Recently I asked a well-known Baptist historian, “Did Calvin ever renounce the baptismal regeneration teaching of his own infant baptism?”
His reply follows.
In his Gallican Confession (1559), John Calvin asserts, “We condemn the papal assemblies…. Nevertheless, as some trace of the [true] Church is left in the papacy, … and as the efficacy of baptism does not depend upon the person who administers it, we confess that those baptized in it do not need a second baptism” (Art. 28). Thus, Calvin never ceased to embrace his Roman Catholic baptism.
Calvin’s writings teach that salvation is progressive. He was strongly influenced by Augustine’s life and works. Augustine describes his so-called “garden experience” and water baptism as initial stages of a lifelong, progressive conversion. See David Beale, “Augustine: His Life and Influence,” in Historical Theology In-Depth (2013), 1:334-50.
John Calvin’s single mention of his conversion, in the preface of his Commentary on the Book of Psalms (1557), says, “God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame.”
Such conversion sounds to me like a mere intellectual enlightenment. Calvin may have regarded his “conversion” as one of many stages in a lifelong progressive salvation. Be that as it may, by equating the terms conversion, repentance, and regeneration, Calvin clearly teaches progressive salvation. He speaks of a “commencement of conversion,” whereby “God begins his good work in us” (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 2.3.6). “The whole of conversion,” says Calvin, “is understood under the term repentance” (Calvin, Institutes, 3.3.5.). “In one word, then, by repentance I understand regeneration.” To those professing Christ, “God assigns repentance as the goal towards which they must keep running during the whole course of their lives” (Calvin, Institutes, 3.3.9.).
It is unfortunate that Calvin’s usage of such important terms are incredibly muddled.
The Puritan doctrine of progressive salvation emerged from Calvin. The English Reformation was initiated by Royal fiat, with no requirement of instant, personal conversion testimonies. This resulted in many Puritans preaching a legalistic-sounding, sacramental gospel that offered no assurance of salvation. (See Edmund Morgan, Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea.)
Reformed theology is shot thru with baptismal regeneration. Here is the teaching of baptism from the eight major Reformation creeds and confessions found in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (Vol. 3):
1. Heidelberg Catechism (1563) (Q and A 69-74): “The Scripture calls Baptism the washing of regeneration and the washing away of sins.” Question 74: Are infants also to be baptized? Answer: Yes; for since they, as well as their parents, belong to the covenant and people of God, and both redemption from sin and the Holy Ghost, who works faith, are through the blood of Christ promised to them no less than to their parents, they are also by Baptism, as a sign of the covenant, to be ingrafted into the Christian Church, and distinguished from the children of unbelievers, as was done in the Old Testament by Circumcision, in place of which in the New Testament Baptism is appointed.”
2. John Calvin’s Gallican Confession (1559): “We condemn the papal assemblies…. Nevertheless, as some trace of the [true] Church is left in the papacy, … and as the efficacy of baptism does not depend upon the person who administers it, we confess that those baptized in it do not need a second baptism” (Art. 28). “Baptism is given as a pledge of our adoption; for by it [baptism] we are grafted into the body of Christ” (Art. 35).
3. The Belgic Confession (1561) (Art. 34):
“We believe that every man who is earnestly studious of obtaining life eternal ought to be but once baptized with this only Baptism, without ever repeating the same: since we cannot be born twice…. We detest the error of the Anabaptists, who are not content with the one only baptism they have once received, and moreover condemn the baptism of the infants of believers, who, we believe, ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as the children in Israel formerly were circumcised upon the same promises which are made unto our children.”
4. The Scotch Confession (1560) (Ch. 21): “We utterly damn the vanity of those who affirm Sacraments to be nothing else but naked and bare signs. No, we assuredly believe that by Baptism we are ingrafted in Christ Jesus, to be make partakers of his justice, by which our sins are covered and remitted.”
5. Canons of the Synod of Dort (1619) (First Head Art. 17): “The children of believers are holy, not by nature, but in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they together with the parents are comprehended, godly parents have no reason to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom it pleaseth God to call out of this life in their infancy.”
6. The Westminster Confession (1647) Ch. 28: This Confession equates the water of John 3:5 with water baptism: “Except a man be born of water and the Spirit he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Water “baptism is a sacrament … a sign and seal of the covenant of grace,” of “ingrafting into Christ,” of “regeneration,” and of “remission of sins.”
7. The First Helvetic Confession (1536), written by Heinrich Bullinger:
Water “baptism, this holy bath, is a bath of regeneration” (Art. 21). “The washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Spirit” in Titus 3:5 is the water of baptism.
8. The Second Helvetic Confession (1566) (Ch. 19-21): Water Baptism “is a perpetual sealing of our adoption unto us. For to be baptized in the name of Christ is to be enrolled, entered, and received into the covenant and family, and so into the inheritance of the sons of God; yea, and in this life to be called after the name of God; that is to say, to be called a son of God; to be purged also from the filthiness of sins, and to be endued with the manifold grace of God” (Ch. 20).
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