A bombshell in the baptistery

Sub-titled, ‘An examination of the influence of George Beasley-Murray on the baptismal writings of select Southern Baptist and Baptist Union of Great Britain scholars’, A Bombshell in the Baptistery is based on a PhD thesis by Justin Nalls, the ‘teaching pastor’ of a Southern Baptist church in Georgia.

Not surprisingly I read the book with a good deal of interest, for George Beasley-Murray was my father. Of his many writings on baptism his magnum opus was Baptism in the New Testament, the core of which was a detailed exegesis of every NT passage where baptism is mentioned. It is a devasting critique both of paedo-baptists and Baptists. In his final paragraph he wrote:

All of us in all the Churches need to consider afresh our ways before God, with the Bible open before us and a prayer for the guidance of the Holy Spirit and a preparedness to listen to what the Spirit is saying to all the Churches. With such prayer answered – and it would be unbelief to assume that it will not be – and obedience pledged to guidance vouchsafed, the inadequate insights of frail individuals and of our very fallible traditions would surely give place to a fuller understanding of the divine will made known, and the glory of God in Christ furthered through the Church by the Spirit.

What made this book a ‘bombshell’ was that my father believed that God was at work in baptism – “the idea that baptism is a purely symbolic rite must be pronounced not alone unsatisfactory but out of harmony with the New Testament itself”. For most Baptists this was a revolutionary idea!

The phrase ‘a bombshell in the baptistery’ was first coined by William Hull, a Southern Baptist NT scholar and a former colleague of my father. The original dustjacket of the first edition featured a series of concentric ripples at the heart of which was a bubble – it looked as if somebody had drowned in a baptistery, but it could equally have been the aftermath of a bombshell!

So, what do I think about this new book? Not surprisingly I am delighted at all the positive things Nalls writes about my father. For instance, he quotes Anthony Cross, a noted Baptist historian, who said that my father wrote “what are undoubtedly the most eloquent, theologically balanced and important contributions any Baptist has made to the baptismal debate”.

But there is a weakness to the book. Unfortunately, not only did Nalls and his supervisors not know my father, his supervisors too were not NT scholars (one is a Baptist systematic theologian and the other a Baptist historian) and were not Cambridge men. As a result, the significance of my father’s two years at Jesus College, Cambridge is not appreciated. Yet it was those two years which began to form him into a NT scholar, which was the secret of his writings on baptism.

As I explained in Fearless for Truth, my father, when he accepted the call to Zion Baptist Church, Cambridge in 1948, it was – as the church well knew- with the intention of doing a PhD. He already had a London BD and MTh, and so a doctorate seemed the next step. But at the last minute Jesus College discovered it had overlooked a new university rule which debarred anybody in pastoral charge from doing a PhD. My father was devastated, yet it was a blessing in disguise. For instead of the narrowing down which a research degree entails, he had the broadening opportunity of doing Part III of the Tripos in NT studies, which involved knowing the Greek NT inside out. This proved to be the best of foundations for a future NT scholar. I know, for I have done a Part III in NT too!

There was no syllabus to cover, no course to follow – instead postgraduates on this course simply had to immerse themselves in the NT. However, in Cambridge every student has a ‘supervisor’. As a member of Jesus, a college well-known for producing theologians, the Dean of Jesus College, Percival Gardner-Smith, became his supervisor and contrary to what Nalls suggests had a great influence on my father. For Jesus men (of whom I am one) Gardner-Smith was a legendary figure. Dean from 1922 to 1956, he remained a fellow of the College up to his death in 1985! Even today Jesus fellows take turns in wearing Gardner Smith’s college summer blazer! Gardner-Smith was a NT scholar with a special interest in the Gospels. He it was who directed my father’s studies. It is this which Nalls fails to appreciate. In Cambridge lectures are optional, supervisions are compulsory. The supervisor’s task is to set students an essay topic, and for the student to return with an essay written. The week or so in-between supervisions is spent reading – hence the expression ‘reading for a degree’. I don’t know what essay topics Gardner-Smith set my father, but I do know that he made him work through a major commentary on each NT book. At least once a fortnight (if not once a week) my father would have had an hour’s personal supervision with Gardner-Smith.

My father was intensely proud of his supervisor – I remember as a child being introduced to him. Gardner-Smith influenced my father in terms of not just understanding the NT, but also of appreciating the importance of ‘church reunion’ to which the final paragraph of Baptism in the NT refers. Instead of counting up the number of references to Gardner-Smith in Baptism in the NT, Nalls should have read The Roads Converge: A Contribution to the Question of Christian Reunion (Edward Arnold, London 1963). Edited by Gardner Smith, one of the ten essays by distinguished Jesus men is by my father and includes a section on ‘the church, ministry and sacraments’. It is probably one of the best things he ever wrote – indeed, it stimulated my interest in ‘The Lordship of Christ over the World in the Corpus Paulinum’ (the title of my Manchester PhD). This essay is evidence of my father’s attachment to Gardner-Smith.

Although he may not have been a major influence on my father’s understanding of baptism, Gardner-Smith played a key role in my father’s formation as a NT scholar, and as a result contributed to the distinctiveness of my father’s writings on baptism. Most Baptists who write on baptism are not NT scholars. Indeed, of the six ‘scholars’ whose baptismal writings Nalls goes on to examine, only one is a NT specialist. Sadly, in Britain at least, Baptists have no Biblical scholars of note – which is somewhat strange in that Baptists claim to root their way of being church in the New Testament (hence my book, Radical Believers: the Baptist way of being church!).

So in summary, I am grateful for having been asked to review A Bombshell in the Baptistery. In many ways it is a helpful guide. It is not, however, the last word on my father!

2 comments

  1. When I met your father, I was in the company of professors and fellow ministers who were part of the Church Of Christ, in Villanova, Pa. Your father accepted an invitation to speak, and he was a delightful man in a group of overly serious men. I took a few black and white pictures of him, and I run into one or the other at odd times. His lectures were full of good will and humor…and I was interested in his emphasis on the Eucharist, as well as upon Baptism.

    Your Dad was a remarkable scholar, without doubt. However, he was a fearless soul, and a delightful man. I enjoyed your review.

    Best wishes, from this side of the pond.

    Tom Fowler

  2. How grateful you must feel for all your father has handed down to you and many others; a wonderful inheritance!

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