Thursday, December 03, 2009

John Calvin and the Fathers on Baptism

I've been told that John Calvin invented a justification for infant baptism that was new. I'm not fully persuaded that, in its essence, Calvin's justification was new. My impression is that the main argument is that Calvin was departing from medieval Western tradition that viewed baptism essentially as regenerative by virtue of its operation. However, of course, I want to acknowledge up front that I haven't seen a precisely worded expression of the claim that Calvin's view of baptism was a theological novum. Perhaps, in the precisely worded expression of the claim, the point is that some of the details of Calvin's justification for infant baptism were new. In any event, I hope the following post will help at least to demonstrate what wasn't new to Calvin.

For example, Calvin writes:
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 (cf. Gen. 17:14), 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 (Ezra 9:2; Isaiah 6:13), 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 (I Cor. 7:14). Then, since the Lord, immediately after the covenant was made with Abraham ordered it to be sealed, infants by an outward sacrament (Gen. 17:12), how can it be said that Christians are not to attest it in the present day, and seal it in their children?
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 4, Chapter 16, Section 6

Yet we see similar comments in the church fathers:
This sacrament the Lord Himself received in infancy, although He abrogated it when He was crucified. For these signs of spiritual blessings were not condemned, but gave place to others which were more suitable to the later dispensation. For as circumcision was abolished by the first coming of the Lord, so baptism shall be abolished by His second coming. For as now, since the liberty of faith has come, and the yoke of bondage has been removed, no Christian receives circumcision in the flesh; so then, when the just are reigning with the Lord, and the wicked have been condemned, no one shall be baptized, but the reality which both ordinances prefigure— namely, circumcision of the heart and cleansing of the conscience— shall be eternally abiding. If, therefore, I had been a Jew in the time of the former dispensation, and there had come to me a Samaritan who was willing to become a Jew, abandoning the error which the Lord Himself condemned when He said, "You worship ye know not what; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews;" [John 4:22] — if, I say, a Samaritan whom Samaritans had circumcised had expressed his willingness to become a Jew, there would have been no scope for the boldness which would have insisted on the repetition of the rite; and instead of this, we would have been compelled to approve of that which God had commanded, although it had been done by heretics. But if, in the flesh of a circumcised man, I could not find place for the repetition of the circumcision, because there is but one member which is circumcised, much less is place found in the one heart of man for the repetition of the baptism of Christ. You, therefore, who wish to baptize twice, must seek as subjects of such double baptism men who have double hearts.
- Augustine, Letter 23, Section 4

If the only meaning of baptism were the remission of sins, why would we baptize the newborn children who have not yet tasted of sin? But the mystery [of baptism] is not limited to this; it is a promise of greater and more perfect gifts. In it are the promises of future delights; it is a type of the future resurrection, a communion with the master’s passion, a participation in His resurrection, a mantle of salvation, a tunic of gladness, a garment of light, or, rather it is light itself.
- Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Compendium of Heretical Fables, Book 5, §18, Preface (courtesy of David King)

And if any one seek for divine authority in this matter, though what is held by the whole Church, and that not as instituted by Councils, but as a matter of invariable custom, is rightly held to have been handed down by authority, still we can form a true conjecture of the value of the sacrament of baptism in the case of infants, from the parallel of circumcision, which was received by God's earlier people, and before receiving which Abraham was justified, as Cornelius also was enriched with the gift of the Holy Spirit before he was baptized. Yet the apostle says of Abraham himself, that "he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith," having already believed in his heart, so that "it was counted unto him for righteousness." Why, therefore, was it commanded him that he should circumcise every male child in order on the eighth day, [Genesis 17:9-14] though it could not yet believe with the heart, that it should be counted unto it for righteousness, because the sacrament in itself was of great avail? And this was made manifest by the message of an angel in the case of Moses' son; for when he was carried by his mother, being yet uncircumcised, it was required, by manifest present peril, that he should be circumcised, [Exodus 4:24-26] and when this was done, the danger of death was removed. As therefore in Abraham the justification of faith came first, and circumcision was added afterwards as the seal of faith; so in Cornelius the spiritual sanctification came first in the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the sacrament of regeneration was added afterwards in the laver of baptism. And as in Isaac, who was circumcised on the eighth day after his birth, the seal of this righteousness of faith was given first, and afterwards, as he imitated the faith of his father, the righteousness itself followed as he grew up, of which the seal had been given before when he was an infant; so in infants, who are baptized, the sacrament of regeneration is given first, and if they maintain a Christian piety, conversion also in the heart will follow, of which the mysterious sign had gone before in the outward body. And as in the thief the gracious goodness of the Almighty supplied what had been wanting in the sacrament of baptism, because it had been missing not from pride or contempt, but from want of opportunity; so in infants who die baptized, we must believe that the same grace of the Almighty supplies the want, that, not from perversity of will, but from insufficiency of age, they can neither believe with the heart unto righteousness, nor make confession with the mouth unto salvation. Therefore, when others take the vows for them, that the celebration of the sacrament may be complete in their behalf, it is unquestionably of avail for their dedication to God, because they cannot answer for themselves. But if another were to answer for one who could answer for himself, it would not be of the same avail. In accordance with which rule, we find in the gospel what strikes every one as natural when he reads it, "He is of age, he shall speak for himself." John 9:21
- Augustine, On Baptism, Against the Donatists, Book 4, Chapter, Chapter 24 (Section 32)

But in respect of the case of the infants, which you say ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, and that the law of ancient circumcision should be regarded, so that you think that one who is just born should not be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day, we all thought very differently in our council. For in this course which you thought was to be taken, no one agreed; but we all rather judge that the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to any one born of man. For as the Lord says in His Gospel, "The Son of man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them," [Luke 4:56] as far as we Can, We must strive that, if possible, no soul be lost. For what is wanting to him who has once been formed in the womb by the hand of God? To us, indeed, and to our eyes, according to the worldly course of days, they who are born appear to receive an increase. But whatever things are made by God, are completed by the majesty and work of God their Maker.
- Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 58, Section 2

6 comments:

natamllc said...

Well, moving alone through this, to the question, Calvin asked: "....how can it be said that Christians are not to attest it in the present day, and seal it in their children?...".

My answer: They can't and God is God, before, during and after all time.

natamllc said...

As I read Augustine here: "....For as now, since the liberty of faith has come, and the yoke of bondage has been removed, no Christian receives circumcision in the flesh; so then, when the just are reigning with the Lord, and the wicked have been condemned, no one shall be baptized, but the reality which both ordinances prefigure— namely, circumcision of the heart and cleansing of the conscience— shall be eternally abiding....".
, an unusual question comes to me to ask: "is ignorance a forgiveable sin"?

natamllc said...

For me, I agree with Theodoret of Cyrrhus as cited above.

It seems to be the same persuasion as Peter, here:

1Pe 1:3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,
1Pe 1:4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you,
1Pe 1:5 who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

natamllc said...

When I read this above of Augustine: "....Therefore, when others take the vows for them, that the celebration of the sacrament may be complete in their behalf, it is unquestionably of avail for their dedication to God, because they cannot answer for themselves....", I immediately go to understanding "Godly Authority".

One need only comprehend Godly Authority, which, according to Jesus, is the 'greatest' expression of Faith as demonstrated in this event:

Luk 7:8 For I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes; and to another, 'Come,' and he comes; and to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it."
Luk 7:9 When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, said, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith."
Luk 7:10 And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant well.

I would ask, "is it not then with the infant baptised, as it is with the centurion's servant, that one's Authority carries the day for them and they become the recipient of the Gift of both Grace and Faith in the one coming before Him on their behalf?"

And we know that God is and He is Eternal, Triune and Their Authority is what came and chose us and loved us first.

Joh 15:16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.

and

1Jn 4:10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

JonX said...

The problem....these examples all come centuries after Christ and only after the institutional state-church meld was in full bloom. Still, they point to the tensions. Notice that they are still having to argue even for infant baptism's efficacy--if not it's acceptance! As ALL early discussion of baptism emphasize remission of sin and cleansing from sin as the primary idea. Any parallels with circumcision, if mentioned at all (which is rare and non-existent in the earliest sources), are very much in the background. Additionally, many continued to be baptized later in life well into the late patristic era. And thus, this, too, would seem to minimize any belief in Calvin's point of view. Therefore, to believe that baptism and circumcision were clearly connected in the minds of early Christians is a real leap of faith. Since there is nothing explicit in any Christian writing until the institutional state-church had already come into full bloom.

turretinfan said...

JonX:

a) You don't seem to be addressing the thesis of the post, which is just that Calvin wasn't the one who came up with this.
b) Cyprian of Carthage died 258. He lived during times of persecution and was martyred for serving Christ rather than the pagan deities.
c) Anyway, the Scriptures are our rule faith. I don't want you to think that we baptize infants just because that's the way it's always been done.