A discussion starter from Dr Peter Toon
In the Service of Holy Baptism for both Infants and Adults in the classic editions of The Book of Common Prayer, the assumption that regeneration occurs in relation to Baptism and is an act of God the Father by His Spirit in the Name of Jesus Christ is, to my mind, absolutely clear.
Therefore, the question arises: What is understood by “spiritual regeneration” and its synonyms, which appear in the Services to be:—born anew of Water and the Holy Spirit, baptized with water and the Holy Spirit, washed with the Holy Spirit, partaker of God’s everlasting kingdom, heir of everlasting salvation, becoming a member of God’s faithful and elect children, & being grafted into the Body of Christ, and so on.
The plain common sense meaning seems to me to be that the Holy Trinity through the act of Baptism in Water makes the person who is baptized into his adopted child, a member of his covenant of grace, and heir to all the gifts and blessings of the kingdom of heaven. Thus he is born again, that is born into the family of God and the Body of the Lord Jesus Christ. Birth is a start and normally with nurturing and care leads on to maturity of a person; but birth is the beginning, not the middle or the end of the journey of grace with the Lord Jesus Christ unto the heavenly Jerusalem. Thus spiritual birth is not conversion in its fullness or completeness; it is as the planting of a seed not the reaping of a harvest, and it is as a potential rather than a realization.
Now to Evangelicals and the way they have addressed the relation of spiritual regeneration to Baptism, especially Infant Baptism.
I think it is fair to say that no group of Evangelicals has addressed this topic with more learning or urgency than those of the Church of England during the first fifty years of the reign of Queen Victoria. [See my book Evangelical Theology 1833-1856, 1979, chaps 3 & 6).They were the heirs of the Evangelical Revival inside the National Church and thus they were very familiar with the assumed and innovatory doctrine of many in and after the Revival—that spiritual regeneration, and being born again, are synonyms for conversion and renewal, and further that there is no real connection in practice of spiritual regeneration to Baptism. But also, the Evangelicals had to face the very different and strong Anglo-Catholic claim that the very administration of the Sacrament by a real priest using the right service/words guaranteed spiritual regeneration of the person baptized (this was expressed, they claimed, in the Tracts for the Times and it became a national controversy in the Gorham Case in the late 1840s; it had also been taught by Bishop Mant in his Tracts on Baptism from the SPCK back in 1815).
We may notice four views expressed by Evangelicals in the nineteenth century as to the meaning and timing of regeneration—as regeneration is expressed in the BCP services. All of them—with the BCP itself— take the reality of “original sin” present in each infant born into the world as a given (and in this of course they differ with most modern liturgists and western, Anglican clergy). Then they all want to make clear that we are saved by God himself by receiving and believing the Gospel. Further, all of them sought to dismiss the Anglo-Catholic view that full spiritual regeneration always (and inevitably) occurs when the Sacrament is rightly administered.
A minority position was stated by Bishop Henry Ryder, the first Evangelical Bishop in the C. of E. He made a distinction between ecclesiastical regeneration and spiritual regeneration. In Infant Baptism, he claimed that what was certainly given was ecclesiastical regeneration—that is, a birth into the visible church and all its means of grace, with a covenanted title to the pardon and peace of the Gospel, when received by faith later at an age of maturity. Here it is assumed that ecclesiastical regeneration will lead in God’s providence to full spiritual regeneration and conversion, as the infant matures and comes to believe.
A majority position—much affected by the Evangelical Revival—held that the biblical meaning of regeneration is closely related to personal repentance for sin, saving faith and conversion. To this they added a strong doctrine of the covenant of grace that placed the children of baptized Christians in a special relation to God. In the Baptism of Infants, therefore, they held that the promises of salvation from sin and into the kingdom of God were declared and a sign and seal of them given to infants because of the covenant promise declared in Acts 2:39. Original sin was forgiven and washed away. However, there was not any immediate spiritual change in the heart of the infant through the gift of the Holy Spirit but rather the sure promise of God that he would work spiritual regeneration and conversion when the child on reaching maturity believed the Gospel. Of course, in the case of the adult they held that the declaration of spiritual regeneration in the Service, after the Baptism, was wholly true then and there because the person had saving faith. In the case of the infant it was a declaration and promise of what would be.
Another minority position worked with both the doctrine of the covenant and also that of predestination unto everlasting life (see Article XVII). Here the child of baptized Christians who is himself also of the elect of God, is baptized and is thereby made a full member of the covenant of grace by Baptism in that he is forgiven, adopted as God’s child, and given the gift of the Holy Spirit and of eternal life. The proof of his election will be that as an adult he actually comes to and professes conversion and commitment to Jesus Christ.
Another minority position was that which assumed that the infant of baptized Christians came to the service un-regenerate but was regenerated (sin forgiven and adopted into the family of God) by God in response to the fervent prayers of the officiating priest and people present. Thus Baptism when it occurred later in the service was truly a full sign of spiritual birth into the kingdom of heaven and seal of God’s promises of full salvation.
One may close with a historical footnote. I wrote in 1979 these words and I still think what I said is true:
“It would appear that because of the intensity of feeling raised by the Gorham controversy there developed in [Anglican] Evangelicalism such a fear of baptismal regeneration ex opera operato that gradually all views involving full baptismal regeneration were given up and thus part of evangelical belief at the end of the nineteenth century was the denial of baptismal regeneration.” And what was true in 1900 seems to be true also in 2007!
Position 2 above, linked to indiscriminate Baptism of infants and dumbed down in doctrine, seems to rule and in doing so it has undermined all church life, including discipline and the Administration of Holy Communion.
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For those who wish to read my book, Evangelical Theology, 1833-1856 or another serious book on Regeneration entitled Born Again (Baker Books 1987) and cannot get used copies, they may read on line at: http://www.anglicanbooksrevitalized.us/Peter_Toons_Books_Online/Doctrine/anglicanway.htm