in calling for reform, the likes of David Wright, Geoffrey Wainwright and Jurgen Moltmann all call for reform. Cross goes further than these other voices when he writes
What I am proposing in this book, then, is the recovery of New Testament baptism, not a force and unconvincing acceptance that paedobaptism completed in confirmation is equivalent to credobaptism, or a discerning of common features in patterns of initiation that are, in fact, theologically and practically different, nor the abandonment of infant baptism in favour of believers' baptism. Rather, it is a wholesale reform of credo- and paedobaptism to the faith-baptism, the conversion-initiation, mission-baptism of the earliest Christian communities (p.312)
In this we can see both a rejection of the attempts by the Baptist theologian Paul Fiddes and others towards a common pattern of initiation and those Baptists that practice an impoverished thin baptism.
Cross presents six reforms to the theology and practice of baptism. First, baptism is primarily the action of the triune God; second, to counter an overly individualistic understanding of baptism; third, to reconnect baptism to the gospel; and so fourthly, baptism is part of conversion, not something that follows; fifthly, baptism is an act of believing prayer, so space should be made for a person's testimony; and sixthly, baptism must be integral to church membership.
The book could have done with some editing. Cross' love of the long footnote, sometimes gets in the way of the flow of his argument - it is distracting. Also because it is a collection of essays, there is a times a lot of repetition, which you could suggest is needed to make sure the book's argument gets heard.
This is an important book for Baptists and Evangelicals. It is a clarion call for baptism to be taken a lot more seriously and centrally in our life, but in particular ways that are theologically-rich and thickly-practiced. I am left wondering whether enough attention is given to our preparing candidates (and at the same time the church) for baptism and to baptismal services in themselves and then also the ongoing importance of baptism in the Christian's life. I am left asking in all our conversations about emerging and missional church, what place does baptism have?