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Defense of the Baptismal Liturgy

John Williamson Nevin

John Williamson Nevin here defends the rite of baptism which he and others had developed as part of a new liturgy for the German Reformed Church. It is excerpted from Vindication of the Revised Liturgy: Historical and Theological. The work can be found in Catholic and Reformed: Selected Theological Writings of John Williamson Nevin edited by Charles Yrigoyen, Jr. and George H. Bricker. It is available from Pickwick Press, 5001 Baum Boulevard, Pittsburgh, PA 15213. This volume contains several other excellent articles by Nevin, which are well worth reading.

We turn our attention next to the doctrine of the Liturgy with regard to Baptism. Exception is taken to it, as teaching baptismal regeneration, substituting a mechanical ceremony for the righteousness of faith, and making a mere outward form to stand for the work of the Holy Spirit. Let us see how the matter really stands.

In somewhat bewildering contrast with this, the same service, which is thus charged with making to little of the sinner’s justification, has been reproached for making a great deal too much of his original guilt and condemnation. Many at least, at the Synod of Dayton, could hardly trust their ears when they heard a Professor of Theology, in the Reformed Church, say there, openly, that he for his part, could not go with the Liturgy, where it speaks of deliverance of our children through baptism "from the power of the Devil;" he did not believe it to be so bad with the children of Christians naturally as that; it was enough to appeal to the common sensibilities of parents (mothers in particular), to prove the contrary! This sounds strange certainly; but it needs only a little reflection to perceive, that it is, after all, only the working out at a new point of the same false spiritualism, which finds it so hard to understand or acknowledge on the other side, the presence of any real objective grace in baptism.

The Professor of Theology referred to taught in this case, of course, blank Pelagianism. Here precisely lay the old theological quarrel between Pelagius and St. Augustine. Pelagius, appealing to the common sensibilities of human nature, would not allow that children are born into the world under the curse of original sin, which is the power of the Devil. St. Augustine maintained the contrary, and what is especially noticeable, confounded Pelagius most of all, by appealing to infant baptism, which could have no meaning, he said, except in the light of a deliverance from the curse of sin conceived of in this real way. So, we know, the Church, also, decided against the heresiarch and his followers; and the decision has been echoed by the orthodoxy of the Christian world, from that day down to the present. We content ourselves with quoting now simply the plain words of the Heidelberg Catechism, the symbol this Professor of Theology has bound himself as with the solemnity of an oath to teach. "by the fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in Paradise," the Catechism tells us, Question 7, "our nature became so corrupt, that we are all conceived and born in sin." On this then follows the question: "But are we so far depraved, that we are wholly unapt to any good . . . and prone to all evil?" to which is thundered forth, as from Mount Sinai, the soul-shaking answer: "Yes; unless we are born again by the Spirit of God." And is not this what we are taught no less plainly in the New Testament? "That which is born of the flesh," our Saviour says to Nicodemus (John iii. 6.) "is flesh"–that is, mere human nature in its fallen character, which as such cannot enter the kingdom of God, but is hopelessly on the outside of that kingdom, and so under the power of the Devil; only "that which is born of the Spirit, is Spirit;" and for this reason it is, that a man must be born again, "born of water and the Spirit," in order that he may have part in this salvation. But why pursue the argument in this way? Must we go about proving at length for elders and deacons, or for the people at large, in the German Reformed Church, that the Scriptures teach the doctrine of Original Sin? The very children in our Sunday-schools have a sounder theology on this subject, than the Divinity Professor, who so exposed himself in regard to it at the Synod in Dayton.

A Pelagian anthropology leads over naturally to a spiritualistic construction of the whole Christian salvation; in which, as their is no organic power of the Devil or kingdom of darkness, for men to be delivered from, so there will be no organic redemption either, no objective, historical order of grace, in the bosom and through the power of which, this salvation is to go forward; but all will be made to resolve itself into workings of God’s Spirit that are of a general character, and into processes of thought and feeling, on the part of men, with no other basis than the relations of God to man in the most common, simply humanitarian view. Is there then no organic redemption needed for men, into the sphere of which they must come first of all, in order that they may have power to become personally righteous, and so be able to work out their salvation with fear and trembling, as knowing it to be God that worketh in them both to will and to do of His own good pleasure? Has the Church been wrong in believing through all ages, that "we must be delivered from the power of darkness, and translated into the kingdom of God’s dear Son" (Col. i. 13), not as the end of our personal goodness and piety, but the beginning of it, and the one necessary condition first of all, without which we can make no progress in goodness or piety whatever? Has the Church been wrong in believing, that such change of state, such transplantation from the kingdom of the Devil over into the kingdom of Christ, must in the nature of the case be a Divine act; and that as such a Divine act, it must be something more than any human thought or volition simply, stimulated into action by God’s Spirit? Has the Church been wrong in believing, finally, that the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, the sacrament of initiation into the Church, was instituted, not only to signify this truth in a general way, but to seal it as a present actuality for all who are willing to accept the boon thus offered to them in the transaction?

Baptismal regeneration! our evangelical spiritualists are at once ready to exclaim. But we will not allow ourselves to be put out of course in so solemn an argument, by any catchword of this sort addressed to popular prejudice. The Liturgy avoids the ambiguous phrase; and we will do so too; for the word regeneration is made to mean, sometimes one thing, and sometimes another, and it does not come in our way at all at present to discuss these meanings. We are only concerned, that no miserable logomachy of this sort shall be allowed to cheat us out of what the sacrament has been held to be in past ages; God’s act, setting apart those who are the subjects of it to His service, and bringing them within the sphere of His grace in order that they may be saved. We do not ask any one to call this regeneration; it may not at all suit his sense of the term; but we do most earnestly conjure all to hold fast to the thing, call it by what term they may. The Question is simply, Doth baptism in any sense save us? Has it anything to do at all with our deliverance from original sin, and our being set down in the new world of righteousness and grace, which has been brought to pass in the midst of Satan’s kingdom all around it, by our Lord Jesus Christ?

For the defense of the Liturgy it will be enough to place the matter now on the lowest ground. Our spiritualists admit that God may make baptism the channel of His grace–may cause the thing signified to go along with the outward sign, when He is pleased to do so; only they will not have it that His grace is in any way bound to the ordinance. Will they not admit then also, that the sacrament ought to be so used as to carry with it the benefit it represents; that God designed it to be in this way more than an empty form; and that it is the duty of all, therefore, to desire and expect through it what it thus, by Divine appointment, holds out to expectation? Who will be so bold as to say, in so many words, that baptism means no deliverance whatever from the power of sin, and that it is superstition to come looking for anything of this sort from it? Why then quarrel with the Liturgy for making earnest with the objective force of the sacrament in this view?

"You present this child here," it is said, "and do seek for him deliverance from the power of the Devil, the remission of sin, and the gift of an new and spiritual life by the Holy Ghost, through the Sacrament of Baptism, which Christ hath ordained for the communication of such great grace." Is it not true, that the sacrament has been ordained for that purpose, even if this be not exclusively or necessarily bound to its administration? If not, for what other purpose under heaven was it ordained? And if for this purpose, why should those who dome to the ordinance, not come seeking what it holds out in this way to the view of faith? Are they to come seeking nothing, expecting nothing, believing nothing? Or if otherwise, in the name of all common sense, tell us, O ye Gnostic dreamers, ye zealous contenders against formalities and forms, what then are they to seek?

The Liturgy, we allow, however, goes beyond [the] low view of the mere possibility of grace through the sacrament; it affirms that God, on his part, makes it to be always objectively just what it means. In other words, it teaches sacramental grace; and sees in it a birth-right title to all the blessings of the new covenant. This does not mean, that it regenerates or converts any one in the modern Methodistic sense of these terms; that it saves people by magic; or that it makes their final salvation sure in any way. Like Esau’s birthright, it may be neglected, despised, parted with for a mess of pottage. But all this does not touch the question of its intrinsic value, in its own order; as being a real Divine gift and power of Sonship, nevertheless, in the family of God, for which all the treasures of the earth should be counted a poor and mean exchange.

On this subject of baptismal grace, then, we will enter into no compromise with the anti-liturgical theology we have now in hand. In seeking to make the Liturgy wrong, it has only shown itself wrong; and the more its errors are probed, the more are they found to be indeed, "wounds, and bruises, and putrefying sores." Starting with Pelagianism on one side, it lands us swiftly in downright Rationalism on the other. "It is impossible,’ says the distinguished French Reformed divine, Pressense, in a late article, "to establish the necessity of infant baptism, except upon the ground that baptism imparts a special grace." We are most decidedly of the same opinion; and for this reason we denounce this theology as in reality, whatever it may be in profession, hostile to infant baptism, and unfriendly, therefore, to the whole idea of educational religion as it has been based upon it in the Reformed Church from the beginning. Without the conception of baptismal grace going along with the baptism of infants, there can be no room properly for confirmation; and the catechetical training which is employed to prepare the way for this, may easily come then to seem a hinderance rather than a help, to the true conversions of the young to God. Then it will be well, if baptism fall not into general contempt, and so be brought to sink finally more and more into neglect altogether. To what a pass things have already come in this respect throughout our country, by reason of the baptistic spirit which is among us, and the general theological tendency we are now considering, we will not now take time to decide. Those who have eyes to see, can see for themselves.

Baptismal Regeneration & the Westminster Confession 28.6 / S. Joel Garver

A Brief Catechesis on Covenant and Baptism / S. Joel Gerver

Baptismal Efficacy & the Reformed Tradition / Rich Lusk

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