In the last entry, I covered for opening half millennium of the church regarding its position on the timing of the baptism. My conclusion, having looked at various sources, was that conversion, following catechism, was the normative time for baptism. The ritual and process for both developed considerably over the opening centuries but this was the normative practice of the church. Baptism was encouraged because it was seen as the normative means of salvation but it was something people were prepared for because of the responsibilities attached to such an act regarding one’s own conduct.

Even in the 4th century all surviving accounts of the baptisms of well-known churchmen are showing baptism as something generally undertaken generally between the ages of 18-40. The alternative, we know from funerary monuments, being in proximity to one’s death. This isn’t to say infant baptism didn’t take place but rather it was likely the minority case in the opening centuries. We do see it talked about, however, with increasing insistence, notably in the writings of North African writers like Cyprian and Origen in the 3rd century. We also see someone like Tertullian writing about the practice, during the same period and general region as Origen, despite his doing so disapprovingly. Yet even his disapproval points out the fact that it was taking place. Despite this we see presbyters and bishops in the Church in other regions not being baptised, even centuries later, until adulthood sometimes despite being the children of the clergy themselves.

In the fifth and sixth century, however, we start to see councils arguing that children should be baptised at birth not just as a permitted practice but one which was to be enforced by ecclesial authorities in one region after another. The baptism of newborns was to transition to something that was no longer presumably just permitted but something demanded of every Christian progressively in every region. One historian writing…

Until the sixth century, infants were baptized only when they were in danger of death. About this time the practice was introduced of administering baptism even when they were not ill

Alex Lagarde, Latin Church in the Middle Ages, 37

It is, therefore, on the edge of this transition that I closed my last entry and will begin this latest one. The period in which the baptism of newborns reached and maintains its ascendant status.

This is an incredibly long period so please forgive me if I exercise some brevity on some of the topics covered. I will also, inevitably, focus more of my efforts on Europe and the Latin church rather than the greater church beyond it. This is since Europe is closest to my own culture and I am therefore more familiar with it and whilst there are notable differences in the Eastern church I will endeavour to mention these when relevant.

Pelagius and Augustine

Towards the start of the 5th century a British moralist by the name of Pelagius began preaching against what he perceived as the moral laxity of Roman Christians he encountered during his travels. He singled out the teaching of Augustine of Hippo, his contemporary, regarding his belief in man’s total inability to contribute to his own salvation. Something which Pelagius blamed for the moral laxity of the Christian’s he perceived around him as he traveled around the Mediterranean. By contrast Pelagius argued for the autonomy of the will in being able to follow God. An example of this is reflected perhaps best in his letter to a woman called Demetria…

Yet we do not defend the good of nature to such an extent that we claim that it cannot do evil, since we undoubtedly declare also that it is capable of good and evil; we merely try to protect it from an unjust charge, so that we may not seem to be forced to do evil through a fault in our nature, when, in fact, we do neither good nor evil without the exercise of our will and always have the freedom to do one of the two, being always able to do either. For on what grounds are some to be judges, others to be judged, unless it is because the will works in different ways in one and the same nature and because, though all of us are able to do the same, we actually do different things? And so, in order that this essential fact may stand out more clearly, we must cite some examples. Adam is cast out of paradise, Enoch is snatched away from the world; in both the Lord shows freedom of choice at work, for, just as the one who sinned could have pleased the Lord, so the other, who did please him, could have sinned instead. Neither would the former have deserved to be punished nor the latter to be chosen by a just God, unless both had been able to choose either course of action. This is how we are to understand the matter of Cain and Abel and also of Jacob and Esau, the twin brothers, and we have to realize that, when merits differ in the same nature, it is will that is the sole cause of an action.

Pelagius’s Letter to Demetria, Chapter 8

Augustine preached that man was totally unable to contribute anything to his own salvation writing in a letter to a monk named Valentinus…

When, however, the Pelagians say that the only grace which is not given according to our merits is that whereby his sins are forgiven to man, but that that which is given in the end, that is, eternal life, is rendered to our preceding merits: they must not be allowed to go without an answer. If, indeed, they so understand our merits as to acknowledge them, too, to be the gifts of God, then their opinion would not deserve reprobation. But inasmuch as they so preach human merits as to declare that a man has them of his own self, then most rightly the apostle replies: Who makes you to differ from another? And what have you, that you did not receive? Now, if you received it, why do you glory as if you had not received it? (1 Corinthians 4:7) To a man who holds such views, it is perfect truth to say: It is His own gifts that God crowns, not your merits, — if, at least, your merits are of your own self, not of Him. If, indeed, they are such, they are evil; and God does not crown them; but if they are good, they are God’s gifts, because, as the Apostle James says, Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights. (James 1:17) In accordance with which John also, the Lord’s forerunner, declares: A man can receive nothing except it be given him from heaven (John 3:27) – from heaven, of course, because from thence came also the Holy Ghost, when Jesus ascended up on high, led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men. If, then, your good merits are God’s gifts, God does not crown your merits as your merits, but as His own gifts.

Augustine of Hippo, On Grace and Free Will, Chapter 15

And in his City of God…

When it is said, The male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off from his people, because he has broken my covenant, (Genesis 17:14) some may be troubled how that ought to be understood, since it can be no fault of the infant whose life it is said must perish; nor has the covenant of God been broken by him, but by his parents, who have not taken care to circumcise him. But even the infants, not personally in their own life, but according to the common origin of the human race, have all broken God’s covenant in that one in whom all have sinned. Now there are many things called God’s covenants besides those two great ones, the old and the new, which any one who pleases may read and know.

City of God, Book 16: Chapter 27

Augustine then clearly articulating, by contrast to Pelagius, that any goodness of man comes from God as an act of grace, not man. Augustine rooted this total depravity of man in the fall as an ontological deficiency. If our goodness, therefore, was only ever by the grace of God the idea of baptising infants became not just a practice that happened but more a matter of necessity. In 418 a church council in Carthage, led by Augustine, ruled…

“If any man says that new-born children need not be baptized, or that they should indeed be baptized for the remission of sins, but that they have in them no original sin inherited from Adam which must be washed away in the bath of regeneration, so that in their ease the formula of baptism ‘for the remission of sins’ must not be taken literally, but figuratively, let him be anathema; because, according to Romans 5:12, the sin of Adam has passed upon all.”

Council of Carthage of 418, Canon 2

Although I haven’t found a reference for it I have also seen argumentation that several years prior Augustine presided over a council in Mela, Numidia that made similar pronouncements. These rulings were deeply rooted in the belief that baptism itself, like everything else, was one of God’s good graces to us that was effectual devoid of the agency of the individual. If the agency of the individual was absent in the regeneration that came through baptism, by Augustine’s rationale, all baptisms were essentially the same as newborn baptisms. Since a child could neither assent or dissent to the act neither could a grown man since the reason they both entered into baptism was via the same means, the grace of God. It was an ontological change devoid of human agency. A man could only condemn himself, only God can save.

The Council of Carthage’s canons were successively upheld by other jurisdictions of the Church and we don’t really hear anything about Pelagius after this date. It is safe to say he lost the argument and has ever since been condemned as a heretic. Moreso, this argumentation came to underscore how the Church, the Latin portion particularly, came to understand baptism and its actions.

Augustine’s argumentation, not without precedent, came to firmly pivot the understanding of baptism for the Church in such a way that will anticipate (or consolidate depending on one’s view) a relatively rapid change in how baptism is conducted. One historian describing the pivot on baptism as…

“It is turned into a passive cleansing from original sin, an exorcism, instead of a personal conversion followed by an ethical journey.”

Peter Cramer, Baptism and Change in the Early Middle Ages

This change will leave occurrences like Augustine’s own baptism as an adult, and that of his predecessors, as a fact of history with no justifiable grounds in how the church had after this date come to understand baptism.

I will leave engaging more fully with Augustine’s ideas for the final part of this series. I will instead look at the impact of the ruling of the Council of Carthage of 418 in the centuries and years following the publishing of its canons.

Christening becomes normative in Europe

A century after the council of Carthage (517 AD) we see rulings by a council in Gerona, Spain, making pronouncements that echo the Council of Carthage on the admonishment to baptise newborns. It is worth noting here, as a corollary to the points made regarding Tertullian’s disapproval of infant baptism attesting to its existence, that these ruling suggest that during this period newborn-baptism still wasn’t the universal during this period. The relevant article of the council ruling read…

But concerning little sons lately born, it pleaseth us to appoint, that if, as is usual, they be infirm, and do not suck their mother’s milk, even on the same day in which they are born (if they be offered, if they be brought) they may he baptized.

Council of Gerona of 517, Article 5

The important aspect of baptism during this period increasingly shifted from the disposition of the individual towards an emphasis on the correct execution of the rite. This is a marked change from the earlier Ante-Nicene period which saw great variance in the conduct of baptism across the Christian church. One commentator stating…

The great importance that was attached to the rite led to a belief in the efficacy of the ceremony, if performed correctly. Whereas in early Christian times the convert had played a more active part in baptism due to the ethical character of his or her conversion, baptism now became a rite which was performed on a passive recipient. This was in great part owing to the rule of infant baptism.

Marianne Ritsema van Eck, Baptism in Anglo-Saxon England: an Investigation of the Lexical Field

Historian Peter Cramer also wrote on the baptismal theology of this period…

Indeed, the child, and the small body of the child with its vulnerable nakedness and its suggestions of uncertainties and precariousness, perhaps replaced water as the symbol of baptism.

Peter Cramer, Baptism and Change in the Early Middle Ages, Chapter 3

Newborn baptism, it is safe to say, is now generally considered normative and I will begin to refer to it from this point onwards as Christening. I say this because in my own culture the words for baptism when Christianity first came to the Anglo-Saxons were words like ‘cristnian’, ‘depan’ and ‘dyppan’ (Christening and Dipping I presume) having no prior words for it (Not counting the presence of Christians in Britain prior to the Gregorian mission).

After the conversion of Anglo-Saxon kings in the 7th century, still relatively early on in the overall conversion of Britain, christening was to be normative. King Ine of Wessex, for example, during this period decreed that all infants should be baptised within 30 days of birth and parents were to be fined 30 shillings if they failed to do so, if their child died before baptism their belongings were entirely forfeited to the crown. These legal penalties, replicated across Europe, influenced the timing of baptism, changing it from something that traditionally happened at Easter to taking place soon as possible following birth.

By the 9th century christening was mandated by the Holy Roman Empire on the mainland, following precedent by this point long established. Alcuin of York, a British clergyman and scholar in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, articulated baptism as part of the struggle between “The Kingdom of Christ and the Kingdom of Satan” with one later commentator stating…

As a result of the practice of infant baptism, not only the nature (a passively undergone cleansing) but also the form of baptism changed. In ancient times catechumens were educated in the Christian faith for several years, culminating in a final preparation during Lent, during which they were examined in several sessions called scrutinies, before they were deemed worthy of receiving the sacrament of baptism at Easter. During the Middle Ages this protracted period of preparation was eventually condensed into one single rite, to be performed all year round. The emphasis moved from catechesis and ethical conversion to passive purification. A sponsor would now utter the ancient formulas for triple renunciation of the devil and triple professions of faith (speaking for the child); exorcisms in the liturgy gained a stronger foothold. This led to a strong sense dualism: before baptism man is under the devil, afterwards he belongs with God: an internal change of lords.

Marianne Ritsema van Eck, Baptism in Anglo-Saxon England: an Investigation of the Lexical Field quoting Arnold Angenendt, History of religion in the Middle Ages

A excerpt from a homily by Abbott and biblical commentator Ælfric of Eynsham similarly highlights the tone of baptism now firmly established as exorcism by stating…

During the rite of baptism the priest drives out the devil from a child, for each pagan is of the devil, but he can become God’s through baptism

Peter Clemoes, Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies: The First Series

Which showcases the influence of Augustine’s theology at work in the Saxon people. The idea of a ‘change in lords’ also had very real and earthly emphasis for Kings and Emperors who saw a peoples coming to Christ as a means by which foreigners and hitherto unbaptised peoples might come under their own authority, this no doubt provided an added impetus to see such baptisms conducted. Monarch’s themselves, however, seemed to have a more pragmatic bent when it came to their own family, Arnold Angenendt in his history of the Anglo-Saxons asserted that it was tradition for one son to remain unbaptised in the event that a reversion to paganism became beneficial. The question of who stood as your sponsor at the time of your baptism was also of immense political advantage to yourself, the more prestigious your godparent the better it was for the subject being baptised (and likewise for the godparent). Therefore even if one did not revert to paganism but rather hold out for a more prestigious sponsor for a son it could do well to advance the lot of a family. Alfred the Great, a later king of Wessex, leveraged the political dimensions of baptism to indicate his authority over his former rival Guthrum, Viking invader turned King of the Danelaw, by standing as his godfather. Such an act was a sign of coming alongside one another and consolidated Guthrum’s claim on the territory he had taken. Alfred benefited by being seen as the senior of the two monarchs.

In the background of all this Alcuin of York also gives a whisper of an earlier mindset in a letter to Charlemagne who was likewise demanding the mass baptism of his subjects…

“The washing of sacred baptism profits nothing in body, if knowledge of the catholic Faith does not precede in the mind of one having to use reason”

From Susan Keefe, Water and the Word: Baptism and the Education of the Clergy in the Carolingian Empire

This wasn’t a statement against christening, or mass compulsory baptism, but rather an admonishment to ensure the rite was properly understood by both the clergy and the families of those being baptised, even at a perfunctory level to be effectual. Alcuin, and those like him, likely served as the prompt that caused Charlemagne to subsequently send letters to his bishops seeking the education of lower members of the clergy. To ensure that they would at least have a working knowledge of the rites they were undertaking. The unspoken implication being that a great many were being baptised without any genuine knowledge of what was involved, by either the baptiser, the subject, and their sponsors, prior to these reforms.

What we inevitably see now with the normalisation of christening as the primary basis of baptism was the decline in anything resembling a catechetical process. What goes unspoken when we hear of the conversion of an entire people to follow their King is the absence of understanding about anything regarding the traditional baptismal process which would have existed for recipients. In a letter from Pope Gregory the Great to the then Bishop of Alexandria he wrote…

Moreover, at the solemnity of the Lord’s Nativity which occurred in this first indiction, more than ten thousand Angli are reported to have been baptized by the same our brother and fellow bishop. This have I told you, that you may know what you are effecting among the people of Alexandria by speaking, and what in the ends of the world by praying. For your prayers are in the place where you are not, while your holy operations are shown in the place where you are.

Gregory the Great, Registrum Epistolarum, Book VIII, Letter 30

The missionary team sent by Gregory the Great, however, was not so numerous that it could of adequately prepared each recipient with the formation that went in advance of baptism in prior centuries of the Church. A problem of scale is a good problem to have but it is indicative of a fundamental shift in how the Church approached baptism, in the words of an aforementioned commentator, as one of passive purification and no longer an ‘ethical journey’. The tail of christening had come to wag the dog of baptism, an understanding was therefore useful but only the most perfunctory of knowledge was required.

Chrismation is separated from Baptism and becomes Confirmation

One of the other changes during this period was the gradual separation of the anointing of oil and laying on of hands by a bishop that had previously accompanied baptism. With the widespread adoption of infant baptism and the changing of timings from Easter or Advent to moments of birth this meant it was harder for a bishop, who had previously presided to be present at such an event. Especially given the increased role they now played in secular affairs. The East and the West had two distinct responses to this. The East delegated this responsibility to priests, preserving the Rite, wherein the West separated the anointing and laying on of hands from baptism, preserving the role of the bishop. If we look at how the early church understood the role of this practice it raises some interesting questions. I’ll quote from a number of sources to give a summary of the views available…

The flesh, indeed, is washed, in order that the soul may be cleansed; the flesh is anointed, that the soul may be consecrated; the flesh is signed (with the cross), that the soul too may be fortified; the flesh is shadowed with the imposition of hands, that the soul also maybe illuminated by the Spirit; the flesh feeds on the body and blood of Christ, that the soul likewise may fatten on its God.

Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, Chapter 8. Christianity, by Its Provision for the Flesh, Has Put on It the Greatest Honour. The Privileges of Our Religion in Closest Connection with Our Flesh. Which Also Bears a Large Share in the Duties and Sacrifices of Religion.

Afterward, when they have come up out of the water, they shall be anointed by the elder with the Oil of Thanksgiving, saying, “I anoint you with holy oil in the name of Jesus Christ.” Then, drying themselves, they shall dress and afterwards gather in the church. The bishop will then lay his hand upon them, invoking, saying, “Lord God, you who have made these worthy of the removal of sins through the bath of regeneration, make them worthy to be filled with your Holy Spirit, grant to them your grace, that they might serve you according to your will, for to you is the glory, Father and Son with the Holy Spirit, in the Holy Church, now and throughout the ages of the ages. Amen.” After this he pours the oil into his hand, and laying his hand on each of their heads, says, “I anoint you with holy oil in God the Father Almighty, and Christ Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.” Then, after sealing each of them on the forehead, he shall give them the kiss of peace and say, “The Lord be with you.” And the one who has been baptized shall say, “And with your spirit.” So shall he do to each one.

The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome, Chapter 21

Having been counted worthy of this Holy Chrism, you are called Christians, verifying the name also by your new birth. For before you were deemed worthy of this grace, you had properly no right to this title, but were advancing on your way towards being Christians.

Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 21: On Chrism. Chapter 5

The role of chrismation, when we first start seeing it described, was historically seen as part of an integral second step out of three in the process of becoming a Christian. Baptism was followed by chrismation which was followed by communion. In the writing of Cyril, we see indicators suggesting that the chrismation carried the forgiveness of sins but also the bestowing of the holy spirit. He also linked the bestowing of the Holy Spirit coming out of the water with its immediate resting upon Christ following his own baptism. It would be hard to imagine how one might justify to Cyril et al how one might have been properly considered a Christian if one had purposefully begun to separate the steps that had been accepted as normative for baptism. Particularly in later centuries where the conduct of the rite came under increasing scrutiny. The separation of chrismation, in the west later known as confirmation, from baptism is an important indicator of the shift in baptismal practice as christening became normative. This was an innovation, not an unchanging practice of the ancient church.

The idea of baptism as a sacrament is something held by nearly all Christians today, but the idea of confirmation, or chrismation, as a sacrament, for those who adhere to it, is in part because it was drawn out of the baptismal ceremony itself into its own rite. If baptism was a sacrament did a part of the ceremony, divorced from its original context, not count as a sacrament in its own right? The theologians of the Middle Ages rejected such a view unequivocally. They still maintained that communion could not be taken without confirmation, the final step towards initiation into the Church. This lead to the Western divergence with the East which maintained the unity of the baptismal rite and continued in allowing communion from the moment of baptism.

The English church of the 13th century was notable in preferring an early confirmation, although the fragmentation of this practice from baptism was a notable cause for consternation in Europe at the time due to the limited availability of Bishops. Anglican clergyman and historian F.J Taylor wrote…

A synod held at Exeter in 1287 ordered that children were to be confirmed before they were three years old and parents who neglected this rule were to fast every Friday on bread and water until their children were confirmed. Apparently children were to be brought to the bishop at the first opportunity given by his presence in the neighbourhood. This is the probable explanation of the rule that children were to be confirmed within three years since the bishop was expected to make a visitation of his diocese once in every three years.

On the continent about the same time, a Synod of Cologne (1280) directed priests to admonish parents to bring any children yet unconfirmed to the bishop at the age of seven years and upwards. The manner of administration was often perfunctory and even scandalous, crowds surrounding the bishop who would sometimes confirm from horseback.

The great emphasis on the Eucharist and the obstacles in the way of the regular administration of confirmation led to the obvious result of widespread neglect of the rite. Despite the fact that it had been officially ranked as one of the seven sacraments in the Sentences of Peter Lombard in the middle of the twelfth century, ecclesiastical authority was obliged in practice to admit that it was not a necessary preliminary to communion. Consequently the laity did not value it very highly and in 1281 Archbishop Peckham in his Lambeth Constitutions sought to remedy the abuse. ” Many neglect the Sacrament of Confirmation for want of watchful advisers; so that there are many, innumerable many, who want the grace of Confirmation, though grown old in evil days. To cure this damnable neglect, we ordain that none be admitted to the Sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood that is not confirmed, except at the point of death, unless he have a reasonable impediment “. This regulation passed into the Sarum Manual and thence into our Prayer Book as the rubric printed at the end of the Confirmation service ‘and there shall none be admitted to the Holy Communion, until such time as he be confirmed, or be ready and desirous to be confirmed’

F.J Taylor, The History of Confirmation p 74

For those arguing for the apostolicity of the practice of christening, the changes in the administration of confirmation serve as a useful landmark down the road of progressive divergence from the apostolic consensus over the centuries on the topic of both baptism and communion.

Scholasticism and Sacraments: Sign or Sacred thing?

It was also around this period (13th century) that there was increased debate regarding the nature of the sacraments generally in the West. This expressed itself most forcefully regarding debates around the means by which communion could be understood as the true body and blood of Christ but it also impacted on discussions pertaining to baptism.

One well known debate was between Lanfranc of Bec and Berengar of Tours who argued that communion was to understood as either transubstantiation or a spiritual view, echoing earlier Medieval writers like Ratramnus of Corbie, respectively. Their views on communion were likewise reflected in baptism. Lanfranc argued that the act itself was the administration of salvation independent of the individual concerned. Berengar arguing for the act as a physical expression of a spiritual reality that happened internally and dependant on the disposition of the individual concerned.

The fact that such topics were even debated was indicative that Augustine’s claim that unbaptised infants were eternally damned found notable contention even at this time. The debate itself brought up the themes of unbaptised martyrs, children and those taken by disease before baptism. Existing concepts like the baptism of blood and desire also raised the notion that the sacramental grace bestowed by baptism could somehow operate independently of the act of baptism itself.

The political and ecclesial mainline, however, was firmly with Lanfranc. Berengar in his defeat, whilst not excommunicated, was forced to live out his life in ascetical exile after recanting a confession of assent to transubstantiation and faced with a future living in fear of his life.

As transubstantiation formally came into ascendancy it became the primary means by which union with Christ was experienced by the church. This articulation had once been more prominently the domain of baptism and the abandonment of a former way of life but given its ubiquitous status within christendom now framed as a passive cleansing it had ceased to be meaningful in the same way by contrast to the more immediate and repeated reception of communion.

The Magisterial Reformation

The next major shift on baptism was to occur during the Reformation. With consideration to its timing, however, nothing much changed with the Magisterial Reformers. All the Magisterial Reformers were committed to the Christening of newborns. What did change with the advent of the Reformation was the reasons given for baptism. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and Cranmer all upheld the fundamental Augustinian claim that we contributed nothing to our salvation yet they were each keen to carve out space for the role of faith, in their own way, in the process of baptism. Something which had progressively diminished, if not arguably disappeared, in successive centuries. Part of this was the opening up of the idea that even if one might be a formal member of the church, one might not have been saved without faith in some kind of active capacity. Although by a contemporary plain understanding this was heavily nuanced.

In many ways, baptism was one practice that the Magisterial Reformers didn’t see the need to reform. Rather it was the explanation for baptism that needed reform. One commentator, writing on the Baptismal theology of Ulrich Zwingli in particular wrote…

Zwingli altered the theology to agree with the reformation principle of salvation by faith alone, but to the laity, nothing had changed. The method and the candidate was not changed, therefore there was no strong opposition against Zwingli’s new understanding.

Kurt Thompson, The Proper Candidate: An examination of the 1525 debate between Ulrich Zwingli and Balthasar Hubmaier concerning baptism. P 42

Whilst Zwingli’s understanding of faith alone, and the relationship between faith and baptism differed from other Magisterial Reformers this seems a fairly representative take on their approach to baptism. It was their other beliefs, not their maintenance of christening, that caused such consternation during the Reformation. Below I will post a sample of notable voices on the subject of baptism from the Magisterial Reformation in their own words.

Martin Luther and the Lutheran church

Martin Luther articulated a view that baptism, the joining of the Word and Water in the context of the church community, as an act had the ability to create faith in infants. Just as the preaching and hearing of the Word had the ability to create faith in man. He even went as far to say that the best form of baptism was the baptism of infants, because an adult might by use of his own reason ruin his faith or resist God’s work in his life. In this sense Luther argued that man was saved entirely by God, but might ruin himself. This was a different understanding to what the Roman Catholic Church was teaching but could still be considered what is understood as baptismal regeneration.

Perhaps someone will oppose what I have said by pointing to the baptism of infants. ‘Infants do not understand God’s promise and cannot have baptismal faith. So either faith is not necessary or else infant baptism is useless.’ Here I say what everyone says: the faith of others, namely, the faith of those who bring them to baptism aids infants. For the word of God is powerful, when it is uttered. It can change even a godless heart, which is no less unresponsive and helpless than any infant. Even so the infant is changed, cleansed and renewed by faith poured into it, through the prayer of the Church that presents it for baptism and believes….Nor should I doubt that even a godless adult might be changed, in any of the sacraments, if the same Church prayed and presented him. We read in the Gospel of the paralytic, who was healed through the faith of others. I should be ready to admit that in this sense the sacraments of the New Law confer grace effectively, not only to those who do not resist, but even to those who do resist it very obstinately….The question remains, whether it is proper to baptize an infant not yet born, with only a hand or a foot outside the womb. Here I will decide nothing hastily, and confess my ignorance. I am not sure whether the reason given by some is sufficient-that the soul resides in its entirety in every part of the body. After all, it is not the soul but the body that is externally baptized with water. Nor do I share the view of others, that he who is not yet born cannot be born again, even though it [the argument] has considerable force.

Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, 3:33, 34

And in this respect it may well be said that man is not a stone or block. For a stone or block does not resist the person who moves it, nor does it understand and is sensible of what is being done with it, as man with his will so long resists God the Lord until he is [has been] converted. And it is nevertheless true that man before his conversion is still a rational creature, having an understanding and will, however, not an understanding with respect to divine things, or a will to will something good and salutary. Yet he can do nothing whatever towards his conversion (as has also been said [frequently] above), and is in this respect much worse than a stone and block; for he resists the Word and will of God, until God awakens him from the death of sin, enlightens and renews him.

The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord: Free Will, or Human Powers, 59

As we can see with Luther’s comments entertaining the baptism of those not yet even fully born he maintained the view that baptism as soon as possible was best. Baptism still cleansed, but it did so in part because of its ability to create faith.

Continental Reformed Churches

The Reformed Churches varied in some practices, Calvin and Zwingli notably differed on the nature of the bread and wine in communion but were consistent in their doctrine of baptism. The Reformed Churches framed baptism as the circumcision which was required for God’s people in the New Covenant.

Ulrich Zwingli and the Swiss Reformed Churches

Zwingli articulated a theology that was to be developed extensively by John Calvin in later years. This included linking of baptism to Hebrew circumcision. However, in 1525 encountered individuals in his church who had stated they preferred to bring their children forward for baptism when the child desired it for themselves. This was a view Zwingli himself had briefly held in 1523. This event and the ensuing debates lead to the majority of Zwingli’s theology of christening that makes its way down to us today.

They fail to notice that baptism is not given to any one unless he first confesses that he has faith, if he is a grown person, or unless he has the promise in virtue of which he is counted a member of the Church, if he is a child. Thus this thing which the sacramentarians maintain is conveyed invisibly by the sacrament was actually conveyed before. For he who confesses faith had it before he confessed it and, therefore, before he was baptized. For confession precedes immersion. Thus the faith which was given by the light and gift of the Spirit was there before the candidate was admitted to the sacrament, or if he did not have faith, it is certainly not brought to him by baptism. For neither Judas nor Simon the sorcerer, who were without faith when they were baptized, received faith by baptism. But if an infant is to be baptized, since he cannot himself confess faith, he must have the promise which counts him within the Church. The promise is, that the Gentiles, when they have obtained the knowledge of God, and true religion, shall be just as much of the church and people of God as the Hebrews. This all the prophets heralded and Christ Himself most plainly promises. “They shall come from the east and from the west, and shall recline with the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” And “The last shall be first,” and “The vineyard shall be given to other husbandmen,” and “There shall be one shepherd and one fold.”

Huldreich Zwingli, The Latin Works of Huldreich Zwingli, 2.194–95.

In this matter of baptism — if I may be pardoned for saying it — I can only conclude that all the doctors have been in error from the time of the apostles. . . . All the doctors have ascribed to the water a power which it does not have and the holy apostles did not teach.

Huldreich Zwingli, “On Baptism,” From Zwingli and Bullinger

I include the last quotation because it’s a reference to antiquity in which he actually goes so far that whilst aware of the teachings of the early church he disputes with them. That whilst openly maintaining the practice of christening he explicitly contended with the traditional understanding of what occurred during the practice itself.

One commentator said of Zwingli’s baptismal theology…

In Zwingli’s theology, the clergy no longer controlled the grace bestowed upon the believer. The understanding of the sacraments was wrong, but the practice of them was acceptable. According to Zwingli, grace comes not from the priest, but from God.

Kurt Thompson, The Proper Candidate: An examination of the 1525 debate between Ulrich Zwingli and Balthasar Hubmaier concerning baptism. p 35

John Calvin and the Presbyterian Church

John Calvin linked the Old Testament practice of circumcision to the New Testament practice of baptism. That just as the Hebrew people were included in the circumcision, Christian people were included in baptism. That just as Hebrew children were received into the old covenant, Christian children were baptised into the new covenant. This differed from Luther’s view because, according to Calvin, the newborn participated in the faith of their family or sponsor as they entered into the covenant rather than possessing saving faith emergent purely from the word and water itself. A key difference then is that for Luther any newborn could be brought to faith by baptism, for Calvin this only extended to the children of believers.

In this sense is to be understood the statement of Paul, that “Christ loved the Church, and gave himself for it, that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word” (Eph 5:25, 26); and again, “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Titus 3:5). Peter also says that “baptism also doth now save us” (1 Peter 3:21). For he did not mean to intimate that our ablution and salvation are perfected by water, or that water possesses in itself the virtue of purifying, regenerating, and renewing; nor does he mean that it is the cause of salvation, but only that the knowledge and certainty of such gifts are perceived in this sacrament. This the words themselves evidently show. For Paul connects together the word of life and baptism of water, as if he had said, ‘by the gospel the message of our ablution and sanctification is announced; by baptism this message is sealed.’ And Peter immediately subjoins, that that baptism is ‘not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God, which is of faith.’ Nay, the only purification which baptism promises is by means of the sprinkling of the blood of Christ, who is figured by water from the resemblance to cleansing and washing.”  

John Calvin, Institutes, Book 4:15:1,2

Scripture gives us a still clearer knowledge of the truth. For it is most evident that the covenant, which the Lord once made with Abraham, is not less applicable to Christians now than it was anciently to the Jewish people, and therefore that word has no less reference to Christians than to Jews. Unless, indeed, we imagine that Christ, by his advent, diminished, or curtailed the grace of the Father—an idea not free from execrable blasphemy. Wherefore, both the children of the Jews, because, when made heirs of that covenant, they were separated from the heathen, were called a holy seed, and for the same reason the children of Christians, or those who have only one believing parent, are called holy, and, by the testimony of the apostle, differ from the impure seed of idolaters. Then, since the Lord, immediately after the covenant was made with Abraham, ordered it to be sealed in infants by an outward sacrament, how can it be said that Christians are not to attest it in the present day, and seal it in their children? Let it not be objected, that the only symbol by which the Lord ordered his covenant to be confirmed was that of circumcision, which was long ago abrogated. It is easy to answer, that, in accordance with the form of the old dispensation, he appointed circumcision to confirm his covenant, but that it being abrogated, the same reason for confirmation still continues, a reason which we have in common with the Jews. Hence it is always necessary carefully to consider what is common to both, and wherein they differed from us. The covenant is common, and the reason for confirming it is common. The mode of confirming it is so far different, that they had circumcision, instead of which we now have baptism. Otherwise, if the testimony by which the Jews were assured of the salvation of their seed is taken from us, the consequence will be, that, by the advent of Christ, the grace of God, which was formerly given to the Jews, is more obscure and less perfectly attested to us. If this cannot be said without extreme insult to Christ, by whom the infinite goodness of the Father has been more brightly and benignly than ever shed upon the earth, and declared to men, it must be confessed that it cannot be more confined, and less clearly manifested, than under the obscure shadows of the law.

John Calvin, Institutes, Book 4:16:6

Infant baptism is not a recent introduction, nor are its origins traceable to the papal church. For I say that it has always been a holy ordinance observed in the Christian church. There is no doctor, however ancient, who does not attest that it has always been observed since the time of the apostles.

I wanted to touch on this point in passing for the sole reason of informing the simple that it is an impudent slander for these fanatics to make others believe that this ancient practice is a recently forged superstition and to feign that it derives from the pope. For the whole ancient church held to infant baptism long before one ever knew about the papacy or had ever heard of the pope.

Besides, I do not ask antiquity to legitimate anything for us unless it is founded on the Word of God. I know that it is not human custom that gives authority to the sacrament, nor does its efficacy depend on how men regulate it. Let us come, therefore, to the true rule of God, of which we have spoken, that is to say, his Word, which alone ought to hold here.

Their view is that one ought to administer baptism only to those who request it, to those who have made a profession of faith and repented. And thus infant baptism is the invention of man, opposed to the word of God.

In order to prove this they cite the passage from Saint Matthew’s last chapter, where Jesus Christ says to his apostles,”Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” To which they add this sentence from the 16th chapter of Mark: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” That to them seems an invincible foundation.

We see that our Lord acted the same way toward Abraham with regard to circumcision. For before he conferred this sign on him he received him into his covenant and instructed him in his Word.

But we must now note that when a man is received of God into the fellowship of the faithful, the promise of salvation which is given to him is not for him alone but also for his children. For it is said to him: “I am thy God, and the God of thy children after thee.” Therefore the man who has not been received into the covenant of God from his childhood is as a stranger to the church until such time as he is led into faith and repentance by the doctrine of salvation. But at the same time his posterity is also made a part of the family of the church. And for this reason infants of believers are baptized by virtue of this covenant, made with their fathers in their name and to their benefit. Herein, thus, lies the mistake of the poor Anabaptists. For since this doctrine must precede the sacrament, we do not resist it.

John Calvin, Treatises Against the Anabaptists and Against the Libertines

It is interesting to note that Calvin, amongst other things, leans in on the authority and precedent of the early church, which we have examined ourselves. Yet the early church in their discussion of baptism more clearly articulated baptism and salvation with reference to the regenerative powers of the water itself. One might argue that Calvin perceived the early church doing the right thing for the wrong reasons or that he genuinely believed he saw precursor’s of his own theology in the writings of the fathers that had hitherto been neglected by the Roman Catholic Church. However, Church historian David Wright on this exact topic contends…

It is indeed misleading to view the age of the Fathers simply as an era of infant baptism. In fact, of known named individuals in those centuries who were both of Christian parentage and baptized at known dates, the great majority were baptised on profession of faith. The obscuring of a truer picture derives ultimately from sixteenth century apologetic, both Catholic and Protestant, against the Anabaptists.

David Wright, What has infant baptism done to baptism? P6

In light of which Calvin’s assertions, and those like it from this period, to the antiquity of his beliefs pertaining to the practice seem to be cast into the shade. Especially when we see such comments in texts deliberately attacking Anabaptist claims as Wright outlines.

Thomas Cranmer and The Church of England

The Church of England was Reformed like Calvin and Zwingli but differed in its nature of maintaining the historic episcopal offices of the church. Early on its debatably whether the Church of England (CoE) had a more Lutheran view of the sacraments but later on we see the clear influence of Continental Reformed thought. As a result the covenantal language that we see in Calvin regarding baptism is carried over into the English church. I’ve posted a sample below from Cranmer’s own writings to shed light on this…

Finally, their cruel ungodliness extends to baptism, which they do not want to be administered to infants, though for no reason whatsoever. For the children of Christians do not belong any less to God and the church than the children of the Hebrews once did, and since circumcision was given to them in infancy so also baptism ought to be imparted to our children, since they are participants in the same divine promise and covenant, and have been accepted by Christ with the greatest human kindness.

Thomas Cranmer, The Reformation of Church Law, 18

Likewise, there are many errors which are piled up by others in baptism, which some are so impressed by that they think the Holy Spirit emerges from the mere external element itself, as well as all the force and power by which we are re-created, and that grace and the other gifts which come from it swim in the very fonts of baptism.


In sum, they want our entire regeneration to be owed to that sacred well, which rushes into our senses. But the salvation of souls, the indwelling of the Spirit, and the blessing of adoption, come from the divine mercy flowing to us through Christ, as well as from the promise which appears in the Holy Scriptures.

Thomas Cranmer, The Reformation of Church Law, 25,26

Some debate whether the Church of England really was Reformed when it broke from Rome and whilst this isn’t the point of my writing let me just say that in my view it most assuredly was and at its best still is.

In the above, it seems clear that Thomas Cranmer at least shared Calvin’s view and theology on christening. One other thing to note is that the earliest editions of the Book of Common Prayer (1549, 1552) actually contained no baptismal rite for those who weren’t infants. This was a notable turnaround from the early church liturgies we have available. In the later preface to the 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer we read…

It was thought convenient, that some Prayers and Thanksgivings, fitted to special occasions, should be added in their due places; particularly for those concerning the Service of the church at Sea, together with an Office for the Baptism of such as are of Riper Years: which, although not so necessary when the former Book was compiled, yet by the growth of Anabaptism, through the licentiousness is of the late times crept in amongst us, is now become necessary, and may be always useful for the baptizing of Natives in our Plantations, and others converted to the Faith.

Excerpt from the Preface of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer

Indicating that it was only due to the influence of Anabaptism at home and England’s growing colonies abroad that the need for a rite of baptism had now become useful. Presumably at the time of writing it’s earliest editions the idea of baptising adults simply wasn’t even something that had been considered.

Sidenote on the prayerbook and its predecessors

The original 1549 prayer book actually also gives us a window on that transition that the normalisation of christening brought about in the Latin church and its further change in the Reformed churches. This window lies in the baptismal ceremony for infants which retained the reading (Jesus blessing the little children) and prayers for the recipient of baptism at the front-door of the church. This practice actually has its roots in the more elaborate Medieval rites of the English Church located in the Sarum Manual of the 11th century. The difference is that Cranmer retained a form of this practice whilst detaching any reference to the act they were originally attached to in the manual. The section in question from the manual was one called “Making a Catechumen”. The Reformer Martin Bucer, a key influence on the development of the prayer book, in his appraisal of the 1549 edition, was critical of maintaining such a practice at the front door, rightly seeing no point to it in it in its current context. We subsequently see in the 1552 edition that Cranmer had moved that portion of the service from the front door of the church to the font inside the of it.

Catechumens being interrogated at the exterior of the Church actually has its roots in the ancient church. However, what we see in the Sarum Manual entitled “Making a Catechumen” was actually closer to a blessing or exorcism. Apparently, it contained 5 signs of the cross, an actual exorcism, the giving of salt that had been exorcised itself, recitals of the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, the Apostles Creed and a ritual anointing imitating Jesus’s healing the deaf and mute man in Mark 7. The 1549 Book of Common Prayer only jettisons the Hail Mary and use of salt in the exorcism whilst encouraging the baptism of the child on the closest subsequent Sunday to its birth. The other notable element is the practice of making the godparents and sponsors speak for the child’s own confession of belief in the first person. A practice which actually endures in the baptismal liturgy for infants in the Church of England today. This is a paired down form of the confession of belief, done by the sponsors on part of the subject. We first see this in texts older than the Sarum Manual. Professor of Liturgical Studies at the University of Notre Dame, Maxwell Johnson, writing in the New SCM Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship (Scrutinies, Baptism) detailed these as being the Galesian Sacramentary and the Ordo Romanus XI of the 7th and 8th century respectively. In each case these are actually derived from the practice of scrutinies we see in even earlier baptismal liturgies predicated on the belief that the recipient themselves would respond in the affirmative rather than their sponsor. The transition to the sponsor responding in the first person on behalf of the child is a telling indicator of the less than subtle transition that took place whilst attempting to maintain the structure of the ancient rites. We actually have examples of these older practices available to us today…

First ye entered into the vestibule of the Baptistery, and there facing towards the West ye listened to the command to stretch forth your hand, and as in the presence of Satan ye renounced him.

Then you were told to say, I believe in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Ghost, and in one Baptism of repentance.  Of which things we spoke to you at length in the former Lectures, as God’s grace allowed us.

And these things were done in the outer chamber. But if God will, when in the succeeding lectures on the Mysteries we have entered into the Holy of Holies , we shall there know the symbolic meaning of the things which are there performed. Now to God the Father, with the Son and the Holy Ghost, be glory, and power, and majesty, forever and ever. Amen.

Cyril of Jerusalem, First Lecture on the Mysteries. 2, 19, 20

When they are chosen who are to receive baptism, let their lives be examined, whether they have lived honorably while catechumens, whether they honored the widows, whether they visited the sick, and whether they have done every good work.. If those who bring them forward bear witness for them that they have done so, then let them hear the Gospel. From the time at which they are set apart, place hands upon them daily so that they are exorcised. When the day approaches on which they are to be baptized, let the bishop exorcise each one of them, so that he will be certain whether each has been purified.  If there are any who are not purified, they shall be set apart. They have not heard the Word in faith, for the foreign spirit remained with each of them.

Hippolytus of Rome, Apostolic Traditions 20:1-4

These practices were done by catechumens after periods of fasting and listening to expositions of the faith by clergy, exorcisms were conducted to ensure the prior steps had been effectual. Over time these rites were formalised in the aforementioned texts of the later 7th and 8th centuries where catechism itself was compacted down so much such that newborns were now described as catechumens (maintained in the later Sarum Manual) and leaning heavily on the passage Matthew 19:14 which had previously not appeared in any prior baptismal liturgy or in the formal act of the scrutinies themselves used by the early church fathers. From the 7th and 8th centuries, scrutinies were by already by this point far from their original investigative role. By the time of the Reformation, we see these rites divorced from all context relating to catechism, instead of forming part of the more general baptismal rite practised at the font itself. Catechism was already long by this point functionally a ‘nice to have’ rather than normative practice but these liturgical changes removed it formally even from the liturgy. If it occurred at all it was now decontextualized from any rite.

One of the accusations levelled at the Anabaptists by the Reformers was the impossibility to discern genuine faith in the life of those wishing to be baptised. Such a statement, when one looks at the baptismal practices of the early church seems incredibly out of touch with the attempts of the early church fathers to do precisely that. Moreso, that the Fathers displayed an awareness that not everyone baptised would be saved (Simon Magus was a popular example). Yet that did not lead to the dispersion of the Scrutinies. Rather the process of catechism was instead progressively transformed over the centuries, as theologies changed, such that commentators a millennium later could not fathom such an attempt even being made in sincerity. It wasn’t that it was impossible to gauge the sincerity of one’s faith, it was that the Christians had even stopped attempting to by this period, in relation to baptism, and it was reflected in the theology.


All Magisterial Reformers, for all their issues with the Roman Catholic Church, were still Latin Christians of a sort. In this, they followed similar baptismal practice, even if they articulated different reasons or processes for it. Of the processes involved the two dominant ones were encapsulated by the Lutheran Church and the Reformed Churches. The Lutheran Church saw baptism itself, the Word and the Water together as able to create faith in the recipient. The Reformed Churches saw baptism as a circumcision by means of which an infant enters into the New Covenant by the faith of their parents which in time gives birth to their own.

All Magisterial Reformers maintained the separation of confirmation from baptism, although they downgraded it from a sacrament to a rite. Important but not as much as baptism itself. The Roman Catholic Church historically had separated confirmation (chrismation) from baptism in order for it to be administered by a bishop but the Reformers now rearticulated it as the opportunity for a child, now fully grown, to make a public profession of faith which they received in infancy. It wasn’t technically part of the baptism, as understood by the early church fathers or eastern churches, but it was related in that baptism was always required first.

The Reformers consistency of practice carried over from the Roman Catholic tradition was also further exemplified by their joint rejection and persecution of the Anabaptists, the Radical element of the Reformation.

The Radical Reformation

The Anabaptists was a title for a group of movements that emerged in the Reformation noted for their radical views on a range of topics. The most notable and disturbing to both the Roman Catholic Church and the Magisterial Reformers was that of believers baptism. Mirroring debates nearly a millennium before concerning the baptism of other Christians they believed that a baptism conducted wrongly, in this case without an active faith and desire to be baptised, was no baptism. Just as figures like Cyprian disputed that his baptism of heretics wasn’t rebaptism, the Anabaptists disputed that their baptism of the christened wasn’t rebaptism. Balthasar Hubmaier in his apologia for his views wrote…

“I have never taught Anabaptism. I know of none, except that in Acts 19. But the right baptism of Christ, which is preceded by teaching and oral confession of faith, I teach, and say that infant baptism is a robbery of the right baptism of Christ, and a misuse of the high name of God, Father and Son and Holy Spirit, altogether opposed to the institution of Christ and to the customs of the apostles”

Balthasar Hubmaier, Short Apology

And whilst debating Zwingli, who didn’t believe that John’s followers hadn’t been subsequently baptised by the Apostles wrote…

[A]ll those who believe this forgiveness [through John’s baptism of repentance] should be rebaptized by the apostles of Christ. That is a real rebaptism, because the baptism of John is, and is called baptism, and the baptism of Christ is also a baptism. Therefore it is correctly called rebaptism. The bath of the infants which we have hitherto taken for baptism is not baptism, nor is it worthy of the name baptism. Therefore it is wrongly said that we let ourselves be rebaptized.

Balthasar Hubmaier, The Christian Baptism of Believers

There is actually some evidence that Balthasar was actually aware of the baptismal debates of the early church and was knowingly employing the same approach of that fathers like Cyprian had employed to defend themselves against claims of rebaptism. Yet the title stuck, partly due to their marginalised status in Europe. Anabaptists represented the first real break from the union of ecclesial and secular authority that had subsequently come to be united in both Catholic and Protestant Europe since the early middle ages.

The Anabaptist movement was undoubtedly a reactionary one in its theology. Rooted in a rejection of the arguably perfunctory nature of the sacraments and religion of Europe during this period. The relationship between faith and the sacraments lay at the core of their beliefs in that they believed that one must come to saving faith before baptism. That a baptism without prior faith was no baptism at all. In their theology, the Magisterial Reformers thought they went too far, for the Radical Reformers their critics did not go far enough.

The articulation of Anabaptist beliefs came to seen as a capital offence nearly everywhere it was found which resulted in death by beheading, burning at the stake or (as a cruel irony) drowning. Perhaps the most infamous account of an Anabaptist martyrdom is that of Dirk Willems…

In the year 1569 a pious, faithful brother and follower of Jesus Christ, named Dirk Willems, was apprehended at Asperen, in Holland … concerning his apprehension, it is stated by trustworthy persons, that when he fled he was hotly pursued by a thief-catcher, and as there had been some frost, said Dirk Willems ran before over the ice, getting across with considerable peril. The thief-catcher following him broke through, when Dirk Willems, perceiving that the former was in danger of his life, quickly returned and aided him in getting out, and thus saved his life. The thief catcher wanted to let him go, but the burgomaster, very sternly called to him to consider his oath, and thus he was again seized by the thief-catcher, and, at said place, after severe imprisonment and great trials proceeding from the deceitful papists, put to death at a lingering fire by these bloodthirsty, ravening wolves, enduring it with great steadfastness, and confirming the genuine faith of the truth with his death and blood, as an instructive example to all pious Christians of this time, and to the everlasting disgrace of the tyrannous papists.

The Martyrs Mirror of the Defenceless Christians

This had been the penalty for rebaptism for centuries by this period yet it was always a crime rejected by those accused.

The Anabaptists were made up of a great many groups, but there were several notable theologians and leaders of the movement. Rather than detailing all of them I will focus on the writings of Balthasar Hubmaier as he is an example of a Reformer who actively debated another Reformer we have mentioned on the topic of baptism, Zwingli. This will give an insight into Anabaptist and Reformed views on baptism.

Balthasar Hubmaier

Hubmaier, like many other Reformers, was a former Catholic priest who upon reading the works of Martin Luther in 1522 became convinced of a radical view of sola scriptura and led to him interacting with other Reformers like Zwingli. He and Zwingli started off as friends but soon became theological opponents due to Hubmaier’s rejection of and ceasing in the practice of paedobaptism.

“Read the history of the apostles and you will find that the Samaritans believed Philip and afterwards were baptised. So also Simon and the chamberlain of Queen Candace believed and afterwards were baptised. Paul believed and afterwards was baptised. Cornelius and his household believed, received the Holy Spirit and afterwards were baptised with water. Lydia, the seller of purple, and the jailor, believed and were baptised. Who would or can think that all these would have been baptised, if the order and earnest command of Christ had not moved and constrained them to it? Truly, they might indeed have said, ‘We have believed the word of God, and we have in part received the Holy Spirit: what need have we of baptism? Faith saves.’ Nay, not so, but he who believes is baptised and does not dispute, for he sees the order of Christ before his eyes and performs it, where water and a baptiser may be had; but when the two cannot be had, there faith is enough. Take an example. Had the chamberlain, sitting beside Philip and believing, died straightway before they came to the brook, he were no less saved before the baptism than afterwards. This is the meaning of Christ when he says, ‘He that believes and is baptised shall be saved, but he that believes not is condemned’; for no doubt many thousands have been saved who have not been baptised, for they could not obtain it. But as the chamberlain had both the baptiser and the water together, he was bound by the command of Christ to be baptised. Had he not done it, Christ would have held him as a despiser and transgressor of his words, and as such he would have been punished.”

“Water baptism was given for the forgiveness of sins. Acts ii., 38; 1 Pet. iii., 21. It is all contained in the ninth and tenth articles of Christian belief, where we confess a universal Christian Church, a communion of saints and forgiveness of sins, which was the understanding and conclusion set forth by the Nicene Council, with these words, ‘I confess one only baptism to the remission of sins.’ Therefore, as much as one is concerned about communion with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, yea, also about communion with the heavenly host and with the whole Christian Church, also about the forgiveness of his sins, so much should he be concerned about water baptism, by which he enters and is incorporated in the universal Christian Church, out of which there is no salvation. Not that the remission of sins is to be ascribed to the water, but to the power of the keys which Christ by his word has given to his Spouse and unspotted bride, the Christian Church, in his bodily absence, and hung at her side when he said to her, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit; whose sins ye loose they are loosed, and whose sins ye retain they are retained.’ John XX., 22, 23. Just so Christ speaks in another place to the Church, ‘Verily I say to you, Whatsoever ye bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever ye loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’ Matt, xviii., 18. Here one sees plainly that the universal Church has the same power to loose or to bind sins now on earth which Christ himself as a man aforetime bodily here on earth had. He who believes the word of God enters the ark of Noah, which is a true figure of baptism, that out of this ark he be not drowned in the flood of sin.”

Balthasar Hubmaier, Ground and Reason

“Where baptism in water does not exist, there is no Church, no brother, no sister, no fraternal discipline, exclusion [they practiced shunning or the ban as a form of church discipline], or restoration.”

Balthasar Hubmaier quoted in William Estep, The Anabaptist Story: An Introduction to Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism

Hubmaier, like all Anabaptists, argued strongly that no explicit reference exists in scripture to the baptism of infants but that an individual’s faith preceded it each time. He saw it explicitly in terms of faith and obedience, rejecting the idea that the water of baptism itself actually brought about an ontological change in an individual. This is why he insisted the baptism itself must have been done in the name of the Trinity, in relation to Matthew 28:19,29 he stated…

Nowhere else in the Old or New Testaments can we find such high words put together in such an explicit and clear way. From this we realize once again the seriousness with which Christ wills that those who have been instructed in faith should be baptized. For a serious command demands serious obedience and fulfillment

Balthasar Hubmaier, Baptism of Believers, in Balthasar Hubmaier, Theologian of Anabaptism p122

He even went to say that baptism itself was not necessary but pure faith alone rejecting the idea of baptismal regeneration as historically understood…

“Salvation is bound neither to baptism nor to works of mercy. Being unbaptized does not condemn us, nor do evil works, but only unfaith.”

Balthasar Hubmaier, Dialogue with Zwingli’s Baptism Book p191

And yet that the true believer had no excuse to put off baptism if they were truly possessing faith in Jesus Christ…

“If he had been a true believer, then he would have taken the sign of Christ-believing onto himself.”

Balthasar Hubmaier, Dialogue with Zwingli’s Baptism Book, in Balthasar Hubmaier, Theologian of Anabaptism p191

So Hubmaier did link baptism with salvation but made a point of emphasising an individual’s faith was the ‘active ingredient’ of a baptism, not the rite itself.

Indeed they [unbaptized believers] also could have said, ‘Yes, we do believe, yes, some of us have also already received the Holy Spirit. What need do we have of baptism? Faith saves us.’ No, not so. He who believes lets himself be baptized and does not continue to argue, because where water and a person to baptize him can be found, he has the order of Christ before his eyes. However, where the two not available, their faith is enough

Hubmaier, Baptism of Believers, in Balthasar Hubmaier, Theologian of Anabaptism p 124

Zwingli debates Hubmaier (With Reference to Baptism)

Zwingli was based in Zurich and shortly after Hubmaier and he began to dispute with one another he found himself confronted with members of his own congregations adopting Anabaptist views. The nature of the debate progressively came to exemplify Zwingli’s own struggles to bring Zurich back under control from the growing number of Anabaptists in his own city. Hubmaier by contrast moved around several times in this period whilst on the run from civil authorities in the general region.

On Practices Not Found in Scripture

Hubmaier, in his debates with Zwingli, not only used to emphasise that practices should be justified by scripture but ribbed his opponent who argued that because a practice wasn’t denounced in scripture it was therefore permissible. He wrote in one letter “Then I may also baptize my dog and my donkey . . . For it is not prohibited anywhere in explicit words that we do these things.” (From The Letter ‘Baptism of Believers’) which Zwingli rejected stating only people were to be baptised. Hubmaier then asked if it was permissible to baptise a Turk or a Jew which Zwingli also denied saying faith was required. The Radical Reformer on this stated that children likewise made no display of faith so shouldn’t be baptised. Luther, by contrast, anticipated this anabaptist objection and instead argued the burden of proof was to show children didn’t have faith (See the quoted excerpt of The Babylonian Captivity of the Church under the section detailing this) yet this was something even the Reformed Christians didn’t necessarily admit. Hubmaier rejected this in the absence of an active confession due to its precedent in scripture. For him to give licence to practices on the basis that they weren’t explicitly rejected by scripture gave the Reformers no grounds on which to be critical of the Roman Catholic Churches practices. For Hubmaier Zwingli and the Magisterial Reformers were just changing the meanings of Roman Catholic practices which had no warrant in scripture. Hubmaier conceded he couldn’t be 100% sure infant baptism didn’t take place occasionally amongst the apostles but that without more knowledge argued such reasoning was speculation in clear contrast to explicit words of scripture. Zwingli was aware of this in their exchanges insisting that Hubmaier had “not therefore yet proved the negative: ‘No one may be baptized but the believer’.” (Zwingli, Refutation of Baptist Tricks, p165). A sentiment Hubmaier later turned on Zwingli and his definition of sola fide.

Whilst this argumentation by ‘regulative principle’ employed by Hubmaier does have flaws I cannot help but personally be reminded of arguments that practices and beliefs not explicitly rejected by scripture serves as a licence in our own day. Namely by many progressive activists within the church to advance agendas not in accord with scripture, often with great effect.

On Baptism as Circumcision

While Hubmaier and Zwingli debated a number of topics perhaps the most important was the Reformed claim that circumcision was swapped out for baptism as the mark of the covenant people. Hubmaier, however, again dismissed such a claim because it had no explicit reference in scripture stating…

“For you well know that circumcision is not a figure of water baptism. You have no Scripture about that.”

Balthasar Hubmaier, Baptism of Believers, in Balthasar Hubmaier, Theologian of Anabaptism p180

Which some will find more convincing than others but this was actually a point that Zwingli conceded in the debate. Zwingli, however, maintained his defence by reiterating his point that just because it wasn’t explicit didn’t mean it was permitted or reasonable. Hubmaier, however, in light of this reminded Zwingli of a previous debate against a Roman Catholic apologist Johann Faber. Zwingli during his debate with Faber had insisted that his opponent support every dogmatic statement with scripture. Something he later no longer held to when been interrogated by an even more radical opponent. Hubmaier was using Zwingli’s own debating approach that he had employed against Catholics against him. However, it is notable that Hubmaier didn’t spend long on this considering it is the main argument employed by Reformed Christians practising paedobaptism.

The Sequence of Teaching and Baptism

Another point of contention worth raising in the disagreement between Zwingli and Hubmaier regarding the role of teaching in relation to baptism. This partly rested on the understanding of two Reformers views on the efficacy of John’s baptism. Zwingli denied that Acts 19 detailed a ‘rebaptism’ of John’s followers by the Apostles but rather the acceptance of their teaching. That the baptism didn’t describe an act but an external acquiescence. Hubmaier, however, asserted that it was the fact that John’s followers had accepted the teaching of the apostles that they were subsequently baptised by them, as in every explicit case of baptism in the New Testament.

“You cannot show me one person in all of Scripture who has been water-baptized without prior teaching. Or show us one with clear Scripture, then we are already overcome.”

Balthasar Hubmaier, Baptism of Believers, in Balthasar Hubmaier, Theologian of Anabaptism p191

This issue reflected a key difference in the relationship between teaching and baptism between the two Reformers. Both saw importance in baptism and teaching but for Hubmaier they were conjoined, part of the same journey, but for Zwingli they were important but operating independently. For Zwingli one could accept teaching without baptism and one could accept baptism without teaching (provided their parents or carers were Christian). Teaching for Zwingli would follow baptism in infancy and once a believer sufficiently taught they were confirmed, as was practiced in Zurich where he taught.

“Teaching should precede the outward baptism, along with the determination to change one’s life by the help of God.”

Balthasar Hubmaier, Baptism of Believers, in Balthasar Hubmaier, Theologian of Anabaptism p101

Another point of difference was that Zwingli held the idea of predestination. That God before time had chosen those to be saved and thus sovereignly intervened in their lives to bring them to faith stating “God freely with himself settles upon, prejudges and foreordains . . . whom he will, even before they are born.” (Zwingli, Commentary on True and False Religion, p238). His objection of Hubmaier’s belief that teaching or acquiescence to the tenants of the faith should precede baptism deprived God of sovereignty and refused baptism, the outward sign of salvation, to the elect children of believers. Hubmaier attacked such thinking as reminiscent of the Pharisees who followed tradition at the expense of explicit commands of scripture in Matthew 15 (v3 “…And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?”). Hubmaier also rejected the idea that man contributed to his own salvation in stating “To command virtue in reliance upon human strength, is nothing else than to command one to fly without wings.” (No 16 of Hubmaier’s 18 Theses Concerning the Christian Life). Regarding the children of the elect being saved by their parent’s election, he pointed to Matthew 12 and elsewhere wrote…

“Christ said: ‘whoever believes himself and is baptized, ect.’ He does not say, for whomever father, mother, or godparents believe. Indeed, a child whose salvation should depend on the faith of his father, mother, or godparents, would often suffer from heartbreak.”

Balthasar Hubmaier, Baptism of Believers, in Balthasar Hubmaier, Theologian of Anabaptism p138

On Original Sin, Infant Mortality and Hubmaiers occasional Baptism of Infants

On the question of original sin and the death of infants Hubmaier had to wrestle with this question theologically but also pastorally. On the topic of the death of unbaptised infants he wrote…

The hand of the Lord is not short, he does what he wills . . . He is Lord. He has mercy upon whomever he wills. … he can save the infants very well by grace since they know neither good nor evil.

Balthasar Hubmaier, Baptism of Believers, in Hubmaier p 140

Hubmaier stated the given that scripture was silent on their ultimate fate he could not say definitively the fate of unbaptised infants. Rather that we are to pray and hope God would be merciful to them but that his will would ultimately be done. This was notably different from the beliefs of earlier centuries describing unbaptised children as ‘of the devil’. Despite this Hubmaier is recorded as actually baptising infants who were sick at the request of the parents, he wrote in a letter to a friend…

“If there are parents of a sick child at a given time, who most earnestly wish the child to be baptized, I baptize it. In this matter, I take on the sickness myself along with the sickly little ones, but only for a time, until better instructed.”

Balthasar Hubmaier, A Letter to Oecolampad, in Hubmaier p 72

Whether Hubmaier thought the human will could be drawn to God of its own accord, or only by means of God’s grace is expanded upon in a 1525 work entitled ‘On Free Will’. In it he states that there exist three parts to the will: man as it stands “can do nothing except sin” but his spirit “has remained utterly upright and intact” and his soul “through the disobedience of Adam was … maimed in will and wounded”. Man is saved by being “remediable through the Word of God, which teaches us anew to will or not will what is good and what is evil” his soul is “awakened by the Word of God” and by being “enlightened through the Holy Spirit,” can draw near to God. Whilst this seems hard to summarise it seems that Hubmaier would attest that man is broken but, compared to the writings of Calvin and Luther, he is not entirely devoid of the good granted to him by virtue of being made in God’s image.

The End of the Debate

The debate was never settled, in 1525 Hubmaier, on the run from Austrian forces, actually arrived in Zwingli’s Zurich, which had been torn over the issue of believer’s baptism. Zwingli had him arrested and put on trial before the city council which resulted in their final disputation. The city council ruled in favour of Zwingli and Hubmaier was forced to recant of his views. However, in a move reminiscent of the later Thomas Cranmer the next day, before a congregation, he recanted of his rejection of believer’s baptism. Hubmaier was subsequently tortured until he confessed to rejecting the doctrine and was subsequently told to leave Switzerland where he promptly headed to Moravia. Now safe he once more rejected his denial of believers baptism, although his own weakness disturbed him.

In Moravia, he made converts of Zwinglian’s but after the region came under the influence of the Holy Roman Empire he was once more arrested, tortured by the rack, tried for heresy by the church and imprisoned. In 1528 he was burnt at the stake in the local public square and his wife, with a stone tied around her neck, was drowned three days later. Two years later Zwingli himself would die, executed after being found wounded in a battle between Protestant and Roman Catholic Swiss Cantons.

Relevant Baptismal Canons of the Council of Trent in the Counter-Reformation

The response to the Reformation by the Roman Catholic church was manifold but perhaps most theologically notable response was the Council of Trent that met through the years of 1545 to 1563. The council was about responding to the Reformation writ large but the seventh session dealt explicitly with the sacraments and gives 14 canons on baptism that pronounced anathemas on any who deviated from the position of the Roman Catholic Church in the listed ways in practice or beliefs.

Whilst the views outlined here weren’t new the enforcement of them by the council was to ensure that debates that had happened in the earlier middle ages, and arguably helped contribute to the eventual call for Reformation could not occur again. Amongst its claims, specific to the timing of baptism was that it was required to be saved (Canon 5 on Baptism), infants can be baptised by the faith of the church (Canon 13 on Baptism), the upholding of the bishop as the sole agent of confirmation (Canon 3 on Confirmation), the compulsion of those baptised as infants to be confirmed and bound by the laws of the church (Canon 14 on Baptism).

The Reformation went on to have lasting changes on the church across Europe wherever it was found but it was only really in the 1700s when the next major change to how baptism was understood and considered was to take place.

Revivalism and Evangelicalism in Britain and the Americas

Whilst the Reformation changed a great deal in Europe baptismal practice survived relatively unchanged. The theology behind such actions had shifted in the groups that had been excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church, and this was reflected in liturgies, but the baptism of newborns shortly after birth continued. The only exception to this was the Anabaptists and Baptist movements that had adopted a position known as credobaptism, that is baptism upon confession of faith. Faith in general, variously understood, had come to play a massive role in the Protestant tradition but in the 1700s this was to come into play in a new and powerful way.

In the first half of the 18th century a series of what now was later understood as revivals began to sweep Britain and its American Colonies. These were movements which placed a great emphasis on the agency of the holy spirit, personal holiness and an assent of the heart to faith, not just the mind. Originally rooted in non-conformist traditions two of its most famous influencers came were actually to emerge from the Church of England. John Wesley and George Whitfield, two of the best-known preachers, were actually part of the same study group dubbed the ‘Holy Club’ at Oxford University. Wesley himself was heavily influenced by the Moravians and famously describes the time when he experienced being born again in his journal…

“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, London, where someone was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart of a person through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

The relevance of these revivals, known as the First Great Awakening in America and in the UK as the Methodist Revival, regarding baptism was how it came to frame salvation as a conversion of the heart. John Wesley, in another account, detailed how in a journey to the Americas he was chaplain to a ship carrying Moravians (also known as the Brethren). The Moravians drew heavily on the Pietistic movement which emerged out of Lutheranism in the late 17th century and placed great emphasis on personal holiness and spiritual rebirth. When Wesley’s ship was caught in a storm he recalls…

“At seven I went to the Germans. I had long before observed the great seriousness of their behaviour. Of their humility they had given a continual proof, by performing those servile offices for the other passengers, which none of the English would undertake; for which they desired, and would receive no pay, saying, “it was good for their proud hearts,” and “their loving Saviour had done more for them.” And every day had given them occasion of showing a meekness which no injury could move. If they were pushed, struck, or thrown down, they rose again and went away; but no complaint was found in their mouth. There was now an opportunity of trying whether they were delivered from the Spirit of fear, as well as from that of pride, anger, and revenge. In the midst of the psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke over, split the main-sail in pieces, covered the ship, and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sung on. I asked one of them afterwards, “Was you not afraid?” He answered, “I thank God, no.” I asked, “But were not your women and children afraid?” He replied, mildly, “No; our women and children are not afraid to die.”

From them I went to their crying, trembling neighbours, and pointed out to them the difference in the hour of trial, between him that feareth God, and him that feareth him not. At twelve the wind fell. This was the most glorious day which I have hitherto seen.”

In a time and place where being a Christian was a universal facet of life the witness of the Moravians to Wesley was a radical one. In the Moravians Wesley saw a conviction of faith and assurance of salvation that he linked explicitly to the idea of being born again. The term born again was to become ubiquitous in the resultant Evangelicalism that was to emerge from these Revivals and drew on the language of John 3:3. Yet in a world where people had come to be baptised before conversion the passage came to represent a coming to faith that stood independent of baptism. Even the later language of revival was predicated on the notion that someone had something deep down that needed resuscitation. The time when faith came alive, often after baptism, was when many Evangelicals believed they had really become a Christian.

In some ways, the arguments of Whitefield, Edwards, Wesley and those like them was not totally dissimilar to the arguments of Hubmaier centuries earlier. The key difference, however, in their views was that the Revivalists was that they didn’t link conversion to baptism wherein Hubmaier did. Both were critical of what had been described as the ‘nominalism’ of mainline religion and placed great emphasis on the role of faith. One of the unfortunate side effects of revivalism was the idea of salvation and baptism being linked was further drifting apart.

What emerges from the preaching of the Revivalists was a need to experience the assurance of salvation or as Calvin earlier wrote…

In one word, he only is a true believer who, firmly persuaded that God is reconciled, and is a kind Father to him, hopes everything from his kindness, who, trusting to the promises of the divine favour, with undoubting confidence anticipates salvation; … none hope well in the Lord save those who confidently glory in being the heirs of the heavenly kingdom… the goodness of God is not property comprehended when security does not follow as its fruit.

John Calvin, Institutes, Book 3:2:16

Given the Protestant emphasis on faith, people felt it was important to not just know faith theologically but for it be experienced. The earlier Puritans (Protestant nonconformists) placed great emphasis on this and would often detail accounts that would lead to their salvation. Knappen, in his book on the Tudor Puritans, writes…

[besides possessing proper intellectual belief], One must next renounce and repent of every known sin. He must study God’s requirements as set forth in the Bible, realize his shortcomings, and “rip up” his heart in genuine penitence. Not only the present mode of life but all the past must be dragged into the white light of conscience, dissected, and examined with a determination to overlook no slightest failing or secret desire. When the depth of his iniquity became apparent, it was to be contrasted with the height of God’s standard, and one could then realize the hopelessness of his situation….Thus the penitent reached a state of “holy desperation.” Convinced of his extreme sinfulness and inability to help himself, he cast himself wholly on the mercy of God. Then came the peace that passeth all understanding, the definite assurance of salvation as the Holy Spirit convinced him that by justifying faith he was numbered among the elect. This experience was extremely important and was to be carefully scrutinized, for there were false feelings of repentance and counterfeit assurances of salvation which might deceive even the subject himself. These were, of course, worse than none at all, because they lulled the unregenerate into a false sense of security, which precluded further striving.

Tudor Puritanism: A Chapter in the History of Idealism p 393

It is hard to imagine the Revivals of the Protestant world existing in a context in which infant baptism is not the norm. It is also hard to imagine such conduct occurring in the early years of the church or the opening generations after the apostles themselves. Whilst the Protestant Reformation rightly placed a great emphasis on faith, the interplay between faith and baptism was something of an abstraction for many as evidenced by the fervour these revivals inspired. Faith had come to be expected after baptism and began to display itself in revivals as something that was accompanied by excessive displays of repentance and emotion. These displays were made in order that one might be brought to that position of assurance with regard to their salvation.

With the exception of the Methodist church, that emerged after Wesley’s death, the Revivalists didn’t so much as introduce their own institutions but rather fundamentally influenced existing Protestant bodies. Their emphasis on the need for being born again and the role of faith as being necessary for salvation also had a strong ecumenical impulse that had previously not been as widespread. The idea that a particular church held the keys to salvation or even a particular liturgy, was directly challenged. Instead, the idea of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ began to gain increasing currency. This impacted different denominations in different ways but over time Revivalism and Evangelicalism, in general, came to be represented increasingly by the Credobaptist traditions who were linking the idea of being ‘born again’ to baptism.

In his essay on the topic Presbyterian Rich Lusk wrote that based on statistics from the US General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church “In 1811, there had been 20 paedobaptisms per 100 communicants; by 1856, the ration was just over 5 per hundred” and “New England Congregationalism continually lost members to newly formed Baptist churches” and…

“A similar downgrade was occurring in other ostensibly Reformed denominations. The Dutch Reformed ration was only slightly better than the Presbyterian in 1856, at around 7 paedobaptisms per hundred communicants. Things were even worse in other bodies. The New School Presbyterians were leaving six out of seven children unbaptized. Paedobaptism was so rare among the Congregationalists by the mid-1850s that Hodge could truthfully claim, “in the Congregational churches in New England, infant baptism is, beyond doubt, dying out.” Only the high church Episcopalians [who believed in baptismal regeneration and rejected revival] seemed unaffected by the trend”

Rich Lusk Paedobaptism and Baptismal Efficacy: Historic Trends and Current Controversies, Chapter 3 in The Federal Vision.

And later on…

“Infants, it was thought, needed new birth, as well as adults. They could not be saved without it. But the only channel of the new birth which was recognized was a conscious experience of conviction and conversion. Anything else, according to Gilbert Tennent, was a fiction of the brain, a delusion of the devil. In fact, he ridiculed the idea that one could be a Christian without knowing the time when he was otherwise.”

Rich Lusk Paedobaptism and Baptismal Efficacy: Historic Trends and Current Controversies, Chapter 3 in The Federal Vision.

America and much of British Evangelicalism despite originating in the preaching and teaching of Paedobaptist ministers seemed led in subsequent generations to Baptist conclusions in the minds of a great many. Lusk in his essay on the topic goes at great lengths to point out how the covenantal justifications for christening were considered existentially uncompelling even to the laity of many Reformed and Calvinist churches in the US where “Any view of sacramental efficacy came to be regarded as ‘magic.’” (Lusk) and were instead linked to piety, conversion of the will and obedience to the commands of Christ. Lusk even quotes an excerpt from a Presbyterian minister from the mid-1800s whose theology was impacted by the influence of Evangelicalism…

[I]n heart and spirit th[ose] [who have received infant baptism] are of the world. In this aspect, how is [the church] to treat them? Precisely as she treats all other impenitent and unbelieving men—she is to exercise the power of the keys, and shut them out from the communion of the saints. She is to debar them from all the privileges of the inner sanctuary. She is to exclude them from their inheritance until they show themselves meet to possess it.By her standing exclusion of them from the Lord’s table, and of their children from the ordinance of Baptism, she utters a solemn protest against their continued impenitence, and acquits herself of all participation in their sins. It is a standing censure. Their spiritual condition is one that is common with the world. She deals with them, therefore, in this respect, as the Lord has directed her to deal with the world. . . . Is not their whole life a continued sin? Are not their very righteousnesses abominable before God? Repentance to them is not the abandonment of this or that vice; it is the renunciation of the carnal heart, which is enmity against God: and, until they are renewed in spirit and temper of their minds, they can do nothing which the Church is at liberty to approve as done by them. . . . As of the world they are included in the universal sentence of exclusion, which bars the communion of saints against the impenitent and profane. They are sharers in its condemnation. They are put, as impenitent, upon the same footing with all others that are impenitent. As rejectors of Christ, they are kept aloof from the table of the Lord, and debarred from all the rights and privileges of the saints.Their impenitence determines the attitude of the Church towards them; for God has told her precisely what that attitude should be to all who obey not the Gospel. What more can be required? Are they not dealt with, in every respect, according to their quality? . . . Is it not equally clear that their condition, as slaves, determines their treatment in all other respects, until they are prepared to pass the test which changes their status? Is not this precisely the state of things with the Church and baptized unbelievers? Are they not the slaves of sin and of the Devil, existing in a free Commonwealth for the purpose of being educated to the liberty of the saints? . . . But until they come to Him, [Scripture] distinctly teaches that they are to be dealt with as the Church deals with the enemies of God.

The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell pgs. 341-348

Which is really quite shocking considering this is coming from a Presbyterian minister. Going by his own reading he would reject John Calvin himself from the sacraments. Despite this, the practice of barring such people from the sacraments itself is one that ministers of paedobaptist traditions would have historically extended to baptist or Anabaptist believers in prior years. As we can see Lusk later contrasts this with another Presbyterian minister who wrote from the period…

If the sacraments are regarded as in themselves outward rites only, that can have no value or force except as the grace they represent is made to be present by the subjective exercises of the worshipper, it is hard to see on what ground infants, who are still without knowledge or faith, should be admitted to any privilege of the sort [quoted from pgs. 237-238, Romanticism in American Theology, Nichols] . . . [T]he Baptists . . . refuse to baptize infants, on the ground that they have no power to repent and believe in Christ, so as to be the subjects of that inward spiritual conversion of which baptism is the profession and sign, and without which it can have no meaning. What conclusion, indeed, can well be more logical, if we are to believe that there is no objective power, no supernatural grace, in the sacrament itself[?] . . . It belongs on the old order of thinking on the subject, as we have it in . . . Chrysostom and the Christian fathers generally, which made baptism to be the sacrament of a real regeneration by the power of the Holy Ghost into the family of God. Why then should it [paedobaptism] be given up, along with this [baptismal regeneration], as an obsolete superstition? It is becoming but too plain, that the Paedobaptist part of the so-called Evangelical Christianity of the present day is not able to hold its ground steadily, at this pint, against the Baptist wing of the same interest. The Baptistic sentiment grows and spreads in every direction. [Pgs. 214-215, “The Old Doctrine of Baptism,” John Nevin, Mercersburg Review, April 1860.] . . . On this subject of baptismal grace, then, we will enter into no compromise with the anti-liturgical theology we have now in hand. . . . It is impossible . . . to establish the necessity of infant baptism, except upon the ground that baptism imparts a special grace. . . . [Revivalistic Presbyterianism is therefore] hostile to infant baptism . . . in reality, whatever it may be in profession . . . and unfriendly, therefore, to the whole idea . . . it has been based upon in the Reformed church from the beginning. . . . To what a pass things have already come in this respect throughout our country, by reason of the baptistic spirit which is among us . . . [t]hose who have eyes to see, can see for themselves.

Vindication of the Revised Liturgy: Historical and Theological, John Williamson Nevin, in Catholic and Reformed: Selected Historical Writings of John Williamson Nevin p 399-400,

What is incredible is that Thornwell and Nevin were a minister and theologian, respectively, in the same tradition during the same period. As we can see the latter invokes the beliefs of the earlier church regarding the efficacy of the rite itself as requisite for salvation. Albeit in a manner that is operative “without knowledge or faith” in a recipient who has “no power to repent and believe in Christ”. Nevin subsequently invokes the name of Chrysostom ‘and the Christian fathers generally’ for a precedent of his own position. Personally, I find this notable given Chrysostom himself wasn’t baptised till 18 and many of his contemporaries were not baptised till even later in life (notably the other two Holy Hierarchs with Gregory baptised at 30 and Basil at 27 respectively). Whilst this doesn’t detract from the regenerative aspect of baptism present in their writings the inability or unwillingness to wrestle with the more complicated picture presented by the lives of such giants of church history is indicative of precisely where the traditional Presbyterian position imagines itself camped upon, justified or otherwise, and what such appeals represented to the mind of the writers like Nevin. In any case, Evangelicalism represented a grassroots holiness movement that had come to upset many now long-established orthodoxies and orthopraxis regarding baptism in the Protestant church.

Growth of Pentecostalism

The next major shift regarding baptism was to emerge in the late 19th century and was the movement known collectively as Pentecostalism. Pentecostalism emerged out of Evangelical communities that were distinguished by a combined belief in the imminent second coming of Christ, and claims that its members possessed apostolic power, to do miracles and exhibit spiritual gifts such as tongues and prophecy. Dwight L Moody, a preacher later linked with the movement (although wasn’t a Pentecostal himself) is quoted as preaching in 1875 his conviction that “the world was on the edge of a very great event” which was said to be either a ‘great war’ or the ‘second coming of Christ’ (Restoring the Faith: The Assemblies of God, Pentecostalism, and American Culture by Edith Waldvogel Blumhofer, p 36) and…

Moody—whose influence permeated much of popular evangelicalism at the end of the century—used the phrase baptism in the Holy Spirit to describe a profound experience he claimed had altered his spiritual perception … Because Torrey believed that the baptism with the Holy Spirit alone would facilitate the evangelization of the world before Christ’s return, he taught that Spirit baptism was mandatory.

Ibid, p 30-31

Moody and others like him were heavily influenced by the holiness movement and followed in the tradition of John Wesley. The idea of the baptism in the Holy Spirit as something distinct from baptism itself was a formalisation of the seed unconsciously planted when the idea of being born again was raised as a possibility distinct from baptism. Something only possible once baptism itself had been made ubiquitous and received without faith or confession.

It was only after Moody, however, that the idea of the baptism in the Holy Spirit would begin to be associated with the dramatic displays later associated with it. In the 1900’s the outbreak of tongues-speaking, claims of miraculous healings and other dramatic acts were all beginning to emerge. These were as Moody had earlier articulated aimed at the facilitation of “the evangelization of the world before Christ’s return”. As time has continued and the world has gone on these expressions of the holy spirit, in turn, have also informed later Pentecostal theology. One Pentecostal writing on the topic of baptism…

It is impossible to speak of the Pentecostal perspective on water baptism. The singular distinctive of Pentecostalism is that the Holy Spirit moves. Likewise, Pentecostal theology is dynamic rather than static. Pentecostal theology is developing; it is being formed, and will continue to be formed. … The Holy Spirit inspires a diversity of tongues which must be properly interpreted and discerned. The Holy Spirit inspires words of wisdom and knowledge speaking “with the tongues of men and of angels” (1 Corinthians 12:8-10; 13:1).1 The task of theology is to understand the mysteries of God. The theologian should be careful to remember that the best discernment, the best interpretation is likened to seeing “in a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Therefore, the unity of the faith depends upon the primacy of love and embracing the diversity of theological tongues. In other words, a diversity of theological expressions within the Christian church need not signify schism. Pentecostalism resists homogeneous expressions of Christianity.

Daniel Tomberlin, Believers’ Baptism in the Pentecostal Tradition p1

Many Pentecostals today, despite the tradition originating in Wesleyan holiness movements would deny any sacramental efficacy in water-baptism. Holding instead to a credobaptist view that such an act is an ordinance that is subordinated to conversion and baptism of the holy spirit which occurs distinctly from baptism as conventionally understood. One commentator stating that “Pentecostals at large will not own a view of sacramental efficacy that is determined to promote self-contained efficacy independent of the participant’s faith.” (Harold D Hunter ‘Reflections by a Pentecostalist on Aspects of BEM’ p 317). This position, however, has become significantly more nuanced with the advent of the Charismatic movement in the 1960s.

The influence of the later Charismatic movement

Early on Pentecostalism had established itself as its own tradition, it was rare to find a Pentecostal in another tradition as initially they were seldom tolerated or soon left to join a church that reflected their newfound theology. Over time, however, from the 1960s onwards Pentecostals were increasingly found in traditions that had not espoused Pentecostal beliefs. These included Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and more. This fusion between Pentecostal belief and other traditions reflected the earlier ecumenical mindset of the Evangelical movements and began to progressively exert a strong grass-roots influence on the theology of some of these traditions. An example of this can be reflected in the views of a charismatic Presbyterian, on baptism, who is quoted by Tomberlin as stating…

Rodman Williams (Charismatic Presbyterian) presents water baptism as an ordinance. As a cleansing rite, water baptism is a “vivid symbol” of forgiveness of sins in which there is a “close connection between baptism and regeneration.” Water baptism is a public declaration that “expresses an irrevocable commitment to Jesus Christ” and “relates to both a union with Christ and in Him to all other Christians.” Water baptism is not regenerative, but “may be the channel, or means, by which the grace of regeneration is applied and received.” However, water baptism is not “essential to salvation.” Water baptism is a symbol that “suggests an immersion in the Spirit is comparable to immersion in water.” Baptism is unrepeatable and its validity lies in the work of the Holy Spirit and the faith of the believer, not in the “human administrator” or practiced mode. Williams affirms the practice of infant baptism as an act of God’s prevenient grace but warns that churches that practice infant baptism should “make every effort to reinstate the baptism of believers.”

Daniel Tomberlin, Believers’ Baptism in the Pentecostal Tradition p4 citing J. Rodman Williams, Renewal Theology: Systematic Theology from a Charismatic Perspective, p 221-241

The fact that it found traction in Roman Catholic circles is also indicative that its identity as a form of distinctly Protestant theology was notably less firmly articulated by its predecessors. Richard Quebedeaux writes…

Protestants and Catholics, conservatives and liberals, do not automatically discard their own theological and ecclesiastical differences when they come together in the movement. Nor do the movement’s leaders themselves agree on the precise definition of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. Protestant Neo-Pentecostals, for instance, often view the Baptism of the Holy Spirit as a ‘second work of grace’ after conversion … Roman Catholics … look at the Baptism of the Holy Spirit as an interior experience (usually with outward manifestations) of the Spirit’s filling and transforming power in the life of a believer who has received the Holy Spirit through the sacrament of water baptism. The exact nature of the charismata (such as tongue speaking and divine healing) and their operation as outlined in 1 Cor. 12-14 are also debated …

Richard Quebedeaux, The New Charismatics p 153

An example of the Charismatic Roman Catholic view of baptism in the spirit is described as…

“Baptism in the Spirit is not a human intervention, it is a divine intervention. It is a renewal of baptism and of the whole of Christian life, of all the sacraments. For me, it was a renewal of my religious profession, of my confirmation, and of my priestly ordination. The whole spiritual organism is revived as when wind blows on a flame. It is the grace of a new Pentecost!”

Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa

And in 1992 Pope John Paul II said on the subject of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal…

At this moment in the Church’s history, the Charismatic Renewal can play a significant role in promoting the much-needed defense of Christian life in societies where secularism and materialism have weakened many people’s ability to respond to the Spirit and to discern God’s loving call. Your contribution to the re-evangelization of society will be made in the first place by personal witness to the indwelling Spirit and by showing forth His presence through works of holiness and solidarity.

Address of Pope John Paul II to the ICCRO Council: March 12, 1992

The Charismatic influence meant that whilst the Pentecostal understanding linked baptism in the holy spirit to the ‘finished work’ of conversion other movements leant in a direction more reminiscent of the ‘second work of grace’. Practically this meant that whilst one was converted at baptism, or according to the doctrine of a tradition, the manifestation of charismatic gifts was something that established itself sometimes years or decades after conversion. This reflected what John Wesley had described as ‘progressive sanctification’. The manifestation of such gifts of the holy spirit also became to be seen as a sign or seal of God at work in the life of the believer, drawing on verses like Romans 8:9-10. Exercising such gifts became linked with the idea of the assurance of salvation but entered into a public dimension that also became an indicator of spiritual authority. This heightened the role of experience and personal revelation in the life of the believer further.

Charismatics, therefore, differed from Pentecostals in their frequent maintenance of denominational sensibilities (notable for paedobaptists) although these were sometimes reinterpreted or found emphasis in new places. There is also often an attempt to reconcile the sacramental aspects of a tradition with the Pentecostal emphasis on the agency of the Holy Spirit on an individuals life. There is some evidence that this has impacted Pentecostal thought with recent commentators describing water-baptism as a means of grace, Tomberlin once more writes…

Kenneth Archer has presented a Pentecostal sacramentalism in the context of a pneumatic ecclesiology and a dynamic pneumatic soteriology in which the “sacraments are significant symbolic signs that bring transformative grace.” He laments that “some Pentecostals deny any ‘real grace’ being mediated,” reducing the sacraments “to mere memorial rites… devoid of the Spirit’s presence and power.” Archer insists that the sacraments are “redemptive experiences, for they provide worshipers with opportunities for the ongoing spiritual formation of being conformed to the image of Christ through encountering the Spirit of Christ through the participatory reenactment of the story of Jesus.” The sacraments “evoke remembrance of the past and provoke playful anticipation of a future (promise) that collapses into the present mysterious salvific experiences.

Daniel Tomberlin, Believers’ Baptism in the Pentecostal Tradition p9 citing Kenneth J. Archer, “Nourishment for our Journey: The Pentecostal Via Salutis and Sacramental Ordinances,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology 13:1

Which shows quite how far Pentecostal theology has moved from its early days in the 1900s. Some Pentecostals will now be willing to affirm the baptism of the holy spirit as a sacramental reality and that the apostolic witness saw this linked with water-baptism. Some Pentecostal commentators, therefore, draw a distinction between an ex opere operato view of baptism, that the act itself is effectual, and an ex opere operantis view of baptism, that the agent (faith) makes an act effectual. A Pentecostal might, therefore, argue that baptism is only salvific if entered into with faith just as a Roman Catholic might argue that a marriage is only sacramental if it meets the right parameters and conditions to be considered such. Pentecostal theology of baptism, therefore, describes sacraments as efficacious when the faith of the individual is the active ingredient. Since they view faith as the active ingredient, however, Pentecostals are significantly less dependant on a set structure for the liturgy of the baptism for it to be considered efficacious. This also means they practice what paedobaptists would describe as rebaptism except that, like Hubmaier, they would assert that a baptism without active faith was no baptism at all. Whether the act of coming to faith preceding baptism is freely exercised or itself an act of grace is a matter for debate amongst Pentecostals.

Church decline in the West and its impact on baptismal practice

Whilst the 1960s saw the advent of the Charismatic movement this was also a period which saw a notable decline in religious affiliation across the Western world. Reasons for this are debated but it has resulted in a situation where Churches are increasingly baptising adults. One Anglican commentator writes…

The Church of England baptises three times as many adults each year as the Baptist Union of Great Britain. This is a little known truth, obscured perhaps by the fact that the established church also baptises infants. Yet the official statistics are hard to argue with: in the Church of England from 2002-2010, for example, the number of people baptised on profession of faith rose from 8,400 to 11,160 (a rise of nearly a third). Surprisingly, perhaps, only about 60% of Anglican baptisms in 2010 were of infants under one year of age, as more and more older children and adults seem to be being baptised later in life.

Lee Gatiss, The Anglican Doctrine of Baptism in Foundations: No.63 Autumn 2012

The statistics that Gatiss draws upon also indicate that the only number of baptisms going up in the Church of England is that of those older than the age of thirteen. Whilst the case of the Church of England isn’t the only case like this it is arguably broadly representative of much of the West’s mainline churches. Albeit by some metrics doing better than others despite still experiencing an unprecedented decline.

Churches as a result, notably within paedobaptist traditions, have had to adapt to the increasing numbers of unbaptised individuals. Gone are the days when a prayer book for a church might be published without a rite for the baptism of adults. Some institutions like the Church of England are also now publishing and allowing the practice of services of thanksgiving to appear in liturgical texts being published. Gatiss also points out for us that in 2010, within the Church of England, the number of infants being dedicated in this way stood at 5,930. This is a minority but it was something I did with my own son mere weeks ago and is an option that previously wasn’t formally available in the Church until recently. This is down to arguably two reasons…

  1. The first is the rising number of the laity who are intentionally opting to allow their children to be baptised upon their own profession of faith.
  2. The second is in an effort to mitigate cases of baptism by individuals who have no formal membership or affiliation to the church.

In America, the situation may vary but for many institutional paedobaptist churches in Europe the baptism of a child, whilst not always an obligation anymore, still remains the right of a parent. This means that whilst some may place some expectation of commitment or membership to the church on the part of the parent the church has no ability to deny or withhold the baptism of a child. It also has no means to ensure the subsequent education of the child in the faith once baptised. Attitudes amongst clergy vary on this wherein some bemoan the fact that some enter into it without any seriousness and others see it as a good “boat to fish from” (albeit a shrinking one). Church historian and Anglican David Wright, however, commenting on such a situation describes it as a symptom of a “baptismally-reductionist church culture” (What has infant baptism done to baptism? p25). The questionable nature of approaching infant baptism as a boat to fish from is also reflected in the results of a study conducted by the Church of Scotland’s Committee of Mission and Evangelism Resources in 1997-1999 on the subject. David Wright writes…

Among the focus groups whose opinions it canvassed were four, in different kinds of social settings, representing the periphery of the Church – mostly people who called themselves Christians but rarely if ever attended church. A very clear majority of them (32 out of 40) believed that anyone who wanted should be able to have their baby baptised. Just over half (twenty-one) believed baptism had an effect on the child, while thirteen denied this. But when asked if a baptised baby was more likely to go to church when older all forty said no, and 32 out of 40 said the same about the parents of the baby being baptised. The juxtaposition of these two strong opinions – demanding baptism for any who wanted, and denying it had any bearing on later church attendance starkly illustrates what ‘the long reign of infant baptism’ has done to baptism.

David Wright, What has infant baptism done to baptism? p. 101, 102 quoting from ‘Infant Baptism and Mission and Evangelism in the Church of Scotland 1963-1997’ found in ‘Reports of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 1999’

Wright prior to this lambasts the appeal to an ‘invisible church’ to justify the embarrassment of ‘thousands, even millions of babies’ baptised by churches too eager to do so only to have them subsequently fail to mature into Christians after coming into their own faculties without any effectual theological formation. This is reflected in the fact that whilst groups like the Church of England baptise nearly 90,000 infants a year (roughly 13% of all UK births) whilst the equivalent number of confirmations stands at somewhere around 35,000. Which even then is not representative of the number of those confirmed who will remain a Christian in later years. Moreso, that confirmation itself has become seen a much more optional affair is indicative of institutional churches attempting to ‘broaden their net’ of those who might be considered full members in good standing with the church…

“The Church of England has relaxed its regulations, so that anyone who has been baptised can take communion, even in infancy if the priest agrees. Confirmation, then, has become much more of a conscious, opt-in sort of occasion”.

Paul Handley, Kate Middleton’s confirmed belief in the Guardian Newspaper

Suggesting that some churches view the answer to a decline in numbers as actually to persist and continue in loosening their membership requirements rather than arguably making them more stringent and focused on discipleship and catechism.

The long decline of catechism or education in relation to baptism is one long established and has ceased to find any institutionalised place in relation to baptism in the Protestant world for some time. If it has existed it has been ad hoc and free-floating by contrast to the prescription to baptise during set times. The exception to this is in the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches who have catechumenate periods in advance of adult baptism. The Rites of Christian Initiation of Adults in the Roman Catholic Church, a fruit of the Second Vatican Council, has also amongst other things sought to unify the practices of baptism, confirmation and first communion. Practices which as the normalisation of infant baptism took root in the church were separated.

The closest popular level equivalent of the RCIA in the Protestant world is arguably the Alpha course or Christianity Explored. However, the level of depth between the RCIA and these alternatives seems still to be differences of kind rather than a mere degree. The expansive nature of the RCIA points to the fact that it is targeted at those who possess a much higher degree of intent than those who are like to take up Alpha or Christianity Explored. On top of this, the adoption of the Alpha course by the Roman Catholic Church clearly communicates that they see such measures as an addition to the RCIA and not an alternative. The extended preparatory period is also, arguably, a recognition of similar periods of instruction evidenced in the first few centuries of the church. In it, we see a return to the scrutinies, exorcisms, creedal confessions and a liturgical structure mirroring the of the Apostolic Tradition associated with Hippolytus of Rome which conducts baptism either by triple pouring or immersion. The length of the RCIA is generally set but variable with the emphasis being on it taking as long as it needs for the individual concerned, this should be an indicator from the outset that the emphasis is on the individual. Maxwell Johnson in his book “Rites of Christian Initiation” calls the RCIA a “Copernican Revolution in sacramental theology today”. Arguably it is a revolution that looks to the earliest centuries of the Church for guidance.

In closing the practice and timing of baptism has changed a great deal from the early centuries. Even when the practice has stabilized the reasons for a practice have at times changed. The places where Christianity today is growing the most it is notably in areas outside of that which have colloquially been known as ‘Christendom’ where the identity of a people as Christian has for so long been taken for granted. This raises an interesting question about the future face of global Christendom and its theology as the movements carrying these growths have traditionally been minorities within Christendom. Evangelical Protestantism since the 1960’s has tripled the growth of the World’s population and doubled that of Islam (Bruce Milne, Know the Truth: A Handbook of Christian Belief p332). Doing so in regions like Africa, Asia, Oceania and Latin America, places not traditionally considered (Protestant) Christian heartlands. Despite this Roman Catholicism continues to grow slightly ahead of global population growth and the most widespread decline has been noted amidst the mainline Protestant traditions. Whilst paedobaptism is still the majority practice, as it has been for at least the last 1,500 years, credobaptism is more popular today than at any time in history.


In my first entry, I detailed my approach and understanding of scripture on the practice of baptism. In my second entry, I detailed my understanding of the witness and practice of the early generations of the church. In this third entry, I have attempted to chart notable developments in baptism, admittedly predominantly in the west, since the 5th century. This is my own attempt undertaken as a sleepless layman in both history and the church in my evenings and weekends with limited resources. People more erudite and well-read have done similar things with much a more systematic approach. Despite this, the process of reading up for this has been an education which I hope someone will find interesting.

I have chosen to emphasise those things I feel poignant or significant and some may disagree with my selection or the manner in which I discussed the topics in question. It should be no secret that I am a Protestant largely raised in the Church of England this will inevitably be reflected in my own writing as this is partly an attempt to make sense of the context in which I find myself.

My lasting impression, having read and written on this, was that the theological traditions that emerged over the preceding centuries seemed a lot more regimented on their baptismal practice than in the opening centuries of the church. The other thing that emerges is the interplay between grace and faith. Augustine taught that everything good was by the grace of God and this was reflected in the baptisms of the West right up until today. Yet the Reformation, in particular, placed an incredible emphasis on faith and its interplay with grace. This has been a tension not easily reconciled and I must confess on one hand I find the Roman Catholic teaching on the topic a great deal simpler but the idea salvation as ‘ex opere operantis’ existentially compelling. I also note that traditionally a theology of the sacraments has been consistent with regard to both communion and baptism. In this sense, I think the adoption of a covenantal framework for baptism and Calvin’s receptionist theology of communion are disparate. Luther is more consistent and arguably more in the vein of the Church he inherited and tried to reform, but I do not find his argument that baptism can create faith a compelling one. Later on, with the rise of Evangelicalism, I see a more compelling understanding of faith but a progressive retreat into a individualism over time that is hard to escape from. In Pentecostalism, I see a collapse into a strength of character rather than the strength of an argument.

In my last entry, I will try and articulate more fully what I think, with regard to baptism, in light of the prior three entries. More particularly my own reaction to Augustine’s teachings as I think they are pivotal in so many ways. I will also then reflect on where this leaves me and where I stand now in relation to the teaching and beliefs of the Anglican tradition in which I was raised and the Church of England that I am a member of. I will also, of course, try and outline where my conscience settles regarding baptism, its efficacy and our conduct with regard it.

2 thoughts on “On Baptism and it’s timing. Part Three: Witness of History

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