John Franke, professor at Biblical Seminary in Hatfield, PA, has assigned my penitence to be reading Calvin’s treatment of infant baptism (Institutes of the Christian Religion). Today I turn to 4.16.21-22. The rumor is that John has escaped my critique and has headed north from Geneva to the low countries to see if he can find some Anabaptists. Here’s the latest picture I’ve seen of him:
Calvin takes on Hubmaier and Anabaptists for thinking the “thing” (conversion itself) ought always to precede the “sign” (baptism). This he calls their “deluded notion.” The Anabaptists appeal to 1 Peter 3:21: “and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also?not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God.” Baptism, it says, saves as a pledge of a good conscience.
Somehow, without evidence, Calvin argues that circumcision also rested on a good conscience and then offers a circular argument assuming his point and then using his assumption to prove his point. (This argument becomes less circular if it assumes Deut 10:16 and Jer 4:4, but I think Deut and Jer are a metaphor rather than a statement about one’s circumcision.)
Anabaptists of his day argued that, since baptism dealt with forgiveness (e.g, Act 2:38 or 1 Pet 3?), it should not be given to infants — since they have not sinned. Calvin pushes forward original sin and therefore counters the argument. This makes sense but his next point doesn’t: “infants receive forgiveness of sins … [therefore should be baptized]” (1345). Where does he find this?
The washing of water in the word of life (Eph 5:26), since it refers to baptism, should not be deprived from infants since, as Matt 19:14 teaches, children are in the kingdom.
In my judgment, the best argument Calvin makes — and it is the only good one I’ve seen — is the analogical relation of circumcision and baptism. Once one admits this, and swallows such in covenant theology, then one has a case … but the arguments Calvin offers in many of these passage only work if he assumes his conclusion. Logically, I find him hard to deal with; theologically, as I say, it makes sense on one basis. The analogical.