Is Baptism a Secondary Doctrine?

Baptism,Church | Posted by: Editors

By Nathan Finn, Elder

Note: On Monday, I offered some brief thoughts on baptism. I mentioned in that post an earlier article from Between the Times on the topic “Is Baptism a Secondary Doctrine?” I have re-published that earlier article below, with some very minor edits.

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SBTS President Al Mohler

Several years ago, Southern Seminary president Albert Mohler wrote an influential essay titled “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity.” In that essay, Mohler argues that a key to spiritual maturity is being able to distinguish between primary, secondary, and tertiary doctrines. According to Mohler, primary or first-order doctrines are those that are essential to the faith—you cannot reject these beliefs and still be Christian in the biblical sense of the term. Mohler’s examples include such matters as the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus, justification by faith alone, and the full authority of Scripture.

Secondary or second-order doctrines are those that generate disagreement among authentic Christians and typically result in an inability to be a part of the same denomination or often even the same congregation. Mohler’s examples of second-order doctrines are gender roles and baptism.

Tertiary or third-order doctrines are those doctrines that engender disagreement, but do not normally prevent two Christians from being part of the same church or group of churches. Mohler’s cites disagreement about the finer details of eschatology, presumably the nature of the millennium and the timing of the rapture, as textbook tertiary doctrines.

Southern Baptists have responded in a variety of ways to Mohler’s paradigm. Some argue it is a helpful way to think about the nature of Christian cooperation. They claim we all do theological triage, even if subconsciously and without using the label. Others voice concerns that Mohler’s views, or at least some possible applications of his views, lead to a downplaying of important theological convictions. They claim that theological triage results in our picking and choosing which biblical commands we will obey and which we will fudge on for ecumenical purposes.

For my part, I am firmly in the camp that agrees that theological triage is a helpful term that describes what all Christians already do, even if they don’t know it. I reject the notion that categorizing doctrines as either primary, secondary, or tertiary in principle necessarily leads to some sort of inappropriate compromise. When I choose to work with others with whom I disagree on secondary or tertiary convictions, I am not endorsing their convictions—I’m simply recognizing that what I believe to be their error doesn’t preclude us from working together in certain matters.

I think one reason the idea of theological triage raises concerns for many Baptists is because ecclesiological distinctives, and particularly baptism, are almost always considered second-order doctrines. Mohler himself uses baptism as one of his examples as a secondary doctrine. How should Baptists, and particularly Southern Baptists, think of the doctrine of baptism (and ecclesiology in general)? Is baptism a second-order doctrine?

I think the answer is both yes and no. There is a sense in which baptism is most certainly a secondary doctrine because a certain form of baptism is not necessary for salvation. In other words, you can be really converted and really love Jesus and really be growing in your faith, yet hold to an erroneous view of baptism. It is a secondary doctrine.

But as Southern Baptists, it is important to recognize that a particular understanding of baptism—the full immersion of professed believers—is a core distinctive of our churches and our denomination. While every Southern Baptist I know would agree that baptism doesn’t contribute to our salvation, almost every Southern Baptist I know would argue that confessor’s baptism by immersion is the explicit teaching of the New Testament and that other Christians who sprinkle babies and call it baptism are in error, even if they don’t know it.

Baptism is a secondary doctrine, but one that Baptists honestly believe is taught in the New Testament and should be embraced by other believers. To argue baptism is a primary doctrine is sectarian and smacks of a bapto-centric spirit that values the sign of the new covenant over the realities of the new covenant, even if implicitly. But to argue that baptism is unimportant or a matter of adiaphora is to disregard a doctrine that Scripture ties to the gospel (Rom 6), missions (Matt 28), and the church (Acts 2). Baptism is very important, but it is not of first importance.

For the record, I think Mohler would likely agree with my argument (though he’d no doubt make it more eloquently were he writing this). I don’t see anything in his essay that hints at the idea that baptism—or any other secondary or even tertiary doctrine—is unimportant. In fact, he argues that disagreements about secondary doctrines help define denominations and churches. Baptists give special emphasis to the secondary doctrine of baptism, which necessarily helps distinguish us from other types of Christians.

Southern Baptists should not retreat one inch from our commitment to New Testament baptism. But neither should we act as if an erroneous view of baptism necessarily calls into question one’s regeneration and/or his gospel usefulness. We should speak prophetically to our brothers and sisters in Christ when it comes to baptism (and ecclesiology in general), but we should also humbly recognize that God is working among those who are wrong on baptism, sometimes to a much greater degree than he is working among Baptists. I hope we will work with them in every way we can without sacrificing our baptismal convictions.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted at Nathan Finn’s personal blog and at Between the Times;  Image Credit: Al Mohler.

Some Brief Thoughts on Baptism

Baptism,Church | Posted by: Editors

By Nathan Finn, Elder

Recently, The Gospel Coalition published two short articles about baptism. In the first article, Gavin Ortlund, a Ph.D. student at Fuller Theological Seminary, shares his journey from a pedobaptist to credobaptist position. Gavin was nurtured in a prominent Presbyterian family, but in college embraced a Baptist understanding of baptism. In the second article, my friend Sean Lucas, senior pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Hattiesburg, MS, shares his pilgrimage from credobaptism to pedobaptism. Sean has been around the block, denominationally speaking, but after several years in Baptist circles he landed in the Presbyterian Church in America. Both of the articles are very thoughtful.

I think this is an important discussion. Baptism matters. Unfortunately, there is an tendency among contemporary evangelicals to downplay ecclesiological matters, including the ordinances, because differing opinions about ecclesiology lie at the heart of many different denominational traditions. Ecclesiologically, most all Protestant denominations are “lower-case” congregationalists, presbyterians, or episcopals, even if they don’t choose to self-identify as “upper-case” versions of those broader traditions. From the standpoint of the ordinances, almost every denomination at least leans toward either pedobaptism or credobapism as the preferred (often exclusive) practice, even if many of the latter do not own the “Baptist” label.

Baptism is also relegated to the doctrinal back bench by some folks because of a misapplication of Al Mohler’s concept of “theological triage.” Mohler rightly points out that baptism is a secondary doctrine, which means it is a doctrine that normally divides sincere Christians into different denominational traditions and local churches. Unfortunately, many evangelicals, including some Baptists, seem to equate “secondary” with “peripheral.” Though it’s difficult to document, there seems to be a growing willingness to at least entertain, if not always embrace, an “open membership” position among many Baptists. A far greater number of Baptists hold to the traditional position that believer’s baptism by immersion is prerequisite to church membership, but they rarely emphasize this doctrine. I frequently witness this latter mentality among younger pastors. They assume a Baptist view of the ordinance, but they make little effort to defend and commend credobaptism. (For what it’s worth, I weighed in on this specific question a few years ago with a post titled “Is Baptism a Secondary Doctrine?,” which was published at Between the Times.)

Many Baptists have written helpful defenses of believer’s baptism. Some of the classics have been written by Paul Jewett and George Beasley-Murray, while lesser-known, but useful works have been written by Fred Malone and Erroll Hulse. I believe the very best recent book defending the credobaptist position is Tom Schreiner and Shawn Wright, eds., Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ (B&H Academic, 2007). This volume includes exegetical, historical, theological, and practical essays written by several Baptist scholars and pastors. Though all of the essays are very good, I believe the most compelling is Stephen Wellum’s “Baptism and the Relationship Between the Covenants,” which is available online.

Editors note: This article was originally posted on Nathan Finn’s personal blog.