Week 44 of 50 in the Institutes: Credobaptism – the Appendicitis of “Reformed” Theology?

Is it fair to compare credobaptism (believer’s baptism) to appendicitis?  This comparison popped into my head when reading 4.16.1 through 4.16.5 (upcoming Nov. 4 assignment).  This is because in the opening sentence of chapter 16 (4.16.1), Calvin referred to the entire chapter as an “appendix” added to restrain the fury of those in his day who raged against the doctrine of infant baptism.  Then in 4.16.5 when showing how infants are participants in the covenant, Calvin refers to the sign of baptism as an appendix (McNeill-Battles; Beveridge renders it “appendage”) of the word, as applied to infants.

Now here is where the connection with appendicitis comes in.  Calvin enumerated two marks of the true church back in 4.1.9.  The first mark was for the Word of God to be purely preached and heard. The second was for the sacraments to be administered according to Christ’s institution.  Even the most casual reader of 4.16 must conclude that Calvin thought infant baptism to be essential to a proper administration of the sacraments (he identified the source of attacks against this doctrine as being from Satan himself; see 4.16.32).  So it stands to reason that any “inflammation”, so to speak, over the doctrine of infant baptism, cannot be allowed to fester in the body, and must be removed.  That seems to be the guiding principle Calvin follows as chapter 16 unfolds.  At the end of the chapter he delivers what Sinclair Ferguson described as “twenty theological karate chops” against Servetus (an Anabaptist heretic, later executed) over his railings against infant baptism.

In the final analysis, though, I felt let down by Calvin’s overall handling of infant baptism, and if I had to give it a grade, I would assign it a B+.  Calvin left too many threads of thought dangling in mid-air to merit a higher grade.  For instance, Calvin was indifferent about the mode of baptism, as he flatly stated in 4.15.19:

Whether the person baptised is to be wholly immersed, and that whether once or thrice, or whether he is only to be sprinkled with water, is not of the least consequence: churches should be at liberty to adopt either, according to the diversity of climates, although it is evident that the term baptise means to immerse, and that this was the form used by the primitive Church.

But then later on in 4.16.2 when dealing with the meaning of baptism, Calvin seemed to imply that outward sprinkling lies at the core of a right understanding of the true meaning of baptism without any subsequent elaboration.  After reading the following, I hastened on to finish the entire chapter hoping for some development on the topic, only to be severely disappointed:

In the first place, then, it is a well-known doctrine, and one as to which all the pious are agreed,—that the right consideration of signs does not lie merely in the outward ceremonies, but depends chiefly on the promise and the spiritual mysteries, to typify which the ceremonies themselves are appointed. He, therefore, who would thoroughly understand the effect of baptism—its object and true character—must not stop short at the element and corporeal object but look forward to the divine promises which are therein offered to us, and rise to the internal secrets which are therein represented. He who understands these has reached the solid truth, and, so to speak, the whole substance of baptism, and will thence perceive the nature and use of outward sprinkling. (emphasis added)

Calvin apparently felt no need whatever to reconcile these diverse practices by the ancient church with regard to baptism.  Perhaps you noticed in the passage cited above from 4.15.19 how Calvin casually conceded that baptize means “to immerse”, along with his observation that this was the form used by the primitive Church.  Later on in 4.16.8 we find Calvin asserting that there is no ancient writer that does not trace the origin of infant baptism back to the apostles.  Given the number of times Calvin pointed out the differences in the administration of baptism to adults versus infants, the reader is abandoned to conclude, because of these glaring gaps in Calvin’s treatment, that he considered immersion to be predominant for adults from ancient times, and sprinkling of infants to be just as ancient.  But by failing to fill in the blanks with regard to how sprinkling is core to a right understanding of the whole substance of baptism, Calvin armed his opponents with ample room to find fault with his “appendix”.  Given enough time and subsequent reviews, perhaps this is one section Calvin would have revised if there had been another version of the Institutes issued after 1559.

I characterize Calvin’s concession that “baptize” means immersion as casual because that definition was so hotly debated when the Scriptures were being translated into English that the translators simply brought the Greek word in as a transliteration.  Any consultation of a Greek lexicon today will reveal that the term may mean: 1) to dip, immerge, submerge; 2) to clean, to wash, to make clean with water; 3) metaphorically, to overwhelm (Thayer’s).  With regard to this metaphorical usage, I recall Sinclair Ferguson pointing out how that baptize was used once in a classical Greek text to refer to blood falling into water and overcoming (that is, baptizing) it.  I expected Calvin to point out the times in the OT where purification was generally effected by sprinkling (as noted by Louis Berkhof for Num. 8:7; 19:13, 18, 19, 20; Ps. 51:7; Ezek. 36:25; Heb. 9:10, 13).  Or he could have pointed out how baptism with the Spirit in the NT occurred via sprinkling rather than immersion (Mt. 3:11; 1 Cor. 12:13).  In addition, there are several baptisms in the NT which likely involved sprinkling instead of immersion.  The baptism of the Philippian jailor and his household most certainly involved sprinkling (Acts 16:33), since it is hardly likely they escorted everyone down to the river, but rather performed the baptisms in the home of the jailor himself, where immersion would have been impractical if not impossible.

Calvin did a nice job of showing the anagogic relationship between circumcision and baptism, so no marks off on that topic.   In keeping with this, years ago when I became convinced of paedobaptism over against credobaptism, I ran across an article online which I haven’t been able to relocate.  It traced the progression in the book of Acts with regard to baptism replacing circumcision. In the Old Testament, the sign of circumcision was only for men of the nation of Israel and male proselytes.  In the New Testament as the gospel goes forth, we find an ever expanding circle of people now eligible to receive the sign of the covenant: men and women (8:12); a eunuch (8:38); and Gentiles (18:8).  Under the OT economy, those who were castrated were prohibited from entering the assembly of the Lord to the tenth generation (Deut. 23:1-2), so it is not insignificant to have the baptism of a eunuch on record for us in the NT.  Christ’s coming didn’t lessen or curtail the grace of the Father, but instead had quite the opposite effect (4.16.6).  To Him be the glory!

So in the spirit of Calvin’s tone in these sections, I have to refer back to an earlier post in closing here: just because you are a five-pointer doesn’t mean you are a Calvinist.  Calvin, it seems, would have considered “Reformed Baptist” to be an oxymoron.  But no one’s perfect: not even Calvin.

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes

Nov. 2: 4.15.9 – 4.15.16

Nov. 3: 4.15.17 – 4.15.22

Nov. 4: 4.16.1 – 4.16.6

Nov. 5: 4.16.7 – 4.16.13

Nov. 6: 4.16.14 – 4.16.19



Filed under Calvin's Institutes

2 responses to “Week 44 of 50 in the Institutes: Credobaptism – the Appendicitis of “Reformed” Theology?

  1. Flick

    If any of you have any suggestions on books / articles / materials pertaining to baptism and the different forms and ideas, I would really appreciate it. This is probably one of the last vestiges of my Baptist past to have a stranglehold on my doctrinal beliefs. I have a broad understanding of how infant baptism replaces circumcision, but I would like to delve into this topic with a detailed study. As such, I am asking for materials and suggestions to learn more about this practice, to understand it better. My children were in a “Southern Baptist” church when they were young and no baptism took place. They have since become believers, and I have been studying trying to figure out exactly what that means for them regarding baptism. Because, if they get baptized right now, it would essentially be “believers baptism,” or a credobaptism. Any thoughts or suggestions would be appreciated, as I believe they are ready to begin partaking of the sacraments, and understanding in a practical sense the wondrous beauty of the tradition. Any thoughts, references… help… Thanks and much respect to my knowledgeable brethren regarding this, and your patience with a still reforming wretch trying to be a good dad following the declarations of Deuteronomy 6. Respectfully, R.C.

    • R.C., You’re describing my experience years ago as well, brother! My older three children were all baptized at the same time fifteen years ago when I became convinced of paedobaptism. The oldest was eight and the youngest was three at the time, and none of them had made profession of faith yet. Only my youngest was baptized as an infant. Since your children are all professing faith now, by all means have them go before the Session to profess their faith and become communicant members (and of course you could accompany them before the Session). I think any Session would welcome them to believer’s baptism now (as in the case of any adult believer). As for resources, I don’t recommend too many things by Douglas Wilson, but his book, To A Thousand Generations, was helpful to me when I was wrestling with this doctrine.

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