Upon my arrival in Africa I was astonied, as the KJV says, at the number of missionaries trying to foist 16th century English on 21st century villagers. It never seemed to last. Try explaining to your neighbor with a 5th grade education the superiority of the Textus Receptus–a Catholic’s translation that in turn must be used in your Protestant church. Either the mission church or school remains small with a resilient few, or the missionary leaves—disgusted with such superfluity of naughtiness in his stubborn parishioners.
Which brings us to paedobaptism. A friend of mine is fond of saying that a substantial theological doctrine that cannot survive in a poor, uneducated context is most likely not taught in Scripture. This doesn’t mean preaching won’t take time, or that theology is always simple, or that Scripture is equally clear to all, only that the Bible is meant to be understood. So if I take unending Bible studies trying to show Mandla that the days in Genesis 1 and 2 are really not days, and need quotations from a scientist in Sweden to substantiate my point, its best I kick the doctrine to the curb.
In the late 19th century, Evangelical Presbyterians from Switzerland inundated our particular region of Limpopo. But the EPC now, and according to my surveys—the EPC then, does not baptize infants. That’s like the YMCA not allowing exercise. Why would a denomination abscond such a core doctrine? One possible reason, if I may be so bold to judge motives, is that the Presbyterian missionaries in South Africa—a nation with a long history of racism—may have been leery of baptizing black infants as children of the covenant while inwardly concluding that many of them would fall away.
Another possibility is that doctrine was just too complicated for their people to understand. The Baptists have it easy. Immersion comes after trust in gospel, as all the narratives in Acts reveal (e.g. Acts 2:41; 8:12; 10:47-48). The Presbys, however, must go to the Old Testament to show that circumcision was an outward sign of entrance into Israel, demonstrate that the new covenant community is now the church, and that today’s parallel to circumcision is baptism (Col. 2:11-12). Even more difficult is preventing children from having false assurance in their infant baptism, which Grudem calls a symbol of “probable future regeneration.”
I graduated from a Presbyterian seminary, but my experience in the village is that paedobaptism would be difficult to explain (in Xitsonga, no less) and even if I was able to persuade some, I cannot image my disciples being able to convince others from Scripture with any kind of deftness. I’m guessing I’d find similar things throughout Africa. I once asked a Presbyterian pastor friend of mine who lives in Zimbabwe how many of his people could explain the doctrine of paedobaptism and he said: “If I had to be honest: few to none.” And this was from a man whose preaching I’d be honored to sit under. Few to none?
Now there are hundreds of Reformed churches in South Africa that baptize babies, but this is the Dutch Reformed Church, brimming with whites and the cultural elite. Which is exactly my point. So should we conclude that one of the two pictures of the gospel given to us by our Lord is so complex as to leave most of the lower class believers in an entire country befuddled?
I trow not.