Is the baptism of infants legitimate? Is it founded on the Bible? Ought one to-continue to baptize infants, and, if so, which infants? These are questions of doctrine and of discipline which occupy the theological attention of the Church today, and they confront us with a problem of the utmost importance. F. Lovsky has depicted the scene of the “antipedobaptist unrest since the Reformation,”1 and Pastor Conord, Secretary General of the Reformed Church of France, has given us a brief survey of the chronology of the events of the last twenty years.2 Those who oppose infant baptism have published studies which have made and still are making a considerable stir. In the presence of attitudes which are becoming more and more decisive, and of “the unrest which today manifests itself in some quarters concerning the significance of baptism,”3 it was indispensable that the problem should be studied by the Church herself. In I946, at the mandate of the National Synod of Lyons, the National Council of the Reformed Church constituted a Commission on Baptism charged with the study of the questions involved.
A large number of believers are interesting themselves in the question, quite independently of their Church leaders and counsellors, and rightly so since the affairs of the Church are their proper affairs. It is self-evident that a question of this importance cannot be studied by believers as it were with a blank mind, in view of the fact that each has been placed before a Bible of a thousand pages. It is a fundamental principle of Reformed theology that the teachers of the Church ought to think together with the people, and the people together with the teachers. Who is it that understands and preaches the Word, if not the people of God, whose different functions and specialized offices constitute none the less but one body? The literature of those who oppose infant baptism has been enriched during these last ten years by important contributions which are easily accessible to all. One may suppose that their authors are satisfied with these works and that they consider that by them the people of the Church have been sufficiently informed of the motives of their convictions.
We declare with regret that the same is not the case with the advocates of infant baptism. “It seems clear that the vast majority of the members of our parishes are attached to the administration of baptism to newly born infants,” affirms the Commission.4 But this does not constitute a proof of the legitimacy of this baptism! The fact is that the theologians who favour infant baptism have not placed at the disposal of the Church pamphlets or books which permit her to interpret this study seriously, with all the respect owed to the Word of God. The only exceptions are the remarkable exegetical work of Professor O. Cullmann5 and the dogmatic response of the Synod of the Reformed Church of the Netherlands which resulted from the consultation with foreign Reformed Churches initiated by the National Synod of Lyons, 1946. These works examine effectively a collection of publications which are extremely brief or are devoted to only one aspect of the question, and of which none, to our knowledge, makes a true appeal to the Reformed position or to the arguments which have been and which remain proper to it. The Reformed Church of France cannot solve the question of baptism in isolation. Her theological reflection ought to be conducted in solidarity with her sister Churches and, together with them, in the fellowship of thought and of faith.
The present study is not addressed merely to
theologians, but also to the people in the pews. We shall, therefore,
avoid all superfluous theological erudition and also an unduly specialized
vocabulary, in order to make it readily accessible to the greatest
number. Where the sacraments are concerned it is the instruction
given to the people which counts most of all. Apart from a certain
apparent complexity which might confront those who are not accustomed
to studying a theological subject under its principal aspects, we
are convinced that every believer of the average spiritual level
will be able to read this study and to understand its various parts.
It is not beyond their ability. God does not reveal anything of
essential importance in Scripture which is beyond the capacity of
him to whom He has granted the gift of faith and who makes the effort
necessary for obeying the commandment which he has been given, to
love God “with all his mind.”
DIFFICULTY AND COMPLEXITY OF THE SUBJECT
Certain doctrines are very clearly revealed to us in the Scriptures. No one, however, will disagree that Holy Scripture does not contain a systematized doctrine of the sacraments. It speaks, without doubt, of circumcision and the passover, of baptism and the Lord’s supper, but in it we never find a general theory of the sacraments of the Old and New Testaments; no synthetic conception of the different sacramental institutions is presented to us. The question of the sacraments is most frequently approached only in conjunction with some other subject which introduces it and which imposes on the author a certain orientation of thought (cf. Rom. vi; i Cor. xii. 17-34). The majority of texts do not speak of one sacrament taken by itself, but only of one of its aspects. The texts of Scripture, brief, full of force and weight, are in general partial and only afford tests or definitions that are partial. It seems that in Scripture the sacrament matters more than the concept, or that the concept is expressed or ought to be sought elsewhere in the statement of another fundamental doctrine upon which the sacraments are founded. Without doubt, also, the Hebrew mentality moved with greater ease than our own amongst these questions. The absence of biblical texts, which embrace at a single glance and clearly explain to us the sense, the scope, and the methods of the sacraments, opens the way for a theological work which ought to be conducted in accordance with the methods proper to dogmatics and to the harmonious application of the principle of the Soli Deo Gloria.
This declaration ought, from the very beginning, to incite to modesty and humility those who have been called to treat of this question. It will be possible for certain, differences to exist between those who agree in recognizing in Holy Scripture the inspired source and standard of all faith, and who confess that nothing must be added to it, nor anything removed from it. Such differences ought to be examined in love: here exclusivism, condemnation without appeal, sectarianism, are banned.6 Some difficulties result from our sources of information, but others arise through our own fault, from our own nature, while others again are connected with the extreme complexity of the subject.
A priori considerations often play a large part in any development affecting the sacraments. They do not belong to the virgin spirits, the fresh hearts, .who inquire into this problem, but to men who have a mentality which is largely indebted to a priori philosophical notions and who instinctively mark what they touch with the stamp of this mentality. It is because of a priori ideas, associated in the first place with human philosophies, that the same texts cited on one side and on the other are interpreted in a different sense and according to the viewpoint from which they are being considered. These a priori notions explain the differences of interpretation, the wilful rejection of one text, and even the “inadvertent oversight” of others, however essential they may be. The recent debate opened in the bosom of the Reformed Churches confirms once again this remark. These a priori considerations provide the explanation why, in the course of history, this debate is always resumed on the same terms, without any notable progress being recorded; each one stands by the positions which, through their continuance, have become the historic positions. The problems remain enclosed within the same limits.
Much integrity and clarity of thought are required if the sacraments are to be treated objectively. It is a simple question of scientific honesty to indicate one’s philosophical presuppositions, to avow them plainly, after having made a Critical examination of the “immediate” data of one’s method of working. When an individualist exegete has explicitly avowed that he is individualist, he will have done much to elucidate and simplify the debate. It will be easier to make the distinction between that which comes from man (the commentary on the texts) and that which can truly be imputed to Scripture (the truly scriptural sense to which it behoves us to strive to attain).
It is incontestable, and a point of capital importance, that the question of the sacraments cannot, in theology, be treated in isolation, as certain writers seem to wish.7 The task of exegetes is, indeed, to attempt to circumscribe the problems and, in accordance with the plan of the exegesis, to define in the best manner possible the sense and the scope of such or such a sacrament. But the exegetes themselves find it impossible to remain on the exact terrain of the exegesis of texts. In studying the sacrament of baptism, as baptism or as sacrament, they voluntarily commit themselves to constructions which exceed to a considerable extent the strict sense of the texts under consideration. Discerning that the question of sacraments is a point of convergence of numerous doctrines, they have recourse to innumerable interconnected notions which it is important to have disentangled from elsewhere, and to associations of ideas—often quite legitimate—and they construct systems of doctrine.
Whether they wish it or not, numerous exegetes transform themselves into New Testament dogmaticians. To integrate, without further reference, the fruit of their studies in a dogmatic debate on baptism is to throw it into confusion. Dogmatics cannot be either New or Old Testament dogmatics: it must be biblical dogmatics, that is to say, it must take into account the whole of revelation. We are in agreement with O. Cullmann when he says that “all discussions about Baptism should begin with this question, viz, with the theological definition of the essence and meaning of Baptism”8; and again: “The question must be put from another standpoint than that of evidence. The position is that it can be decided only on the ground of New Testament doctrine: Is infant Baptism compatible with the New Testament conception of the essence and meaning of Baptism?”9
Karl Barth, in his pamphlet,10 does not quote a single text of the Old Testament, with the exception of Isaiah lv. 10 f., which, however, has reference to the efficacy of the Word of God. This is undoubtedly a fact unique in a study of baptism, producing a collection of serious consequences and an impressive number of categorical judgments. On this particular question, on the sacraments or every other question which has anything to do with baptism, the Old Testament counts for nothing, it does not even exist ! On this question there is an absolute cleavage between the Old and the New Testaments, nay, even a drastic opposition— as witness Barth’s judgment regarding circumcision and the cancellation of the principle “from generation to generation” in the covenant of grace: we shall return to this point. On this question the Bible is cut into two. Karl Barth wishes to base the study of baptism on the New Testament point of view alone.11 We might contest the limited choice of New Testament texts which he makes and the perspective in which he interprets them.12 But we put the question: Is such a method of “dogmatic reflection” valid? Where does it find its justification? Is it there in regular dogmatics? Or perhaps, has not Barth, in contrast to his regular dogmatics, voluntarily given us in his pamphlet an example of irregular dogmatics, in order to disturb the Church and oblige her to rethink critically her dogmatics?13
The dogmatician as well will seek to elaborate a general conception of the sacraments to assist in the assembling of the indications which he finds in Scripture. The work of the exegetes will occupy his attention. But, in taking notice of the meagre sources which are strictly sacramental that Scripture places at his disposal, the dogmatician will inquire whether it is not the case that Scripture is so discreet regarding sacraments taken in themselves for the reason that they have not in reality the importance which one has formerly wished to accord to them, or quite simply for the reason that they have reference to other ideas and to other spiritual realities expressly revealed, of which, under another form, they are only the secondary expression. We shall endeavour to show that such is in fact the case with sacraments: they have reference to preaching, to Jesus Christ, to the covenant of grace, regarding which we have abundant instruction.
The celebrated dogmatician H. Bavinck has well remarked14 that the doctrine of the sacraments has always been the shibboleth, the touchstone, of every dogmatic system. It is there that the principles from which one sets off in the Church and theology, in questions of faith and of life, find their practical and concrete issue. The doctrines of the affinities of God and the world, of creation and regeneration, of Christ’s divine and human natures, of the modes of action of the Holy Spirit, of sin and of grace, of spirit and of matter, are all more or less present and implicit in the doctrine of the sacraments. The diverse roads of theology converge, whether one wishes it or not, sooner or later, consciously or unconsciously, in the highway of the sacraments. It is necessary to take this into account.
It is an illusion to wish to treat of this or that sacrament in abstracto or taken by itself. Every divergence of view in the manner of conceiving the sacraments finds its origin in other doctrines envisaged in a different manner. Going to the root of the matter, when parties confront each other they have the impression that they do not understand each other, and that too in the interpretation of what at first sight are the most simple of texts, because, at root, they do not understand each other any more in connection with many other antecedent questions. Failing a return to the true sources, the sound of the discussion rises and quickly takes a most disagreeable tarn: recent publications and articles afford proof of this.
A further requirement for an intelligible treatment
of the sacraments is therefore the possession of a general view
of theology, a perspective and panoramic view of the whole content
of revelation, lacking which one will condemn oneself to the inability
of ever dealing with more than a portion of the question and to
a relapse into internal contradictions which cannot be resolved.
On the one hand, whatever affirmation one makes respecting baptism
must not come into conflict with the plainest themes of Scripture;
on the other hand, it is not only a duty, but a scientific necessity,
to make common cause with those truths which are clearly revealed
and which have such close connections with the sacraments. To take
this into account will permit the resolution of questions which
otherwise would, remain dependent on man’s subjective opinion. The
dogmatics of baptism must be a “regular” dogmatics. Advocates or
opponents of infant baptism have too frequently, for want of general
perspectives, done disservice to the cause which they have claimed
to defend. The idea which one can obtain of the palm of the hand
depends also on the knowledge which one has of the wrist and the
arxn which bear it, and of the five fingers which it holds together
and whose movements it co-ordinates. To speak of the palm by itself
would be to speak very inadequately of it. A study of baptism which
is too specialized will always be a bad study.
It is beyond dispute that a great many theologians and Protestant pastors have maintained and practised, and do maintain and practise, the baptism of infants without preserving (for the reason that they have renounced or forgotten it—a fact more frequent than one might think) the theology which was and which remains at the foundation of the justification and of the possibility of the baptism of certain infants, namely, those of believers. That does not necessarily mean that they no longer had or have any reason for baptizing infants. Those who keep in close contact with Holy Scripture taken in its totality often have powerful internal motives which are founded on the knowledge and the experience of the Word, but, failing a theological explanation, these motives take a subjective and sentimental turn which those who oppose infant baptism violently take to task—and justly so! Many are those who feel and know that those who oppose infant baptism are wrong but find themselves unable to prove theologically why or how they are wrong.15
At this present moment the cause of pedobaptism is theologically lost, and its advocates, deprived of theological arguments, attempt to find a precarious refuge in facts and notions which cannot afford the least bit of genuine justification, such as the testimony of history, the tradition of the ancient Church or Reformed tradition, inscriptions, mosaics, sculptures, pieces of money, citations from the fathers, and so on—what have they not tried to seize upon!
O the inconsistency of Protestants who wish to found baptism upon tradition or upon “the authority” of the Reformers!16 As though for us who are Reformed tradition could have any value in itself and did not need, when it exists, to be ceaselessly at each instant, even today, biblically justified and confronted with the Word of God as fundamental and formative! The testimony of tradition can have some value for Reformed Christians, but only after the biblical foundations have been brought into prominence. In a question of this importance a tradition merely “ecclesiastical” or merely “Reformed” establishes and justifies nothing. “It would be a very poor and miserable refuge,” says Calvin,17 “if, in defending the baptism of little children, we were obliged to have recourse to the bare and simple authority of the Church; but it will become plain that this is by no means the case.”
Still less do we need to lean on the traditions of the second and third centuries, however firmly established they may be, for it could well be that in that age infants were baptized for motives other than those to which Reformed theologians can or ought to give pre-eminence, motives otherwise identical with those invoked at the same moment for delaying baptism until the adult stage or until the hour of death. On this point those who oppose infant baptism ought to revise their method. No more have they, if they are Protestants, any right to lean on tradition. And if their conception of baptism is not that which prevailed in the second and third centuries, the historical proofs which they claim to adduce concerning the baptism of adults and the theological reason for these adult baptisms such as were practised are not valid for them. From the theological point of view this method is doubly vicious.
Nor is it necessary for us to scrutinize feverishly the patristic texts in’order there to seek and discover, or to insert, by means of complicated commentaries, traces of the baptism of infants; and we ought not to venture on to this terrain because it is completely unnecessary for us to engage in such researches. It is for this reason that studies of a certain type, like that of Ph.-H. Menoud,18 when they are understood as though the author had wished to establish and justify infant baptism historically, justly arouse opposition which is more lively and, in our opinion, in principle more pertinent.19
By all means let historical texts, inscriptions, mosaics, sculptures, coins, and whatever else you will, produce their testimony! But if we are Reformed, that is to say, established on the Word of God, this testimony is in no way essential for us. It is even forbidden for us to make common cause with them before we have completed our task as men of the Bible and dogmaticians.
For certain advocates of infant baptism the sky has seemed suddenly to have become clear! The works of Professor J. Jeremias confirm the baptism, from the commencement of the Christian era, and for some exponents even earlier, of proselytes coming over to Judaism and of their minor children.20 J. J. von Allmen considers that the importance of this pamphlet is “decisive.”21 Certainly, the conclusions of Jeremias are of the greatest interest and in certain respects of capital importance. But let us beware lest we rejoice unduly!—and this for three reasons. Firstly, as good Reformed Christians it is impossible for us to found infant baptism on extra-canonical texts, no matter how compelling their authority may be. In the Christian Reformed Church the baptism of infants must be established and justified biblically. Secondly, the fact is that those who oppose infant baptism are in no way disconcerted by the new facts which have come to their knowledge. Some of them criticize the date of the texts and move them on to the commencement of the second century, which leads us back to the problem of the utilization of tradition22; others contest the sense, the scope, and the validity of the texts, and, from the methodological viewpoint, we affirm that they are right.23 Thirdly, it would, in fact, be catastrophic if theological and dogmatic reflection were to be brought to an end because it is considered that historical proof is sufficient. Rather the contrary! Historical proof should imperiously demand theological and dogmatic justification and should compel exegetes and dogmaticians to get to work.
These new facts will not change by a single jot the arguments or the method of discussion of those who disagree with us; no more will they afford us a new weapon with which to oppose them. Unless we are bemused by troublesome illusions or false hopes, we ought from now on to be persuaded of this.
But if we delay to place the question of infant baptism in its true biblical and theological setting, our adversaries will attack us with perfect justification, as they have begun to do, by accusing us of being able to defend infant baptism only with a bad conscience24 on grounds that we ourselves recognize as “far from certain,” by “a method of argument which is as little worthy of faith as our exegetical foundations are unsatisfactory,” and without which we could never pretend to be “certain of our case,” etc. . . .
Let us admit that the vigour and the persistence of these attacks has succeeded in giving a “bad conscience” to certain pedobaptists who find themselves temporarily unable to justify their point of view theologically. So far from reproaching those who disagree with us because of this, we ought to thank them for it. To point out the weaknesses of his armour to one who is engaged in battle is always to render him a great service. It is as though one were crying to us: “it is high time for you to awake out of sleep!” (Rom. xiii.ii). Let us hearken to this brotherly call! Would, then, that the sleepers would rouse themselves, whatever has been the cause of their languor, and that they would devote time to the repairing of theology! “If history proves that pedobaptism is not an invention of precatholicism,” says J. J. von Allmen,25 “but that it was admitted without discussion and without uneasiness by the canonical age, it follows that then they had a doctrine of baptism within the context of which pedobaptism was neither discordant nor ill-fitting, nor a facile and deplorable means of ensuring the recruitment of the Church, nor a distortion of the new covenant between God and His people.”
In all good Christian conscience, in all good theological conscience (this conscience also has its value!), we believe that this doctrine existed and exists, that it is biblical, Christian, and Reformed. We shall endeavour to delineate it, for we are not unmindful of sound doctrine, and to show to all who are willing to study our arguments really seriously that we do not belong to the class of people who find themselves under the obligation of “snatching at rags of texts in order to make weapons of them.”26
The method of the present exposition is therefore dogmatic. It leans upon the works of Reformed exegesis and effects a synthesis in accordance with the standards which characterize its discipline. That is to say, it is not bound either in order or in methods to the critical exegesis. The last word of an exegetical study on baptism, namely, that it is a seal of grace, can legitimately become one of the first words of a dogmatic study.27
We regard Holy Scripture as a whole. We study it in accordance with the classical principle of the analogy of faith. We believe that if the Word of God is self-consistent it will show that the Soli Deo Gloria is also the spirit that inspires the whole doctrine of the sacraments. From the philosophical viewpoint we are neither individualists nor subjectivists, and this for no a priori reason, but because we have not succeeded in discovering in Scripture the least trace of the modem individualist and subjectivist ideas. On the contrary, Scripture compels us to be most attentive on the one hand to the objectivity of the Word, of the promises and acts of God, and on the other hand to the realities of spiritual solidarity—realities which we experience objectively, realities which proclaim the revealed intentions of God—which never cease to throw into relief the unity of the family, of the nation of Israel, of the Church visible or invisible, and of the intimate communion which unites objectively those whom God calls, and not only those whom He elects, to the body of Christ. We shall adduce scriptural proofs of these facts.
But the pressure of philosophy and of individualistic conceptions upon the mentality of the children of this age is such that we are not, however, certain that we are free from : all individualism. Without doubt traces will still be found in the course of this exposition, one or other part of which could have been presented in a yet more biblical sense. We should be grateful if clear-sighted spirits would point them out to us. We have explained above the character of general simplicity which we desire to give to this exposition.
What will be our plan of study?
First.—We shall start off from the biblical affirmations of the New Testament relative to the sacraments, and we shall establish their relation to the Word.
Second.—We shall declare that the sacraments have reference to Jesus Christ Who is their central content.
Third.—Christ being the Executor, the Mediator, of the promise of redemption by His sacrifice, we shall turn to the reason for His coming, which is the covenant of grace, the actualization in history of God’s eternal decree that He should be the Saviour of sinful man.
Fourth.—We shall declare that the covenant of grace is unique, as much within the Old Testament as within the New, and that the sacraments are all the sacraments of the covenant. Though starting from the New Testament, our study will have become biblical.
Fifth.—Having traversed (in accordance with a method of investigation which we believe to be rigorous, scientific, and conformed to a “normal” dogmatic exposition) the road: sacraments, Jesus Christ, the Promise, the covenant of grace, we shall return from this summit and, traversing the inverse route, we shall study the consequences of the covenant for those to whom it is in the first place addressed, then in the doctrine of the Church, then the sense, the scope, the practical application and the validity of the sacraments, in particular of baptism, and of the preaching of the promise and its efficacy.
Sixth.—We shall specify what is the doctrine of baptism as founded upon the covenant of grace, and we shall justify theologically the baptism of the infants of the covenant.
Seventh.—Finally, we shall reply to some objections.
From The Biblical Doctrine of Infant Baptism: tr. Philip Edgcumbe Hughes; James Clarke & Co., Exeter, England (1953).