Hughes Old & the Reformers on Baptism

Reformers Wall -  Farel Calvin Beza Knox

Yesterday I posted some of Hughes Old’s quotes from The Shaping of the Reformed Baptismal Rite in the Sixteenth Century. All those quotes focused on the Anabaptist view of baptism. Today I want to post some quotes from the same book about the Reformers’ view of baptism, in particular infant baptism. The titles in bold are mine.

The Primacy of Grace

At the very heart of the Protestant Reformation was the revival of Augustinian theology with its strong emphasis on the primacy of grace.  The Reformers believed that God took the initiative for humankind’s salvation. In light of such a strong doctrine of grace the baptism of infants was quite understandable.  In fact,  the baptism of infants demonstrated very powerfully that our salvation rests not on any knowledge or work or experience or decision of our own, but entirely on the grace of God.

Thoroughly Consistent

Another matter which should be equally clear from this study is that the position of the Reformers in regard to infant baptism was an integral part of their whole theology. It is not as though baptizing very young children was a strange inconsistency which was perpetuated out of habit.  It is not as though here was a place where the Reformers strangely neglected to apply their usual principles of reform…The baptism of infants was a logical corollary of sola gratia, for it clearly demonstrated prevenient grace…Far from being a failure to carry through their reforming principles to their logical conclusions, the Reformers’ position on infant baptism was thoroughly consistent with their whole program of reform.

A Gracious Covenant

While the Anabaptists spoke of baptism as a sign of faith that was already present, the Reformers more and more speak of it as a sign of God’s promise to give faith by uniting the child to Christ.  It made sense to the Reformers to include children in the covenant because they understood the covenant primarily as a gracious promise given by God, while the Anabaptists,  on the other hand, understood the covenant as a contract entered into by mutually consenting parties.

Planted in the Field of Grace

Oecolampadius [A Reformer] in his reply to Balthasar Hubmaier [An Anabaptist leader] stresses that by making the child a member of the Church he is planted n the field of God’s grace where, as it were, one can expect the cultivation of the Holy Spirit. In the fellowship of the Church the children are gathered about the fountain of God’s grace. It is from that fountain of God’s grace that we can expect faith to come. In the fellowship of the Church God’s Spirit can use the faith of other Christians to work faith in the heart of the child. The key to the position of Oecolampadius is his strong doctrine of the sovereignty of God. In the last analysis the basis of our salvation is God’s grace.

Not Going Back

An appreciation of the Augustinian doctrine of grace was one of the fundamental insights of classical Protestantism. It was this appreciation for grace which led the Reformers out of late medieval Scholasticism, and the Reformers were not about to be charmed back into it by the Anabaptists. The Anabaptists were Pelagian and just as voluntaristic as the late medieval Scholastic theologians. In continuing to baptize infants the Reformers were only confirming their original Augustinianism. The baptismal rites they developed bore witness  to a strong doctrine of grace. They were confident that the God who had so graciously made them members of the covenant community would be just as gracious to their children, and so they baptized their children. It was not because of a superstitious belief that their children would be saved by some magical ceremony, but out of faith in the covenant promises of God.

At the Beginning

All these [baptismal] prayers have a common theme. Baptism stands at the beginning of the Christian life as the visible Word of God, the promise of the gospel, that in Christ all sins have been washed away, are being washed away, and will be washed away. Baptism of the sealing  of the divine promise on which are grounded all the prayers for growth in grace which every Christina pours out in the course of his or her pilgrimage. The waters of baptism flow from the beginning of the Christian life all the way to paradise.

3 thoughts on “Hughes Old & the Reformers on Baptism

  1. Pr. Peter,

    Please indulge a question from a recovering Anabaptist who finds most Reformed soteriology overwrought. In your quote from Old above, we have this:

    “… they [the Reformers] baptized their children … not because of a superstitious belief that their children would be saved by some magical ceremony, but out of faith in the covenant promises of God.”

    I do not see how faith in the covenant promises of God militates in favor of executing the rite upon infants. I’m not party to all that passed between Oecolampadius and Hubmaier, but I can easily imagine Hubmaier replying to Oecolampadius this way:

    “Well, our children – our unbaptized children! – also are reared in fields of grace. We too rear our children in the fellowship of the Church. Our unbaptized children, like yours, are gathered about the fountain of God’s grace as they live amongst us in the fellowship of the baptized.

    “And so we, too, can expect faith to come, and we see that it does, just as much or as often as you do. Our unbaptized children are reared in the fellowship of the Church, where God’s Spirit can use the faith of other Christians to work faith in the heart of the child.

    “You so-called Reformed folk seem to be just as nominalist as those Scholastics you think you’ve rejected – you want to say that your children are members of the Church and you think baptism makes them so. But see! You’re depending on what you allow yourselves to call your children (i.e. “members of the church”) as some sort of hope! Our hope is in the Lord and His grace, not in some rite that we do to our babies in order to call them members of Christ, when in fact they have no faith and as infants can have no faith.”

    If Hubmaier didn’t in fact say something like this, it’s pretty close to how I would respond in his place, based on what I learned and lived within as a convert to Christianity amongst the sons of the Anabaptists out in the desert wilderness of Southern California many years ago.

    If the Reformed are so carefully avoiding a “superstitious belief in a rite,” why perform the rite at all? Seems to me that it’s the Anabaptists who are the reformers here, restoring the rite to its original function – a testimony to grace and faith in that grace which is already alive and at work in the convert.


    • Bill, I am pretty sure Hubmaier would not agree with you. There are numerous strains of Anabaptist thought and some are more covenantal than others. For Hubmaier, baptism was primarily a sign pointing to the conversion of the one being baptized. There was a specific formula one had to go through to be baptized and become part of the church. For the Reformers, it was a sign pointing to the promises of God in the gospel. Part of this is what Hubmaier meant by “Church” versus what the Reformers meant by the word and how one gets into that “Church.”

      Faith in the covenant promises of God does not necessarily work in favor of baptizing infants unless the covenant promises of God are normally linked in some way to the rite, which is what I would argue. Many Baptists function exactly how you describe. The church is the realm of grace and God promises to work within that body to bring the children to faith, which of course is close to what the Reformers taught. The only problem is the Baptists refuse to give them the sign. Why? Differing views on what baptism is meant to be not the nature of God’s covenant promises per se. However, I think many early Anabaptists did not just disagree about what baptism was, but also on the nature of God’s promises. They to a large degree believed in justification by works.

      Your last statement about the restoration of the original rite says that you differ with the Reformers on what baptism is, which is fine, but not reformed.


  2. “Your last statement about the restoration of the original rite says that you differ with the Reformers on what baptism is, which is fine, but not reformed.”

    To clarify, that last statement is what I was taught as a son of the Anabaptists that baptism is – a testimony to faith already active. And, yes, I’m not surprised to learn that the early Anabaptists were no exactly uniform or united on all the nuances attaching to the word baptidzo or what (if anything) changed when the rite is administered to anyone. I remember vividly the urgings of my Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers and Vacation Bible School teachers to round up our school chums and bring them to church. Of course, all the kiddos of the Baptist adults in that congregation were always present in both programs, precisely so the congregation could evangelize them and/or disciple them in the Christian faith as it was promulgated by the South Baptists in the mid 1950s.

    Frankly, either the Reformed or the Roman or the Anabaptist parsing of the rite makes good theological sense to me ~if and only if~ you pretend that the but-what-about-questions any of those camps directs at the others are ignored. The view I’ve read (incorrectly?) from Pr. Dough Wilson is coherent and looks largely to account for the Biblical data, but it requires one acknowledge that the Body of Christ contain (in the present age) members which will one day wind up in hell. Surely that’s a novel take on things? Or have I missed a big strain of thinking in Church history on that point?


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