Paedobaptism through the the Sacramentology of Reformed Leader John Calvin

by Providence Crowder

In the New Testament, water baptism was accepted universally by Christians as the means of entry into the Christian community; and though Scripture gave no specific authority or instruction for baptism of infants, the practice of infant baptism, or paedobaptism, was adopted within the first few centuries of the Christian church history.[1]  Regardless to the absence of a clear precedence, allusions to infant baptism were made throughout the New Testament.  The Apostle Paul spoke of baptism in the New Testament as a “spiritual counterpart to circumcision” (Col. 2:11-12), the Jewish rite in the Old Testament that admitted infants and adults into a covenant relationship with God.  Additionally, in households where baptism was specifically mentioned, the children may have been baptized right alongside their adult parents. [2]  Scriptural arguments such as the aforementioned have been used to support the practice of paedobaptism. 

Opponents of the tradition insisted that Jesus’ command to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them (the disciples) in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19) clearly indicated that baptism followed a conscious decision for discipleship; a decision that was impossible for infants to make.  Numerous polemic writings of the sixteenth through eighteenth century Reformation and Great Awakening periods revealed sharp divisions among certain Protestant groups on the subject.  Those divisions underscored how broadly the scriptural exegesis pertaining to the baptismal liturgy varied from one Christian group to another. 

Most Christians of the Reformation era favored and practiced paedobaptism.  Nonetheless, the Anabaptists were Protestant Christians who rejected infant baptism, noting the lack of biblical precedence.  Anabaptist meant “re-baptizer.” This title was given to those Protestants who believed that infant baptism was invalid and adult “believer baptism’ was the true and biblical precedent of the baptismal ordinance as instituted by Christ himself and practiced by the earliest Christians.  Dutch Anabaptist and theologian Dirk Philips gave strong biblical arguments against infant baptism in his polemic Concerning the New Birth and the New Creature: Brief Admonition and Teaching From the Holy Bible written in 1556 AD.  To Philips and his contemporaries, French Reformed Theologian John Calvin in his lifelong work Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1559 AD, provided a powerful defense and an exceptionally compelling case for the practice of infant baptism.  Examining the baptismal rite through the soteriology of Calvin while heeding theological objections from Philips will grant some insights into whether or not infants qualify as legitimate candidates for water baptism. 

John Calvin

John Calvin was a provocative 16th century French theologian whose hermeneutics greatly influenced Protestant Christianity; “he has been styled as the Aristotle of Protestantism.”[3]  As a cleric in the Roman Catholic Church, Calvin struggled to attain peace of conscience by the methods of Romanism.   His struggles led him to an earnest study of the Scriptures, and “like a bright light from heaven, the knowledge of the truth burst upon his mind.”[4]  Calvin eventually broke from the Roman Catholic Church.  He described his measured conversion to the cause of reform as such:

God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life. Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein, that although I did not altogether leave off other studies, yet I pursued them with less ardour.[5]

 

In his quest for doctrinal clarity, he comprised a summary of the Christian faith called the Institutes of the Christian Religion. 

The Institutes showed a “profound knowledge of Scripture, of other ancient Christian literature—particularly the works of Saint Augustine—and of the theological controversies of the sixteenth century.”[6]  The scholarly brilliance of Calvin’s polemic and apologetic writings “had gained him prominence as the greatest theologian of his era.”  With his prominence came many adherents, making him the chief figure of the branch of Protestant theology termed Calvinist or “Reformed” Protestantism.   John Calvin spoke at great length on the sacraments, perceiving  that they were vehicles of God’s grace; instruments to assist the Christian’s fragile faith.  Gaining an understanding of Calvin’s sacramentology is key appreciating his views concerning paedobaptism.

Understanding John Calvin’s Sacramentology

In Calvin’s soteriology, the baptismal rite was a sacrament.  Calvin defined sacrament as “an external sign, by which the Lord seals on our consciences his promises of good-will toward us, in order to sustain the weakness of our faith, and we in our turn testify our piety towards him, both before himself, and before angels as well as men.”[7]  The sacraments, both baptism and the Lord’s Supper, were instituted by Christ “that they may serve to establish and increase the faith.”[8]  According to Calvin, to have a proper view of the sacraments, one should not rest solely on the external ceremonies, but instead depend primarily on what promises and spiritual mysteries the ceremonies, which are ordained by the Lord, represented. 

For Calvin, the sacraments had no inherent powers in and of themselves, but through faith, they properly fulfilled their office “only when the Spirit, that inward teacher, comes to them, by whose power alone hearts are penetrated and affections are moved and our souls opened for the sacraments to enter in.”[9]  He admonished both those who undervalued the power of the sacraments and those who attributed too much to them.  He believed, “A sacrament is a thing of no value if separated from its truth . . . It is necessary to distinguish, in order that we may not cleave too much to the external sign . . . As Augustine has said, if you receive carnally, it does not cease to be spiritual, but it does not benefit a wicked or impious man.[10]  Calvin further maintained that salvation did not depend on participation in the sacraments and justification did not consist in it.  He argued, “This which is treasured up in Christ alone, we know to be communicated, not less by the preaching of the Gospel than by the seal of the sacrament, and may be completely enjoyed without this seal.”[11]

Calvin sought to prove that his sacramental view was consistent with the ordinary use of the sacraments as used in Scripture.  He maintained that God used them as signs and seals to render confidence and certainty concerning his promises within the hearts of men.  Calvin demonstrated how God, under the old law, sometimes presented sacraments in natural things and other times he used miracles.  Beginning in the Old Testament book of Genesis, Calvin recounted that God gave Adam and Eve the tree of life as a guarantee of immortality so that they could be assured of God’s promise as long as they ate of its fruit.  He explained that the tree itself did not provide immortality, but God’s promise became effectual when they ate of it and believed.  Again in Genesis, God set a rainbow in the sky as a token and promise for Noah and his descendants that he would not destroy the earth with a flood; not that the rainbow could effectively hold back any waters, but God had engraved upon them his Word, and the visual sign was a proof and a seal of his covenant.[12]  Those signs and others were “the sacraments of the Jews until the coming of Christ,” done to “support and confirm their feeble faith;” and such were the sacraments of the Church.[13]

            Calvin noted that there was not a great difference between the sacraments of the old law and the new; the former foreshadowed God’s grace and the latter gave it a present reality.[14]  In comparing the old law’s sacrament of circumcision to the new law’s baptismal ceremony, Calvin noted that the Apostle Paul taught that God cared nothing about the external signs, the outward washing or the cutting of skin in which we are initiated into religion, if the heart was not inwardly cleansed.  He insisted that “Baptism is today for Christians what circumcision was for the ancients.”[15]

The sacraments of the old covenant held the same purpose as the sacraments of the new covenant.  “They are testimonies of grace and salvation from the Lord, so from us in turn they are marks of profession, by which we openly swear allegiance to God, binding ourselves faithfully to him.”  Moreover, “They are covenants; for in them God promises to cancel and blot out any guilt and penalty contracted by us through our transgression, and reconcile us to himself in his only-begotten Son, so do we, in turn, bind ourselves to him by this profession, to pursue piety and innocence.”[16]  Before expounding upon his theological reasoning behind his advocacy of the baptismal liturgy for infants, Calvin explained the purpose of the baptismal sacrament and its effectuality for the believer.

John Calvin’s View of the Baptismal Sacrament   

John Calvin defined baptism as “the sign of the initiation by which we are received into the society of the church, in order that, engrafted in Christ, we may be reckoned among God’s children.”  As well, through baptism the believer publically professed that he or she wish to be numbered among God’s people.  Calvin noted that baptism in Scripture pointed to two things: first; the cleansing of our sins through Christ’s blood; and second, “the mortification of our flesh, which rests upon participation in his death in which believers are reborn into newness of life and into the fellowship of Christ.”  Believers through baptism obtained spiritual regeneration through being partaker’s of Christ’s death and resurrection.  “Being sanctified by the Spirit they are imbued with a new and spiritual nature . . . The Father is the cause, the son is the matter and the Spirit is the effect of our purgation and regeneration.”[17]  That cleansing and renewal was not a one moment in time benefit that cleansed only past sins so that there would be a continual need to find new cleansing remedies in other sacraments, but baptism signified cleansing for the whole life.[18]  The aforementioned, said Calvin, was firmly taught in Scripture.[19]  

Calvin believed that the outward washing of baptism meant nothing apart from faith in Christ and rebuked those who placed too much on the external sign.  He used several New Testament examples to demonstrate his sacramentology.  He recalled how Cornelius the centurion had already received forgiveness of sins and the visible graces of the Holy Spirit, but nevertheless was baptized.  That proved he exercised faith in God’s promises concerning the washing away of sins in baptism but did not prove, as some misguided interpretations asserted, that the water by the power of baptism washed away his sins (Acts 22:16).  Rather, Cornelius was baptized to be assured that his sins were forgiven.  “For the Lord promised forgiveness of sins in baptism; receive it, and be secure in the promise that he who believes and is baptized will be saved”[20] (Mark16:16).   

Calvin also admonished those who would minimize the baptismal rite to a mere commemorative or token, which he claimed is nowhere taught in scripture.  For in baptism the believer’s received the assurance of salvation through faith, just as God did to the Israelites through circumcision.  For Abraham, when he was uncircumcised was justified by faith.  Yet afterward, he received the sign of circumcision, the seal of the righteousness of faith, that he might be the father of all believers, both of uncircumcised and circumcised; for a time being the father of the circumcision yet after the wall was broken down through Christ, Abraham became the father of all believers through baptism[21] (Rom. 4:10-12). 

Calvin agreed with Anabaptist Dirk Philips in as far as the baptismal rite was not to be disregarded.  Philips maintained that “if it was proper for Christ to be baptized with the baptism of John, how much more proper for it is for us to be baptized with the baptism of Christ?”[22]  He explained that the baptism of Christ meant that Christians were internally baptized by the Holy Spirit and fire as well as externally baptized with water.  Philips too admonished those who minimized water baptism.  Philips stated:

Those who say that only the inner baptism is important, as well as those who baptize externally but forget the true , internal essence of baptism, err and miss the true path.  For without faith, the new birth, the Holy Spirit and true Christian Character, externals do not matter before God.  But the external rites, such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper and other ordinances of the Lord (which are called sacraments), must not be diminished or neglected in any way.  For the external wisdom of Christ Jesus was not spoken for nothing, and we humans should live according to every word which came from his mouth . . . We ought not to begin or conclude anything other than what Christ Jesus taught us and for which he was the example.[23]

 

On this Calvin and Philips agreed: external rites without faith, without the Holy Spirit, and without a pious Christian life profited nothing. 

John Calvin’s Argument for Paedobaptism

Calvin was baptized as an infant, as were most other Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians of that era; he felt no need to be re-baptized again as an adult, as the Anabaptists claimed, but believed that in his baptism the full force, worth, usefulness, and purpose of the mystery was fulfilled.[24]  Calvin refuted the polemic of Philips and his contemporaries that one must first repent and believe the gospel in faith before baptism was acceptable to God.  Philips was persistent in this point and even accused those who practiced paedobaptism of lacking all understanding of the Scriptures.  He argued that children cannot have faith, not yet knowing the difference between good and evil; furthermore, ”Faith and true knowledge of God are taught and learned in people by the Holy Spirit.  Faith comes by hearing God’s word”[25] (Rom. 10:17). 

Calvin in response to those types of criticisms of paedobaptism proclaimed, “They ask us what faith came to us during some years after our baptism.  This they do to prove our baptism void, since it is not sanctified to us except when the word of promise is accepted in faith.”[26]  Calvin acknowledged that for long, his baptism profited him nothing:

To this question we reply that we indeed, being blind and unbelieving, for a long time did not grasp the promise that had been given us in baptism; yet that promise, since it was of God, ever remained fixed and firm and trustworthy . . . We confess that for that time baptism benefited us not at all, inasmuch as the promise offered us in it . . . Now when, by God’s grace, we begin to repent, we believe that the promise itself did not vanish.  Rather, we consider that God through baptism promises us forgiveness of sins, and he will doubtless fulfill his promise for all believers.[27]

 

Calvin believed that the God’s promises concerning baptism were not bound to time.  Like circumcision, the external rite was of no avail unless the heart also was inwardly cleansed. Calvin used two main arguments in his support for infant baptism:  The new covenant baptism was likened to the old covenant circumcision; and children should also have life in Christ.

Paedobaptism and Circumcision

Calvin’s strongest argument for paedobaptism was that the sacrament of baptism for infants was not unlike the sacrament of circumcision. Within the exegesis of Calvin, everything that pertained to baptism likewise belonged to circumcision; only differing in the visible ceremony.[28]  He recalled that when the Lord invited the Jewish people to repentance, he enjoined no need for a second circumcision upon those who were previously circumcised  but had lived a sacrilegious life for a time.  He only urged of them a conversion of their heart.  Even if the covenant was violated by them, still the covenant remained.  “On the sole condition of repentance, they were restored to the covenant that God had made with them in circumcision.”[29]  Likewise, reasoned Calvin, if circumcision was a token for the Jews by which they were assured of adoption as the people of God, and baptism was likened unto it as the Apostle Paul bids, then why withhold baptism from infants, something that is owed to them?[30] 

Calvin recalled that in ancient times, an alien who wished to join himself in religious fellowship with Israel had to be taught the Lord’s covenant and instructed with the law before he could be marked with circumcision, but the Israelites’ children were circumcised from infancy.[31]  Similarly, adults who are foreign to Christianity must first hear the gospel and make a decision for discipleship before they are partakers in baptism.  Yet children are given in baptism by the pious Christian parent to confirm the promise given to them because God declared that the promise was not for him only but for his seed; “and he willed to manifest his goodness and grace to not him only but to his descendants also, even to the thousandth generation (Ex. 20:6).”[32] 

Some objected to Calvin’s analogy of circumcision being likened to baptism.  His critics pointed out three significant differences between infant baptism and circumcision.  The first difference was that circumcision took place on the eighth day of infancy and represented a mortification of the flesh; and baptism was applied to the first day of spiritual combat.[33]  To this Calvin responded that for natural and spiritual reasons could God have chosen the eighth day; natural since circumcising a newborn still red from their birth would have been too dangerous; and spiritual because the resurrection took place on the eighth day, the day in which we know newness of life depended and the rest of the life mortification of the flesh is required. [34] 

The second objection to Calvin’s claim by his opponents was that if baptism was akin to circumcision, then women should not be baptized.  Calvin answered by noting that although by nature of the sacrament only the bodies of the males were imprinted with the sign, it was intended for men and women equally to be sanctified.  For if the offspring of the Israelites were attested by the sign, surly their companions were too partners of their circumcision.[35]  The third objection by Calvin’s critics was that they denoted a damning silence concerning infant baptism in Scripture.  To this, Calvin replied, “If such arguments were valid, women should similarly be barred from the Lord’s Supper, since we do not read that they were admitted to it in the apostolic age; but here we are content with the rule of faith.”[36]  

Children Should Also Have Life in Christ

Like Calvin, Philips agreed that children were partakers in the promises of God.  Philips argued that children were saved by grace through Jesus Christ and that children were pleasing in their simple innocence while adults were made pleasing through faith.[37]  Yet Philips did not believe that the benefits in baptism were effectual for infants because of what baptism represented; rebirth and renewal through faith in Christ.  Philips insisted that infants were without faith; they could not be reborn of God because a person who is born of God recognizes his own sin, repents of them and prays and trusts in the grace of God.  He believed that children could not discern between good and evil and lacked believing faith; they were innocent.[38]

 To Philips critique Calvin asserted, “Those darts are aimed more at God than at us.  For it is very clear from many testimonies of Scripture that circumcision was also a sign of repentance.  It does not seem absurd if they are now made participants in baptism—unless men choose to openly rage at God’s institution.”  He further maintained: 

They object, that baptism is given for the remission of sins. When this is conceded, it strongly supports our view; for, seeing we are born sinners, we stand in need of forgiveness and pardon from the very womb. Moreover, since God does not preclude this age from the hope of mercy, but rather gives assurance of it, why should we deprive it of the sign, which is much inferior to the reality? The arrow, therefore, which they aim at us, we throw back upon themselves. Infants receive forgiveness of sins; therefore, they are not to be deprived of the sign.[39]

 

Calvin deduced that if it was right for infants to be brought to Christ, why deny them his baptism, “the symbol of our communion and fellowship with Christ?  If the Kingdom of Heaven belonged to them, why then is the sign denied them so that they may be enrolled among the heirs to the promises that were already given them?[40]  Calvin contended that infants were baptized into future repentance and faith, “and even though these have not yet been formed in them, the seed of both lies hidden within them by the secret working of the Spirit.”[41]

To demonstrate his final point concerning children being heirs to the Kingdom, Calvin used an Old Testament illustration.  He recalled that just as the children of the Jews had been made heir of God’s covenant and were called a holy seed, children of Christians were considered holy, even if being born with only one believing parent.  By the Apostle Paul’s testimony, they differed from the unclean offspring of idolaters (1 Cor. 7:14).   Calvin insisted that children were the perfect candidates for baptism. 

Summary

Both Philips and Calvin had strong convictions concerning paedobaptism and both presented a spirited defense of their sacramental view. Calvin presented a persuasive argument by using analogies from the Old Testament to demonstrate that by the rule of faith, infant baptism represented in the new law what circumcision did in the old law.  Additionally, Calvin noted that infants were promised the Kingdom; therefore, why deny them the sign of communion and fellowship with Christ?  Yet, Philips provided appealing evidence in the New Testament that established that in every biblical example of baptism, faith or repentance was a prerequisite; as well, infants could not attain believing faith and he found no examples anywhere in Scripture to justify paedobaptism.  Regardless of the theological objections presented by Philips, Calvin presented a substantive case for paedobaptism; one that should stimulate further deliberation and debate among those who, as Philips, reject infant baptism as unscriptural.

Application to the 21st Century

            Modern Protestant Christians that are offshoots of the Reformed and Anabaptist denominations have continued the debate on whether paedobaptism or believer’s baptism is the proper baptism as ordained by Christ for his church.  Most Christians today consider this a serious debate because baptism is closely linked to salvation, and for some, necessary for it.  Modern Baptist churches practice the baptismal ordinance in the Anabaptist tradition, baptizing adult believers that have made a conscious choice to follow Christ.  Similarly modern Reformed groups baptize their infants into the fellowship of Christ in keeping with Calvin’s sacramental view.  Since the 16th century, not much has changed by way of exegetical debate.  Thousands of denominations have flooded Christendom, each taking on a sacramental view across the spectrum; for some water baptism is merely a commemoration or a token, for others a sign and a seal, yet others view the waters of baptism salvific and regenerative.  Due to the unlimited Protestant denominations in which to choose, most modern believers feel no urgency to engage in the spirited polemics that produced brilliant theological works such as Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. 

Today, if one is convinced that their denomination’s views are flawed, instead of attempting to reform their church or convince their opponents of their error, they simply switch denominations as often and as many times as they choose.  Seemingly, the essence of Protestant Christianity has worsened, yet in reality the same concerns remain.  Much of the church is still divided on the issue of paedobaptism; and those who are not, of whom both Calvin and Philips confronted in their polemics, ignore the sacrament altogether and scorn the ordinance of Christ. 

 

 


[1] Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), s.v. “Infant Baptism.”

 

[2] ODCC, s.v. “Infant Baptism.”

[3] “John Calvin” in The Creeds of Christendom, ed. by Philip Schaff, Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 1990),  446.

 

[4] Ibid., 426.

[5] John Calvin, “The Author’s Preface” in The Commentary on Psalms, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom08.vi.html (accessed on May 7th, 2011).

 

[6] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, vol. 2, (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 2004), 64.

 

[7] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.14.1. Christian Library Heritage Edition, Version 8, (Rio, Wisconsin: AGES Software).

[8] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.14.9.

 

[9] Ibid., 4.14.9.

 

[10] Ibid., 4.14.16.

 

[11] Ibid., 4.14.14.

[12] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.14.18.

 

[13] Ibid., 4.14.18.

 

[14] Ibid., 4.14.23.

 

[15] Ibid., 4.14.24.

[16] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.14.19.

 

[17] Ibid., 4.15.6.

 

[18] Ibid., 4.15.3.

 

[19] Ibid., 4.16.2.

[20] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.15.15.

 

[21] Ibid., 4.16.13.

 

[22] Dirk Philips, Early Anabaptist Spirituality, ed. by Daniel Liechty, (New York: Paulist Press, 1994), 204.

 

[23] Ibid., 207.

 

[24] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.15.19.

[25] Philips, 204.

 

[26] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.15.17.

 

[27] Ibid., 4.15.17.

 

[28] Ibid., 4.16.4.

[29] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.15.17.

 

[30] Ibid., 4.16.5.

 

[31] Ibid., 4.16.23.

 

[32] Ibid., 4.16.10.

 

[33] Ibid., 4.16.16.

[34] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.16.16.

 

[35] Ibid.,  4.16.16.

 

[36] Ibid., 4.16.8.

 

[37] Philips, 205.

 

[38] Philips, 205.

 

[39] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.16.22.

 

[40] Ibid., 4.16.7.

 

[41] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.16.20.

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