David F. Wright is Emeritus Professor of Patriscs and Reformed Christianity, New College, University of Edinburgh. He’s translated Reformation source material, edited numerous theological references works, study series, and authored several books on the history and theology of the Reformation. In The Westminster Confession Into the 21st Century vol 1 (ed. J. Ligon Duncan III), Wright argues that the Westminster Confession does indeed teach a form of baptismal regeneration. He sums this argument up in his other book What Has Infant Baptism Done to the Church? by saying “the Westminster Assembly’s benches clearly held to regeneration as God’s normal baptismal gift” (24).
In What Has Infant Baptism Done to Baptism?, Wright presents a creative argument for regaining a higher view of baptismal efficacy. He begins by asking whether the current practice has caused congregations to actually devalue the sacrament of baptism. The baptism of infants is often little more than a dedication service, and as Wright says, “Numerous ministers cannot in all conscience affirm of infant baptism most of the New Testament’s baptismal passages, and until recently their churches’ service books have not helped them do so” (pg. 23). Commenting on Romans 6, Wright continues, “Here we meet another illustration of the way baptism functioned as a criterion, a touchstone of authentic Christianity. It rarely does so, I suggest, in contemporary experience, even in Baptist circles. That we have largely lost the self-consciousness of being a baptismal community owes something to the remoteness of New Testament baptism induced by a dominant, and often devalued, paedobaptism” (pg. 33). Wright is not arguing against paedobaptism, but rather he is claiming that since Evangelicals do not believe that what the Bible says about baptism can actually happen to infants, our practice has caused us to fall into an erroneous view of baptism itself.
His charge is plain: “Hence a major recovery programme is called for. There can be no better starting-point, and for evangelicals no other starting-point, than a re-appropriation of the New Testament witness to early Christian baptism” (33). He concludes the whole book with, “Because fewer requests for baby baptism are now being made, in many local situations a responsible baptismal discipline is more feasible. It should both facilitate and be facilitated by a recovery of a more biblically realist understanding of baptism with which Christ furnished his church to mark incorporation into him and his body” (pg. 102).
Thus far I am already in cheerful agreement with Wright, but his concluding sentence actually ends with a footnote. At the bottom of the page he writes, “For supporting argument from a Reformed base see Rich Lusk, ‘Paedobaptism and Baptismal Efficacy: Historic Trends and Current Controversies’, in Steve Wilkins and Duane Garner (eds), The Federal Vision (Monroe, LA: Athanasius Press, 2004), 71-125.”
So David Wright is pointing us to Rich Lusk for “supporting argument from a Reformed base.” It seems that Wright sympathizes with Lusk’s concerns for regaining a higher view of baptism, and he agrees that there is a rich legacy within the tradition of Reformed theology.
I think that Wright is basically correct on this. Evangelicals have largely lost the biblical view of what baptism is and the role it should play in the Christian life. He is also correct to point out that the Reformed churches have historically held to high baptismal views. And of course, he’s right to point out that Lusk is saying essentially the same thing.
There’s a larger zeitgeist in the Christian world that is interested in giving the sacraments a central place in the Christian identity. What has come to be known as “The Federal Vision” is but one flavor of it appearing within Reformed circles in North America, and the hostile reaction which it has elicited by many mainstream leaders in the conservative Reformed churches reveals as much about the deep-seated flaws of contemporary Reformed theology as it does any particular weaknesses of the concerns of the Federal Vision.
As Wright has said, if Evangelicals are ever to return to the Biblical teaching on baptism, a full recovery program is called for. The concerns of the Federal Vision are part and parcel to this recovery. The only question is whether the Reformed will have the courage to be true to the Scriptures or whether they will continue to serve the traditions of men.