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Calvin on the Sacraments: On Baptism

This is a continuation of a series covering Calvin on the sacraments. You can read the first part here.

Calvin's writing on baptism extends through two chapter in his Institutes. The first deals with baptism in general and the second with infant baptism. For this post I'll look specifically at the first chapter and baptism in general. There is enough in this chapter to constitute 7 or 8 lengthy posts but instead I'll focus on the main things I've learned from Calvin.

The first important thing to learn from Calvin is what baptism truly is and what it represents,

Baptism is the initiatory sign by which we are admitted to the fellowship of the Church, that being ingrafted into Christ we may be accounted children of God...Baptism contributes to our faith three things, which require to be treated separately. The first object, therefore, for which it is appointed by the Lord, is to be a sign and evidence of our purification, or (better to explain my meaning) it is a kind of sealed instrument by which he assures us that all our sins are so deleted, covered, and effaced, that they will never come into his sight, never be mentioned, never imputed. For it is his will that all who have believed, be baptised for the remission of sins. Hence those who have thought that baptism is nothing else than the badge and mark by which we profess our religion before men, in the same way as soldiers attest their profession by bearing the insignia of their commander, having not attended to what was the principal thing in baptism; and this is, that we are to receive it in connection with the promise, “He that believeth and is baptised shall be saved” (Mark 16:16). (ICR, 4.15.1)

In this Calvin securely teaches the baptism does not do the washing but so confirms and assures the washing that the means and the symbol are joined together in the expression. This he then uses to explain Eph 5:25-26, Titus 3:5 and 1 Peter 3:21. This he demonstrates removes the need for subsequent penance.

On the heels of this confirmation that it is for the remission of sins, Calvin teaches that there is no distinction between the baptism of John and Jesus. This is hardly a dogma in the Reformed church but it was not an open discussion for Calvin,

This makes it perfectly certain that the ministry of John was the very same as that which was afterwards delegated to the apostles. For the different hands by which baptism is administered do not make it a different baptism, but sameness of doctrine proves it to be the same. John and the apostles agreed in one doctrine. Both baptised unto repentance, both for remission of sins, both in the name of Christ, from whom repentance and remission of sins proceed. John pointed to him as the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world (John 1:29), thus describing him as the victim accepted of the Father, the propitiation of righteousness, and the author of salvation. What could the apostles add to this confession? (ICR, 4.15.7)

Calvin uses Luke 3:3 to prove that John taught in principle the very the disciples taught. Some would argue this isn't enough and of course Calvin heard these arguments. He gives a thorough run down of objections that can only be briefly addressed here,

That the gifts of the Spirit were more liberally poured out after the resurrection of Christ, does not go to establish a diversity of baptisms. For baptism, administered by the apostles while he was still on the earth, was called his baptism, and yet the Spirit was not poured out in larger abundance on it than on the baptism of John. Nay, not even after the ascension did the Samaritans receive the Spirit above the ordinary measure of former believers, till Peter and John were sent to lay hands on them (Acts 8:14-17). (ICR, 4.15.8)

Calvin specifically addresses the baptism of John in tandem with the objects of the Catabaptist who rejected Catholic baptism. This Calvin argued denied that Christ was the giver of the spiritual gifts bestowed in baptism. On John's baptism Calvin writes,

But they seem to think the weapon which they brandish irresistible, when they allege that Paul rebaptised those who had been baptised with the baptism of John (Acts 19:3, 5). For if, by our confession, the baptism of John was the same as ours, then, in like manner as those who had been improperly trained, when they learned the true faith, were rebaptised into it, ought that baptism which was without true doctrine to be accounted as nothing, and hence we ought to be baptised anew into the true religion with which we are now, for the first time, imbued? ... I grant that John’s was a true baptism, and one and the same with the baptism of Christ. But I deny that they were rebaptised. What then is meant by the words, “They were baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus”? Some interpret that they were only instructed in sound doctrine by Paul; but I would rather interpret more simply, that the baptism of the Holy Spirit, in other words, the visible gifts of the Holy Spirit, were given by the laying on of hands. These are sometimes designated under the name of baptism. Thus, on the day of Pentecost, the apostles are said to have remembered the words of the Lord concerning the baptism of the Spirit and of fire. And Peter relates that the same words occurred to him when he saw these gifts poured out on Cornelius and his family and kindred. There is nothing repugnant to this interpretation in its being afterwards added, “When Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them” (Acts 19:6). For Luke does not narrate two different things, but follows the form of narrative common to the Hebrews, who first give the substance, and then explain more fully. This any one may perceive from the mere context. For he says, “When they heard this they were baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them.” In this last sentence is described what the nature of the baptism was. But if ignorance vitiates a former, and requires to be corrected by a second baptism, the apostles should first of all have been rebaptised, since for more than three full years after their baptism they had scarcely received any slender portion of purer doctrine. Then so numerous being the acts of ignorance which by the mercy of God are daily corrected in us, what rivers would suffice for so many repeated baptisms? (ICR, 4.15.18)

In an effort to appease some of my baptist brethren. I offer up the fact that Calvin quickly admitted that baptism meant by immersion during the time of the early church. But still he insisted that the manner of baptism did not matter,

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. (ICR, 4.15.19)

I personally agree completely with Calvin on the indifference of the mode of baptism. I personally wish that baptist churches and denominations would remove the mode of proper baptism from their confessions and church constitutions since the scriptures make no such statement on it being invalid when done a different way.

Finally, despite my agreement on these matters with Calvin, I find him still marginally confined. For he speaks to the administration of baptism as only pertaining to the clergy and not "private individuals". He argues from the fact that the Great Commission was given solely to the apostles. While this normally is a statement I would accept, I have discussed previously that I believe this is a commandment for the church in general and not for any specific group within the church. As such, I cannot agree with Calvin on this point since I find that the entire church should be able to fulfill this commandment even as it is not required that we each fulfill it directly. Perhaps I'll take that subject up at another time.

Matthew 16:27-28 - Don Preston Review #14

Gospel Presence III: Gospel Presence and the Armor of God (Benjamin Merkle)