Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

The Puritan View of Baptism

Written by Rev. C. Pronk
In the last three issues of The Messenger we featured a translation of a pamphlet be the late Rev. P. Op den Velde under the title Why Baptize Infants? The view of baptism set forth in this brochure is representative of that of the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken as well as many in the Reformed Alliance in the Dutch Reformed Church, to which many of us in our denomination trace our roots. This time we look at the view of the English Puritans on the subject of baptism and we will compare their position with the one held by our churches. It is planned to make these separate articles on baptism available in booklet form. Watch for announcements from Free Reformed Publications in this magazine.
As heirs of the Reformation the English Puritans were in basic agreement with the teachings of Luther, Calvin and other early sixteenth century reformers, especially on the doctrine of salvation. As far as their sacramental theology is concerned, however, it has to be said that the Puritans developed a view that in some ways differed from that of the continental reformers.

It is both interesting and profitable to trace this development as it throws light on the differences that exist among Reformed believers, including ourselves, with respect to evaluating the meaning of baptism and its significance for the life of faith.

From the beginning two convictions underlying Reformed piety surfaced repeatedly in Reformed theology: first, that the Christian life is basically an affair of the spirit; and second, that the finite (man and his actions) cannot influence, comprehend or contain, the infinite (God and His decrees). The key question was: how can material, physical elements such as bread, wine and water and visible actions like the consecration of these substances convey spiritual life and grace? Zwingli emphasized the absolute distinction between the finite creature and the infinite Creator and therefore he regarded the mechanical ex opera operato approach to the sacraments as practised by Rome as sinful human attempts to manipulate God. Awed by the mystery of election, he refused to bind God to external means of grace. He believed that the Spirit acted directly on the soul of men without mediation of material instruments. The true Christian, in ZwingliÕs view lives in the realm of the spirit, exalted above matter and the flesh. Spiritual grace has no connection whatsoever with corporeal or physical realities. Hence baptism neither conveys nor strengthens grace, the reformer of Zurich maintained.

Calvin held a more balanced view. For him baptism is primarily a seal of the divine promise and thus a clue to the mysterious purposes of God. He affirmed the real yet spiritual presence of the substance of ChristÕs body and blood in the LordÕs Supper and understood the essence of baptism to be GodÕs sincere promise of salvation to all the recipients of this sacrament. Baptism is GodÕs gift to man, designed to incorporate us into His Church and to reveal His merciful intentions toward us.

To understand Puritan sacramental thought one needs to see it against the background of the Established or Anglican Church and its views on the sacraments. The Church of England for all its doctrinal reforms was still tied to Rome in many ways and kept many of its liturgical forms and practices especially in connection with the sacraments. For example, Baptism was viewed as a private ceremony to be performed by the vicar at home or if it took place in church, the congregation was not required to be present. Sometimes the rite was administered by the midwife or some other lay person. The rationale for such emergency baptisms was that the Church regarded this sacrament as essential to salvation because it was thought to remove original sin.

The Puritans rightly rejected the practice of private baptism and insisted that the sacraments may never be separated from the Word which explains their meaning. Hence both baptism and the LordÕs Supper should only be administered in the context of a public worship service. The Puritans, moreover, disliked the word ÒsacramentsÓ because it smacked of Rome and preferred the term Òordinances.Ó They observed these ordinances not out of any superstitious regard but simply because they had been instituted by Christ. Puritan pastors were more concerned with the work of the Spirit manifested in the life of faith than with sacraments, especially baptism. To them preaching was the important thing because it was the means whereby God saves sinners.

William Perkins, a leading Puritan whose authority exceeded even that of Calvin in England during the sixteenth century, points out that baptism is not essential to salvation and that one needs to draw a sharp distinction between what he calls outward baptism and the inward reality of faith. Unless faith is present, baptism is of no use at all and will keep no one from perishing.

From the start Puritan sacramental theology was characterized by this sharp distinction between the external administration of baptism and the internal work of the Holy Spirit. Underlying much of the discussion among Puritan divines on this subject was the fear of overestimating the value of baptism. Increasingly baptism, especially infant baptism, was seen as problematic and the main reason for continuing the practice was the unavoidable fact that Christ commanded it.

Much of the discussion centered on the question as to the meaning of baptism as a seal. What exactly does baptism seal? The early Puritans tended to follow Calvin rather than Zwingli and thus believed that the sacraments confirm GodÕs promises. Yet they also inherited the continental reformersÕ ambivalence about the sacraments. One very thorny issue the Puritans tried (in vain) to resolve was this: If salvation ultimately rests on unconditional election how can God in baptism promise salvation to those who ultimately perish? Here we see the influence of Zwingli. According to Richard Rogers, the sacrament binds God to the performance of His covenant, but not in such a way that He is obliged to save all who are baptized. God fulfills His covenant promise when He saves His elect. Perkins states categorically that the baptismal seal is useless for the reprobate who receives the sign alone without the thing signified by it. This is true, he says, even in the case of the elect, for they do not receive the Ògood effectÓ of the seal until they are converted. Richard Sibbes taught that the baptized are only in GodÕs outward covenant; and unless they enter into a saving relationship with God they will go to hell just as Judas did.

Thus baptism became a rather difficult theological problem for the Puritans. Try as they might, they were not able to combine in a satisfactory way the benefits of the sacraments with the inscrutable divine decrees.

As a result, baptism was gradually relegated to a position of secondary importance. Perkins distinguishes the ÒprincipalÓ worship of God which is internal and spiritual, from the ÒoutwardÓ worship that includes the sacraments. True spiritual worship, he said, does not require sacraments and ceremonies. Yet, because man is finite and corporeal, he needs visible signs and seals.

As time went on it was this dichotomy between spirit and flesh combined with a tendency to introspection that led to a subtle shift away from the continental view of the sacraments. While in the early stages of Puritanism baptism was seen as a strong encouragement to faith and a help to assurance, gradually this function of baptism receded into the background. When Sibbes speaks of the assaults of Satan he does not mention baptism as a source of comfort. The same is true of Owen. In his work on the Holy Spirit he mentions baptism only once and that in a negative sense, warning that the new birth is not to be identified with baptism.

This relative neglect of baptism can partially be explained against the background of the struggle with the Established Church whose sacramental views bordered on externalism and superstition. Especially those who later seceded from the State Church became more and more opposed to what they believed to be unscriptural views on the sacraments and this eventually led them to reject infant baptism altogether.

Important in this connection is the development of the covenant doctrine in English Puritanism. Characteristic here is the attempt to harmonize the covenant with election. This had to cause problems. Especially in Perkins we see a tension between election and covenant and the relationship between these two doctrines and baptism. For Perkins the covenant is absolutely necessary for salvation. Only those taken into the covenant of grace can be saved. But baptism is not absolutely necessary to salvation. It is merely the external sign of the covenant. The reverse is also true. If salvation is limited to those included in the covenant of grace, all who are in this covenant are saved. Perkins distinguishes between baptism and in its wider and narrower sense. In its wider sense God comes to all who are baptized with a general command to believe and repent and they receive a conditional promise of salvation. Those who by grace comply with this command receive the unconditional promise of forgiveness and eternal life. In other words, the baptismal promise in its fullness comes to the elect only. In this scheme covenant and baptism are identical and co-extensive, a view that gained widespread acceptance in the Netherlands and was later championed by both Dr. Abraham Kuyper and Rev. G.H. Kersten, be it from different perspectives.

PerkinsÕ standards for admitting subjects for baptism was broad. Even children of openly wicked and excommunicated church members could be baptized. For him access to baptism was practically the same as access to hearing the Word preached. PerkinsÕ position on baptism resembles that of the PeopleÕs Church (Volkskerk) idea. According to this view, every Englishmen must belong to the Church of England and receive its baptism as a sign of outward membership in GodÕs church and covenant.

PerkinsÕ view was not shared by those who seceded from the Established Church. These more thorough-going Puritans wanted a pure church and this had implications for standards of membership. To keep the church pure, high standards had to be set, so that profession of faith was required including an account of oneÕs conversion experience as well as ÒcovenantingÓ with the Lord. It is easy to see what implications this ÒgatheredÓ church idea had for infant baptism. Since children cannot exercise faith they must wait until they are of age before being admitted to this sacrament.

True, some separatist churches, the congregationalists, retained infant baptism for a long time. Yet also here, due to influence from separatists who practised believerÕs baptism, a shift took place. Increasingly the baptism of infants was seen as a formality which was adhered to more out of tradition than conviction.

As more and more emphasis was placed on the necessity of experiencing the grace of regeneration and conversion, baptism lost its significance because it was not thought to play a significant role in the believerÕs experience.

In the background here is a covenant view which was no longer the same as the one held by Calvin. For the reformer of Geneva, the covenant was established between God and believers and their seed, and the sacraments of this covenant were signs and seals illustrating and confirming GodÕs promises to all its recipients, whether elect or reprobate in an objective way.

The Puritans developed another view which was adopted by the Westminster Confession, according to which the covenant of grace was made between God the Father and Christ His Son representing the elect. Conclusion: only the elect are in the covenant in any real sense and baptism becomes the seal upon inward, subjective grace.

In this way baptism lost its objective significance as a pleading ground and eventually came to be viewed as an empty ceremony. It is no accident that except for Scotland and Ulster, almost all Puritan type churches in the United Kingdom practise believerÕs baptism. This should not surprise us.

Wherever covenant and election are viewed as co-extensive and subjective experience is stressed at the expense of the objective Word and its promises, similar developments will take place. Are there not signs that also among us the doctrine of infant baptism is becoming an endangered species? We still practice it, but do we understand its meaning for our spiritual life? When I hear the discussions among our people on this subject I wonder how long it will be before we will lose the rich tradition which our immigrant forefathers brought with them from the Netherlands. Living as we do in English speaking countries it is inevitable that we will become more and more Puritan oriented in our theology. On the whole this is a good development which I have supported for many years. I would rather see our churches become more Puritan in doctrine and practice than broadly ÒevangelicalÓ because of certain Arminian tendencies in much of that movement. Yet even Puritan theology is not without its weaknesses. Certainly, their view on the covenant and baptism represents a significant departure from those held by John Calvin and other early reformers as well as such Free Reformed theologians as Wisse, Vander Schuit and Vander Meiden, the mentors of our own pioneer ministers Tamminga, Laman, Overduin and others now deceased.

By all means, let us read and study the Puritans. But let us do so with discernment, keeping an open mind and realizing that there are other Reformed views worth considering. While we should appreciate the contributions made by such divines as Perkins, Sibbes and Owen, especially in the area of experimental religion or practical godliness, we should realize that even these great men of God were not right in everything they taught. In fact, judged by Scripture and our Three Forms of Unity (see esp. Conf. Faith, art. 33,34; Heid. Cat. L.D.27, Q&A.74 and our Baptismal Form), I believe they were in some respects deficient in their understanding of the covenant of grace and infant baptism. Their main problem, as I see it, was that, following Beza and Perkins rather than Calvin, they gave the doctrine of election such a prominence in their thinking that it came to dominate everything else. This resulted in the idea that only the elect are really in the covenant and that therefore the promises of the Gospel are meant only for them. Before one could plead or appropriate these promises, one first had to ascertain whether one belonged to GodÕs chosen, based on certain marks of grace. True, many Puritans recognized the problems this presented to seeking souls and they offered much wise and loving counsel to sinners, encouraging them by pointing them to Christ as an able and willing Saviour. But Ð and this is the point Ð in so doing they seldom made use of the objective pleading ground provided in the covenant of grace and its confirmatory sign and seal: baptism. Among some notable exceptions were Matthew Henry whose Treatise on Baptism is very helpful in this respect.

Whether or not the reader agrees with this assessment does not really matter. What does matter is that we as Free Reformed churches come to more clarity on what exactly we believe about the covenant of grace and the position of our baptized children in it. Unless we spell this out in our preaching and teaching we can only expect a further erosion of the conviction among us as to the value of the covenant sign and seal which the Triune God places upon all our children as Òpledges of His good will and grace toward usÓ (Conf. Faith, art. 33). This emphasis of our Confessions on the objective character of the baptismal promises is not intended to down-play the necessity of the work of the Holy Spirit in appropriating these promises. Rather, its purpose is to show how the Spirit applies salvation to us, namely by working faith in us Óby the hearing of the Word preachedÓ and by the strengthening that faith Òby the same Word preached and by the use of the holy sacraments,Ó the Holy Supper and Holy Baptism (Compendium, A.49,50).

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