Foundations: No.63 Autumn 2012

Water-Ordeals of the Seventeenth Century: Should Baptism Divide?

Derek W. H. Thomas [1]

A comparative/contrasting consideration of the doctrine and practice of baptism in the Westminster, Savoy and Baptist Confessions of the seventeenth century. The paper concludes that there is evidence for a different understanding of the nature and scope of the covenant of grace as well as issues relating to the mode of baptism.

The doctrine of baptism raised temperatures in the mid-seventeenth century as much as it seems to do in our own time. Among some of the more colourful titles to appear in the wake of stormy debates was one by an anonymous (Baptist) author, Trepidantium Malleus, [2] A Snake in the Grass Caught and Crush’t, or a Third and Last Epistle to a now furious deacon in the Church of England, the Reverend Mr. George Keith, with some remarks on my former epistles to him, especially that against plunging in Baptism. [3] Rev. Keith and the pseudonymous Malleus spared little in tempering their language as they publicly debated the demerits of each other’s position on baptism.

Equally intemperate offerings came from the pens of a Presbyterian, Rev. Richard Carpenter, The Anabaptist Washed and Washed and Shrunk in the Washing, and the (Baptist) Ranter, Samuel Fisher, Baby-baptism mere Babism. [4] Less intemperate titles (if not content) included Thomas Wall’s A Necessary treatise for this age, or A Plain discovery of that great error of denying baptism with water to the children of believers. [5]  

Baptism – what does it mean?

Given this vitriolic engagement, it might come as a surprise to find that seventeenth century Calvinists were of the same mind as to the need for, and meaning of Christian baptism. Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Baptists insisted that baptism was necessary because the natural man inherits original sin and is constitutionally totally depraved. A survey of the Westminster Confession, the Savoy Declaration of the Congregationalists, and the 1677 Baptist Confession, [6] reveals a surprisingly unanimous opinion as to its meaning:

Westminster
Confession (1646)

Directory for the Publick Worship of God (1645)

Savoy Declaration (1658)

Baptist Confession
(1677/89)

“Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace, immediately instituted by God, to represent Christ and His benefits; and to confirm our interest in Him: as also, to put a visible difference between those that belong unto the Church and the rest of the world; and solemnly to engage them to the service of God in Christ, according to His Word” (27:1)

“Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church; but also to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in the newness of life.” (28:1)

“It is instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ: It is a seal of the covenant of grace, of our ingrafting into Christ, and of our union with him, of remission of sins, regeneration, adoption, and life eternal: That the water, in baptism, represents and signifies both the blood of Christ, which takes away all guilt of sin, original and actual; and the sanctifying virtue of the Spirit of Christ against the dominion of sin, and the corrupttion of our sinful nature: That baptizing, or sprinkling and washing with water, signifies the cleansing from sin by the blood and for the merit of Christ, together with the mortification of sin, and rising from sin to newness of life, by virtue of the death and resurrection of Christ.”

“A sign and seal of the covenant of grace… representing Christ and his benefits, confirming our interest in him, and solemnly engaging us to the service of God in Christ, according to his Word” (28:1)

“a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God through Jesus Christ to walk in newness of life” (29:1)

“a sign of fellowship with Christ in his death and resurrection, of being grafted into him, of remission of sins, and of giving up oneself to God, through Jesus Christ, to live and walk in newness of life” (29:1)


Among the points of agreement are:

  1. Baptism represents Christ and the privileges of fellowship (communion) with him
  2. Baptism represents forgiveness of sins
  3. Baptism engages those who receive it to serve Christ in a manner that is in accord with “newness of life”

However, paedobaptist and credobaptist agreement on these particular issues hides significant disagreement as to the meaning of baptism. Baptist logic argues that baptism represents these agreed aspects because the one receiving baptism is already a believer.  Baptism is a sign and seal of faith and therefore signals union with Christ, forgiveness of sins, and the need for sanctification in an already realised sense. Paedobaptists view it differently. Baptism is not so much a sign of faith, but a sign to faith. It points to realities that are actualised when faith is exercised but does not suggest when faith becomes a reality (or, that faith may never occur). 

For infants, as much as for professing adult believers, baptism both signs and seals union with Christ, forgiveness of sins, and the need for sanctification, but not in the sense that these are already in possession. Rather, they are a sign and seal of the gospel in which these benefits are promised to the one who believes. Subjectively, fellowship with Christ, forgiveness of sins, and sanctification are benefits only the regenerate knows. But objectively, baptism points to the gospel that elicits the response. [7]

Further points of difference relate to the robust covenant theology of the Westminster Divines and to the hermeneutical importance of a unified covenant of grace that spans both Testaments and includes, by way of implication, a unity of administration to those considered covenant members. Fundamental to the Westminster Divines is a theological premise that baptism is a sign and seal of the new covenant, which carries with it historical precedence of previous covenants in redemptive history. As such, there is already an expectation of inclusion rather than exclusion at the dawn of the new covenant era. This issue is of singular importance in ascertaining the core issue that divided paedobaptists and credobaptists.

A credobaptist hermeneutic, particularly one made from an assumption of a bi-covenantal theological framework (as the 1677/1689 Baptist Confession certainly is), [8] must address the issue of the way baptism and circumcision relate within the one administration of the covenant of grace that spans both old and new covenants. The statement in the 1677/89 Baptist Confession on the covenant is illuminating: “This covenant is revealed in the gospel; first of all to Adam in the promise of salvation by the seed of the woman, and afterwards by farther steps, until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament; and it is founded in that eternal covenant transaction that was between the Father and the Son about the redemption of the elect” (BC 7:3). Stating the relationship of covenant succession in redemptive history this way avoids the tricky issue of how covenantal continuity works from Abraham to Paul. Westminster’s more expansive declaration, including references to circumcision, is clearer: “There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations” (WCF 7:6). This opens the door for a view that insists that not only is there a continuity of one covenant of grace (as the 1677/89 Confession also suggests), but also continuity in the administration of its signs and seals

The Westminster Assembly’s discussions on baptism spanned almost a year (1645-46). The length of the debates reflect work done on separate documents (The Directory for the Publick Worship of God [1645], and The Confession of Faith [1646]), both of which have significant things to say about the sacraments in general and baptism in particular. [9] Prominent in the discussions was Stephen Marshall, a commissioner of the Assembly. Preached as devotional exercises held in the Abbey-church of Westminster to some of the Commissioners, Marshall chose as his topic, “On the Baptizing of Infants”. [10] The sermon was immediately attacked by the leading Baptist, John Tombes, and was equally speedily defended in a 250-page treatise, A defence of infant-baptism in answer to two treatises, and an Appendix to them concerning it, lately published by Mr. Jo. Tombes: wherein that controversie is fully discussed (1646).

The minutes of the Assembly [11] record a remarkable degree of discord over many issues, including the following:

  1. Whether baptism should be applied to the head and face of a child. [12]
  2. Whether baptism should involve one or three administrations of water (reflecting the Trinitarian “name” of Matt 28:19).
  3. Could a midwife bring a child for baptism in circumstances where the mother and father were unable to attend and the life of the child was under an imminent threat of survival? Questions of delaying baptisms were also discussed.
  4. Whether the parents ought to be catechised at the time of the baptism. [13]
  5. Are private baptisms allowable?
  6. Can infants whose parents are ungodly be baptised (as was the practice among the Continental Reformed churches)? [14]
  7. The efficacy of baptism.

It should be remembered that some of the proposals offered by the Westminster Divines were revolutionary. Outlawing private baptisms, for example, was passed relatively easily despite evident lack of precedent. Edmund Calamy (1600-1666), who presided over one of the largest congregations in London, noted that no baptisms had taken place in the church in the previous three years before the Assembly discussed this matter. [15] Robert Baillie, whose letters written during the Assembly are filled with delicious insights, wrote to his cousin, William Spang (who was in the Netherlands at the time), expressing his sense of relief at the ease with which private baptisms were outlawed:

We have carried, with much greater ease than we expected, the publickness of baptisme. The abuse was great over all this land. In the greatest parosch [parish] in London, scarce one child in a year was brought to the church for baptisme. Also we have carried the parents presenting of his child, and not their midwives, as was their universall custome. [16]  

Babies and the font

The 1677 Baptist Confession is clear enough as to the subjects for baptism: “Those who actually profess repentance towards God, faith in, and obedience to our Lord Jesus Christ, are the only proper subjects for this ordinance” (29:2). Both the Westminster and Savoy Confessions express similar statements: “Those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ” (WCF28:4; SD 29:4). [17]

 

Westminster
Confession (1646)

Directory for the Publick Worship of God (1645)

Savoy Declaration (1658)

Baptist Confession
(1677/89)

 

Subjects

(Adults)

 

“Those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ” (28:4)

 

“Those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ” (29:4)

“Those who actually profess repentance towards God, faith in, and obedience to our Lord Jesus Christ, are the only proper subjects for this ordinance” (29:2)

 

Subjects

(Children)

 

“also the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized” (28:4)

 

“also the infants of one or both believing parents are to be baptised, and those only” (29:4)

 


Baptists and paedobaptists affirm the baptism of believers and, with the collapse of Christendom in the Western world, it is not uncommon to see more and more cases of believer’s baptism, reflecting what must surely have been the case in the infancy of the church as it spread across pagan Europe.

The inclusion of the qualifier “only” in the 1677 Confession limits baptism only to believers, whereas both Westminster and Savoy add the clause: “…also the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized” (WCF 28:4; SD 29:4). In addition, the Savoy includes the phrase “and those only,” reflecting a suspicion in the late seventeenth century that discerning who may qualify as “believing parents” continued to be something of a problem.

Interestingly, the New England ministers adopted the Savoy Declaration virtually intact in the Reforming Synod 1679-1680 but left out “and those only.” The reason behind this omission was a desire not to limit baptism to the children of those who were converted. The Congregational churches of the New England colonies adopted the “Half-Way Covenant,” allowing children and grandchildren of the original settlers whose piety was considerably less than their forebears to be baptised. Savoy evidently agreed to no such practice.

No grounds for the baptism of infants are given in either the Confession or the Savoy Declaration, though the proof texts (added later in the case of the Confession) disclose the biblical underpinnings and theological contours of paedobaptist logic in the seventeenth century. In addition, the Directory for the Publick Worship of God provides further theological justification for the practice of baptising the children of believers:

That the promise is made to believers and their seed; and that the seed and posterity of the faithful, born within the church have, by their birth, interest in the covenant, and right to the seal of it, and to the outward privileges of the church, under the gospel, no less than the children of Abraham in the time of the Old Testament; the covenant of grace, for substance, being the same; and the grace of God, and the consolation of believers, more plentiful than before: That the Son of God admitted little children into his presence, embracing and blessing them, saying, For of such is the kingdom of God: That children, by baptism, are solemnly received into the bosom of the visible church, distinguished from the world, and them that are without, and united with believers; and that all who are baptized in the name of Christ, do renounce, and by their baptism are bound to fight against the devil, the world, and the flesh: That they are Christians, and federally holy before baptism, and therefore are they baptized. (Directory, Of the Administration of the Sacraments)

Earlier in the Westminster Confession, the Divines expressed a definition of the church in keeping with their paedobaptist belief: the church consists of those who profess their faith and their children (WCF 25:1). But what is the theological argument in defence of the baptism of infants of believers as understood by the Confession? Piecing all the information together provides the following line of argument:

  1. Children of believers are “within the covenant” (Larger Catechism 166).
  2. “The seed and posterity of the faithful, born within the church, have, by their birth, interest in the covenant, and right to the seal of it, and to the outward privileges of the church” (Directory).
  3. The principle of “believers and their seed” as having collective significance in both old covenant and new covenant: “the promise is made to believers and their seed… under the gospel, no less than the children of Abraham in the time of the Old Testament” (Directory).
  4. The unity of the administration of the covenant of grace, “for substance, being the same” in both Old and New Testaments. The consolations of the new covenant cannot therefore be viewed as less than those of the old covenant in which Abraham’s children received the sign and seal of the covenant (Directory).
  5. Jesus “admitted little children into his presence, embracing and blessing them, saying, For of such is the kingdom of God” (Directory).
  6. The Directory’s viewing as significant children “born within the church” is anappeal to 1 Cor 7:14, that the children of one believing parent is “holy” and separate from the world. The Confession adds the sentence, “the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized” providing as proof texts, 1 Cor 7:14 and the words of Peter at Pentecost in Acts 2:38-39, “the promise is to you and to your children.” Denying the view that the children of believers are in covenant with God renders Pentecost as the greatest act of excommunication in the history of the church.

As we have already seen, the shape of the argument in favour of paedo-baptism relies significantly on the contours of covenant theology as expressed in seventeenth century understanding. In particular, as we have seen, note ought to be taken of the robust expression of covenant continuity (rather than discontinuity) that pertains to the administration of the covenant of grace in both the Old and New Testaments, concluding with the statement, “There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations” (WCF 7:6). This statement, missing from the 1677/89 Baptist Confession in its briefer chapter on the covenant (Chapter 7), leaves credobaptist logic with only one option: baptism can only be applied to “those who actually profess repentance towards God, faith in, and obedience to our Lord Jesus Christ.” The divide stems from a fundamental disagreement on how the covenant of grace is viewed within Old and New Testament administrations. For Baptist polemics, a radical discontinuity exists at the point where the new order of things is seen to begin. Consequently, there is discontinuity of administrations of respective signs and seals.

“Dipping is not necessary”

A key issue in the Westminster debates on baptism related to its mode: “Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but Baptism is rightly administered by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person” (WCF28:3). The identical statement occurs in the Savoy Declaration (SD 29:3).

 

Westminster
Confession (1646)

Directory for the Publick Worship of God (1645)

Savoy Declaration (1658)

Baptist Confession
(1677/89)

 

Mode

 

“Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but Baptism is rightly administered by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person” (28:3).

“For the manner of doing of it, is not only lawful but sufficient, and most expedient to be, by pouring or sprinkling of the water on the face of the child, without adding any other ceremony.”

“Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water upon the person” (29:3)

“Immersion, or dipping the person in water, is essential for the proper administration of this ordinance” (29:4)

 
“Dipping… is not necessary” has been viewed as a concessionary statement along the lines of Calvin’s view of the mode of baptism. [18] Thus, the statement is read as suggesting that baptism means “immersion” but it is not necessary to immerse; sprinkling or pouring is equally valid.

Ecumenically pleasing as such a view might prove to be, had the Westminster Confession taught such a view, it is almost certainly not what the Divines intended, and that for at least two reasons. First, the minutes reveal that to the fore in the discussion were the views of John Lightfoot, whose expertise on matters linguistic and theological relating to baptism were second to none. Lightfoot was insistent that baptism meant “effusion” or “sprinkling” only. What the Confession intends is that “dipping” is not what baptism means. Once again, the Directory must be allowed to interpret the Confession. Its advice is explicit: “the manner of doing of it, is not only lawful but sufficient, and most expedient to be, by pouring or sprinkling of the water on the face of the child.”

“They are Christians” – the efficacy of baptism

Equally controversial were the views of the Divines on the efficacy of baptism.

Westminster
Confession (1646)

Directory for the Publick Worship of God (1645)

Savoy Declaration (1658)

Baptist Confession
(1677/89)

“grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it: or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated” (28:5)

“The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongs unto, according to the counsel of God's own will, in His appointed time” (28:6).

“The inward grace and virtue of baptism is not tied to that very moment of time wherein it is administered… and that outward baptism is not so necessary, that, through the want thereof, the infant is in danger of damnation, or the parents guilty, if they do not contemn or neglect the ordinance of Christ, when and where it may be had”

“grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated or saved without it; or that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated” (29:5).

“The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited and conferred by the Holy Ghost to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongs unto, according to the counsel of God's own will in his appointed time” (29:6).

 


The words that proved most controversial were those found in the Directory relating to infants presented for baptism: “they are Christians, and federally holy before baptism, and therefore are they baptized.” In addition, the words of the Confession itself prove equally difficult: “the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost” (28:6). The Savoy Declaration makes identical statements (SD 29:5-6).

Few statements have occasioned more reaction, then as much as now. The Westminster Divines viewed baptism as the instrument and occasion of regeneration by the Spirit, of the remission of sins, of ingrafting into Christ (cf. 28:1). “The Confession teaches baptismal regeneration,” concludes David F. Wright, and given his status as both a historian and theologian, it takes a degree of courage to fault him. [19] But fault him we do, and that on the “variety of qualifications” that Wright himself provides but found inconclusive. These qualifications demonstrate that whatever else the Divines understood by baptism, they did not view it as a regenerating ordinance, effective ex opere operato. The evidence includes:

  1. The inward grace and virtue of baptism is not tied to the moment of administration of baptism (Directory and WCF 28:6).
  2. Despite the importance of baptism, the neglect of it does not warrant a conclusion that the infant is in danger of damnation (Directory [20] , WCF 28:5).
  3. The clear reference to the work of regeneration taking place “in God’s appointed time” should be understood as occurring before, during, or after baptism (WCF 28:6 [21] ).
  4. The insistence on the Holy Spirit as the one who confers what baptism signifies moves the focus away from the ordinance itself as having regenerating powers (WCF 28:6).

Given these express qualifications, it is difficult not to draw the opposite conclusion than that of Wright’s, viz., that whatever the Divines were attempting to say it was not a view in sympathy with baptismal regeneration. What the Divines were attempting to express is admittedly difficult to define with any degree of clarity. That the “clarity” was not obvious to later generations of Presbyterians is evident from the fact that the offending phrase “they are Christians” was dropped in subsequent revisions of the Directory. Even the language of the Confession needs deft explanation. Thus, Wayne Spear, explaining the language of “exhibited” and “conferred” in WCF 28:6 insists in a parenthetical note that they are “synonyms”. [22]

Difficult as we may find the language of the Westminster Confession and Directory, the degree of baptismal realism in the language of the Divines is no more difficult than what we find in the pages of the New Testament. One imagines similar misgivings and charges of baptismal regeneration over such sentences as these, particularly if in view are infants:

  1. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death” (Rom 6:4).
  2. “Having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God” (Col 2:12).
  3. “Baptism… now saves you” (1 Pet 3:21).

The degree of linguistic gymnastics Presbyterians admittedly engage in to avoid the charge of teaching baptismal regeneration is equally as necessary to exegete Scripture as it is to exegete the Confessional statements on baptism. Of course, this is a point credobaptists employ, concluding the invalidity of paedobaptism. But the point I make here is simply that for paedobaptists, the Confessional and Directorial statements are no more difficult than the New Testament itself. It is a mark of the degree to which paedobaptist polemics have influenced contemporary paedobaptist thought that the latter find Pauline and Petrine statements of baptism in need of severe qualifications.

Conclusion

In analysing the three major Reformed Confessions of the seventeenth century, I have tried to show that it is not simply the mode or subjects of baptism that is at issue; it is an understanding of the covenant of grace as it operates redemptive-historically. Perhaps, the issue can be summed up in the citation of a single Old Testament verse in the proof texts provided in the Westminster Confession’s statement on baptism. Justifying infant baptism, the Confession cites Genesis 17:7, “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” Its absence from the 1689 Confession is understandable (all proof texts are from the New Testament alone), but telling. As one prominent credobaptist expresses it, following an affirmation of his commitment to a covenantal hermeneutic: “Furthermore, we believe that the promises to Abraham, which are fulfilled in the new covenant, are not the passing on of covenant signs to infant seed, but the promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon his elect Jew and Gentile seeds through faith in Christ.” [23] At the point of new covenant inauguration, there is a radical discontinuity in administration of signs and seals, a discontinuity that from a paedobaptist perspective renders Pentecost the greatest excommunicatory act in the history of God’s redemptive purposes.

The issue of baptism is hermeneutical as much as it is anything else. And for Westminster and Savoy, a hermeneutic of continuity in the administration of the gospel in both Testaments required a continuity of recipients of its signs and seals. It was more than a mere division over water. What Westminster and Savoy saw, in distinction to the 1677/89 Confession, was the need for a canonical approach to baptism. [24] There was more than water and infants at issue. It was, in fact, an understanding of the modus operandi of the covenant of grace.