Thursday, January 11, 2007

Baptism—Regeneration. How related? A meditation starter!

What is very clear to any student of The Book of Common Prayer in any of its official English editions is that it assumes, presents and teaches a most intimate relation of Baptism (Infant and Adult) and Regeneration. That is God works the spiritual miracle of regeneration in, at, or closely related to Water Baptism, so that Baptism becomes Baptism in Water and the Spirit of the Lord. In this assumption and teaching, it is at one with the Baptismal Rites of East and West that we have from the Early Church and also with the Baptismal Texts from the New Testament.

When modern American or Western Protestant Christians are told, or learn of, this intimate relation of Baptism and Regeneration, they are usually shocked by, or disbelieving of, it. The usual reason for their reaction is because it is so contrary to what they have learned from the general ethos of Evangelical teaching and practice which more often than not tend to equate “being born again” with “conversion to Jesus Christ” or “making a decision for Christ.” They do not make a conceptual or practical distinction between birth—an entry and a beginning—and the growing and maturing of new life. For them “new birth” is the U-turn itself not the origin or start of the U-turn. Thus regeneration is both new birth and renovation, both the beginning and the turn to go in the new direction; and, significantly, it has nothing much to do with Baptism, except perhaps that Adult Believers Baptism can offer in it the human witness and testimony to being already born again.

One thing that has fed the Protestant Evangelical rejection of the intimate relation of Baptism and Regeneration in Scripture and Tradition has been a strong reaction to the doctrine of “Baptismal Regeneration” as taught by Roman Catholics and Anglo-Catholics. This teaching claims that if the Rite itself is properly conducted, and if the infant or older person offers no internal resistance, the act of Baptism itself will be the sure means used by God the Father through the presence of the Holy Spirit, to make the baptized person into a child of God, really and truly, with a new nature, and thus made into a Christian who is placed in the process of being made righteous. Here repentance and faith, though not denied, are not prominent.

What Protestants have reacted unfavorably against in this sacramental approach is (a) the apparent lack of any direct connection between Baptism and saving faith in the recipient, and (b) the idea that the administering of the Sacrament, in and of itself, achieves regeneration of the recipient.

Regrettably, many of these same evangelical Protestants have assumed that the Services of Baptism in The Book of Common Prayer teach the same doctrine of “Baptismal Regeneration” as they think is taught by Catholics (see the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent and the recent Catholic Catechism). And, worse still, not a few who belong to The Anglican Way assume that Baptismal Regeneration as taught in the Anglican Formularies is a “Catholic” bad thing and to be avoided.

I suggest that concerning the Services of Baptism within The Book of Common Prayer, the following needs to be understood:

  1. They were created by devout and learned Reformers—Thomas Cranmer and Martin Bucer, for example—who knew what they were doing, as they sought to be true to Scripture, learn from the Early Church and reform the Baptismal Liturgies from the medieval Church.
  2. These Reformers thought of the Bible as One Canon with Two Testaments, not as we tend to do, Two Testaments making One Canon. This meant that they took the Old Testament both more seriously and differently than we do.
  3. Also these Reformers—as their contemporaries—know nothing of “expressive individualism” that is so common in the West today; but they thought of the individual human being as “a person in relation to God and relatives;” further, they had a strong sense of the One Covenant of Grace, with its two different administrations, the Mosaic and the New Covenant in Christ, and so they held that the children of covenant members were also by divine appointment also to be considered covenant members as well. [Thus while we look for specific examples of infant baptism in the Text of the New Testament, they assumed that infants were in the Covenant and thus baptized in households.]
  4. They thought of Sacraments as primarily God’s work and gift administered in God’s name by a Minister of Christ. Only in a very secondary way were Sacraments actions of men offered to God. Nevertheless, the action of God was not seen as unrelated to the state of human beings; rather God acted in blessing when there was a measure of repentance and faith in the recipient.
  5. Infant children of baptized Christians were themselves baptized because God had required Abraham to circumcise infant boys as a sign of their being admitted as members of the Covenant of grace – and also Gentiles, males and females, old and young, became Jewish converts/proselytes by being “washed” (baptized). And had not Jesus welcomed children warmly and substantially into his arms, Mark 10?
  6. In Infant Baptism, repentance and faith are operative (not as yet in the Infant himself) but in those who stand in God’s Name in his place, the Godmothers and Godfathers. Their duty before God and in the church is to make sure that the Infant actually comes to personal consciousness of his relation to Jesus Christ and thus repents personally of sin and believes in his Name.
  7. Baptismal regeneration is the act of God in the Sacrament where the Father, for the sake of the Son and by the Holy Spirit, makes the baptized person a member of the covenant of grace, causes him to be born into the kingdom of God, and adopts him as a child into his Family and Household. It is thus the very beginning of the possibility of true Christian life within the fellowship of the Church and the warmth of the Family of God. Necessarily it also includes the forgiveness of original sin and actual sin.
  8. Baptism in Water is the outward and visible sign and seal of God’s gracious work of causing new birth/regeneration in the person baptized. By it, his relation to Christ is declared and his status before God is made known.
  9. In the case of Infants, they are to be raised and treated as Christians and given every possible help to make their own the Faith which is theirs by membership of the Covenant; in the case of Adults they are to be encouraged to live daily as baptized Christians, mortifying sin and practicing righteousness, and embodying the grace of the Covenant in their lives.
  10. The Baptismal Service for Infants is NOT a service of dedication of an infant to God (man addressing God) but is a Sacrament (God addressing man).
It seems to me that modern Bible-reading and Bible-believing people will continue to have difficulty with Infant Baptism (except as making it Infant Dedication) as long as they read the Bible as a modern “individual” out of the experience of expressive individualism. Only by entering into the Early Church approach to and use of the Bible as One Canon with Two Testaments, united by One Covenant, will they begin to see the orders of relation that God has imprinted in both the created order and in the covenant of grace and thus accept Infant Baptism on the same terms as the Anglican Reformers of the sixteenth century.


The Revd Dr Peter Toon January 11, 2007

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