Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Infant Baptism in The Catechism of The Book of Common Prayer (1662)

The admittance of the child of baptized Christians into the full communion of the Church has four steps—Baptism, nurture and instruction, Confirmation and First Communion. Baptism is by the local Priest; the nurture is provided by Godparents, parents and the local church, while instruction, given in home and church, is summarized in The Catechism; Confirmation is by the Bishop and First Communion follows this.

Let us focus on The Catechism to see what it assumes and teaches about Infant Baptism.

The first question asks the catechumen for his Name and the second asks who gave it to him/her. Here is the answer to the second:

My Godfathers and Godmothers in my Baptism; wherein I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.

The meaning here seems reasonably clear. “I was made” points to action by someone other than the infant and that Someone is obviously (from the whole context) God the Father, though the words do not actually clearly say so. To be “a member of Christ” is to be in “The Body of Christ;” to be “the child of God” is to be adopted by God the Father into his Family and Household; and to be “an inheritor of the kingdom of God” is to have the promise of everlasting life and be present in the heavenly Jerusalem.

The natural meaning of “I was made” here is that which is found in such a statement as, “I was made a Captain” pointing to a new rank, status and membership. So it points to the Infant being given a new status, that of an adopted child of God through Jesus Christ. It could also be taken to mean “I was made anew” as a child of God.

However, in Anglican expositions of baptismal doctrine the expression, “I was made,” has been understood, generally speaking, in three ways.

(1) “I became” suggesting, “I did not resist and God infused into my soul his grace by his Spirit and I was born again really and truly then and there into the kingdom of God even though I could not exercise repentance for sin and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; and I shall remain regenerate.”
(2) “I was considered” suggesting, “Since the conditions of repentance and faith were present (through my Godparents) and since Baptism conveys the gift of God, God began to reckon me as his Child and, as soon as I am mature and able, I must personally repent and believe the Gospel promises, in order for the gifts and grace of God truly to be mine for ever.”
(3) “I was put into a new relation to Jesus Christ” suggesting, “Since the conditions of repentance and faith were present (through my Godparents) I was born into the new sphere of God’s covenant of grace and thus into the beginnings of the enjoyment of all the blessings of the covenant.”

Of these the content of numbers 2 and 3 seem to be more in line with the other place in The Catechism where the Sacraments are defined and the necessity of faith in relation to them by the receiver is emphasized. Baptismal Regeneration was not an expression used by the first Reformed Catholics but they did accept that regeneration occurred at Baptism, but only because of the Gospel from God received by the faith of the sinner. For them the Rite rightly performed did not in and of itself automatically produce spiritual regeneration (as in the medieval opus operatum theory and as in (1) above); rather the Rite/Sacrament as God’s ordinance caused regeneration where there was active repentance for sin and belief in the Gospel as in adults, or subsitutionary repentance and faith as for infants until they can exercise these personally and consciously. [Note that since the nineteenth century “baptismal regeneration” has carried the Roman Catholic and strong Anglo-Catholic meaning that Baptism rightly performed automatically causes regeneration, unless the recipient actively resists it. In contrast to this, the Reformed Catholic understanding of “baptismal regeneration” is emphatically related God’s action and gift in Baptism on the one side, and man’s reception by faith on the other.]

The third question asks what the Godparents did for the Infant at his Baptism. The answer is clear:

They did promise and vow three things in my name.

First, that I should renounce the devil the devil and all his works, the pomps and vanity of this wicked world, and all the sinful lusts of the flesh.

Secondly, that I should believe all the articles of the Christian faith.

And thirdly, that I should keep God’s holy will and commandments, and walk in the same all the days of my life.

So in and on behalf of the child, who is not yet able to act for himself, the Godparents solemnly promised to God (a) renunciation of the devil, evil world and sinful desires; (b) belief of the doctrines in the Creed, and (c) living daily in faithful obedience to God. The form and tense of the verb used of the commitment to be made by the infant is important—“that I should renounce…believe…keep…” The “I should” is just the grammatically correct subjunctive in speech reporting a promise. The subjunctive was/is ordinarily used for uncertainties, but not here. Perhaps the nearest equivalent in modern English would be "must". The “should” points to a promise leading to obligation and duty, and as coming into effect from the very first moment in the future when the child is able to respond to God as his Father through Jesus Christ—a response which is his duty and privilege as a baptized person, by divine promise and covenant.

So, from the moment of his Baptism, the infant child of Christian parents is reckoned to be, and is to be treated as, a child of God, with all appropriate nurture, instruction and discipline, so that what God has made over to him he comes to see is his only by grace through faith. This places great responsibility upon the parents, Godparents and local church as the ministers of heaven to this growing child, even as it also celebrates the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ revealed in the covenant of grace in its New Testament administration through this Sacrament, instituted by Jesus the Christ.

Note on Covenant

In what sense, if at all, is there a Baptismal Covenant, that is, a covenant offered or made in Baptism between God and the person baptized?

We recall that Jesus himself established the new covenant by his atoning sacrifice on the Cross. “In my place condemned he stood, sealed my pardon with his blood.” The new covenant (contrast is with the Mosaic or old covenant) is made between God the Father and his Incarnate Son, with the latter acting as Representative Man, the new Adam, and thus God the Father made it with Christ on behalf of all who were (in Israel) and would be (through the preaching of the Gospel) united to Christ, “in Christ,” for everlasting salvation and life.

This new covenant, the covenant of grace, is the essential background for the preaching of the Gospel, the Administration of the Gospel Sacraments, and the response of repentant, believing sinners to the Gospel message. In Baptism, God the Father acts in the Name of Christ and by the Holy Spirit to regenerate sinners, that is to place them within the covenant of grace and thus name them as his children. As with the response to the preaching of the Gospel, so in the Sacrament, the covenant Lord God graciously and freely gives his salvation, but he only gives where there is readiness to receive, and such readiness is only possible and present where there is repentance for sin and belief in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Saviour.

So it may be said that there are conditions for entry into the covenant, the covenant which is already established and complete in itself through, in and with Christ its mediator and guarantor. And these conditions are faith and repentance. However, divinely-required conditions for entry are not conditions which actually constitute the human side of a contract or covenant between the human person and the Lord God. We may say that the kingdom of God, the heavenly Jerusalem, exists with all its covenant blessings and that only the repentant and believing sinner is allowed to enter and, in entering, is warmly welcomed. So by repenting and believing (or by doing anything else) none of us are entering into, making or closing a personal covenant with God, but rather we are being made a member of Christ and thus in, through and with him we are placed in an eternal relation within the covenant of grace with the Father, energized by the Holy Spirit.

There are great spiritual dangers in thinking and teaching that there is a Baptismal Covenant which is different from the New Covenant itself. (And nowhere is this more evident in the life of The Episcopal Church since the 1960s!) God does not make a covenant with me and I do not make a covenant with God in holy Baptism. By grace and by grace alone, I enter through Christ the Mediator into the New Covenant, which is corporate in nature and therein I am, again by grace alone, one of the elect of God, and a child of God. In Baptism I make promises and vows to God but I do not thereby seal a covenant with God for only Christ, the God-Man, can (and has done) that! I may recall from time to time these promises and vows but in so doing I am not renewing any covenant. I am simply remembering the promises and vows I made as God in Christ by the Holy Spirit regenerated me!

January 10, 2007
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon MA., D.Phil (Oxford)

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