Wednesday, December 14, 2011

John Calvin (1509-1564):  On Baptism.


"Whether the person baptised is to be wholly immersed, and that whether once or thrice, or whether he is only to be sprinkled with water, is not of the least consequence: churches should be at liberty to adopt either, according to the diversity of climates, although it is evident that the term baptise means to immerse, and that this was the form used by the primitive Church." - Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV, section 19.


I am shocked.  Yet I am in agreement.  I wouldn't have thought to have heard this from Calvin, but there it is.  Although I don't agree with Calvin on everything and he is condescending in his attitudes, there is much to be praised in this section.  For example, having listened to it I have a sense that every objection that could be conceived of to various forms of baptism - especially baptism of infants - has been itemized in its strongest form with an attempted refutation.  This is in contrast to modernist intellectuals who do everything in their power to deny the existence of dissent, and then misrepresent it when they must face it.


Now that I see that Calvin accepts immersion, I am wondering what his complaint is with the Anabaptists:


"This confutes the error of the Donatists, who measured the efficacy and worth of the sacrament by the dignity of the minister. Such in the present day are our Catabaptists, who deny that we are duly baptised, because we were baptised in the Papacy by wicked men and idolaters; hence they furiously insist on anabaptism."


I do wonder if the issues was the "dignity of the minister" or the paedobaptism, but we will leave this alone.  What is curious here is that Calvin as a fierce protestant is defending the validity of a papist baptism.  Thus, he does not require someone to be re-baptized if they abandon Catholicism for Protestantism.  His point is that the validity of the baptism is by Christ and not by the presiding clergy.  This would amount to an admission that the papists do in some way - however inadequate it might be - acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and savior and direct their flocks towards Him.  Calvin also claims that the anabaptists believe that any sin committed after baptism is not forgiveable.  Such a viewpoint would make heaven inaccessible to just about everyone.


At this point I should note that Calvin argues for an efficacy of baptism with regard to sin that is considerably stronger than I was taught:


"Thus first John baptised, and thus afterwards the apostles by the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins, understanding by the term repentance, regeneration, and by the remission of sins, ablution."


He specifically dissents from the teaching of Augustine and other church fathers on this. Those who take Calvin's view usually also make baptism mandatory, since it is more than a mere symbol.  Given the assumption of baptism being necessary for salvation, it then follows that in life threatening emergencies either the laity or women might step in to perform baptisms.  Calvin disagrees with all these options.  Regarding laity:


"The practice which has been in use for many ages, and even almost from the very commencement of the Church, for laics to baptise, in danger of death, when a minister could not be present in time, cannot, it appears to me, be defended on sufficient grounds."


and women:


"Of the same thing we have a sufficient witness in Epiphanius, when he upbraids Marcian with giving permission to women to baptise. I am not unaware of the answer given by those who take an opposite view—viz. that common use is very different from an extraordinary remedy used under the pressure of extreme necessity—but since he declares it mockery to allow women to baptise, and makes no exception, it is sufficiently plain that the corruption is condemned as inexcusable on any pretext. In his Third Book, also, when he says that it was not even permitted to the holy mother of Christ, he makes no reservation."


So what happens to those who weren't baptized but died?


"By far the better course, therefore, is to pay such respect to the ordinance of God as not to seek the sacraments in any other quarter than where the Lord has deposited them. When we cannot receive them from the Church, the grace of God is not so inseparably annexed to them that we cannot obtain it by faith, according to his word."


Regarding baptism of infants, Calvin defends this with extensive arguments equating baptism to circumcision.  The most famous objection to this is that an equivalence with circumcision would imply that only the baby boys should be baptized.  Calvin bravely enumerates this argument and tries to deal with it, but he is clearly faltering so that his answer is uncharacteristically brief.  My main observation is that Jesus was circumcised, he was held and blessed as a baby, and he was baptized later.  Calvin asserts that these are all equivalent, which begs the question as to why they should all three have been done for Jesus.


Some years ago I had sought a book outlining in detail Christian theology regarding baptism.  This portion of Calvin's Institutes is the best I have seen, since it covers so many doctrinal variations and arguments both pro- and con-.  Even Baptists can benefit from it.

4 comments:

Delirious said...

We look at baptism similarly to some of Calvin's ideas. We look at it as a "spiritual washing" that cleanses us from our former sins. It does not, however, automatically cleanse us of our future ones! We believe that when we get baptized, we make a covenant with God to take upon ourselves the name of Jesus Christ (in essence, become followers of Him), to always remember Him, and to keep His commandments. As a separate ordinance, we are given, by one holding the Priesthood, the gift of the Holy Ghost. As God's part of the covenant, He promises that if we do our part of the covenant, God will forgive us of our sins when we repent, and will bless us with the influence of the Holy Ghost. This is a two way promise between us and God, so if we do not live up to our end of the deal, we do not qualify for the blessings promised.

Each week when we take the sacrament, we are renewing the covenant that we made at baptism. The sacrament prayers remind us of those promises that we made, and the blessings promised. Of course we believe in daily repentance, but Sundays, when we take the sacrament, are an especially good time to focus on what we should be doing better.

We typically have children baptized at age 8, when they can discern between good and evil. We do have another ordinance that is performed for babies; the naming and blessing of them. They are formally given their name, and they become a "child of record". Then the person blessing them goes on to give them a blessing to help them in their life.

For us, the most important thing is to make sure that the baptism is done by someone holding the Priesthood. If it is done this way, it never needs to be repeated.
We also believe in baptism for the dead, which is mentioned in the Bible. We do this ordinance by proxy in the holy temples. But we believe that the person who has died has the option to accept or reject the baptism done for them.

Delirious said...

I wanted to make clear something that I said. The person blessing the baby tries to follow the promptings and thoughts given him by the Holy Ghost when blessing the child. Because afterall, it is God that gives the blessing, not the person! :)

Looney said...

Thanks for that explanation. From what you have written, I am going to guess that someone who was baptized in a Methodist or some other group, but then joined the LDS later, would be encouraged to be baptized again?

Delirious said...

Yes, we do believe that the Priesthood was restored through Joseph Smith, and that someone joining our church would need to be rebaptized.