Foundations: No.63 Autumn 2012

The Anglican Doctrine of Baptism

Lee Gatiss [1]

This article examines the theology of baptism found in the foundational documents of the Church of England. It expounds the Latin and English texts of the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, to see what they teach on the subject, noting especially the Protestant and Reformed (but non-Zwinglian) nature of the Anglican doctrine as well as some of its biblical and patristic foundations. A previously unnoticed example of the Articles’ dependence on Calvin’s Institutes is brought out with regard to infant baptism. Through a study of the liturgical expression of this theology in the various editions of the Book of Common Prayer it also highlights the importance of some historic moments of particular controversy, especially regarding the efficacy of baptism. With application throughout for confessional Anglicans today, it also concludes with a brief look at contemporary controversies surrounding the covenantal nature of baptism, and the current downplaying of baptism within Anglican Evangelicalism.


Anglicans are keen credobaptists. The Church of England baptises three times as many adults each year as the Baptist Union of Great Britain. [2] 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. [3]

This being acknowledged, Anglicans are also keen paedobaptists. Like the vast majority of Christians today, and the vast majority of Christians throughout history, they believe there is a scriptural argument in favour of baptising the children of believers. The Anglican Reformers at the time of the Reformation re-examined this doctrine, along with everything else they had inherited from the medieval and early church, with the same willingness to follow where the Bible led. Like the other magisterial Reformers on the continent, they worked extremely hard to see if it could be adequately grounded both exegetically and theologically. Despite the presence of radical Anabaptist voices making the case for abolition, they thoughtfully and deliberately concluded that, “The Baptism of young children is in any wise to be retained in the Church, as most agreeable with the Institution of Christ.” [4]

In this article we will examine the doctrine of baptism in the Church of England. We will look first at the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, to see what they teach on the subject. Second, we will sample the liturgical expression of that theology in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Along the way we will glance at the official Homilies and Canon Law of the Church of England as well, and touch on some historic moments of particular controversy surrounding this doctrine. Finally, we will note some recent developments and suggest a few ways forward for those who remain committed to the Protestant and Reformed doctrine of baptism. It is a doctrine under threat today, not merely of attack by its traditional enemies (folk superstition and Roman Catholicism), but also of neglect by its more natural defenders, due to widespread ignorance, misunderstanding, and diffident silence for the sake of pan-evangelical unity. My brief here is not to provide a full exposition of the biblical case for baptism or infant baptism in particular. [5] What I hope to show is that with a better grasp of the contours of confessional Anglican belief on the subject a right confidence in its Evangelical credentials can be restored, and a right perspective on its relative importance can be maintained. As will become clear, Anglican doctrine was not developed in an English bubble, remote from the wider discussion in the Reformed community on the Continent, and so I hope that this will be of interest and use also to non-Anglicans and those outside of England who share common roots in European Reformed thought.

The Thirty-nine Articles

In this first, and longest section, we will examine the Articles of Religion, which remain the official doctrinal standard of the Church of England. [6] Substantially drafted by the martyred Archbishop, Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) under Edward VI, they were edited by Bishop John Jewel (1522-1571) and reissued in their definitive form under Elizabeth I in 1571. [7] Today, no-one is to be ordained as a minister in the Church of England unless they “possess a sufficient knowledge” both of Scripture and the Articles, and ordinands are required to affirm their loyalty to this “inheritance of faith” as their “inspiration and guidance” for ministry. [8]

Articles 25-31 relate the Anglican doctrine of the sacraments, with Article 27 devoted to baptism and 28-31 to the Lord’s Supper. So we will look first at what Articles 25-26 teach regarding sacraments in general, with a particular eye on baptism, and then secondly at the specific statements about baptism in Article 27. What we will observe is that the Anglican doctrine of baptism is Protestant (not Roman Catholic) and yet indebted to the early church, and Calvinist (not Zwinglian) in its Reformed credentials.

1.  Effectual signs of God’s good will to the faithful (Article 25)

The Articles begin their sacramental affirmations by clearing the ground with some statements in Article 25 about sacraments in general:

Sacraments ordained of Christ, be not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him.

This opening paragraph of Article 25, which significantly echoes the Lutheran Augsburg Confession and the Second Swiss Confession, makes it clear that sacraments are not only badges or tokens of something in those receiving them. They may be that, to some degree, but they are not to be understood as solely anthropocentric and declarative of our profession of faith. Being baptised cannot simply be about the baptisand making a public declaration of faith and being marked out. The more Zwinglian approach to the Supper (sometimes called “mere memorialism”) and to baptism (as a human pledge of allegiance and sign of belonging) is here rejected as insufficient. Rather, the Article affirms that God truly does something through the sacraments, “he doth work invisibly in us” to stimulate and strengthen faith. [9] It is not the sacraments themselves which work; God works through them. That is not to say that our reception of them is inconsequential, a thought to which we will return in a moment. Yet it does argue that the sacraments are a gift from Christ whereby God does something; as opposed to them being a God-given way for us to declare something to him and/or others.

The Article continues,

There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord. Those five commonly called Sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and Extreme Unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel, being such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles, partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures; but yet have not like nature of Sacraments with Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God.

In line with the Continental Reformation, the Church of England affirms that there are only two sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper (not here called “the eucharist” or “the mass” it should be noted, but given the more biblical title from 1 Cor 11:20). Roman Catholicism acknowledged at the Council of Trent, and acknowledges still, seven sacraments, [10] and yet the Reformers rejected all those which had no specific dominical sanction. [11] That is, they did not repudiate marriage and other helpful ordinances, but they removed the sacramental aura from them, so to speak, and limited the number of sacraments to two. [12] They claimed the support of no less than Augustine for doing so. [13] They are gospel sacraments in that they rehearse and communicate the heart of the good news, the death and resurrection of Christ, and the need for faith in him. The modern trend (observable in some cathedrals especially) to refer again to ordination or confirmation as sacraments ought therefore to be resisted. [14]

The final part of the Article declares the true use of a sacrament:

The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them. And in such only as worthily receive the same, they have a wholesome effect or operation: but they that receive them unworthily, purchase to themselves damnation, as Saint Paul saith.

This at first appears to be more narrowly about the Lord’s Supper. It mentions the Roman abuses of the elements of bread and wine in the Supper, which were processed around and exposed in a monstrance (a fancifully designed vessel, often in a circular or sunburst shape, used to display relics or consecrated elements) for the adoration of the faithful. So-called “holy water” from a baptismal font might also be carried about, however, and used for blessing things or in making the sign of the cross on one’s forehead at various times. The Article rejects all these as wrong uses of the sacraments, which are instead to be “duly used”, that is, used according to Christ’s institution: water for baptising; bread and wine for consuming. As the influential German reformer Martin Bucer (1491-1551) wrote to Cranmer, concerning the superstitious practice of blessing and consecrating inanimate objects, “Our sacraments exist in use, they are actions”; apart from this use they are merely bread, wine, and water. [15]

Finally, the last sentence of the Article affirms that both sacraments have a “wholesome effect or operation”. Again, they are not merely empty signs. However, they operate in a wholesome and positive way only in those who receive them “worthily.” Those who do not, “purchase to themselves damnation.” Their spiritual efficacy is conditional. This takes up the language Paul used in 1 Cor 11:27-32 of the Supper: “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord… anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” It is noteworthy that the Article does not restrict this negative effect to the Supper alone but speaks of “they” and “them”, that is, both the Supper and baptism. [16] Those who do not receive the Supper rightly, eat and drink judgment upon themselves; those who do not receive baptism rightly purchase to themselves damnation (employing the more general language of “purchasing”, rather than Paul’s language of eating and drinking judgment, makes this warning applicable across both sacraments). As Gilbert Burnet says in his 1699 commentary on the Articles, the one who receives baptism without adding an inward profession of the outward faith, can only “aggravate his Damnation.” [17] The more puritan and Reformed Anglican, Richard Sibbes (1577–1635), also used this language of “aggravation.” [18] Or to quote a more recent commentary on the Articles by Gerald Bray, “If a sacrament is administered to someone who is not one of the elect, its effects will be the opposite of those intended.” [19]

This is entirely in accordance with Reformed thinking elsewhere. Calvin, for example, says in his sermon on Eph 2:11-13 of those who stray from the gospel, “the baptism we received in our childhood served no other purpose than to make us doubly guilty before God.” Those who were plunged into the superstitions of Roman Catholicism, he says, “had as good as renounced their baptism.” [20] He adds that,

we receive a singular benefit at God’s hand when we have the use of the sacraments, which are like guarantees that he takes and owns us to be as his household and church. It is true that if we abuse them, we shall pay dearly for it, but be that as it may, when the sacraments are used for the purpose for which they were ordained, it is certain that they are treasures which we cannot esteem and prize too highly. [21]

Likewise, Bucer, speaking specifically of infant baptism, wrote that “unless people show the greatest respect for the mysteries of Christ they receive them to their judgment.” [22] W. H. Griffith Thomas, commenting on the Articles, says that “the condition of the baptised is different from and superior to those who are unbaptised. It may be difficult in modern degeneracy to say that the baptised are better than the unbaptised, but speaking broadly it is so, for Baptism at least introduces the recipient to the sphere of the Church which on any view is decidedly higher and better than any sphere outside.” [23] He does not mean the baptised are “better people” as in nicer or more Christlike, of course, only that they are in a spiritually more privileged position. This naturally brings with it certain obligations. [24] So, if we abuse our baptism by not receiving it rightly (by adding to the outward sign an inward faith), we shall pay dearly for it. We shall be “doubly guilty”, that is, not just guilty of unbelief or superstition, but of defiling our baptism, rejecting the blessings signed and sealed to us in it. As Jesus said, “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required” (Luke 12:48). [25]

We ought to press the obligations of baptism more clearly. In the case of infant baptism, for example, it is clear that parents may well request it “moved by little more than social convention or… profound but inarticulate feelings of their child’s need of God’s favour.” [26] What a terrific thing it is when they voluntarily approach those who could lead them to a knowledge of God in the gospel! Yet if baptised, parents and their children who do not diligently attend the means of grace and have faith in Christ will have only made things worse for themselves on the day of judgment, not better. Their lack of faith will be counted as spiritual adultery and disloyalty to a solemn covenant, and therefore judged more strictly than if they had never come into contact with the gospel at all. It is neither kind nor pastorally wise to allow someone to enter into such a covenant without making these things absolutely plain.

My personal experience of having such honest conversations is that it can create greater interest in the gospel amongst non-church-attending, unbelieving parents who have a vague sense that they should bring their child to God but no real understanding of why. Once I was privileged to bring a new father to Christ himself first, and baptise him, before later baptising his daughter who he had originally come to see me about. He was struck by my explanation of the seriousness of what he was asking for and realised he needed to know more about Christianity. On another occasion, a father decided after much thought that he could not take part in his child’s baptism service because he realised after the weeks of preparation that he was not right with God and could not sincerely say what he was required to say publicly. This opened up more valuable evangelistic conversations. Bishop Colin Buchanan rightly suggests that “If we grant baptism on request, we trivialise the Lord’s provision, lead parents into declarations which mean nothing to them, and often precipitate a reaction against infant baptism by strong believers whom we thus lose to Anabaptists.” [27] It is certainly true that if we become mere dispensers of indiscriminate, unexplained baptisms we are missing out on the gospel opportunities which such baptism enquiries can open up, failing in our duties before God even while we attempt perhaps to be obedient to the letter of canon law.

2.  Depending on Christ’s promise, not “worthy” ministers (Article 26)

Article 26 roots the Church of England’s sacramentology in patristic wisdom. It is entitled, “Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacraments” and reads,

Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God’s gifts diminished from such as by faith, and rightly, do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.

Jesus once said to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice” (Matt 23:1-3). Similarly, within the church there will always be those who minister God’s word and sacraments whose ministry we can benefit from but who themselves do not practice what they preach. This Article addresses the concern of those who doubt the validity or efficacy of the sacraments administered by such people. “I was baptised by X,” they might say, “but look, I now see that he’s an immoral man who in his own life has rejected the very truths he taught me to love. Is my baptism still valid?” Sometimes even the faith of such people is rocked by some later-revealed unworthiness in the minister who baptised and discipled them.

Article 26, which has its roots in the Donatist controversy of the fourth century, asserts that the efficacy of the sacraments depends on Christ alone, and not on anything in the one who administers them. [28] As Paul told the Philippians, the important thing is not the minister, but that Christ is proclaimed (Phil 1:18). This is a teaching common to the churches of the Reformation, and was reasserted in the face of radical Anabaptist agitations on the Continent and the serious spiritual doubts which arose during the vicious religio-political swings of the English Reformation. It enabled those Protestants who were baptised under Roman Catholicism to have confidence in their baptism as resting on Christ’s institution and promise, and faith in this alone, and not on the godliness, soundness, or intentions of the priest who performed it. [29] People like Luther, Calvin, and Cranmer were not re-baptised once they broke with Rome. Without this sort of assurance, people would be subject to all kinds of spiritual angst for themselves whenever a minister did anything sinful. The impact and persuasiveness of a minister’s teaching may be damaged by, say, tax evasion, lust, and coarse language; but these do not hinder the effect of the sacraments they administer. The Augustinian-Reformation doctrine re-focuses people’s attention away from the human personality and back onto God and his word. In many ways, we ought to forget who baptised us. The worthiness or qualifications or celebrity status of the minister is not pertinent; what matters is being baptised in Christ’s name and trusting in him.

This is a vital point theologically, [30] and it is also made in other confessions and catechisms. [31] It is however also of course true that no church can retain the loyalty and true affection of its members for long without pious and godly leadership. Churches led by “the evil” will be dreadfully confused, sorely lacking in evangelistic fervour and the enthusiastic pursuit of sanctification. So for the health of the body, there must be effective discipline for those who are notoriously deficient. The end of Article 26 is clear that we must not simply accept false or immoral teachers passively within the church. We have a duty not just to avoid them but also to accuse and charge them before competent authority: “Nevertheless, it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that inquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally, being found guilty, by just judgment be deposed.” Baptisms carried out by such ministers are valid, by Christ’s ordinance and faith in him. But if found guilty they should be removed from spiritual leadership by those with the authority to do so, before their bad example or teaching leads others astray. As Michael Jensen and Tom Frame rightly say, “The expulsions from ministry envisaged by this article have perhaps been too infrequent.” [32]

It is a sad reflection that ungodly people sometimes have senior authority in the church. Some may say that this is to be expected in established churches which follow the Constantinian model of church-state relations, encouraging hypocrites to seek high office in the church. [33] Yet we know from all too sad experience that Anglican churches in England have no monopoly on unconverted, worldly leaders.

3.  An instrument of grace (Article 27)

Having made these opening remarks about the nature of the sacraments in general, the Articles then proceed to a specific statement about baptism:

Baptism is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened, but it is also a sign of Regeneration or New-Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of the forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed; Faith is confirmed, and Grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God. The Baptism of young Children is in any wise to be retained in the Church, as most agreeable with the institution of Christ.

This makes a number of key assertions. First, it begins with another “not only, but also” statement (as in Articles 25 and 28), thus showing that certain views, while not entirely inaccurate, were nevertheless inadequate. [34] Baptism certainly is a sign of our confessing the faith, and a sign of our profession in the sense of our calling to die to sin and live for righteousness. [35] According to the Article, those who are baptised are “Christian men” (if modern readers will forgive the lack of gender neutrality), while those who are not thus “christened” are not. Baptism helps people discern the difference between those who are and are not Christians. This takes up the outward, phenomenological language of the New Testament, which also gives the name “Christian” to those who are outwardly identified as followers of Christ. [36] It is important to note, however, that this is not the only way in which we today use the term. The way we use it, “Christian” very often means “true believer”, or is functionally equivalent to “elect” or “saved.” That is not the meaning here. The Article is certainly not saying that everyone who is baptised is a true believer or that they are going to heaven as a result of their baptism! The formularies are everywhere opposed to such ex opere operato theologising. [37] Rather, as the later Westminster Confession says, baptism puts “a visible difference between those that belong unto the church, and the rest of the world.” [38]

That being said, baptism is not solely an outward boundary marker. Anglicans assert that it is more than that. It is also a sign, an instrument, and a seal. As a sign it signifies regeneration (it does not, note, produce that new birth!); as Gilbert Burnet wrote, “this is not to be believed, to be of the nature of a Charm, as if the very act of Baptism carried always with it an inward Regeneration.” [39] As an instrument it grafts into the church those who rightly receive it (not, note, automatically as if by magic). [40] This accounts for the Reformers’ clear preference for baptisms in church rather than at home. [41] As a seal it authenticates the promises of forgiveness and adoption, as a visible word from God. “Faith is confirmed and grace increased” says the Article, but not, note, by virtue of the act of baptism itself but by virtue of “prayer unto God” (of which there is much, as we shall see, in the Prayer Book service). [42] Thus we see how carefully the Article makes positive statements about baptism while staying as far away from the false doctrines of Rome on this point as possible.

“In the wording of this Article,” claims Boultbee, “our Reformers seem to have borrowed little or nothing from other sources.” [43] On the contrary, the final phrase, “The Baptism of young children is in any wise to be retained in the Church, as most agreeable with the Institution of Christ” is most probably borrowed directly from Calvin’s Institutes. In the 1553 Articles, Cranmer had originally written, “The custom of the Church to christen young children is to be commended, and in any wise to be retained in the Church.” The final 1571 wording, that paedobaptism is “most agreeable with the institution of Christ” is, however, strikingly similar to the section heading added to Calvin’s Institutes, Book 4 chapter 16 in the final edition of 1559. [44] This reads, “Paedobaptismum cum Christi institutione & signi natura optimè congruere” (paedobaptism best agrees with the institution of Christ and with the nature of the sign). [45]

I think it is clear, then, that the Article here borrows a crisp headline from the Institutes. Whether it might also at some level therefore encourage Anglicans to look to Calvin’s exposition of infant baptism as a model biblical defence of the practice, I leave to the judgment of the reader. [46] The Article itself wisely does not set out a biblical case for infant baptism per se, leaving us a degree of latitude to argue for it in a variety of different ways, without being confessionally tied to any particular exegetical or theological reasoning. [47] It is certainly true that the Articles limit the options theologically, rightly filtering out several erroneous views; but they do not push for too much precision in between the extremes. [48] They also make no comment on the necessity of infant baptism, though the Roman doctrine of absolute necessity is certainly rejected, in view of the strong emphasis on salvation sola fide in the formularies. [49]

It is not even said in the Articles that it is an absolute requirement for Christian parents to baptise their children, however desirable it may be. It is clearly expected of Anglicans that they will do so, of course (and ministers were enjoined by the 1552 and 1604 Canons to seek out unbaptised children so they could be baptised). [50] If it is true that infant baptism “best fits with Christ’s institution” of the sacrament, as the Articles say, no-one assenting to them would wish to be thought a second best Christian! Certainly those who claim to be in accord with the official formularies should be content to baptise their children, and strongly advocate that others do so. It ought to be remembered, however, that only ministers are expected to declare any level of assent to the Articles; it is not required of each and every churchgoer that they do so. [51]

If this Article is true, then we must not so overvalue dramatic conversions (as wonderful as they are) that we think lightly of the tremendous blessing of being baptised as an infant and brought up to know and love the Lord Jesus from an early age. Nor should we feel we have to “leave it up to them to make the decision to be baptised when they’re older” as if this is somehow more authentic, either spiritually superior or more likely to produce the fêted conversion experience. Rather, we ought to think and speak more often of the common experience of baptised children who may grow spiritually into a deeper appreciation of the blessings signed and sealed to them in their baptism, in gradual or sudden ways analogous to physical growth (which can be slow and steady or come in spurts).

The Book of Common Prayer

Having looked at the Anglican theology of baptism, we turn now to examine, more briefly, its liturgical expression in the Book of Common Prayer. The authoritative edition is that from 1662, celebrating its 350th anniversary this year, though this is very close to the second Cranmerian Prayer Book of 1552, and is substantially just a lightly amended evolution of that earlier book. [52] We will unpack the baptismal service in the 1662 book, as opposed to the more modern liturgies of Common Worship, since the BCP alone has “confessional” status. As we will see, it is important to note that this must be read through the primary lens of the Articles and not be interpreted in such a way that it serves an agenda foreign to them. [53]

The first thing to note about the infant baptism service is that it is focused on prayer and instruction. [54] It begins with as clear a declaration of the need for God’s initiative in salvation as one is likely to hear in any liturgy:

Dearly beloved, forasmuch as all men are conceived and born in sin, and that our Saviour Christ saith, None can enter into the kingdom of God, except he be regenerate and born anew of water and the holy Ghost; I beseech you to call upon God the Father, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that of his bounteous mercy he will grant to this child that thing which by nature he cannot have, that he may be baptized with water and the holy Ghost, and received into Christ’s holy Church, and be made a lively member of the same.

There then follow two long prayers to that effect, a Bible reading (Mark 10:13-16) and an exhortation based upon that reading, and another prayer. [55] The godparents then declare the faith in which the child is to be brought up (using the words of the Apostles’ Creed), followed by another prayer, that the old Adam in the child might be buried and the new man raised up. Another prayer, linking the efficacy of baptism to the cross of Christ and alluding to the Great Commission, then asks that the child “may receive the fulness of thy grace, and ever remain in the number of thy faithful and elect children.” The child is then baptised in the name of the Trinity, [56] after which follows the Lord’s Prayer, and a thanksgiving prayer. The service closes with an exhortation to the godparents in which they are strongly urged to make sure the child hears sermons and is taught to recite the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments “and all other things which a Christian ought to know and believe to his souls health,” as well as being “vertuously brought up to lead a godly and a Christian life” of dying to sin and living to righteousness. It is clear that baptism is an initiation into a lifelong battle against indwelling sin, the world, and the devil, requiring God’s constant grace and biblical encouragement. It is not a once-and-for-all pseudo-magical charm which guarantees salvation by virtue of the external act, but (as the BCP Catechism puts it), “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” [57]

Puritan exceptions to the 1662 baptism service were various. [58] They thought ministers should not be forced to baptise the children of atheists, infidels, or heretics of course, or of unbaptised or excommunicated parents. They also wanted the power to refuse baptism to the children of “notorious and scandalous sinners” until their parents had repented. They asked for more notice to be given to the minister than just 24 hours. [59] They were against the imposition of godparents too, since Scripture does not mention them whereas it does particularly mention parents (especially fathers) which the liturgy does not. [60] The main sources of controversy, however, surround the two paragraphs immediately following the baptism itself, where the child is signed with the sign of the cross and where the minister says “Seeing now, dearly beloved brethren, that this child is regenerate and grafted into the body of Christ’s Church…” [61]

Concerning the sign of the cross, this is part of a wider debate about church ceremonies that was going on throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Cranmer, like Calvin, saw that “although the basic core of the baptismal rite had remained intact, it had been incrusted by a number of superstitious rites which had obscured the basic sacramental action.” [62] These included anointings with oil, chrism, repeated exorcisms (where unclean spirits were bidden to come out of the child and leave it alone in future), the giving of candles, and other things which made baptism appear more like the initiation ceremonies for ancient Greek and Roman mystery cults. “How much better it would be to omit from baptism all theatrical pomp, which dazzles the eyes of the simple and deadens their minds,” said Calvin. [63] Influenced also by the Continental Reformed theologians Vermigli and Bucer, Cranmer had actually done away with almost all such ceremonial accretions in the baptismal rite. In 1549 there remained several places in the service marked with a black cross, to indicate the sign of the cross should be made, as well as both anointing with oil and the “white vesture” or “crisome” for each child. [64] In the reformed service of 1552 (and hence 1662) these were all abolished and the signa crucis replaced by this one signing, of the child, explained by the minister. [65]

The Puritans, however, saw that this appeared to be “a sacrament within a sacrament.” Since it was not part of the biblical institution of baptism, they said, it would be better not to confuse the central matter by adding a ceremony which might imply the baptism itself was incomplete. Indeed, some complained that not only did Roman Catholic theologians ascribe numerous supernatural effects to signing with the cross, but “the common people in many parts of the land… hold that their children are not rightly baptized without it.” [66] A clarifying Canon was promulgated in an attempt to address this concern, [67] but whatever legal canons say is in practice irrelevant to ordinary people attending and observing a church service, and so practically many felt (and may still feel) that the signing was a potentially misleading distraction, like other distractions added to baptism then and now. [68] Martin Bucer told Cranmer, however, that he considered the sign here a very simple and effectual reminder (“admodum simplex, et praesentis admonitionis”) of the cross of Christ, provided it was strictly understood, without superstition or merely casual adherence to custom. [69]

Concerning the language of baptismal regeneration, it is well worth noting that until the Laudians made too much of this in the 1620s and 1630s, even the Puritans had not, on the whole, objected to it. That is, they understood what it meant, in harmony with the Articles, and did not imagine that it was an affirmation of the Roman Catholic doctrine of regeneration ex opere operato. Even that most Protestant Queen, Jane Grey, could affirm against her Roman Catholic interrogator that, “By the sacrament of baptisme I am washed with water and by the Spirit regenerated.” [70] Martin Bucer spoke of it as being reborn in the church (“in Ecclesia renasci”). [71] As Robert Letham rightly says, “The Reformed confessions are clear on the connection between baptism and regeneration. While they consistently oppose the Roman Catholic doctrine of ex opere operato, which asserts that the sacraments are efficacious by the fact of their use, they are equally severe on those who would reduce baptism and the Lord’s Supper to mere symbols.” Indeed, Reformed theologians often refer to baptism as “the laver of regeneration.” [72]

It was only as the more ceremonial “high church” party began to interpret such things in a more Romanising direction that the Puritans began to take exception to it. At the 1661 Savoy Conference, then, they objected to this phrase, saying “We cannot in Faith say, that every Child that is baptized is regenerated by God’s Holy Spirit; at least it is a disputable point, and therefore we desire it may be otherwise expressed.” [73] The phrase is patient of a soundly Reformed and biblical interpretation, [74] and Ashley Null concludes from a wider study of his thought that “Cranmer thought paedobaptism effective only for the elect.” [75] So we must understand this phrase as liturgical language, claiming in the judgment of charity and faith what has been prayed for throughout the rest of the service. It is not making a presumptuous statement about the child’s salvific state, and is not at all contrary to the whole receptionist, faith-conditional doctrine of the sacraments found throughout the Thirty-nine Articles (which we have seen above). As Dyson Hague put it,

All the troubles in regard to our Baptismal Service have come from disintegration or misinterpretation. The teaching of the Church on baptism must never be taken in segments, nor are fragmentary elements of the service to be excised or protruded. Articles, Catechism, and Baptismal services form one perfect whole, and it is only in as far as all and each of these are weighed, compared, and mutually interpreted that the doctrinal integrity and beauty of the Church’s teaching can be maintained. [76]

This understanding of the language of the Prayer Book was tested in the mid nineteenth century in the so-called Gorham Case. George Gorham was barred from taking up his role as vicar of Brampford Speke by Bishop Phillpotts of Exeter who found, after grilling Gorham with 149 questions covering 52 hours over 8 days in 1847 and 1848, that his doctrine of baptismal efficacy was unsound. Gorham was an Evangelical, and held (broadly) to the view I have outlined here, which the Archbishop of York at the time declared was “nearest to the mind of the Reformers.” [77] Gorham’s appeal went all the way up to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, which found in his favour: “opinions, which we cannot in any important particular distinguish from those entertained by Mr. Gorham,” they ruled, “have been propounded and maintained, without censure or reproach, by many eminent and illustrious prelates and divines who have adorned the Church from the time when the Articles were first established.” [78]

This gave great encouragement to Victorian Evangelicals. [79] In a context where Tractarianism was seeking to re-read the Articles and Prayer Book in a way more sympathetic to Roman Catholicism (e.g. John Henry Newman’s Tract 90), this was a resounding vote in favour of the Reformed and Evangelical doctrine of the sixteenth century Reformers. So, for example, J. C. Ryle could, without any hesitation, declare that, “To maintain that every child who is baptized with water is at once regenerated and born again, appears to turn the sacrament of baptism into a mere form, and to contradict both Scripture and the Thirty-Nine articles.” [80] The whole episode established the primacy of the Articles as the hermeneutical grid through which the Prayer Book was to be understood, thanks in large part to the work of William Goode, Rector of St. Antholin’s church in London. [81] Evangelicals began to appreciate their Reformation heritage more after the Gorham judgment, and to cooperate more freely with nonconformists as a result, less worried about High Church critics questioning their Anglicanism. [82]

There has always been a spectrum of evangelical opinion on this subject. Though all would reject the Roman Catholic view, some have always been more Zwinglian, so to speak, and felt uncomfortable with anything more than symbolic, tokenistic language. Socinians, who rejected orthodox Trinitarian theology for a rather flat and blinkered (supposedly “Bible alone”) hermeneutic, also took this view, even denying that baptism was to be continued at all after the first century. [83] Some evangelicals have approached this conclusion in recent years, notably David Broughton Knox who seems to make baptism a merely optional (and in many contexts an inappropriate or meaningless) act. [84] The formularies, and Reformed theologians generally, declare this view biblically inadequate. Most evangelical Anglicans have taken the hypothetical, conditional view of baptismal efficacy. Others have also held to the view that as well as signifying these conditional blessings, baptism truly does admit a child into the privileges of the church in a covenant relation to God, and that this is such a great and distinctive blessing as to deserve the name regeneration. Yet regeneration is not by them understood as conversion, or the spiritual transformation of the soul. Thus Griffith Thomas comments that, “Baptismal Regeneration is twofold. Regeneration is birth into the visible Church; conversion is birth into the Church invisible… So that Baptism is the introduction of the recipient, whether adult or child, into a new condition or relation. It must not be overlooked that since the Puritan age Regeneration has come to mean renovation or conversion. But this was not the meaning of the Reformers, nor has the idea been changed in the Prayer Book.” [85]

Nineteenth century commentator T.P. Boultbee outlined four schools of thought on this subject: A1 was the Tridentine ex opere operato view; A2 was a more high church Anglican view, similar but not identical to that; A3 was this objective covenant view. All of these saw baptism as actually doing something in and of itself, though how that thing was conceived was very different, depending on what was meant by “regeneration.” Boultbee’s fourth category, B, was the hypothetical, conditional view. He claimed that the majority of evangelicals were of this view, but “not a few of them, including men of considerable learning, belong to the class A3.” [86] He may have been thinking of H.C.G. Moule, or the great Charles Simeon, who wrote of an objective covenant in baptism but also of the need for a truly spiritual regeneration: “We are indeed received into covenant with God in baptism; but it is regeneration that really makes us his children.” [87] Boultbee is quick to add that we must be careful to ask always what is meant by regeneration and what precisely is thought to be conveyed invariably by baptism. “Failing that,” he warned, “it is apparent that such a gross absurdity might result, and in fact has resulted, in ignorant or careless minds, as the confusing of an extreme Tridentine divine with a moderate English Churchman of the class A3; for each of them teaches invariable baptismal regeneration, but each means a widely different thing.” [88] This is no less true in 2012 than it was in 1875.

The idea that baptism automatically produces a spiritual new birth is a problem within a particular conception of salvation. When it is understood that salvation from God’s right judgment on us due to our rebellion against him, purchased by Christ on the cross, is applied to us by the Spirit in the new birth, there are two views: Evangelicals want to link that new birth with election and faith; Rome links it to the sacraments. But the salvation thus acquired is in many respects the same. A wholly different conception of what salvation actually is, however, is at play in some of today’s liturgies. The official commentary on Common Worship for example claims that the world’s biggest problem is that it is “subject to forces other than God… social blindness and estrangement is the root sin of which actual sins are symptoms… The root remedy for sin is therefore the creating of relationship in a community centred on God with a new pattern of life. For their right growth new human beings need to be grafted in from the start.” [89] This makes salvation from sin a horizontal thing, so to speak, more than a vertical one. Being in the community and conforming to it is what counts, and in such a context baptism is most importantly a boundary marker of corporate belonging. The commentary also focuses on “how entry into the new community is also entry into the life of the Trinity,” with clear allusions to the Eastern doctrine of theosis, or deification. [90] In such a situation it is clear that the debate here is not over the means of grace alone and how salvation is applied, but over what salvation is. To address this, a much longer article would be required!

Some contemporary issues

It is noteworthy that in none of the texts we have surveyed above, the Articles, Prayer Book, and Canons, does the word “covenant” occur with regard to baptism. This may be surprising, given that almost all theological discussion of sacraments is suffused in covenantal terminology. The earliest commentary on the Articles for example says, “Children belong to the Kingdom of Heaven… and are in the covenant; therefore the signe of the covenant is not to bee denied them.” [91] Richard Sibbes concurred, preaching that “Whence we see a ground of baptizing infants, because they are in the Covenant. To whom the Covenant belongs: the seal of it belongs.” [92] “Sacraments are federal acts,” says Burnet, [93] while Dyson Hague adds that “the Baptismal service is a covenant service,” and “the basic underlying principle of infant baptism is the principle of federal union or covenant right.” [94] Griffith Thomas sums it all up when he writes that, “The doctrine of Baptism is best understood when we remember that God has made with man a covenant,” and “we may regard Baptism as the formal act by which we embrace God’s covenant.” [95]

It would of course be absurd to suggest that the sacraments have nothing to do with the biblical theme of covenant. The mere absence of the buzz word does not mean the concept and reality is not present. [96] The word covenant only appears once in the BCP marriage service (in a prayer), and yet marriage is foundationally a covenant, biblically speaking. [97] It seems best to conclude then that the federal, covenantal nature of baptism is everywhere assumed by Anglican texts. Though it may be true that the Anabaptist challenge of the sixteenth century made Reformed theologians work harder at grounding the doctrine biblically and systematically, covenant theology (including its application to infant baptism) does of course have both a patristic and medieval pedigree. [98] The largest treatise on covenant theology in the seventeenth century was indeed written by a paedobaptist Anglican minister. [99]

More recently, however, covenantal infant baptism has fallen on hard times within Anglican Evangelical circles. Despite its pedigree amongst the leaders of post-war evangelicalism such as John Stott and Alec Motyer, it has come to be viewed by some with suspicion. [100] Baptism is of course one of those subjects on which Anglicans have obvious differences with many of our closest friends and gospel partners in non-Anglican churches (and often within our own congregations). So perhaps a certain reticence to discuss this potentially divisive “distinctive” is therefore understandable, especially given the complexity of disagreements over covenant theology. Yet secondary issues are not unimportant issues, and with care it should be possible robustly to expound a view on such matters while graciously maintaining fellowship with brothers and sisters who read the Scriptures differently at this point. Sadly, however, as a result of this and other trends (such as a knee-jerk anti-Romanism), at many Anglican Evangelical baptisms one is likely to hear only a list of things which baptism is not, rather than a clear and robust exposition of its covenantal basis, blessings, and obligations. Little wonder, then, if people go away with the impression that we are embarrassed about infant baptism and do not take it as seriously as Anglican Evangelicals have done in the past.

Hence it would seem that there is some confusion regarding baptism in a number of Anglican Evangelical churches at present. As a result, many have lapsed into either Zwinglianism or a kind of default anti-paedobaptism, because these seem easier to understand and feel most distant from Roman Catholicism. [101] This mystification in the pews may be due partly to the absence of seemingly trustworthy material on the subject. There are many Presbyterian works of great value, clarity, and erudition, [102] but less from a distinctively Anglican perspective that is dependable. [103]   Our modern liturgies are often deliberately ambiguous, overstuffed with complex symbolism, and usually left unexplained. Few expository preachers would pause in a standard Sunday sermon to unpack the implications of their text for the doctrine of infant baptism (or perhaps, any other doctrine). It is to be feared, therefore, that congregations are not often exposed to the biblical and theological reasoning behind the practice, which leaves them only with superstitious or erroneous explanations from less reliable sources that can quickly be dismissed by the biblically literate. It may also be that uncertainty in the pews is due to uncertainty in the pastor’s study, for which a general downplaying of doctrine and church history might well be responsible.

In addition, there are movements within Reformed and conservative evangelicalism at present, with support from certain circles in the United States, which are strongly and passionately paedobaptist but which also defend some less mainstream views. ‘Federal Vision’ theology, for example, has proved to be somewhat divisive and controversial, and theologians associated with this movement have written and focused much in the last few years on issues of covenant and baptism. [104] Yet it would be illogically sloppy to so associate a belief in infant baptism with the Federal Vision that holding to the former was thought to automatically implicate every paedobaptist in the perceived peculiarities of the latter (be it post-millennialism, preterism, or paedocommunion). Some critics who are less enamoured by Reformed theology generally can see a Romanising “high church” drift or an American home-schooling conspiracy behind everyone who holds convictions regarding infant baptism, even just standard centuries-old Anglican convictions. Yet a greater awareness and appreciation of our Reformation (and post-Reformation) heritage could prevent such over-reactions. But on this subject, I defer to the authority of our beloved Bishop J. C. Ryle:

The subject of infant baptism is undoubtedly a delicate and difficult one. Holy and praying men are unable to see alike upon it. Although they read the same Bible, and profess to be led by the same Spirit, they arrive at different conclusions about this sacrament. The great majority of Christians hold, that infant baptism is Scriptural and right. A comparatively small section of the Protestant Church, but one containing many eminent saints among its members, regards infant baptism as unscriptural and wrong… But the difference now referred to, must not make members of the Church of England shrink from holding decided opinions on the subject. That church has declared plainly in its Articles that ‘the baptism of young children is in any wise to be retained, as most agreeable with the institution of Christ.’  To this opinion we need not be afraid to adhere. [105]

May this article go some way towards helping Anglican Evangelicals to recover that same gracious, yet unashamed, confidence.