My penitence for the Bears losing to the Vikings is to read John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 4, chp 16, on infant baptism. Calvin doesn’t begin on a good note for me when he refers to Anabaptists, which I am, as “frantic spirits” who have “grievously disturbed the church” and “do not cease their agitation.” Calvin writes to “restrain their mad ravings.” Mad, I’m not. Disturbed by this Swiss theologian’s words and vituperative rhetoric, I am.
But, I’ve got to get myself together if I’m to be truly penitent and receptive. So here goes. A few reflections. Before I do that … my own view is that the NT expressly affirms adult baptism but that one can develop a NT theology that affirms infant baptism. In other words, I affirm both as legitimate expressions for the Church. I affirm infant baptism in part because the Church has always done this.
Anabaptists argue, as do modern Baptists and other baptistic groups, that infant baptism is “not founded upon any institution of God.” That is, it can’t be found in Scripture. Right there is a good Anabaptist argument — sola scriptura et scriptura sola — and Calvin will spend some 35 pages making his case. Calvin will use theology and, in part, Church tradition and so mount what I think is the better expression for Reformation theology’s disposition, prima scriptura, the “primacy of Scripture.” First to the Bible, but not only to the Bible. The Reformers were more against the 11th-14th Century developments than they were against all of the Church traditions.
Baptism, Calvin says in 4.16.2, that baptism is a sign that points to the promise and the spiritual mysteries; baptism, a ceremony, represents that sign. These inner mysteries or promises involve three things:
1. The cleansing of our sins
2. The mortification of our flesh
3. It is also a “symbol” for bearing witness to our religion before men.
Calvin argues 4.16.3 that circumcision is anagogic — that is, it leads to, it is an eschatological anticipation, and points to baptism. Circumcision also deals with cleansing of sins and with mortification of flesh. In 4.16.4 Calvin argues that the difference is only in externals — the promise and the thing representation are the same, but the dissimilarity lies in the externals alone.
Well, not to be outdone by the nipping Anabaptists, Calvin concludes that it is “incontrovertible that baptism has taken the place of circumcision to fulfill the same office among us” (4.16.4). Incontrovertible? Well, Mr. John Calvin, that’s a bit strong but it’s your way to rain thunder on your opponents and pour buckets into your conclusions.
4.16.5 was not an easy section to read brother John. I take a clue to the whole on p. 1328 when he speaks of someone (gotta be those pesky Anabaptists!) using the word “baptism” for infants but not going far enough to use water. That’s how I read this section. If I’m right, then it makes sense that Calvin argues that using that word implies also using water on infants.
And then in 4.16.6 he’s back to saying that since the covenant is still in force and since Jewish children were baptized as infants, then that same covenantal act is appropriate in the Church, even if the “mode” of confirmation changes. I think his use of 1 Cor 7:14 is one of the most important texts supporting a theology of infant baptism.
For some reason Calvin slips into supporting the unsupportable in 4.16.7-9 by arguing that Jesus’ embracing and welcoming the little children (bennis and bathis) (Matt 19:13-15) implies and supports baptizing the little children. Here’s a telling question: “If it is right for infants to be brought to Christ, why not also to be received into baptism…?” (1330). Anyone who asks that has assumed his answer. The question is not “why not?” but “what support is there in welcoming for baptizing?” None.
Special pleading is also the case in 4.16.8 when he says that not expressly excluding infants when households are baptized leads to this: “who in his senses can reason from this that they were not baptized?” I confess that I’m one who would so reason. Why? Again, no evidence.