Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Baptism: Arm Wrestling with John Calvin Cont.

I have a great respect for classical Calvinistic theology. It is, to say the least, neat, tidy, and well thought out. It provides a wonderful theological lens through which one can well interpret the Scriptures. Before anyone goes bonkers about having a "theological lens" in place to study Scripture, let me submit to you that even the most ardent defenders of "Sola Scriptura" have some sort of grid they use to interpret Scripture. If you were stranded on an island by yourself, knew nothing of Christianity, and one day a Bible washed ashore and you read it and were converted, as you began to study you would naturally begin to form your own grid.

These grids are absolutely necessary, but they also cause blind spots. That is why the church, and individuals, must be in constantly in the process of reforming. Notice I didn't say can cause blind spots, I said that our grids cause blind spots. That is why discussion, reading, and submitting ourselves to expository preaching are so essential.

Infant baptism is part of the covenantal grid. Here is how this system works in Biblical interpretation.

Israel = Church

In Calvin's theology, Israel represents the seed of the Church, and the modern Church is now the true Israel. In many ways, I am in total agreement with that. I believe that I will sit at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as a joint-heir of the promise given to Abraham. By faith, I am Abraham's spiritual descendant. However, I do not think that this completely dismisses ethnic Israel anymore more than saying that there is "no more male or female" has eliminated sex.

Once one grasps the idea that the covenant of faith that God made with Abraham is the same covenant that God made with the church, one can easily understand where Calvin is going to go with his idea of baptism and why it should be administered to infants. Now, the above is a very quick, shallow overview of Calvin's theology, anyone who wishes may flesh it out a bit more in the comments. However, I think that it will suffice for the discussion of baptism.

If you made it through the last post, you will notice that I quoted Calvin as saying this:

Therefore, let him who would fully learn the value of baptism, its object, and indeed its entire nature, not fix his thought upon 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 (p. 1325).

Calvin wishes for you to forget about the sign for a moment and think of only the thing symbolized. We have already noted that what he believed baptism symbolizes: cleansing from sin, mortification (death) of the flesh, and rebirth into newness of life (cf. 1325).
From here, Calvin will move to circumcision. Watch out, it's a tricky move. Keep your eye on the birdie. This is a long quote but worth it for the studious. Try not to nod off:

Let us examine how these two signs (baptism and circumcision) differ from each other, and in what respects they are alike...the Lord covenants with Abraham that he should walk before him in uprightness and innocence of heart [Gen. 17:1]. This applies to mortification, or regeneration. And lest anyone be in doubt, Moses more clearly explains elsewhere, when exhorting the Israelite people to circumcise the foreskin of their heart for the Lord [Deut. 10:16], that circumcision is the sign of mortification...Moses declares that they ought to be circumcised in heart, explaining the true meaning of this carnal circumcision [Deut. 30:6]...We have, therefore, a spiritual promise given to the patriarchs in circumcision such as is given us in baptism, since it represented for them forgiveness of sins and mortification of flesh. Moreover, as we have taught that Christ is the foundation of baptism, in whom both of these reside, so it is also evident that he is the foundation of circumcision. For he is promised to Abraham, and in him the blessing of all nations [Gen. 12:2-3]. To seal this grace, the sign of circumcision is added (pgs. 1326-1327).

Did you follow that? Remember what Calvin said baptism symbolized? Cleansing, regeneration (rebirth), and mortification. If you compare that list to the above paragraph you will see that he believes circumcision meant the same thing to Israel. Same covenant, same thing symbolized.

So where are the differences he promised? The title of the next section should be a big tip-off. He entitled it: The difference is in externals only. In other words, if one peels back the signs and looks into the heart, you would see the same thing happening in the heart of a "born-again" Israelite that is happening in the heart of someone being saved in the Church. Calvin deftly took away the symbol of being dunked...err...sprinkled, and then he slid the sign of circumcision in on you while your eyes where closed.

I told you from the start that it was neat, tidy, and well thought out. It makes sense, doesn't it? The only problem is that, as neat as it is, it isn't true. I do not believe that circumcision and baptism symbolize the exact same things. I will continue with that thought next post. Hopefully, this will generate a bit of feedback from both sides.


étrangère said...

"Calvin deftly took away the symbol of being dunked...err...sprinkled, and then he slid the sign of circumcision in on you while your eyes where closed."

While I appreciate that you don't agree with him on this and that Calvin was often fierce against opponents, you make it sound like Calvin is deliberately deceiving his flock (extended to readers) with his argument. He was presenting what he considered to be the truth of God's word for the edification of God's people. He wasn't trying to slide anything in while their eyes were closed. Criticise the argument if you disagree, but leave off the use of words which damn the man in the process. You surely don't want to advance your argument with rhetoric suspecting Calvin's intentions.

brother terry said...

A well presented argument.

I can't wait for the next installment.


p.s. My flesh is mortified by the thought of circumcision!

Sojourner said...


Thank you for reading and the kind rebuke. By the way, how do you get the accents over the "e's"?

As for the charge of Calvin being 'fierce', I think you are right. I would say that he was beligerent to his opponents, but 'fierce' is far more positive. On this issue, I happen to be on the receiving end of his, shall we say, passionate defense. I must say though, whether he intended to or not, he has deceived many over the truth about baptism. If I didn't think so, I wouldn't be spending so much time on this issue!

However, for the sake of kindness, I will attempt to restrain my "frantic spirit" from further "mad raving." Fair enough?

Bro. Terry,

My friend, that was funny.

Sojourner said...


I just looked at your profile...are you currently in Belgium? Are you reading Calvin in the orignial language? I'm going to have to be more careful...:)

étrangère said...

Lol, thanks sojourner :) I'm interested in your addressing of it, but was finding the tone frustrating. I'll keep reading :) I've currently set myself the task of going through all of monergism.com's page of articles on baptism. It'll take a while :D

I believe M. Jean Calvin translated himself from Latin into French to reach people at all levels - the first time French had been used for such an academic writing. But I admit I'm currently copping out and reading neither, but only the English. I haven't been able to find it online in the modern (rather than 16th C) French translation.

I think in terms of feeling on the receiving end of Calvin's critique, it's helpful to remember that the anabaptists of Calvin's day were a much varied bunch - not all the pure precursors of reformed baptists today. In other words, he wasn't looking down his sights at you or your theology when he used such terminology! Some anabaptists were mennonite pacifists, some were involved in political revolts seeking to set up theocracies (which may - I don't know - have influenced Luther's condemnation of the Peasants' Revolt for example, if he was worried that Reformers would be lumped with Anabaptists and assumed to be revolting), some were heretical (on the Trinity for example). Some historians have helped us differentiate between different groups and trends within anabaptists of the 16th century, but that is hindsight - to the person at the time many anabaptists were unorthodox in ways 'other than baptism', and far more radical in terms of setting up church separate from others - so the Reformers felt they were endangering the future of the Church. We're so quick in our consumer age to set up a new church which is different on one issue that we often fail to see what a crime it is to separate what God has joined together. The Reformers were so aware of the unity of the Church and of being forced to split because of rejection of proposed Biblical reform that they would care passionately about anything endangering the cause of a reformed Church. With our eyes we say, "Why couldn't they join in the gospel with the anabaptists rather than condemning them?" With their eyes they saw the anabaptists some as heretics regarding the Trinity or incarnation of Christ, some certianly not, but all rejecting the church which was forming by reform, since they rebaptised members of it. Calvin had such a heart for unity in the true church that he did not rebaptise even those who were baptised by what he considered to be, as an institution, a false church - that of Rome. When he is fierce in his attacks on anabaptists, he did not have Reformed baptists in his sights. He had in his sights those whom, as I understand it, he would have considered to be endangering the future of the reformed church, by separatism, exclusivism, reputation and theology. We may easily criticise him in hindsight but he was passionate about the church. So with his words of 'frantic spirit' ;-) he is not attacking you, nor in fact even your views on baptism - the anabaptists were not modern Reformed Baptists (did I say that before?!), even if he attacks some strong aspects of your view.

Oh and tis true that the French writing style is always more flamboyant/passionate/rhetorically skilled than we "politeness is the ultimate rule" anglo-saxons are used to ;-)

I look forward to your future posts.