Book Thoughts #5: “Christian Baptism” by John Murray

John Murray’s famous little book „Christian Baptism” was on my list of the things to read for a long time but only recently I have found time to delve into it. I regret now that I did so that late. This brief treatment of the Reformed view of baptism is a true gem. As Murray himself stated in the preface, his aim in this book was to defend the practice of infant baptism as divinely instituted. But there is more to this book than just a defence of the paedobaptism. In fact, what I enjoyed most about it, were his thoughts on the understanding of the church and the relationship between God’s decreed will and historical administration of the covenant of grace. 

For those who do not know John Murray (1898-1975), he was a Scottish Presbyterian pastor and theologian who was first associated with the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland and later with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He studied in Princeton Theological Seminary under Machen and Vos and later lectured in the same institution for one year. Subsequently, from 1930 to 1966 he taught systematic theology in newly founded Westminster Theological Seminary. What strikes me most about his legacy is that he was one of those systematic theologians who still wrote  commentaries on the Bible. His commentary on Romans was part of Eerdman’s NICNT series before it was superseded by Moo’s volume. 

Summary of the Book

Christian Baptism was first published in 1952. It is a small book (only 90 pages in my edition) that sets forth a biblical basis for the Reformed understanding of baptism. In the first chapter (The Import of Baptism), Murray explains the threefold significance of baptism as a sign of: (i) the union with Christ, cf. Matt 28:19, (ii) the purification from defilement of sin i.e. regeneration, cf. John 3:5, Tit 3:5, 1 Cor 6:11, (iii) the purification from the guilt of sin i.e. justification, cf. Acts 2:38, 22:16, 1 P 3:21. He emphasises that of these three the first is most important. In the second chapter (The Mode of Baptism), he contends that immersion is not the only valid mode of baptism. He does so, first, through the study of the meaning of the word βαπτίζω and cognates and, secondly, through examining Romans 6:2-6. In the third chapter (The Church), he analyses the church in its invisible and visible aspect. In the fourth chapter (Infant Baptism), he undertakes a defence of infant baptism which moves from the general principle of inclusion of children into the church to specific passages corroborating ongoing validity of this principle. In the fifth chapter (Objections to Infant Baptism), he responds to most common arguments against baptising children of believers. The sixth chapter (Whose Children Are to Be Baptised?) is devoted to issues related with a half-covenant view and the last chapter (The Efficacy of Baptism) considers whether baptism has a different efficacy in the life of adults and children and concludes that it does not. 

Thoughts on the Book

What captured immediately my attention is how careful is Murray’s discussion of the church. I could not help thinking that Murray’s theology would be very appreciated by those theologians who are indebted to the legacy of Klaas Schilder. Murray argues that the distinction between visible and invisible church should not be conceived in such a way as if there were two churches. He contends that we should rather speak of two aspects of the one church of Christ. In one sense, the church is invisible because it is constituted by the inward operation of the Holy Spirit who regenerates God’s elect. Only God fully knows all his people. In the other sense, this church must be made manifest by a visible institution:

We cannot think of the church invisible as anything that exists in abstraction or apart from the overt expression which the spiritual and invisible facts of union and communion with Christ demand. Hence visible association and organisation are implicit in the very nature of what constitutes the church.1

Murray argues that, on the one hand, this one church is created by Christ’s Spirit who effectively calls His people. On the other hand, it is historically administered through human agency. No human being can, of course, look into one’s heart and judge whether it is regenerated. We are, therefore, to receive people to the church on the basis of a credible profession of faith.

One of the consequences of this is that a credible confession of faith should really be the only criterion of admission of adult converts to the church. It seems to me, that requiring a higher level of theological knowledge than the basic Christian beliefs or expecting an agreement with all church’s teaching would go against Christ’s institution. Any additional criteria of membership effectively exclude some who have a vital interest in Christ from the visible fellowship of His church:

It is by divine institution that the church, as a visible entity administered by men in accordance with Christ’s appointment, must admit to its fellowship those who make a credible profession of faith in Christ and promise of obedience to him. To exclude such is to arrogate to ourselves prerogatives which do not belong to us and it is to violate the institution of Christ.2

Another point worth highlighting is that Murray warns against constructing ecclesiology with hypocrites in mind. It is, of course, true that there will be hypocrites in our churches. This is necessarily so due to the very nature of administration of the covenant of grace through human agents who cannot judge the inward regeneration. But we ought not to define the church in a way that accounts for hypocrites. Instead, we should follow the apostolic fashion of speaking of the church as saints and elect even though there may be hypocrites in their mids (cf. 1 Cor 1:1-2).

From this follow Murray’s scruples to external/internal distinction. He does grant that one can speak of the external and internal aspect of the covenant or that some participate in it externally while others also internally. But he contends that one should be careful not to see baptism as sealing or signifying only external privileges of the covenant.    

One point that would also be appreciated by the students of Klaas Schilder is Murray’s criticism of the presumptive election. He argues that we do not baptise infants on a presumption that they are elect or regenerate (as, he claims, it was argued by the First Helvetic Confession, Hodge and Warfield).3 In his view, the ground for infant baptism is rather the divine ordinance. This is, I think, best understood within the perimeters of distinction between God’s decreed will and the historical administration of the covenant of grace. God knows those who are his (vide the discussion of visible/invisible church) but he chose to fulfil His salvific purposes through human agents. We do not, therefore, baptise on the presumption concerning God’s inward operations but on the basis of His command. And this is true both about adults (who are baptised upon the credible profession of faith) and children of believers. 

On the other hand, Murray contends, that we ought to treat baptised members of the church as believers. This is not some form of presumptive regeneration but rather what I would call  a charitable judgment. Even though we are aware that there are hypocrites, we ought not to construct our ecclesiology with hypocrites in mind. As Murray puts it: 

Those making the requisite confession and therefore baptised are to be received as believers, as those in union and communion with Christ, and they are to be treated accordingly. Baptised infants are to be received as the children of God and treated accordingly.4 

Concluding Thoughts

I am not sure how useful would be Murray’s book for most people struggling with the question of infant baptism. His arguments are well-thought and well-balanced but also somewhat complex. But what I found to be the major strength of the book is its reflection on ecclesiology. I appreciated how Murray balances well the tension between God’s decreed will and historical administration of the covenant. He does also account for hypocrites without subordinating his ecclesiology to the imperfection of the ecclesia militans. It is certainly a book that ought to be read by all who would like to understand better the Reformed view of baptism. 

John Murray. Christian Baptism. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980.

  1. John Murray, Christian Baptism (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980), 34.
  2. Murray, Christian Baptism, 36.
  3. Murray, Christian Baptism, 54-56.
  4. Murry, Christian Baptism, 56. 

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