John Calvin on the Sacrament of Baptism

Abstract

This essay engages with John Calvin’s doctrine of baptism as stated in the Institutes of the Christian Religion. It begins by introducing the topic, listing some of the concerns that underlie Calvin’s doctrine and giving some historical context. The essay then moves to engage with Calvin’s view on the Sacraments in general, before delving into his understanding of what baptism is and what the sacrament accomplishes, and symbolizes. The essay then critiques Calvin’s understanding of infant baptism before presenting a personal reflection on Calvin’s doctrine in light of the study.

 

Introduction

Baptism is a sacrament that is almost universally recognised throughout the many factions of the Christian Church, however, how this sacrament is to be understood has long been a subject of fierce debate[1]. This debate was at its height in the age of the Protestant reformation, where Roman Catholic, Radical, and Magisterial thinkers proposed and defended their theological positions on the sacrament. John Calvin was a second generation magisterial reformer whose doctrine maintains a middle line between the Catholics, with their insistence that baptism removes the taint of Original sin, regardless of one’s faith, and the radical reformers, such as the Anabaptists, who rejected infant baptism as a corrupt unbiblical practice and asserted that baptism was only efficacious for those who had faith at the time of baptism[2]. In Calvin’s doctrine of baptism one can see the underlying concerns of justifying continued schism from the Catholic Church, denying faith as a pre-requisite for baptism so as to safeguard the practice of infant baptism and insisting that one’s faith is the only determining factor in whether or not one is forgiven of their sins. Due to these concerns Calvin refused to give baptism an efficacy in the individual’s salvation that is not due to it. This essay summarises Calvin’s doctrine of baptism and critiques his position, noting its biblical support, its explanatory power, and its avoidance of the pitfalls of his opponent’s views.

 

Calvin on Baptism- Better than Fatless Bacon

For Calvin the sacraments are signs that have two functions[3]. Firstly, they act as a seal from the Lord upon human conscience and secondly they are a reciprocal testimony of piety from the believer[4]. So the sacraments are both a sign of a work of God and a response to God. Calvin’s view recognizes the importance of the sacraments as a reciprocal process which is necessitated by the nature of the covenantal relationship between humanity and God.

Calvin thought that for a sacrament to be efficacious then they must be accompanied by both the Holy Spirit and faith[5]. For Calvin the sacrament of baptism signifies a gift that is given that must be received in faith or it will not be received at all[6]. This distinction between reception and promise allowed Calvin to explain why some receive the saving efficacy of baptism and some not at all[7]. His doctrine also avoids the issue of whether or not baptised babies have the faith needed to receive the gifts signified in baptism[8]. For Calvin the chief point of baptism is to receive the sacrament as a promise of forgiveness, salvation, and new life[9]. For him the sacrament of baptism is like a document that confirms to us that our sins are abolished, remitted, and can never be charged against us[10]. Calvin’s view of the relationship between the sign of baptism and the gift that is signified, occupies a position that is mid way between the views that were held by Zwingli and Luther[11]. He holds that the relationship between the sign and the gift is an intimate one that allows each to be applied to the other[12]. Calvin’s position makes sense of the biblical language used to describe baptism, in which baptism is stated as efficacious for the forgiveness of sin (Acts 2:38, 22:16), the portrayal of baptism as a sign which signifies real gifts that are received by  faith in Christ (Peter 3:21),  Paul’s linking of the concepts of the baptism of water and the Word of life (Eph 5:26), as well as the doctrine of salvation by faith alone (Eph 2:8). By making baptism a sign that promised the believer forgiveness of sins for the whole of life, Calvin replaced the Catholic sacrament of penance with the reminiscence on baptism for assurance of forgiveness[13]. In doing this Calvin knowingly avoided the several issues that arose for his contemporaries[14]. For example his doctrine eliminated the need to provide further means by which to provide the expiation of post-baptismal sin such as confession, penance or the Eucharist in the Catholic Church[15].

 

For Calvin baptism also acts as a public confession of faith and an oath of allegiance to God[16]. Calvin saw baptism as signifying a change in both temporal and eternal realities. On
the visible level Calvin saw baptism as a sign of a person’s initiation and reception into the society of the visible Christian Church, and on an invisible level Calvin saw baptism as a sign of being engrafted into the invisible Church, made up of those elected and engrafted into Christ, seen only by God[17]. Calvin’s understanding of baptism as a rite of visible initiation and a promise of spiritual initiation if one responds to God in faith, is grounded in the reality of the Church in the Protestant Reformation, in that it was filled with both true and false Christians.

 

For Calvin there is no inherent power in the water of baptism to wash away sins[18]. Calvin quoted Paul (Ephesians 5:26) and asserted that Paul joins the concepts of the baptism of water and the Word of life (the Gospel)  together, in order to explain that it is the Gospel that brings the message of our cleansing and sanctification to us and that, rather than saving us, baptism acts as a seal of the Gospels reception[19]. Calvin insisted that baptism itself offers us no other means of purification than the sprinkling of Christ’s blood, of which the water of baptism is only a representation[20]. Calvin saw this recognition of the meaning of baptism as a knock down argument against those who would vest mystical power in the water itself[21]. Calvin rejected the doctrine, taught by the medieval Catholic Church, that baptism removed the taint of Original sin[22].  This Medieval teaching promised that baptism effectively removed the Original sin of everyone baptised, but did not say it had much significance for the rest of life[23]. In his rejection of this doctrine one can see Calvin’s prerogative to move away from the ‘superstitions’ of the medieval Catholic Church, with its insistence on the efficacy of baptism in relation to the forgiveness of Original sin as well as his concern to link salvation to the Gospel and faith, rather than the sacraments in themselves, as was taught by the Catholic Church. Calvin denied that the effects of Original sin are washed away in baptism and continued to see humans as depraved in their post-baptismal state[24]. However, Calvin saw baptism as a promise that God would not allow our sin to rule over us[25].  Calvin concluded that the mortification of our flesh began at baptism[26]. For Calvin this mortification is symbolised by our baptism into the death of Christ, which is mentioned by Paul in Romans 6:3-4. I could not agree more with Calvin, baptism is most definitely a sign of our participation in Christ’s death and resurrection to new life. The doctrine of baptism held by the Roman Church does not do justice to the inter-relation between faith and baptism, the scriptural testimony, the need for Christ’s atoning death, the work of the Holy Spirit in sanctification and the realities of the continuing struggle against sin in the Christian life. However, Calvin’s doctrine holds all of these things together.

 

Calvin’s theology of infant baptism is based upon the view that there is an anagogic relationship between baptism and circumcision[27]. For Calvin, both rituals announce the promises of God to a person and introduce them to the covenant people[28].  Calvin argues that since one sign of the covenant was administered to infants and the New Covenant is as inclusive as the Old Covenant then we cannot deny infants the sign of the New Covenant[29]. Calvin also argues for infant baptism on other grounds. Calvin draws on the basic principle demonstrated by Jesus when he invited children to come close to him[30]. From this he extrapolates that If Christ welcomed children and said that “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Mathew 19:14) then why should we exclude children from baptism on the basis of age[31]. Calvin also attacks the Anabaptist critique that no infant is baptised in scripture. To do this Calvin uses the example of the baptism of a whole family in Acts 16:33[32]. Calvin argues that although there is no explicit mention of the baptism of infants in scripture, it is never excluded when the baptism of families is mentioned[33]. Though Calvin’s point is valid, his use of the baptism of entire families to legitimise the universality of child baptism is an extrapolation that the scripture does not warrant; especially in the face of the clear reality that the regular practice of the early church was believer’s baptism for consenting adults. It could also be argued that Calvin disregards the historical contexts of circumcision and baptism[34].

 

Reflection

I must say that I am not usually a huge fan of Calvin’s doctrinal positions; however, Calvin’s view on the sacrament of baptism has great explanatory power in regards to Christian experience and makes sense of the biblical witness. Calvin’s doctrine effectively explains the inter-relationship of baptism and faith, it shows that baptism involves both a divine and human element, it recognises the change in temporal and spiritual realities at baptism, and it makes sense of the continued struggle with sin in the Christian life. The only part of Calvin’s doctrine that I have any issue with is his doctrine of infant baptism. Although Calvin’s doctrine of baptism as a sign is the only understanding of baptism that makes infant baptism feasible, he is clearly not supported by the majority of scripture and at times his doctrine lacks internal consistency[35].  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

.Calvin, J., Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 Vols, Library of Christian Classics Vol. XX-XXI, edited by J.T. Mcneill, translated by F. L. Battles, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960).

 

. Evans, W.B., “Calvin, Baptism and Latent Efficacy Again: A Reply to Rich Lusk” Presbyterion 32/1 (Spring 2006): 38-45.

 

. Godfrey, W.R., “Calvin Worship and the Sacraments” in Theological Guide to Calvins Institutes: Essays and Analyses, edited by D.W. Hall and P.A. Lillback (Phillipsburgh: P & R Publishing Company, 2008), 368-389.

 

. Grislis, E., “Calvin’s Doctrine of Baptism” Church History 31/1 (1962): 46-65.

 

. McClean, J., “Calvin on the Supper: Puzzling and Provocative” in Engaging With Calvin: Aspects of the Reformers Legacy for Today, edited by M.D. Thompson (Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 204-229.

 

. McGaughey. D.H., “Baptism in the Protestant Reformation” Restoration Quarterly 2/3 (1958): 99-114.

 

. Mcgrath, A.E., Reformation Thought: An Introduction (2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1993).

 

. McGrath, A.E., Christian Theology: An Introduction (5th Ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2010).

 

. Riggs, J.W., “Emerging Ecclesiology in Calvin’s Baptismal Thought, 1536-1543” Church History 64 (Mar1995): 29-43


[1] A. E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 5th Ed (Oxford: Blackwell, 2010), 420.

[2] His doctrine is a combination of Lutheran and Zwinglian elements. A.E. Mcgrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 2nd ed (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1993), 183.

[3] D.H. McGaughey, “Baptism in the Protestant Reformation” RQ 2/3 (1958): 104.

[4] McGaughey, “Baptism”, 104.

J. Calvin, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 Vols, Library of Christian Classics Vol. XX-XXI, ed. J.T. Mcneill, tr. F. L. Battles, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 4. 14. 6.

[5] McGaughey, “Baptism”, 105.

Calvin, Calvin: Institutes, 4. 14. 9, 15

[6] W.B Evans, “Calvin, Baptism and Latent Efficacy Again: A Reply to Rich Lusk” P 32/1 (Spring 2006): 40. On the sacraments Calvin insists that “it is one thing to offer, another to receive” Calvin, Calvin: Institutes, 4. 14. 16.

[7] Evans, “Calvin, Baptism”, 41.

[8] Since Calvin asserts that these gifts can be received at any point that one comes to faith.

[9] Calvin, Calvin: Institutes, 4. 15. 1. This understanding of the promises of baptism is in line with Luthers view. Mcgrath, Reformation Thought, 184. Calvin thought that full immersion was the form of baptism prescribed in the bible; however, he did not feel that it was of great significance and proposed that the form of the sacrament should be left to each individual congregation. This was probably due to his emphasis on baptism as a sign rather than a mystical reality, as the sign was valid regardless of whether the person was immersed or sprinkled. Calvin, Calvin: Institutes, 4. 15. 11. I agree with Calvin’s view on immersion but I disagree that the ritualistic form of baptism is irrelevant. Small changes to rituals can result in big changes in human understanding, and vice versa.

[10] Calvin, Calvin: Institutes, 4. 15. 1.

[11] Mcgrath, Reformation Thought, 182. Zwingli and Luther held polar views on the relationship between the sign of the sacrament and the gift that was signified.

[12] Mcgrath, Reformation Thought, 182. This allowed Calvin to maintain the difference between the sign and the gift that was signified while insisting that the sign really points to the gift that it signified.

[13] McGaughey, “Baptism”, 106. Some have claimed that Calvin’s view is incoherent due to his simultaneous assertions that baptism is valid as a past sign for having been adopted into the covenant people, that the reality is present in and with the sign and that in the future the sacrament will bear fruit in faith. But this criticism is unfounded, since it is based on Calvin’s presentation and not his actual thought. J. McClean, “Calvin on the Supper: Puzzling and Provocative” in Engaging With Calvin: Aspects of the Reformers Legacy for Today, ed. M.D. Thompson (Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 226.

[14] Calvin asserted that baptism had continuing significance for the whole of life, in that the remembrance of the complete forgiveness promised in baptism assured someone of forgiveness even if they stumbled and committed a sin. Calvin, Calvin: Institutes, 4. 15. 3. However, this idea seems to fly in the face of the practice of Infant baptism, since it is unlikely that baptism can be remembered by the baptized child.

[15] Calvin, Calvin: Institutes, 4. 15. 11. In early Church times many Christians would leave their baptism until their death bed in order to avoid post-baptismal sin.

[16]Calvin, Calvin: Institutes, 4. 15. 1. However, it is difficult to see how an infant could make an oath of allegiance to God when they are not even aware of what is going on. In saying this Calvin partially agreed with Zwingli’s understanding of baptism.

[17] Calvin, Calvin: Institutes, 4. 15. 1.

J.W. Riggs, “Emerging Ecclesiology in Calvin’s Baptismal Thought, 1536-1543” CH 64 (Mar1995): 38. The first sign was immediate but the second sign was only efficacious if it was received in life by faith. The distinction between initiation into the invisible and visible Christian Church is necessary to distinguish between the efficacy of the promises of baptism for those who are baptized and have faith and those who are baptized and do not.

[18] Calvin, Calvin: Institutes, 4. 15. 2.

[19] Calvin, Calvin: Institutes, 4. 15. 2.

[20] Calvin, Calvin: Institutes, 4. 15. 2.

[21] Calvin, Calvin: Institutes, 4. 15. 2.

[22] Calvin, Calvin: Institutes, 4. 15. 2.

[23] W.R. Godfrey, “Calvin , Worship and the Sacraments” in Theological Guide to Calvins Institutes: Essays and Analyses, ed. D.W. Hall and P.A. Lillback (Phillipsburgh: P & R Publishing Company, 2008), 378. This teaching built on the teachings of Augustine and Cyprian. For Calvin, baptism did not regenerate infants or remove the guilt of Original Sin; however, it gave parents a surer confidence in Gods care for his posterity and encouraged parents to teach the faith to their children.

[24] Calvin, Calvin: Institutes, 4.15. 11.

[25] Calvin, Calvin: Institutes, 4. 15. 11.

[26] Calvin, Calvin: Institutes, 4.15. 11.

[27] Calvin, Calvin: Institutes, 4. 16.  4. E. Grislis, “Calvin’s Doctrine of Baptism” CH 31/1 (1962): 51. This idea finds its scriptural basis in the linking of the rites of baptism and circumcision in Colossians 2:11.

[28] Calvin, Calvin: Institutes, 4. 16. 5. Grislis, “Calvin’s Doctrine”, 51. However, the inclusion of all Europeans into the covenant people at birth led to rampant nominalism.

[29] Grislis, “Calvin’s Doctrine”, 51. Calvin, Calvin: Institutes, 4. 16. 4-5.

[30] Grislis, “Calvin’s Doctrine”, 51. Calvin, Calvin: Institutes, 4. 16. 1.

[31] Grislis, “Calvin’s Doctrine”, 51.

[32] Calvin, Calvin: Institutes, 4. 16.  7.

[33] Calvin asserts that the notion of rejecting the baptism of infants on the grounds that the baptism of infants is not explicitly mentioned in scripture is the same as rejecting women from the Lord’s Supper on the same grounds. Calvin seeks to show that since the second conclusion is unacceptable then so is the first. Calvin, Calvin: Institutes, 4. 16. 7.

[34]Calvin assumes that the historical context of the New Testament Church is like that of theocratic Israel. In doing so he disregards the idea that God may have devised a new way of doing things for a new historical situation.

[35] For example, Calvin’s view of baptism as an oath of allegiance seems strange, considering that Infants were incapable of making such an oath. I realise he is not directly contradicted by scripture either.

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