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Saturday, July 4, 2015

"Forty Questions about Baptism and the Lord's Supper" (John S. Hammett)

TITLE: 40 Questions About Baptism and the Lord's Supper (40 Questions & Answers Series)
AUTHOR: John S. Hammett
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2015, (336 pages).

From time to time, even the most fundamental aspects of our liturgies may be questioned, especially the rituals that we practice regularly. While the Roman Catholic Church and many Eastern Orthodox churches maintain seven sacraments (Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Matrimony, and Holy Orders), Martin Luther led the Protestants by keeping only three (Baptism, Eucharist, and Penance). Many evangelicals nowadays keep only two of them, namely the Baptism and the Eucharist, where the latter is often called the Lord's Supper. Why is there a need to talk about the basics of these two basic sacraments? That is because even when various denominations and groups profess to celebrate these two sacraments, what they represent and how they are conducted can be very different theologically and practically. There is no question about their importance and relevance to the Church. The key concern is about the different ways of interpretation and what they mean to to various Christian groups. Even the use of the terms are different. Some groups (like the Baptists) prefer to use "ordinances" while others (RCC, and many Reformed churches) stick to "sacraments." These differences are only the beginning. There are other more profound questions that surround the general views, the denominational views, the theological views, and the practical aspects.

How is this book unique? The authors point out four features. First, unlike many books, this book treats not just one but both sacraments: Baptism and Communion. This means that the two most important sacraments of evangelical churches are described in one book, making it a convenient two-in-one volume resource. Second, there is an expanded coverage of issues pertaining to both the Baptism and the Lord's Supper. Many books drill down on infant baptism and the nature of Christ's presence respectively. This book discusses a lot more. For Baptism, readers learn about the historical development, the difference between Spirit and water baptism, the reasons why Jesus was baptized, the relationship between John's baptism and Jesus' baptism, and of course, infant baptism. For the Eucharist, we learn about the different terms used, the denominational differences, the origins, the reasons for celebrating, and the meaning and practice of the Lord's Supper. Third, the book covers several important practical issues like:
  • When should a child be baptized?
  • Thinking about baptism and church divisions
  • Modes of baptism
  • Frequency of Lord's Supper
  • What should or should not be included in the Eucharist liturgy
  • How worship can be improved with the Eucharist?
  • and others...
These practical matters help flesh out the theological frameworks often discussed at length but lack the practical applications. Out of the forty questions listed, 4 are general ones that discusses both the Baptism and the Eucharist, 17 are questions directly related to Baptism while the other 19 are on the Eucharist. John Hammett uses four sections to frame his discussion. The first is an Introduction where he puts forth the meaning, the purpose, and the distinctiveness of the sacrament. Section Two is the Denominational view discussed through the lenses of five groups: 1) Roman Catholic; 2) Lutheran; 3) Reformed; 4) Baptist; 5) Others. This section will be particularly helpful for members of respective Churches to be able to learn about their own denominational practices. At the same time, they can understand the other perspectives which should lead to better understanding among all. One may not agree with the other viewpoints but with understanding, it can promote greater cooperation. Section Three covers the important theological perspectives which should prove to be an interesting draw for those wanting to go more in-depth. On Baptism, readers can look through the meaning of baptism according to the various perspectives; infant baptism; grace vs obedience; modes of baptism. On the Eucharist, we understand the sense of Christ's presence, open and closed table communion, and specific references to how Scriptures are interpreted with regards to the ritual. Section Four is the practical section that highlights many things the layperson can appreciate.  

This book gives a Questions and Answers format that allows readers to use it as a reference book. With a question to open up the topic, Hammett guides readers to understand the nuances as he explains the different perspectives taken over the years. The reflection questions provide opportunities for individuals and groups to take the matter further with self-reflection and to think together as a group. There are three reasons why I like this book. Firstly, it is clear and very readable. The questions are kept brief and concise. By relegating the advanced materials and details to footnotes and brief citations, readers will not be easily distracted. At the same time, advanced readers can use this as a primer to dive deeper into various topics of interest or research. Secondly, the author has been fair in bringing out the different beliefs of the various denominations. In this way, the book should generate a greater interest among Christians in general, instead of limiting it to only a few denomination. Although there are only five chapters covering five broad denominations, that does not mean the others are less important. I believe the brevity of the book is a factor in deciding who to include or exclude. At the same time, some of the differences may not be significant enough to warrant an entire question or chapter. That said, there are situations that even within any one denomination, there are disagreements. The Pentecostal view is a case in point. There are Pentecostal believers in every major denomination today. So, while the author has presented according to specific denominations, it is fair to say that readers will have to decide for themselves where their churches belong. More likely, there will be a hybrid of beliefs and practices. Perhaps, after reading this book, one may even begin to question one's own denomination and seek to incorporate other practices into their own! Finally, this book is a useful resources to teach congregations about the meaning, the reasons, and the uniquenesses of the two sacraments. In one convenient volume, we have a rough curriculum set out for teaching, even for preaching. The bibliography is a good starting point for research and as good resources.

John Hammett is Senior Professor of Systematic Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has helped put together a useful book for readers, students, and teachers to use. I recommend this volume highly for that purpose.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Kregel Academic in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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