Torrey Gazette is the combined work of everyday Christians blogging on books, family, art, and theology. So pull up a seat and join us. Family Table rules apply. Shouting is totally acceptable.

Calvin on the Sacraments: Infant Baptism (Part 1)


This is a continuation of a series covering Calvin on the sacraments. You may need to read Part 1 and Part 2 before this particularly important post.

The time has arrived. I smell a stoning in the air. Yes the great John Calvin baptized infants. So did Martin Luther. Neither of them believed that baptizing actually saves (though both their language is fluid) and yet they still practiced the form. Sure they could be wrong. But I have been convinced they were not. Recognizing that Calvin has the whole of recorded church history on his side, we'll let him make his arguments (I do believe he would argue differently today). In a future post we will let Calvin address a few of the arguments of his day. Trust me today's post will be full enough...

Calvin's Case

The first major point that Calvin permits is that there is an essential difference in perspective on baptism that permeates the whole distinction between believer baptism and infant baptism,

He, therefore, who would thoroughly understand the effect of baptism—its object and true character—must not stop short at the element and corporeal object. but look forward to the divine promises which are therein offered to us, and rise to the internal secrets which are therein represented. He who understands these has reached the solid truth, and, so to speak, the whole substance of baptism, and will thence perceive the nature and use of outward sprinkling. On the other hand, he who passes them by in contempt, and keeps his thoughts entirely fixed on the visible ceremony, will neither understand the force, nor the proper nature of baptism, nor comprehend what is meant, or what end is gained by the use of water. This is confirmed by passages of Scripture too numerous and too clear to make it necessary here to discuss them more at length. It remains, therefore, to inquire into the nature and efficacy of baptism, as evinced by the promises therein given. Scripture shows, first, that it points to that cleansing from sin which we obtain by the blood of Christ; and, secondly, to the mortification of the flesh which consists in participation in his death, by which believers are regenerated to newness of life, and thereby to the fellowship of Christ. To these general heads may be referred all that the Scriptures teach concerning baptism, with this addition, that it is also a symbol to testify our religion to men. (ICR, 4.16.2)

Today, there are many on both sides of this debate who have looked past the true nature of baptism focusing the debate solely on the means and proper recipients. But there are some on both sides who acknowledge the true nature. But I must interject that this general "true nature" cannot be defined sufficiently for both sides. And this should help us recognize the vast differences between the two sides.

As expected, Calvin begins his discourse on the relationship of circumcision and baptism. It is fair to Calvin is looking through circumcision at the promises and covenant, but the argument is proven in the signs. It is incredibly important to note up front that he describes the relation as "analogy" and not a strict, formal relationship,

Since prior to the institution of baptism, the people of God had circumcision in its stead, let us see how far these two signs differ, and how far they resemble each other. In this way it will appear what analogy there is between them. When the Lord enjoins Abraham to observe circumcision (Gen. 17:10), he premises that he would be a God unto him and to his seed, adding, that in himself was a perfect sufficiency of all things, and that Abraham might reckon on his hand as a fountain of every blessing. These words include the promise of eternal life, as our Saviour interprets when he employs it to prove the immortality and resurrection of believers: “God,” says he, “is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Mt. 22:32). Hence, too, Paul, when showing to the Ephesians how great the destruction was from which the Lord had delivered them, seeing that they had not been admitted to the covenant of circumcision, infers that at that time they were aliens from the covenant of promise, without God, and without hope (Eph. 2:12), all these being comprehended in the covenant. Now, the first access to God, the first entrance to immortal life, is the remission of sins. Hence it follows, that this corresponds to the promise of our cleansing in baptism. The Lord afterwards covenants with Abraham, that he is to walk before him in sincerity and innocence of heart: this applies to mortification or regeneration. And lest any should doubt whether circumcision were the sign of mortification, Moses explains more clearly elsewhere when he exhorts the people of Israel to circumcise the foreskin of their heart, because the Lord had chosen them for his own people, out of all the nations of the earth. As the Lord, in choosing the posterity of Abraham for his people, commands them to be circumcised, so Moses declares that they are to be circumcised in heart, thus explaining what is typified by that carnal circumcision. Then, lest any one should attempt this in his own strength, he shows that it is the work of divine grace. All this is so often inculcated by the prophets, that there is no occasion here to collect the passages which everywhere occur. We have, therefore, a spiritual promise given to the fathers in circumcision, similar to that which is given to us in baptism, since it figured to them both the forgiveness of sins and the mortification of the flesh. Besides, as we have shown that Christ, in whom both of these reside, is the foundation of baptism, so must he also be the foundation of circumcision (ICR, 4.16.3)

This is not an argument of exegesis but of the standard NT practice of analogy. Now that doesn't make it instantly valid but it does add some depth to the perception of the argument. This leads Calvin to make another analogy statement that few Baptists can disagree with,

For just as circumcision, which was a kind of badge to the Jews, assuring them that they were adopted as the people and family of God, was their first entrance into the Church, while they, in their turn, professed their allegiance to God, so now we are initiated by baptism, so as to be enrolled among his people, and at the same time swear unto his name. Hence it is incontrovertible, that baptism has been substituted for circumcision, and performs the same office. (ICR, 4.16.4)

But still the argument for infant baptism hasn't begun. This is simply building a sure foundation that circumcision and baptism are two signs to the same promise. Make this the central point: Without this foundation there can never be useful discussion on the manner and mode of baptism. We'll just have to respectfully disagree. Before Calvin approaches the exegetical arguments he gives the final overall analysis of the doctrine,

Scripture gives us a still clearer knowledge of the truth. For it is most evident that the covenant, which the Lord once made with Abraham, is not less applicable to Christians now than it was anciently to the Jewish people, and therefore that word has no less reference to Christians than to Jews. Unless, indeed, we imagine that Christ, by his advent, diminished, or curtailed the grace of the Father—an idea not free from execrable blasphemy. Wherefore, both the children of the Jews, because, when made heirs of that covenant, they were separated from the heathen, were called a holy seed, and for the same reason the children of Christians, or those who have only one believing parent, are called holy, and, by the testimony of the apostle, differ from the impure seed of idolaters. Then, since the Lord, immediately after the covenant was made with Abraham, ordered it to be sealed in infants by an outward sacrament, how can it be said that Christians are not to attest it in the present day, and seal it in their children? (ICR, 4.16.6)

Now there are exegetical arguments against infant baptism. Some of them are even really good. But all of them discount one of the fundamentally systematic truths Calvin contends for 1) that every OT covenant included children, 2) the church is a continuation of God's people and 3) the sign is "administered" by God based upon His promise not our faith. This is not to make little of the arguments but they really do present themselves as "proof-texts without context" against that whole of what the OT teaches.

Jeremiah and Romans

I will provide insight into one passage of Scripture that should spring to mind as an objection to my last statement. Jeremiah 31:31-34 is a text that is often used to demonstrate the distinction in the new covenant. But the new covenant as oppose to what? The covenant made coming out "of Egypt". This is not a reversal of the covenant with Abraham. This is why Paul points out that circumcision is useless for the sinner (Rom 2:25) but explicitly says it becomes uncircumcision. It does not remain what it was because it no longer contains what it meant to symbolize! This is why Paul can say the benefits are great in circumcision (Rom 3:1) and that the unfaithfulness of the Jews does not discount the faithfulness of God found in His oracles and sign of circumcision (Rom 3:2).

This is why Paul stomps out any attempt to justify by law, it is by grace and thus applied to all Abraham's offspring (Rom 4 :13-16). Does that sound like God have revoked that covenant and started a new one that is "on their heart"? No. Jeremiah is a reference to the promised giving of the Holy Spirit in contrast to the giving of the law. Not a removal of God's founding promise to Abraham. More on this subject to come.

Matthew 16:27-28 - Don Preston Review #15

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