Sunday, February 04, 2007

Baptism & Regeneration— Medieval, R.C., Reformed Catholic and Evangelical Approaches

A discussion starter from Peter Toon dated Septuagesima 2007

On the surface, the teaching of the late medieval English Church (using the Sarum Liturgy), the Reformed English Church (using The Book of Common Prayer in the edition of 1552, 1559 or 1662) and the Roman Catholic Church after the Council of Trent (1545) are alike with respect to Baptism and Regeneration, and very different from the teaching of Evangelicalism during and after the Evangelical Revival (involving Wesley & Whitefield) in the eighteenth century.

Why would one say this? Was not the Church of England supposedly Protestant from 1549 onwards? Yes, It was Protestant but not in the modern meaning of this word; rather in the then meaning of, “protesting against error and on behalf of the Faith given in Holy Scripture and expounded by the Early Church of the Fathers.”

The Sarum Baptismal Service, the Baptism Services in The BCP and the decrees and canons of Trent all declared that God regenerated the child (or the adult) at Baptism and that Baptism, though administered by a human minister, is God’s Sacrament and God’s gracious, saving work. All agreed that the infant children of baptized Christians, brought by Godparents acting vicariously on behalf of the infants, were born again, that is born into the kingdom of God and into the family of God; at the same time, the guilt arising from original sin was cancelled.

Further, all agreed that the infants were to be brought up in the Christian Faith, taught the Catechism and brought to the Bishop for Confirmation and to the Table of the Lord when they reached a certain age ( 7 or 8 for Roman Catholics, 12 for Anglican Reformed Catholics).

Where then were the differences?

The medieval and Roman Catholics teaching stated that in Baptism not only was there the new birth providing a new status before God but also there was the beginning of Justification, which is a process, they taught, of being made righteous, of being internally renovated and sanctified. In contrast the Anglican Reformed Catholics (see The 39 Articles of Religion, Numbers XI, XII, & XIII, and the famous Homily referred to in XI) taught that Justification by God is the accounting by God of the righteousness of Christ to the believing, repentant sinner, who accepts the promises of God by faith (itself a gift of God). And sanctification, or the process of being made righteous, follows from this, as the forgiven sinner lives by faith and faithfulness as a believing child of God. Thus, for Reformed Catholics, Justification by Faith occurs as the baptized child becomes conscious of who he is by grace before God and then personally believes the Gospel concerning Jesus Christ. (In the case of an adult such personal believing would occur before or in relation to Baptism.)

So there is great emphasis in authentic Reformed Catholic teaching on the nurturing and instructing of the baptized infant by Godparents, parents and local church. And the purpose of this is to bring the child to that consciousness of knowing who he is before God and embracing the Faith which his Godparents vicariously had exercised for him and in his name. Thus at this time, by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, when he makes what they confessed on his behalf his very own, he can be said to be justified by faith and he is brought to Confirmation by the bishop and then to First Communion. Since Holy Communion is for believers who have engaged in self-examination, are repentant and believing, he does not go to the Table of the Lord until he is sufficiently mature so to engage.

Of course, the Medieval and Roman Catholics also emphasized the need for nurture and instruction, but because they had a different approach to Justification and also taught that the Baptism itself, by being what it is, achieves what God intends it to achieve (“ex opere operato”) simply by being performed aright, did not place so much emphasis as did the Reformed Catholics on the need for the baptized child to embrace for himself by repentance and faith what was already his by right and title through Baptism. And they allowed the baptized infant to receive Holy Communion earlier (approximately 5 years earlier) than the Reformed Catholics, because again they understood the Sacrament of the Altar to act “ex opere operato” and to give eternal life to the baptized whether they came as conscious believers or not. They simply had to offer no internal resistance.

All this said, it remains true that the Formularies of the Reformed Church of England agree with the Decrees and Canons of the Council of Trent in teaching that regeneration occurs in the Sacrament of Baptism. And regeneration is birth into the sphere of the Covenant of grace, the kingdom of God and the Family of God.

The Reformed Catholic teaching of the Reformed Church of England on regeneration at or in Baptism was practically rejected first by the Puritans and Nonconformists (Dissenters) in England in the 17 and 18 centuries, and then by the famous preachers of the Evangelical Revival, notably George Whitefield. The latter preached to thousands of persons, who had been baptized as infants, and called upon them to repent and believe as if they were pagans and as if they had not been baptized. They told them that they needed to be born again, to be converted and to become real Christians. They equated new birth with conversion and regeneration with internal renovation. Thus they—and many after them—effectively made Infant Baptism into a ceremony of child dedication with no specific grace of God given or received in it. What was clearly held together by the Early Church, the medieval Church and the English Reformation and Formularies, was prized apart in and after the Evangelical Revival. Regrettably it has stayed that way for millions.

The only way that this prizing apart could have been avoided would have been by Wesley and Whitefield setting an example in preaching and teaching of using the model of the erring and apostate Israelites of the Old Testament and how they were called back to the meaning of the Covenant and Circumcision by the prophets. This way the Sacrament of Baptism would have been preserved as a Sacrament of Grace. Logically, the only way Baptism makes any sense according to the popular Evangelical preaching since the eighteenth century is the kind advocated by the Baptists, where it is a personal witness by one who claims to be a believer of his belief and commitment to Jesus. Thus it is not an act of God in adopting a person as his child through new birth, but is a profession of faith and commitment by a professed believer; and if Infant Baptism is at all administered in modern evangelism and church growth activities, it is nothing more than an elaborate ceremony of dedication of a child to God, hoping and praying that he will become a Christian.

Recovering The Anglican Way of Reformed Catholicism involves recovering the full doctrine and practice of Infant Baptism & Adult Baptism with complete follow-up. It will mean adopting methods of evangelism and church growth in imitation of the Early Church so that the Sacrament of Baptism (as in the Great Commission of Jesus—Matt 28 & Mk 16) is the focal point of entry into the kingdom and family of God, preceded by preaching of repentance and faith (with catechizing), and followed by teaching the Way of the Lord!

[I have written in some detail about these topics in various books –e.g., Justification and Sanctification, Born Again and Evangelical Theology, 1833-1856—visit ]

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