John Calvin Contra Rome and the Anabaptists on Baptism

Wright does a wonderful job unpacking the evolution of Calvin’s theology of baptism.

Calvin’s movement of faith is comparable to Luther’s, with this difference, that while the shift in Luther’s thinking is observed in separate writings over a spread of years, in Calvin’s case it is discernible in the different editions of one work, the Institutes. What in the final 1559 edition is Book 4:15 is derived mostly from the first 1536 version directed chiefly against the Catholic Church, whereas Book 4:16 comes from the 1539 edition and was originally aimed at the Anabaptists. As a number of scholars have recognized, Book 4:15 defines baptism in such terms that it might almost have been written of believers’ baptism only. There is only one explicit reference to the baptism of infants (4:15:22), and at a couple of other places where the argument seems to invite mention of it, it is absent (4:15:9, 4:15:10). At the outset the chapter declares that baptism was given for two ends, ‘first, to serve our faith before him, secondly, to serve our confession before men’. The rest of the chapter unpacks this initial statement.

[The Lord] wills that all who believe be baptised for the remission of sins [Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:38].

[T]he chief point of baptism is to receive baptism with this promise, ‘He who believes and is baptised will be saved’ [Mark 16:16] (4:15:1).

Peter … adds that this baptism is not a removal of filth from the flesh but a good conscience before God [1 Peter 3:21], which is from faith (4:15:2).

[T]hose who receive baptism with right faith truly feel the effective working of Christ’s death in the mortification of their flesh, together with the working of his resurrection in the vivification of the Spirit [Romans 6:8] (4:15:5).

[O]ur faith receives from baptism the advantage of its sure testimony to us … John first baptised, so later did the apostles, ‘with a baptism of repentance unto forgiveness of sins’ [Matthew 3:6, 11; Luke 3:16; John 3:23; 4:1; Acts 2:38, 41] (4:15:6).

[T]hose whom the Lord has once received into grace, engrafts into the communion of his Christ, and adopts into the society of the church through baptism—so long as they persevere in faith in Christ … are absolved of guilt and condemnation (4:15:12).

[Baptism] is the mark by which we publicly profess that we wish to be reckoned God’s people; by which we testify that we agree in worshipping the same God; …by which finally we openly affirm our faith (4:15:13).

[Baptism] is given for the arousing, nourishing, and confirming of our faith (4:15:14).

[F]rom this sacrament, as from all others, we obtain only as much as we receive in faith (4:15:15).

Near the beginning of Book 4:16, which from the very first embarks on an assault against Anabaptist rejection of paedobaptism, Calvin gives a fresh account of the ‘force and nature’ of baptism.

Scripture declares that baptism first points to the cleansing of our sins, which we obtain from Christ’s blood; then to the mortification of our flesh, which rests upon participation in his death and through which believers are reborn into newness of life and into the fellowship of Christ. All that is taught in the Scriptures concerning baptism can be referred to this summary, except that baptism is also a symbol for bearing witness to our religion before men (4:16:2).

The Institutes continues immediately with a section on baptism and circumcision. There is no difference, argues Calvin, between the two ‘in the inner mystery, by which the whole force and character of the sacraments has been weighed’—he means God’s fatherly favour, the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, regeneration—but only in the ‘very slight factor’ of the outward ceremony (4:16:4). Hence,

If the covenant still remains firm and steadfast, it applies no less today to the children of Christians than under the Old Testament it pertained to the infants of the Jews (4:16:5).

After devoting a brief section to Jesus’ blessing of the children, Calvin turns to a lengthy rebuttal of Anabaptist objections against the baptism-circumcision parallel (4:16:10–16). He next asserts that infants are quite capable of being regenerated, as Christ’s own infancy demonstrates. Without regeneration, dying infants must surely perish.

To the further objection that infants were incapable of hearing preaching and hence of faith, the Reformer advances various counter-arguments. God can use other means than preaching to grant illumination. What danger is there

if infants be said to receive now some part of that grace which in a little while they shall enjoy to the full? (4:16:19).

In a passage whose complex construction over three editions reflects Calvin’s continuing struggle with this question, he expostulates,

[W]hy may the Lord not shine with a tiny spark at the present time on those whom he will illumine in the future with the full splendour of his light—especially if he has not removed their ignorance before taking them from the prison of the flesh? I would not rashly affirm that they are endowed with the same faith as we experience in ourselves, or have entirely the same knowledge of faith—this 1 prefer to leave undetermined (4:16:19).

In another variation on the same theme:

infants are baptised into future repentance and faith, and even though these have not yet been formed in them, the seed of both lies hidden within them by the secret working of the Spirit (4:16:20).

More than one issue of coherence is raised by Book 4:16 of the Institutes. One which will not be pursued here is the coherence of 4:16 within itself. On the one hand Calvin insists on the regeneration of elect baptized infants, but on the other hand asserts that,

In infant baptism nothing more of present effectiveness must be required than to confirm and ratify the covenant made with them by the Lord. The remaining significance of this sacrament will afterward follow at such time as God himself foresees (4:16:21).

More serious is the charge of incoherence between 4:15 and 4:16, in the light of the marked emphasis in the former on baptism’s purpose as serving faith and public confession. The disjunction between the two chapters is sharply evident in the use of scripture: 4:15 mostly cites the New Testament, 4:16 the Old. Part of Calvin’s argument in the latter denies that New Testament statements which require faith and repentance before baptism apply to infants. Running through 4:16 is the principle that considerations advanced against the baptism of baby children would count equally against circumcision—and are thereby automatically disqualified.

The heirs of Calvin have largely focused on Book 4:16 because it is there that he provides his apologia for infant baptism, and for churches in the Reformation tradition baptism has continued to be overwhelmingly infant baptism. But it says a great deal for Calvin’s fidelity to scripture that 4:15 retains its place into the final edition of the Institutes, even though the impression is given that there is one theology of baptism and another of infant baptism. Too much of the later tradition has either lost sight of the former or simply collapsed it into the latter and hence worked with a doctrine of baptism that to all intents and purposes has been a doctrine of infant baptism alone. This has happened despite Calvin and despite the influential Westminster Confession of Faith, whose chapter on baptism preserves a commendable balance.

Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one or both believing parents are to be baptised (par. 28:4).[1]

[1] Wright, D. F. (2007). Infant Baptism in Historical Perspective (353–356). Great Britain: Paternoster.

© 2011, Rick Hogaboam. All rights reserved.

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