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Topical Tuesday: Cranmer on infant baptism

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Posted by Lee Gatiss, 10 Feb 2015

Lee Gatiss looks at Thomas Cranmer's doctrine of covenantal infant baptism.

Baptism, and the theological basis for it, is something of a topical issue at the moment, with General Synod debating new services, and several conferences recently addressing the subject. Church Society have also just produced a video explaining the Anglican Evangelical doctrine of baptism.

It is an interesting observation that the Thirty-nine Articles and the Book of Common Prayer don’t use the word “covenant” in relation to baptism.

As I have pointed out elsewhere, however, 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.” (T. Rogers, The English Creede) 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.” And as Dyson Hague noted, “the Baptismal service is a covenant service,” whilst “the basic underlying principle of infant baptism is the principle of federal union or covenant right.” [Through the Prayer Book]

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.” (The Principles of Theology)

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. For example, the word covenant only appears once in the BCP marriage service, and yet marriage is foundationally a covenant, biblically speaking. It seems best to conclude then that the federal, covenantal nature of baptism is everywhere assumed by Anglican texts.

But it was not just assumed by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. He was also explicit in his writings that the basis on which we baptise infants is covenantal. You can find his explanation of that tucked away in his proposed canon law reform, the so-called Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum. Here’s what he says in section 18:

“Finally, their cruel ungodliness extends to baptism, which they do not want to be administered to infants, though for no reason whatsoever. For the children of Christians do not belong any less to God and the church than the children of the Hebrews once did, and since circumcision was given to them in infancy so also baptism ought to be imparted to our children, since they are participants in the same divine promise and covenant, and have been accepted by Christ with the greatest human kindness.”

So, our infants belong to God and the church, just as the children of Old Testament believers did. They are not suddenly excluded, now that Christ has come. Since they belong, there is no reason to deny them the sign of belonging (which there would be, however, if they were not the children of Christians). The children of believers are “participants in the same divine promise and covenant”, says Cranmer, and warmly welcomed by our saviour.

Cranmer was obviously addressing here the teaching of those who denied the right of covenant children to be baptised. Elsewhere in the Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum (section 25/26), he corrects another type of superstitious error concerning baptism. We are not to assume it works like a magical charm, automatically to save those who are splashed:

“Likewise, there are many errors which are piled up by others in baptism, which some are so impressed by that they think the Holy Spirit emerges from the mere external element itself, as well as all the force and power by which we are re-created, and that grace and the other gifts which come from it swim in the very fonts of baptism.

In sum, they want our entire regeneration to be owed to that sacred well, which flows [rushes] into our senses. But the salvation of souls, the indwelling of the Spirit, and the blessing of adoption (by which God recognises us as his children), come from the divine mercy flowing [different word from above: “percolating”?] to us through Christ, as well as from the promise which appears in the Holy Scriptures.”

So, let us not baptise indiscriminately, thinking that a dip in magical water will be a blessing for all and sundry without a real interest and participation in the divine promise and covenant. But let us not underestimate this blessing either: the covenant promise of the Scriptures is “for us and for our children”, through the kindness of our great God and saviour, Jesus Christ.

Revd Dr Lee Gatiss is the Director of Church Society

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