We are now ready to look at the Scripture passages from Acts which the Study Report cites as Scriptural proof for its position. To refresh our memories, let us quote the two paragraphs of this section of the report which refer to Acts:
Exactly how the Lord intended the commands of
and how the Church understood them, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is clearly indicated in the account of the missionary labor of the Church throughout the Book of Acts. The testimony of Acts is that the missionaries baptized on the mission field; that baptizing, along with the preaching of the gospel, was part of their missionary office; that the apostles and evangelists baptized where there was as yet no church institute and that they did so with a view to instituting the church. Passages include:
The practice of the Church of baptizing as part of the missionary task, before the instituting of a congregation is indisputable.
teaches that Peter commanded Cornelius and his house to be baptized as soon as they believed and the Spirit was poured out on them.
teach that Lydia and her household and the Philippian jailor and his household were baptized by the apostles prior to the instituting of a church in Philippi, as an element of the missionary task of. gathering a church.
First of all, let me make some general observations about this section of the Report. My first observation is that the Report does not accurately state what it must prove. It must not merely prove that baptism can and did take place before the church was instituted and where there was as yet no church institute. Nor must it merely prove that baptism can and did take place “with a view to instituting the church.” In the abstract, we may freely grant both of these possibilities—although it is another question whether the passages in Acts show anything like this. What the Report must prove is this: that baptism can and must take place where there is no instituted church, where there will be no instituted church for a considerable time, and even when and where there may never be an instituted Protestant Reformed congregation in a given locality. It must prove, further, that baptism can and must take place where there is only a hope (on the part of missionary and adherents) that perhaps there will be a church and that perhaps the baptism will eventually lead to membership in that Protestant Reformed congregation—or in some other true church. This is, in effect, the meaning of “with a view to” in the Study Report. It is subjective while the stipulation of our Form is objective.
My second observation is that the Study Report produces not one iota of exegesis to back up its bold claim of indisputable.” And let us remember that the burden of proof is on the Study Committee, not on those who disagree or are unconvinced. In these two paragraphs the Study Report makes statements such as, “The testimony of Acts is . . .,” “The practice of the Church . . . is indisputable,” “Acts 10:47, 48 teaches . . .,” “Acts 16:15 and Acts 16:33 teach. . . .” But notice that the Report does not even quote the passages, let alone give any explanation of the passages, show what in these passages proves their point, or show that their assumed understanding of the passages is correct in the light of the context and in the light of the rest of Scripture. I submit that this is not the proper manner in which our churches in their Synod should make a major change in a policy of long standing regarding the administration of the sacrament of baptism. We must not jump to conclusions but must have our position based foursquare on Scripture and the Confessions.
In the second place, I wish to make some general remarks that have bearing on our exegesis and understanding of a historical book such as the book of Acts. I have especially three remarks.
The first concerns the nature of historical accounts in Scripture. What I am writing here is true of all the historical books, including Acts. Negatively, these books are characterized by the fact that they do not furnish a complete historical account of what took place in. a certain place and over a certain span of time. Many, many details may be omitted. What we might deem important facts may be omitted. Often what we would like to know may be omitted. Thus, for example, we call Acts the “Acts of the Apostles.” But have you ever counted how many apostles are not even so much as mentioned by name? Have you ever wondered what became of Peter and his work after the last mention of him in Acts? Of Thomas? Of Philip? Of Nathanael? Have you ever thought to yourself that it might, for the most part, better be called the “Acts of the Apostle Paul”? Have you ever noticed that large parts of Paul’s labors are passed over with a verse or two? For example, in Acts 20, just to use a casual example, we read in vss. 1, 2 that Paul “departed for to go into Macedonia.” What do we know of those labors? Only this: “And when he had gone over those parts, and had given them much exhortation, he came into Greece.” And what do we know about his work in Greece at that time? Only this: “And there abode three months.” Or again, after the account of the Ethiopian eunuch we read of Philip’s mission tour in 8:40: “But Philip was found at Azotus: and passing through he preached in all the cities, till he came to Caesarea.” Mind you, this was before Peter went to Cornelius at Caesarea. We are given no details concerning all this work (have you ever looked up how many cities Philip might have evangelized between Azotus and Caesarea?) And later, much later, we find Philip the Evangelist still in Caesarea—when Paul is on his way to Jerusalem after his three missionary journeys, Acts 21:8, 9. Sometimes—and the exegete must be on the alert for these—there are indirect and unexpected indications that something has taken place that is not mentioned in so many words. Have you ever wondered, for example, why the outward manifestation of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit did not take place inevery instance, but only certain ones? Have you ever wondered why in the case of Cornelius it took placebefore his baptism and why in the case of the saints in Samaria it took place after their baptism? Questions to ponder for an exegete—but often very significant.
One of the practical cautions for the exegete which follows from the above fact is that the exegete must be extremely careful with an argument from silence. Just because Acts does not mention that a church was established at Damascus does not mean that there was no congregation there. Just because you do not read of the establishment of dozens of congregations by Philip does not mean they were not established. Just because you do not read that they had a congregational meeting in Philippi does not mean there was no instituted congregation there for months and years after Paul’s first visit there. Just because you do not read that Luke stayed behind when Paul left Philippi does not mean he did not do so; and remember the “we” narrative of Luke is interrupted at this point and not resumed for a long time. And so one could go on.
This is an important point for the present discussion. The Study Report argues (by assumption, for it does not exegete) that because in several instances you do not specifically read that the church was instituted in a certain place, therefore there was no congregation in those places when baptism was administered, or immediately thereupon, i.e., established through the very baptism, which is, remember, the sacrament of incorporation into the church. This is erroneous reasoning on the part of the Study Report.
But there is more.
My second observation is also connected with the character of historical books—this time, from apositive point of view. This point is that Scripture in its historical accounts is both selective and purposeful. That is, the Holy Spirit tells us in the infallible record only what he wants to tell us, and He does so for a very specific purpose. And it is the task of the exegete to take note of this selectivity and to discern from Scripture itself the purpose(s) of the narrative. Let me use an example from the book of Acts again. Acts, we may say in general, tells us the things which Jesus continued to do and to teach in distinction from what He began to do and to teach, 1:1, But one of the specific purposes is to tell us how the gospel and the church, after Pentecost, broke through the national boundaries of Israel and Jewry and became catholic. If you study the narrative carefully, you will discover that various events mesh, so to speak, to achieve that goal. There is Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch; there is the persecution which caused the gospel and the church to be spread everywhere, even to Antioch; there is Peter’s lesson in the vision of clean and unclean animals; there is the revelation to Cornelius and the subsequent request to Peter; there is the conversion of Cornelius; there is Peter’s report to the Jerusalem church; there is the conversion of Saul the persecutor to Paul the apostle to the Gentiles; there is the separating of Paul and Barnabas at Antioch to be missionaries; there is the Spirit’s prohibition to preach in certain places of Asia Minor; there is the vision of the Macedonian man; and finally there is the spread of the gospel to Europe. All of these events are related, and there is a unified purpose in the narrative. And the exegete must look for this purpose in order to discern the truth of the Word of God. This is but one example. More specific examples can be found, also.
Now, what is the importance of this? This. The exegete must be extremely careful about drawing conclusions from a given narrative which the narrative itself does not intend to be drawn. I am not saying that such incidental conclusions may never be drawn. But the student of Scripture must have good exegetical grounds for drawing such a conclusion or lesson, and he must discern such lessons only in harmony with and in the context of the main line and purpose of the narrative. That means that in the Study Report we also have to face this question (apart from various other questions): is it the purpose of this narrative to teach us something about the specific question with which we are concerned in our Study Report? If so, how and on what grounds do we reach this conclusion? As an illustration of what I mean, let me refer to what Abraham Kuyper said in one of my earliest quotations from his Dogmatics. He makes the point that baptism must take place in the midst of the congregation. Then he mentions that Roman Catholics, arguing against this, appeal to the example of the eunuch and the jailer at Philippi. But his reply is that this is a faulty argument, and that the point of these examples is not what the Roman Catholics claim, but this, that baptism without the presence of faith (praesentia fidelium) is not possible.
This brings me to my third observation, namely, that we must remember in connection with the historical books that not everything which is written in them isnormative for our life and for the life and conduct of the church today. This is one of the differences between, say, a historical book and an epistle. When the apostle exhorts in Philippians 2:12, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” that is normative for our conduct today. When the book of Acts records that the Deacon Philip also preached as an Evangelist, that is not normative for deacons today, I assure you. Or when it tells us that the deacons waited on tables, that is not normative for our conduct today. The historical books infallibly recordhistory, but this does not mean that every single action of yesteryear is also an infallible example for our conduct. Philip baptized the eunuch when they came to water; does that authorize us to baptize under such circumstances? Paul and Silas baptized the jailor in his house; this does not mean that we today baptize in private homes. Again, a determination of such things must be made in the light of Scripture before conclusions are drawn.
But now let us turn to specific passages. I do not intend to exegete all these passages in detail; that was the task of the Study Report. I will, however, try to point out certain key facts which must be considered, as well as to point out certain items which, in my opinion, the Study Report ignores in making the claim that these passages prove their position.
Acts 2:38, 41 is part of the narrative concerning Pentecost Day. Vs. 38 reads: “Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” And verse 41 reads: “Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls.” It seems to me that this passage proves nothing for the Study Report, in the light of the following: 1) The church at Jerusalem was already represented before the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the 120 in the upper room. 2) It was also instituted in the persons of the apostles who had been commissioned directly by Christ. 3) It might even be argued that they held a congregational meeting when they chose Matthias as a replacement for Judas Iscariot—whether or not that meeting was premature. 4) If the church was not present on Pentecost Day, then on whom was the Holy Spirit poured out? Surely, the Holy Spirit, as the Spirit of Christ, came to dwell in the church on Pentecost Day, not simply in a mass of individual believers. 5) Vs. 41 speaks of 3000 souls being “added” when they were baptized. To whom were they added, but to the church of Jerusalem? 6) Vs. 47 speaks specifically of the fact that “the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.”
In Acts 8:1-25 (the Report mentions vss. 12, 13, 16) is the account of the establishment of the church at Samaria, as well as the spread of the church to many villages of the Samaritans. Again, I can find no support for the position of the Study Report. There are several factors to be considered here: 1) Is it not correct to understand that the effect of the persecution “against the church which was at Jerusalem” was exactly the spread of the church to many places, including Samaria? 2) Must we understand that Philip went to the city of Samaria all alone? Or is it possible and likely in the light of vs. 1 that more, perhaps a good many, of the Jerusalem church members went to Samaria, and that Philip was not the only saint in Samaria prior to that mass conversion? 3) Does not this narrative show exactly that through baptism (the sacrament of incorporation into the church) the church was actually established in Samaria? Note: this is more specific than the Study Report’s baptism “with a view to . . .” 4) Is this not confirmed by the significant fact that in this case the Holy Ghost fell on them after their baptism in connection with the visit of Peter and John? Because they were Samaritans (previously thought by the Jews to be excluded; remember that at one time John wanted to call down fire on Samaritans?) it was necessary both for themselves and for the Jerusalem church, including the apostles; to have this confirmatory evidence of the Holy Ghost, so that it might be known and seen by divine evidence that this was indeed the church and that these Samaritan-outsiders were indeed baptized into the church. I understand the reference to be not to the Spirit Himself; they already were under the influence of the Spirit or they could not believe. The reference is to the outward and visible manifestation of the Spirit.
Next is the example of the Ethiopian eunuch, Acts 8:26-39, who was baptized by Philip upon profession of faith, vss. 36-39. Concerning this example: 1) It should be noted that the narrative drops the account of the eunuch with the words, “. . . and he went on his way rejoicing.” In other words, we know nothing, absolutely nothing, about what became of the eunuch after this. 2) If this silence of Scripture is intended by the Study Report as proof of its position, it proves too much. For on this basis, it cannot ,even be proved that this was baptism “with a view to” instituting the church. 3) We do know, however, that the eunuch was not a man who spurned his connection with the church prior to this. For vs. 27 informs us that he had made his long journey to Jerusalem “for to worship.” 4) Apart from all this, and apart from the fact that Scripture is completely silent—one way or the other—as to the after-history of this eunuch, we must not overlook the fact that here was an unusual case. Philip was made to meet this eunuch by direct revelation, vs. 26. By the same direct revelation, vs. 29, Philip was told to join him in his chariot. I would say that if we today were guided by the same direct revelation to baptize such an individual, there could be no hesitation. But such direct revelation there is not. And to make this instance normative with respect to the issues of the Study Report has no foundation.
As to the baptism of Saul at Damascus, Acts 9:18, the following: 1) How does this qualify as baptism on the mission field? From every indication in the chapter, it is evident that the church was already in Damascus. There was a publicly known group of disciples in the city—whom Saul originally intended to persecute, and with whom Saul stayed certain days while in Damascus. Ananias was one of them and was directly commissioned by the Lord to baptize Saul. 2) Surely, no one would question whether Saul was joined to the church through his very baptism. 3) There was no missionary labor in any ordinary sense of the word at all in the conversion of Saul. It was the Lord Jesus Himself Who turned Saul miraculously on his way to Damascus. And at the end of the process, Ananias very briefly conveys the message, heals Saul, and immediately baptizes him.
In Acts 10 we find the remarkable narrative of Cornelius, and the Study Report refers to two verses, 47 and 48, which refer to the baptism of Cornelius and his household. But the Study Report does not show how this proves the point. It makes the factual statement, to which anyone will agree: “Acts 10:47, 48 teaches that Peter commanded Cornelius and his house to be baptized as soon as they believed and the Spirit was poured out on them.” But do not overlook the following facts: 1) Again, there was a remarkable chain of direct revelation by vision to Cornelius and to Peter lying behind this baptism. 2) There is absolutely no proof that there was not already a church in Caesarea, through Philip’s prior labor, Acts 8:40, and that Cornelius and his household were joined to that congregation. 3) What is of most significance however, is the fact that the missionary in this instance, Peter, had tangible evidence that, as our Form puts it, the Lord was making his work fruitful unto the gathering of the church in that place. What was that evidence? The remarkable fact that while Peter was busy speaking the Holy Ghost fell on all them that heard the Word. This again refers to the tangible, visible evidences of the Spirit. But remember that where the Spirit is poured out, there the church is; for the Spirit of Christ is given only to His church. Hence, the Lord was saying in effect: “Here in this Gentile household I am gathering My church.” Small wonder that Peter, then, commanded that they should be baptized.
In Acts 16:9-40 we find the account of the first preaching of the gospel in Europe, in a colony city, Philippi, where there was apparently not even a Jewish synagogue. In this context we find two instances mentioned by the Study Report: the baptism of Lydia and her household, vs. 15, and the baptism of the jailor and his household, vs. 34. The Study Report claims that there was no church at Philippi. I call attention to the following: 1) That again there was direct revelation (the vision of the Macedonian man) behind the preaching of Paul and Silas at Philippi. 2) That we obviously do not have a complete and detailed account of all the work at Philippi. The account is given only from the viewpoint of three persons: Lydia, the soothsaying damsel, and the jailor. Besides, when Paul first preached, he preached unto the women who gathered at the riverside: But before he left, he and Silas saw thebrethren and comforted them, vs. 40. 3) That Luke apparently stayed behind in Philippi. The “we” narrative ends here. Luke reappears in Philippi in Chapter 20:5 ff., at the beginning of the second “we” section of Acts. One commentator suggests that Luke was the “true yokefellow” mentioned in Philippians 4:3. 4) That in all likelihood the congregation of Philippi was established at the time of this first visit of Paul. This is in harmony with the general work-method of the apostle; he did not leave a place until the fruits of his labors became evident. The narrative, of course, does not say in so many words that a church was established, nor that it was not established. But as I indicated, there was a community of “brethren” by the time Paul left—even though only certain women, a woman, a damsel, and one man are specifically mentioned. And let me add that this is not only my personal view, but also that of several reputable commentators on Acts. But, you see, if this is true, then these baptisms were not merely “with a view to” the instituting of a congregation. No, they were baptisms into the church; and through these baptisms of heathen Gentiles the church was formed at Philippi.
In Acts 18:8 is one verse in the account of Paul’s labors at Corinth. The narrative about Corinth embraces vss. 1-18. We may notice the following: 1) Again, as so many times, Scripture says nothing either, way about the formal organization of the church at Corinth. 2) We must remember that Paul personally, though a missionary par excellence, did not think it important that he baptize. He baptized only a very few at Corinth—though many believed and though the Lord had much people there. Did Silas and Timothy do the baptizing? This is a possibility; but then the Corinthians could still claim to have been baptized in the name of Paul, I Cor. 1:13, in the light of their close association with Paul. But if not, there must have been others who were qualified to baptize—which would lead to the conclusion that very soon there was a congregation at Corinth and office-bearers who could baptize. 3) It seems likely that a congregation was established in the house of Justus, which became Paul’s center of labors after he left the synagogue, vss. 6, 7. If so, the “many” who were baptized were again not merely baptized “with a view to” the instituting of a congregation while there was no guarantee whatsoever that a congregation would ultimately be formed. But they were baptized into the church. Their baptism was the sacrament of their incorporation into the church. 4) And thereafter, Paul continued to labor for a long time at Corinth, because the Lord assured him He had “much people” there, vss. 9-11.
As to Acts 19:5, the following: 1) It is at least possible that vs. 5 does not even refer to any act of baptism. If it does, then it is a re-baptism. Rev. H. Hoeksema is of the view that no baptism took place at this time.Triple Knowledge, II, 475, 476; Reformed Dogmatics, 671, 672. 2) No proof is offered by the Study Report that there was not already an infant congregation in Ephesus. Apollos, Aquila, and Priscilla all preceded Paul at Ephesus. There was also a known and recognized group of disciples there. Acts 18:24-28, Acts 19:9.
Finally, a few words about the last part of this section of the Report. It speaks of the reason for the apostolic practice. In general, I can agree with this section. I wish, however, that it was more precise on the following counts: 1) Baptism is strictly a secondary means of grace. 2) Baptism has no meaning and no significance apart from the preaching of the Word. It is a sign and seal of the promise of the gospel, added to the promise. 3) Baptism, therefore, is not a means of the Spirit to save the elect in the same sense as the preaching. 4) Baptism, in the view of Reformed churches, has never been considered indispensable, though ordinarily required. 5) Baptism does not merely serve so that a repentant sinner “can be a member of the church institute,” as the Report puts it. That is only possibility. No, by baptism one is incorporated into the church.