Benjamin Keach on Baptism and Christ's Descent: An Early Example of Baptist Catholicity

by Matthew Y. Emerson

Jesus’s Threefold Descent

The early church spoke of Christ’s threefold descent: first in the incarnation into the waters of Mary’s womb, then in his baptism into the waters of the Jordan, and finally into the waters of the underworld in his descent to the dead. Each of these descents was viewed by the early church as victorious, participating in the victory achieved by Christ’s whole work and pointing forward to his ultimate victory in the resurrection and ascension. Understanding Jesus’ work this way, and especially his “descent into the waters,” lent even more substance to the ordinance of baptism, which signified that early Christians were united to Christ in his death and resurrection and therefore also participated in the victory he has already achieved through his descent and ascent. This line of interpretation, both with respect to the aquatic metaphors and with respect to the connection to baptism, did not die out with the patristic period but continued through the medieval period and into Reformation and post-Reformation thought. We see it reflected in early Baptist writings as well, namely in Benjamin Keach’s treatise on baptism, Gold Refin’d.

Keach on Baptism

Keach’s Gold Refin’d is more than just an explanation of the meaning of baptism. Most of it is concerned with recipient and mode. In the beginning of the work, however, he takes time to help his readers understand exactly what baptism is and what it means.

“Sacraments” and “Ordinances”

In chapter four, Keach begins by using both “ordinance” and “sacrament” to refer to baptism and the Lord’s Supper, stating that,

As the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was ordained to hold forth the breaking of Christ’s Body, and the pouring forth of his Blood; So in like manner the Sacrement of Baptism was instituted and appointed to hold forth Christ was really dead, buried, and that he arose again for our Justification. . . . And indeed we cannot but be much affected with the great Love and Goodness of our Blessed Saviour in the Institution of these two great Ordinances, it being his gracious Design and Condescension, hereby to hold forth, or preach, as I may say, to the very sight of our visible Eyes by these fit and proper Mediums, the glorious Doctrine of his Death, Burial, and Resurrection, which in the Ministration of the Word, is preached or held forth to the hearing of our Ears, so that we might the better and more effectually be established and grounded in the sure and steadfast belief thereof . . . . (24).

This is a standard Protestant explanation of “sacrament,” namely that it is a visible sign of an invisible reality and therefore a means of [sanctifying, not justifying] grace when accompanied by the preaching of the Word. Notice that Keach uses “ordinance” not to disassociate himself from the term “sacrament” but to qualify the fact that it is Christ himself who institutes this practice, in contrast to other appropriate elements of congregational worship that are not (e.g. singing, prayer).

Baptism and Christ’s Descent

Later, after quoting Tilenus and in summarizing his thought in defense of Keach’s own position, Keach further explains the meaning of the “Blessed Sacrament of Baptism [a phrase used at the beginning of the exposition, cf. e.g. p. 24]” stating,

The Form of Baptism, viz. internal and essential, is no other than the Analogical Proportion which the Signs keep with the Things signified thereby; for the Properties of the Water in washing away the Defilements of the Body, do in a most suitable Similtude set forth the Efficacy of Christ’s Blood in blotting out of Sins; so dipping into the Water doth in a most lively Similtude set forth the Mortification of the old Man, and rising out of the Water, the vivification of the new Man: The same plunging into the Water, saith he, holds forth to us that horrible Gulf of Divine Justice, in which Christ, for our sakes, was for a while in a manner swallowed up – abiding under the Water (how little time soever) denotes his Descent into Hell even the very deepest of Lifelesness, which lying in the sealed or guarded Sepulchre, he was accounted as one dead; rising out of the Water, holds forth to us a lively Similitude of that Conquest which this dead Man got over Death – in like manner, saith he, ‘tis therefore meet that we being baptized into his Death and buried with him, should rise also with him, and go on in a new life (25).

Although Keach is summarizing Tilenus, who he describes as “a great Protestant Writer” (25), it is clear that he approves of this interpretation and goes on to quote, among others, Chrystostom, Augustine, Calvin, and various contemporary Reformed writers to support his view that, “Thus all Men may see how the Learned agree with us, that these Scriptures do hold forth Baptism to be a lively Resemblance of Christ’s Death, Burial, and Resurrection” (29).

Keach and Baptist Catholicity

There are a number of aspects of Keach’s explication of baptism that deserve attention, but I only want to mention three here. First, Keach’s theological method includes not only seeking answers in Scripture but also reading those Scriptures in concert with the communion of the saints (“these Learned Men”). Second, and more specifically, Keach’s view of the meaning of baptism is, at least in his own opinion, entirely consistent with the early church’s view and with the view of the Reformers. Further, he is in agreement with the church catholic that baptism is to be administered with an invocation of the Triune name and with water. What Keach does is attempt to reform baptism with respect to mode and recipient. This is not the same thing as just starting from scratch via a naïve biblicism (on this see my essay in the forthcoming Baptists and the Christian Tradition). Finally, Keach appropriates one of the earliest interpretations of Christ’s descent and uses it to support his sacramental and credobaptist view of baptism. Just as Christ descends to and ascends from the dead during his Passion, so we die to sin and rise to new life through union with Christ as signified in baptism. Because what is signified in baptism – namely, regeneration – is always tied to repentance and faith in the NT, Keach concludes, as do most Baptists, that the appropriate recipient of baptism is one who consciously professes Christ and that the appropriate mode to signify such a radical death to sin and resurrection to new life is immersion. Keach’s view of baptism is thus orthodox, Reformed, and radical, and it is an example of how Baptists can pursue catholicity without surrendering their distinctives.