Friday, January 06, 2006

Baptism and the Lord's Supper: Arm Wrestling With John Calvin

Let it be known by all who read here that I am, soteriologically speaking, a Calvinist. I mean that I agree with the TULIP outline. I did not necessarily learn this from Calvin, nor do I agree with all of what Calvin says, nor do I even particularly like him as an individual, but still I admire him and I believe that he was a brilliant thinker.

Baptists have historically had a frustrating relationship with the Reform movement. The wonderful London Baptist Confession of 1689 was born out of a desire to join in that movement while yet retaining baptistic distinctions. Then as now, the baptist 'movement' was hardly a lock-step group, and it must have been maddening for those who agreed with so much of what came from Luther and Calvin to see themselves lumped in with some of the nut cases that called themselves 'baptists'. Alas, this seems to be the perennial plight of the baptist, something that we have not overcome even to this day.

Above, I alluded to the fact that I may not like Calvin personally. You may be rightfully wondering how I can possibly dislike a man whom I never met. The answer is that I have read a good bit of the Institutes and his commentaries. Simply put, he is a jerk to baptists. I'm a little sensitive about that, not just because I happen to be one, but also because many of my friends are. Calvin would have run us out of Geneva on a rail if he could, so I can't help it if my affections are somewhat diminished for the man over it. I am still a work in progress, after all.

Let me now turn to the book that will be consuming most of my time for the next few weeks. That is the most wonderful book, The Institutes of the Christian Religion by none other than John Calvin. I will actually interact with the book. I will quote it and give you page numbers. Dear reader, I will even let you know which copy from which I am working! It is from The Library of Christian Classics Volume XXI, Calvin: The Institutes of the Christian Religion published by Westminster John Knox Press in Louisville & London, edited by John T. McNeill, and translated and indexed by Ford Lewis Battles. I got a sweet deal on these two volumes, and they are worthy every penny.

Our discussion begins in Chapter XVI which is under the category of "Means of Grace: Holy Catholic Church". The chapter title is "Infant Baptism Best Accords with Christ's Institution and the Nature of the Sign". As if those weren't fighting words enough for a Credo-Baptist, I want to give you a few more that get my dander up:

The attack on infant baptism

"But since in this age certain frantic spirits have grievously disturbed the church over infant baptism, and do not cease their agitation, I cannot refrain from adding an appendix here to restrain their mad ravings" (P. 1324).

Frantic spirits, eh? Mad ravings you say? Cannot refrain from adding an appendix, huh? Bring it on you emaciated baby sprinkling paedo-baptist!

Kidding aside, there is something in this ad homenem laced paragraph that I very much agree with. I could write it to about 15 million Baptists who are currently asleep at the theological wheel right now. He writes, "If this may perhaps seem too long to any man, let him, I pray, ponder with himself that, in such an important matter, we ought so to esteem purity of doctrine as well as the peace of the church that w must not fastidiously take exception to anything conducive to the achievement of both" (P. 1324). Amen to that. This will be one long post after another for me, and likely as not, no one will read it for that very reason. I care not. This is important to me, and if no one reads what follows, I have at least tried to be thorough and fair.

In the same paragraph, Calvin writes another sentence with which I wholeheartedly agree, "If (infant baptism) appears to have been contrive by the mere rashness of men, let us bid it farewell and measure the true observance of baptism by God's will alone" (P. 1325). Amen to that. And may I say that this goes likewise for the Credo-Baptist position. If I can be convinced of the validity of infant baptism, I shall join the Presbyterian Church at once and hope to become an elder there someday.

Continuing his discussion, Calvin will define what baptism means. This is of paramount importance in the discussion. If we cannot agree with him here, then we can hardly agree on anything. Surprisingly, I find myself in total agreement in his definition. He writes...and mark this well:

Let him who would fully learn the value of baptism, its object, and indeed its entire nature, not fix his thought up the element and the physical appearance, but rather raise it to God's promises which are there offered to us, and to the inner mysteries which are represented in it...Scripture declares that baptism first points to the cleansing of our sins, which we obtain from Christ's blood; then to the mortification of our flesh, which rests upon participation in his death and through which believers are reborn into newness of life and into fellowship with Christ (P. 1325)


I wonder, after reading this, why we can't just call it a day and all go home. I would nearly think that Calvin were a baptist himself after such a definition. Of course he isn't, but this is a good definition. Does any baptist reading this disagree with what is written so far?

The problem, I believe, is not just with Calvin's understanding of baptism, but with his understanding of circumcision. In order to make his system work, he is going to have to demonstrate that circumcision was done for the exact same reason that baptism is done. When he establishes that, then he will be able to conclude then that infants should be baptized just as they were circumcised under the Old Covenant. This is poor reasoning, I believe, and though we may be able to find elements in common, the two are not the same. They do not symbolize the same thing.

Go back and read his admonition to "not fix his thought upon the element and the physical appearance," this is crucial to his argument. He will attempt in the next few paragraphs to teach that the thing symbolized is exactly the same in both though the sign be different. That is, he will argue that circumcision was given to represent regeneration, cleansing by Christ, and the death of the flesh through belief in Jesus Christ. That is what the next post will be dedicated to. Let the reader judge to see if Calvin is correct. I will do my best to demonstrate that he isn't.

1 comment:

brother terry said...

As a Baptist, I agree with you so far.

Oh yeah, stop apologizing for upcoming long posts, the faithful shall perservere to the end!

peace,