Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Inward Baptism

Reviewed by Ryan Shelton

Baird Tipson, Inward Baptism: The Theological Origins of Evangelicalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), ISBN 978-0197511473, 205 pp., $99/£64.

[1] Baird Tipson calls his new study, Inward Baptism, a helicopter ride—an apt metaphor to describe a narrative pace of 250 years in 176 pages. Despite the altitude, Tipson resists the abstract flyover all too common in a doctrinal history by ‘swooping down’ (p. 7) at a few well-chosen episodes, giving his tour colour and punch. The charter of Tipson’s flight will interest students of the Northern Renaissance interested in the changing social and religious landscape of the early modern Atlantic world, as he argues the Protestant Reformation provoked by Martin Luther in the sixteenth century predictably and inevitably led to the evangelical revivals of the eighteenth century. To defend his claim, Tipson traces an evolving tension in the regeneration theology of Martin Luther and his protestant offspring between the exterior sacrament of baptism and the interior need for faith (p. 49). Given this tug, Baird postulates that evangelicalism’s emphasis on inward baptism was unavoidable.

[2] The first episode, chapter 1, begins in 1503 Bremen, during Cardinal Peraudi’s north German indulgence tour. Tipson describes the late-medieval “conversion” theology of sacramental penance (p.16). The elaborate system of indulgences, which Protestants so often cartoon, existed within a devotional theology ecosystem that fronted caritas in Christian conversion, turning the heart away from the self and toward God and neighbour (p. 27). An evolving lay practice of inward devotional piety was already emphasizing Christian conversion outside the institutional church and in the hearts of individual Christians (p. 33). Chapter 2, then, hovers over a central Protestant backlash, namely, when Luther rejected do ut des as a valid framework for God’s grace toward humans. Tipson corrects the reductio that the late-medieval tradition Luther protested was simply a works-based salvation. Rather, the Protestant piety Luther pioneered concentrated ‘on faith rather than love’ (p. 39). But Luther’s revolt created new problems, especially related to the sacrament of baptism, which Luther called an act of faith in God’s promise (p. 47). What about those who participated in the sacrament without faith? This tension in Luther spawned two competing tribes: the first, represented by Jacob Andreae of the Lutheran mainstream, who underlined the water’s efficacy in spite of personal faith; the alternative, represented by Jacob Spener of the pietist camp, repudiated any ex opere operato overtones and insisted on belief for efficacious washing.

[3] This paradox in Luther propels the plot to chapter 3, describing the Colloquy at Montbéliard between Andreae, again, and Theodore Beza, a prominent Reformed leader. The thorny issue of infant salvation served as a catalyst toward articulating two opposing understandings of baptism. Could grieving parents take comfort in their perished child’s eternal security from her water baptism? It was one thing for Martin Luther as an adult man to remember his baptism when tempted, but for infants whose faith was never even tested, how could baptism be an ‘appeal to God for a good conscience’ (1 Peter 3:21)? For Beza and the Reformed, the pastoral thrust pushed consolation away from the sacramental water and toward the sovereign will of God. To Beza, ‘by ascribing to the baptismal water the power to forgive sin and cleanse the heart, Lutherans had turned water into an idol and were thus idolaters’ (p. 69). Following the lead of Calvin, Beza insisted on God’s complete sovereignty in predestined election, and could not be bound by human sacramental mechanics. The relationship between water and spirit was a sign and not a cause of grace. Thus, the focus continued to move away from the objective, external sacrament toward subjective, internal moves of the Spirit. William Perkins, therefore, becomes Tipson’s next persona in chapter 4, which investigates the ‘conscience religion’ that becomes foundational among seventeenth-century Puritans. ‘The visible sacraments, so central to late-medieval piety, did not disappear. Only now they were signs and seals of the changes God had already made or eventually would make to the human heart and mind’ (p. 93). Perkins extrapolated from Beza an evidence-based method of assurance based on the con-scientia, or ‘second knower, resident within a person’s mind’ who kept ‘careful track of his or her thoughts and actions’ (p. 95). Tipson is careful to distinguish the Puritan conscience from an overly anxious ethic, a la Max Weber, but instead sees the dominant thrust of piety in this season as introspective, yet hopeful (p. 105). Temperament could, of course, vary. Tipson emphasizes, however, that the germane development in Perkins’ school of divinity is looking inward for falsifiable signs of spiritual life.

[4] Tipson pauses the unidirectional narrative in chapter 5 with something of a necessary detour. Choosing Richard Baxter as the ‘Elisha’ to William Perkins’ ‘Elijah,’ the helicopter tour takes a panoramic view of the later-seventeenth-century Puritan rhapsody on conscience religion (p. 110). Troubled by the extremes of antinomianism among Cromwell’s New Model Army, Baxter pushed the piety of introspection among the ‘strict Calvinists’ toward an assurance that required proof in holy living to inform conscience’s register (p. 114). In other words, just as Luther took comfort from his outward baptism, Baxter worried many ‘thought they could take comfort by recalling their inward baptism’ (p. 118). During the Restoration, certain episcopal commentators likewise emphasized godly living in the form of religious behavior, such as Samuel Parker and Richard Allestree. They decried the conscience religion of Perkins, which was increasingly transformed by Baxter and Richard Alleine into what the Restoration church saw as exhausting and strenuous enthusiast moralism. The emerging Anglican alternative advocated rest in the comforts of religious ritual. It is precisely in this powder keg of rival poles, between comfortable religion and what T. Dwight Bozeman has called the ‘precisionist strain’ of Puritan nonconformity, that the evangelical revivals would ignite a spark. Chapter 6, ‘The Outbreak of Evangelicalism,’ presents the crest of this long interiorization of faith. By this point, the mysterious work of inner baptism adopted the same kind of punctiliar, ‘instantaneous’ character as did the church sacrament (p. 140). But along with the emphasis on the immediate regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, this lay-focused revival came with ‘contempt for the unconverted minister’ and sustained critique from the religious caste. The theological defense of Wesley and Edwards both, in their own ways, connected this singular period of religious enthusiasm to the protestant tradition outlined in the previous chapters of the volume.

[5] Tipson’s study is creatively presented, well written, and persuasively argued, though not without reproach. The most obvious weakness—if it can be called that—derives precisely from its strength: it covers so much time in so few pages that one cannot help but wonder occasionally about editorial caprice. Why one character rather than another? What connects these exact episodes apart from Tipson’s tale? This editorial choice, of course, is a necessary feature given the limits, but readers may wonder at the lacuna of key figures. John Owen, for example, might have served as a connecting figure between Perkins and Edwards, rather than Baxter. A stray excursus on the ‘numinous’ in Rudolf Otto seems to add little to the flow of chapter 4, except to provide an asynchronous foil to Perkins’ conscience divinity. Aside from a few such negligible criticisms, this doctrinal history offers readers a compelling story with expert comprehension, remarkably unburdened by minutiae, of how a theology of inward baptism unfurled from Luther to Beza, from Beza to Perkins, from Perkins to Baxter, and from Baxter to Whitefield, Wesley, and Edwards. Given the centrality of religious discourse during the Renaissance, Tipson’s study deserves attention by those looking to connect the world of ideas with the lived experiences of early modern subjects.

Queen’s University Belfast, December 2020

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