Book Review: Troubled Waters
Author: Ben Witherington III
Publisher: Baylor Press ISBN: 9781602580046
Ben Witherington chose a great title for his book, Troubled Waters. I do not know if it was intended, but the book was not the easiest read for me. I am very familiar with Ben’s other works and I’m a great fan of his writing and his brilliance. I believe he is considered one of the preeminent Bible scholars of our age, but sometimes his efforts can be somewhat confusing for me. This was one of those times. I will admit that the conclusion of the book, chapter eight, was extremely helpful in bringing resolution to questions and confusion. In the end, I am very glad that I worked my way through some of the difficult reading for the treat that is the postscript of the book.
Troubled Waters is about Christian baptism; specifically, Witherington addresses paedo-baptism (infant baptism), credo-baptism (believer’s baptism), and spirit-baptism. Echoing my earlier words, Witherington is a brilliant scholar and despite the short length of this book, his work is careful, meticulous, and very well reasoned (albeit somewhat confusing from a positional perspective) in presenting baptismal practices represented and debated in the Christian church.
The book opens with a presentation of details of baptism outside of the New Testament Scriptures. Illustrations and references to baptism are explored from the Old Testament Scriptures as well as the Qumran Community. It is here that Witherington shares pre-Christian church definitions and practices of Baptism, drawing connections, parallels, and distinctions. This is very helpful foundations work for this discussion.
Primary source material for Witherington’s work follows: (1)The Barth-Cullmann Debate; The Teaching of the Church Regarding Baptism, Karl Barth and Baptism in the New Testament, O. Cullmann (2) The Jeremias-Aland Debate; Infant Baptism in the First four Centuries, J. Jeremias and Did the Early Church Baptize Infants?, K. Aland. Included in this debate is also J. Jeremias’ The Origins of Infant Baptism (3) The Biblical Doctrine of Infant Baptism, P. Marcel (4) Baptism in the New Testament, G. R. Beasley-Murray (5) Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace, P. K. Jewett (6) Children of the Promise—The Case for Baptizing Infants, G. W. Bromiley (7) Baptism in the Holy Spirit, James Dunn. The book is well annotated with references and a Scripture index included in the final pages.
As I pointed out in my opening comments, I found the book quite confusing at times with “seesawing” commentary that, on occasion, seemed as if one paragraph would contradict another. This, I attribute to Witherington’s strict objectivity and (assumed) desire to present material in the purest form possible. This might be good or it might not be so good. It did prompt me to read very carefully and I appreciate the background information that I learned that I was previously unaware. I should also mention the context of the book was not what I expected when I originally purchased it. My perseverance paid off as I found the final chapter the mortar that cemented all of the previous building block chapters together.
I would not say this is the definitive book on the Baptism debates, but it is an excellent beginning to the conversation and the material can be trusted for being presented without bias. Troubled Waters: Rethinking the Theology of Baptism is one of three books by Ben Witherington III in a series on the primary sacraments of the church. Other titles include Making a Meal of It and The Living Word of God: Rethinking the Theology of the Bible. Bible scholar Ben Witherington is Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary and on the doctoral faculty at St. Andrews University in Scotland. He is now considered one of the top evangelical scholars in the world, and is an elected member of the prestigious SNTS, a society dedicated to New Testament studies.