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Review – Inward Baptism: The Theological Origins of Evangelicalism by Baird Tipson (OUP, 2020)

In this volume Tipson traces through 250 years of church history to explore the origins of one of the key characteristics of Evangelicalism – an emphasis on ‘inward baptism,’ or to use another description, a ‘conversion experience.’ Tipson hypothesises that Luther’s teaching on baptism resulted some 200 years later in an emphasis on conversion in the ministry of the Great Awakening. That seems like a big jump, but the steps are briefly as follows.

Luther held that the ground of assurance was in baptism. Baptism had an efficacy which meant that in times of self-doubt as to the reality of personal salvation, one should look back and remember their baptism and be assured of their salvation because of their baptism. However, some infants who had been baptised were clearly without the blessings signified – remission of sins, regeneration, and adoption as a child of God (p48). So, the sign by itself could not give assurance. Consequently, later Reformers (such as Beza, according to this study), put the emphasis instead on the thing signified in baptism – ‘inward baptism’, the Holy Spirit received into the heart– rather than on the sign itself. This however results in a shift from the objective to the subjective, and so, as Tipson puts it, the search began for ways in which the subjective could be objectified, or an answer given to the question, how can I be sure I have received this inward baptism? 

For some the answer was in the outward change produced by grace (love to our neighbour, good works) but these can be easily counterfeited – many unbelievers do good works. For others the emphasis was placed on inward marks of grace, evidences of a changed relationship to Jesus Christ (love), sin (hatred), and the world (separation) in our religious experience. The Puritans became masters at producing lists of evidences by which one could measure their spiritual state, perhaps reaching a zenith in Edward’s Religious Affections. 

The final step in the progression from objective to subjective was to emphasise the event of inward baptism – the conversion experience. If we can be sure that we have had a conversion experience, then we must be saved, regardless of how we feel at any one given point in time. Consequently, evangelical preaching aimed at conversion, and lacked emphasis on discipling. Ultimately – although Tipson does not go this far – this thinking would fuel the revivalism of Charles Finney. 

Tipson has a masterful grasp of how these ideas have permutated through the centuries and he writes in a clear and engaging manner. While one can trace the progression he describes, he has not persuasively shown that this is a necessary progression. Can Luther’s views really be said to have caused the development of evangelicalism? It is also unclear whether Tipson regards this as a positive shift in emphasis. We remain unconvinced that evangelicalism has all the answers to assurance, and are reminded of the words of Joseph Hart, a contemporary of the great awakening, who wrote concerning undue introspection: “Pore not on thyself too long, lest it sink thee lower; look to Jesus kind as strong – mercy joined with power.”

The subject of assurance remains a key pastoral issue today. True religion is both objective – we are saved by the work of Jesus Christ; our salvation is outside of us – and subjective – it has an effect within us. Many problems have arisen by confusing these two elements, or by overemphasising one side at the expense of the other. Tipson’s book is a timely reminder of this.  

It is a pity this book is over-priced, and therefore unlikely to be widely read. Ask your local library to add it to their purchase list or contact OUP and encourage them to release a paperback edition.  

(Reviewed by Rev’d Matthew Hyde, Brighton)