“Now let us examine,” John Calvin says with a scorching pen, “the arguments by which certain mad beasts ceaselessly assail this holy institution” [infant baptism]. This is found in Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.16.10. So, we enter today into a debate Calvin had with the Anabaptists who argued that baptism was not to be associated with circumcision.
I might remind my readers, as I said yesterday, I’m reading Calvin 4.16 as my act of contrition for being on the losing side of the Vikings-Bears game. John Franke set up my act of contrition and so I’m submitting now to his discipline!
After a rather uneventful section, I’ll take issue with Calvin and hope to engage you as well.
Essentially the Anabaptists, as Calvin reports it, see two different things in circumcision and baptism:
1. They signify two things
2. The covenant in each differs
3. The calling of children under each is not the same
A big point, one I agree with and one that I can’t quite discern the Anabaptist argument of those days, is that the covenant of Abraham was spiritual as well as physical/earthly and it appears to me Calvin says the Anabaptists overdid the physical/earthly only dimension. Calvin pushes hard to show that God’s spiritual blessing was never promised simply to Abraham’s physical offspring since Abraham was always about faith. But, Calvin also emphasizes — and here the loose ends are not tied up for me — that the covenant promises to Abraham are irrevocable (Rom 11:29).
I’ll just say again that his rhetoric is something to marvel at — how they spoke about one another in those days! This is the language of division and not persuasion.
Next Calvin (4.16.17-20) takes on the argument that children are incapable of faith. Here he goes after the work of Balthasar Hubmaier, a famous Anabaptist. Here Calvin does little besides special pleading and unconvincing argument, not to say some unworthy ad hominem argument.
Infants, it is argued by his opponents, cannot perceive spiritual regeneration. Children are “children of Adam” until the second birth. Calvin then argues this would mean children are left in death for until they are in Christ, who is Life, they abide in death.
That’s right … and Calvin offers not one bit of evidence that children have faith or that they have life. All he can offer is that life is in Christ (who disputes that) and he suggests this would leave all children “in Adam.” This is what I believe. Why? I see no evidence to deny it.
What of John the Baptist?, Calvin asks. He is an exception, Anabaptists respond. Is he though? No one can answer this question, but this is what I would hazard: the reason why it is said that John was anointed with the Spirit in the womb of his mother is because he was an exception otherwise there would be no reason to say so.
He next argues from the infancy of Christ showing that “the age of infancy is not utterly averse to sanctification” (4.16.18). I would argue: Christ’s “sanctification” does not prove that God can step in and sanctify an infant but that his infancy was sacred because he was God.
Infants, Hubmaier argues, cannot understand preaching and Romans 10:17 says preaching awakens humans to faith. Calvin says this is only “the ordinary arrangement” (4.16.19). Indeed. Then he offers some more special pleading: “I ask, what the danger is if infants be said to receive now some part of that grace which in a little while they shall enjoy to the full?” And, “Therefore, if it please him, why may the Lord not shine with a tiny spark at the present time on those whom he will illumine …” (14.16.19). My response: this is pleading and hoping and suggesting; there is no argument here and certainly no biblical evidence.
4.16.20 is a little better. Here he shows that circumcision is a sign of repentance (Jer 4:4; 9:25). But again I have some doubts here: Jer 4:4 is probably a metaphor for repentance not a re-enactment of one’s circumcision. Jer 9:25 actually speaks of those whose circumcision is only in the flesh. So, when Calvin makes this conclusion he is guilty of stretching the evidence: “infants are baptized into future repentance and faith” (4.16.20).
Now, let me back down just a bit: the best argument so far is the anagogic and analogic relationship of circumcision and baptism. Furthermore, if one anchors this into covenant thinking — and see these as signs of entrance into the covenant community, then one has good theological argument.
The problem is that the Anabaptists win today: Calvin hasn’t a leg to stand on when it comes to the necessity of faith and the necessity of union with Christ for one to have life in Christ. For that, there can be no evidence that infants, by baptism, enter into that union with Christ. When it comes to covenant thinking, he’s got something to stand on. This section didn’t have enough of the latter and too much special pleading.