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Formulary Friday: ‘This Child is Regenerate’

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Posted by Tom Woolford, 22 May 2015

Tom Woolford considers an infamous line in the Prayer Book Baptism Service.

One of the most contentious parts of our Prayer Book is ‘that line’ in the baptism service: ‘seeing now this child is regenerate’. The line created a cause célèbre in the nineteenth century over a bishop’s refusal to institute George Gorham to an incumbency because of the latter’s denial of baptismal regeneration – a denial that his bishop argued put him outside the bounds of Anglican orthodoxy. In the court cases that followed, the meaning of both this line in the baptism service and the line in the Catechism that reads, ‘My Baptism wherein I was made a member of Christ,’ were vigorously debated.

Perhaps as a hang-over from that close shave with Romanism; perhaps as a result of the impact of Evangelical Revival conversionism; perhaps due to the decline in the currency of covenant theology; perhaps as a result of training and working more closely with Baptists; perhaps due to the memory of a recent scrap over the Federal Vision – many Anglican Evangelicals are, frankly, embarrassed by ‘that line.’ It’s as if we have suspected – or even conceded – that, in the liturgy of baptism, our Church of England is indeed ‘but halfly reformed.’

There are many things one could say about the Anglican doctrine of the sacraments; of baptism in particular – and as administered to infants more particularly. But the only point I have space to make in this blogpost is this: the line ‘this child is regenerate’ sits happily within the mainstream Reformed tradition of the sixteenth century. The following selection of quotations from Reformed catechetical, liturgical, confessional and other writings should amply illustrate the point:

The Church of Strasbourg’s form for infant baptism (1537):

“Almighty God, Heavenly Father, we give you eternal praise and thanks, that you have granted and bestowed upon this child your fellowship, that you have born him again to yourself through your holy baptism, that he has been incorporated into your beloved Son, our only Saviour, and is now your child and heir.”

John Calvin’s Catechism of the Church of Geneva (1545), Qs. 328, 338:

“It is certain that both pardon of sins and newness of life are offered to us in baptism and received by us.” [...] “The force, and so to speak, the substance of baptism are common to children.”

The Large Emden Catechism (1551), Qs. 238, 239:

“[Christ] imputes to them [infants] by grace his faith and obedience.” [...] “If, indeed, they are counted as faithful in the judgment of God, through Christ…then they must be baptised as faithful, that the office of the Church may show them the testimony that they are members of Christ the Lord.”

Henry Bullinger:

“It is certain that [baptised] infants are partakers of purification and remission of sins through Christ… Infants therefore are numbered and counted of the Lord himself among the faithful; so that baptism is due unto them, as far forth as it is due unto the faithful. For by the imputation of God infants are faithful.”

The Belgic Confession (1561), Article 34:

“Truly, Christ has shed his blood no less for washing the little children of believers than he did for adults. Therefore they ought to receive the sign and sacrament of what Christ has done for them.”

Caspar Olevianus (1536-87) – co-author of the Heidelberg Catechism:

“When a baby is baptised in the name of Jesus Christ, the parents should be assured that just as certainly as the water cleanses his or her body, so certainly does the Father through the Holy Spirit seal in his or her heart fellowship with the body and blood of Christ and, through that communion, the double benefit of the covenant – the forgiveness of sins and the beginnings of righteousness and holiness.”

The Heidelberg Catechism (1563), Q. 74:

“[Infants] as well as their parents, belong to the covenant and church 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.”

Theodore Beza:

“We do not doubt at all that the children of believers are sanctified from their mother’s womb…In baptism we are so regenerated by the power of what is there figured unto us – that original sin is not imputed to us unto damnation.”

The Dutch Reformed form for infant baptism (1619):

“Thou hast forgiven us and our children all our sins…and received us through Thy Holy Spirit as members of Thine only begotten Son and so adopted us to be Thy children.”

Finally, the Westminster Larger Catechism (1648), Q. 177:

“Baptism is to be administered but once, with water, to be a sign and seal of our regeneration and ingrafting into Christ, and that even to infants.”

In short, language that we might instinctively recoil against today was commonplace in the Reformed churches of the sixteenth century, amongst those who most certainly affirmed justification by faith alone. Let us seek to understand our Reformed heritage better! Perhaps we just don’t understand the Reformed, covenantal understanding of the sacrament of baptism as much as we think we do…

Dr Tom Woolford is on the Council of Church Society, and is training for ministry at Oak Hill.

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