Thursday, May 23, 2013

A book review: 'To such as these' The child in Baptist thought by Andrew Goodliff

Here's a copy of a review I wrote of a colleague's recent book about children in baptist theology.  It's almost essential reading if you're a person working in a baptist context with children and young people, but pretty useful if you work with them in other denominations.  The review originally appeared in Regents Reviews here:'s%20Reviews%204.2%20May.pdf 

Annie Dillard wrote 
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. (Teaching a Stone to Talk, Harper & Row, 1982)
As a Youth and Children’s Pastor I often listen to the words we say in Baptist churches when we present an infant soon after its birth and experience a similar sensation to the one described by Annie Dillard.   Along with the family of the child, congregations make a series of promises to support both the family and the child in the task of reaching mature adulthood, and hopefully growing in Christian faith.  I think about the various approaches these same congregations then have to the child in later years when she or he throws up on the new carpet, runs about during services, asks awkward questions, smokes in the toilets, speaks prophetically about what Jesus is saying and all the other things children do as they grow.  I wonder whether they didn’t realise what they were promising, or whether they have forgotten that they did.

In this slim volume Andrew Goodliff has looked at the words Baptists have used over their history in services of Infant Dedication or Presentation and asked some key questions about what we mean theologically when we say them.  He has thoroughly summarised Baptist theological approaches to the child and his work contains a useful discussion of those approaches.  He notes that usually these approaches have been responses to the question “Where is the child?”  This question has been asked by Baptists since our earliest days, because of our belief that salvation can only be received by those professing personal faith, signified by believer’s baptism, and that the church is made up of these believers gathered together.  This raises questions for us about where the child is in relation to Kingdom, salvation and the church.  The book contains chapters discussing the theological issues raise by each of these questions.

The chapter on the child in relation to the Kingdom focusses mainly on Jesus’ response to children in Mark 10:13-16, arguing that this is the text Baptists use to support the rite of Infant Presentation, although there is a variety of interpretations of its meaning; are children simply signs of the kingdom, or are they included within it?  What is it about the child that makes them a sign of it?  Most of the writers quoted argue that it is the child’s deficit, its weakness and vulnerability that make it a sign of how the Kingdom is to be entered, but Goodliff argues that most readings have been defensive, whereas a creative approach might be more helpful.

In chapter 4, Goodliff explores the relationship between theologies of sin and salvation and approaches to the child, seeking a new language to discuss the development of faith that places more emphasis on salvation as a process rather than an event.  This leads on to a discussion in Chapter 5 of the child in relation to the church and here the problems inherent in a very binary in-or-out approach become even more obvious.  Goodliff notes Nigel Wright’s use of the term “gathering” rather than “gathered” in relation to the community of the church; again taking a process view and applying it not just to children but all those growing in faith.

In his conclusion Goodliff returns to the rite of infant presentation, examining it in more detail in light of the discussion so far.  He invites us to look at the rite afresh and to imbue it with deeper meaning and significance, with a focus on the child, rather than is often the case, the adults.  As a Youth and Children’s Pastor, the final Post Script section offered the most interesting and challenging thinking.  Goodliff draws on his experience as a Youth Pastor and now Pastor and looks at some examples of what it would mean for churches to take seriously the promises made at infant presentation and become more radically all-age congregations.

This is a helpful book for those wanting to take seriously the place of children and young people in Baptist churches.  It would make useful companion reading to the “Today Not Tomorrow” material recently produced by Arise Ministries in conjunction with the  BU Mission Dept (See:, offering a thorough theological background to it.  Goodliff has also helpfully added an amended version of the liturgy for infant presentation taking his thinking into account.  Although much has been written by Baptists on this subject over the years, this book may encourage not just youth and children’s workers but congregations more widely to think afresh about what they mean when they participate in an infant presentation.

If you want to buy a copy they are available here: //

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