Friday, August 20, 2010

The Grace of Baptism -- Part 4

Interactions with Derksen's Arguments

Part 1: The Question on the Floor: Baptism's Effect; Scriptural Texts
Part 2: The Effect of Baptism in Reformed Thought
Part 3: The Efficacy of Baptism
Part 4: Interactions With Derksen's Arguments
Part 5: Why Does it Matter?

Update: after writing this piece, I discovered that my own knowledge of the sources was incomplete. As a result, some of my criticisms of Derksen are downright unfair. If the reader wishes to see the original work, he may click
here for the original Part 4. But I'm not entirely proud of it; consider it deprecated.

So far, we have endeavored, with little reference to Derksen's arguments, to trace the Scriptural and Reformed view of baptism. The conclusion of the matter has been that all three agree: the sacramental effect of baptism is salvation.

But now we must reckon with the fact that Derksen supplies an impressive array of quotations from various Westminster Divines and other Reformed theologians that plausibly show that these divines thought of baptism as a "confirming, not converting ordinance." This part will therefore directly challenge the arguments of BWS.

(1) Derksen's over-relies on the Westminster Divines as the primary window for understanding the Confession.

Citing the Westminster Divines Rutherford, Gillespie, Ussher, and others, together with the Reformed theologians Cunningham, Manton, and Turretin, Derksen claims that these representatives of Reformed thinking taught his two theses:

In this installment we will begin to show that the Westminster Standards’ teaching on baptism is in full accord with the historical Reformed understanding of the sacraments, as was outlined in Part 1. That is, baptism does not intrinsically confer spiritual grace, but rather spiritually benefits only the elect. Or, as it has frequently been stated in historical Reformed language: the sacraments are confirming and strengthening ordinances, and not converting ordinances -- BWS Part 3.

The problem is that the language of the Confession is drawn heavily from the writings of Calvin and from previous Reformed Confessions. Derksen in particular omits any discussion of Calvin in reference to his second thesis. The result is that he ends up pitting statements from Rutherford and Cunningham -- unwittingly -- against the dispositive statements of Calvin that we have already seen.

(2) Derksen improperly conflates his two theses; as a result, he illegitimately takes evidence for the one as if it proved the other.

Take a second look at Derksen's quote above, which explicates his two theses. With the word "Or", he signals his anti-ex opere operato thesis is to be considered as logically equivalent to the claim that baptism is confirming and not converting. And in fact this is precisely how he reads his sources. Statements against ex opere operato are taken as evidence that baptism does not confer, but only confirms salvation.

We note that Derksen's sources are addressing the question of ex opere operato. Their opposing formula of "confirming, not converting" is specifically directed against the view that the act of baptism creates grace or faith of itself. Their opposition is certainly not directed against Calvin's view that in baptism, we are ingrafted into Christ.

For example, Derksen cites: Our divines do not say that the sacraments are exhibitive ordinances, wherein grace is communicated to those who have none of it, to unconverted or unbelieving persons. (Gillespie, Aaron's Rod Blossoming p. 233, cited in BWS part 4)

As an anti-ex-operato statement, this is clear. Baptism does not, via its action, give grace to the unconverted.

But as a denial that baptism exhibits and conveys justification, it is much less clear. Gillespie is certainly not saying that the divines reject the idea that sacraments exhibit and convey grace, since they most certainly believed this! (WCoF 27). Nor could he be denying that sacraments are effectual means of salvation, since the divines affirmed this also (WLC 161).

So some of Derksen's citations are being applied to an issue different from their original context. This criticism applies also to his citations of Gouge, Gataker, Reynolds, Willet, and Turretin. All of these gentlemen affirm that baptism is ineffectual without faith; none of them affirm that the effect of baptism is something other than salvation, or deny that baptism effects our washing of sins.

(Incidentally, many of his citations are taken from treatises on the Lord's Supper, which makes them less obviously relevant to baptism.)

(3) Derksen's reliance on Rutherford creates some difficulties.

Despite the forgoing criticisms, some of Derksen's quotes do substantially show that some Reformed theologians of the Westminster era held to the "confirming, not converting" formula for the sacraments.

Rutherford is his best example:

Baptism is not whereby we are entered into Christ’s mystical and invisible body as such, for it be presupposed we be members of Christ’s body, and our sins pardoned already, before baptism come to be a seal of sins pardoned; but baptism is a seal of our entry into Christ’s visible body, as swearing to the Colors is that which entereth a soldier to be a member of that army, whereas before his oath, he was only a heart-friend to the army and cause.”)
...We teach not that baptism constituteth the Church simply, as the Church, but that it is a seal of a visible membership.
-- S. Rutherford, Due Right of Presbyteries, pp. 211, 218, cited in BWS, part 4

But what difficulties has Rutherford involved himself in! For he flatly contradicts Calvin and the 2HC here, that baptism ingrafts us into Christ.

As Rutherford develops his theology, he is forced to say,

Christ by his Seals [sacraments] rightly and in faith used, do not only confirm grace and pardon, but also really exhibit and give grace and pardon in a further degree, and a new measure of assurance to the conscience which there was not before...” -- ibid, 217.

Since Rutherford denies that pardon is the effect of baptism, there is nothing left for baptism to effect except assurance and "pardon in a further degree."

Dear reader, stop and contemplate what the phrase "pardon in a further degree" might mean. Is not our justification "done and done", once-for-all, at the moment of faith?

No doubt Rutherford believes this also, but it is difficult to understand his position on the sacraments as a proper window into the understanding of the Confession.

(4) "Converting" and "confirming" are not strict opposites.

The issue in the ex opere operato debate was whether (as some Anglicans had it) the act of baptism creates faith. Thus, baptism was claimed to be a "converting" ordinance.

The Westminsterian divines clearly rejected this position.

But the opposite of "converting" is not "confirming." There might be other options besides either of these.

And in fact, I have argued here that baptism is "initiating." It is not "converting", except in the very narrow sense of Calvin's "secondary instrument." The action of baptism does not create faith (though its sealing of the spoken promise of the gospel might). But nor is it "confirming", increasing a faith that already exists.

No, the purpose of baptism is "initiatory." It unites us to Christ when (and not after) we believe. This is not merely Calvin's position, but it is expressed in the Reformed Confessions also, as we saw earlier.

"Converting" and "confirming" are false opposites, an unfortunate pairing born out of the ex-opere-operato conflict and pressed into a different service here.

(5) The baptism of infants argues against the view that baptism presupposes faith.

If baptism presupposes faith, then how can we baptize infants? Derksen is aware of this challenge, and he addresses it in BWS part 5. His argument in favor of infant baptism pursues the traditional lines of Reformed reasoning (which I affirm together with him). However, he does not answer the question, except to speculate that covenant children might have seed faith -- or they might not.

This is unsatisfactory. For if baptism of adults presupposes faith, then either baptism of children must be a different rite entirely from baptism of adults, or else the seed faith view must be correct. The first notion, that baptism of children has a different meaning than that of adults, has been tried in Reformed circles and rejected. The second view, that all children of believers contain seed-faith within them, is hotly contested.

But most telling is that Calvin denied that baptism of infants presupposed their faith. Contra Cunningham, he says,

Master. - If these things are requisite to the legitimate use of Baptism, how comes it that we baptize Infants?

Scholar. - It is not necessary that faith and repentance should always precede baptism. They are only required from those whose age makes them capable of both. It will be sufficient, then, if, after infants have grown up, they exhibit the power of their baptism.
-- Geneva Catechism.

Far better to acknowledge that baptism means but one thing to all recipients: it is the objective seal of the truth of the Gospel, and the reception of the Gospel is the moment at which baptism takes its effect.

(5) Baptism is outwardly a symbol of initiation; its inward grace should correspond.

Baptism is outwardly a sign of solemn admission into the visible church. As an outward sign, it symbolizes initiation. Why then should we deny (as Rutherford does) that the inward reality is also initiation?

(6) Rebaptism is universally rejected

If baptism were a confirming ordinance, rebaptism would be perfectly legitimate. Just as communion confirms Christ's death for us, yet without re-sacrifice, so also a confirming baptism would confirm our justification -- and that sign could be continued indefinitely.

Instead, it is but once applied because it symbolizes (and therefore sacramentally effects) our once-for-all justification.

(7) Derksen (and those he cites) completely overlook the stated Confessional meaning of the sign.

The Shorter Catechism says this:

Q. 94. What is baptism?
A. Baptism is a sacrament, wherein the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, doth signify and seal our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord’s

What is signed is the ingrafting into Christ, the initiation into our relationship with Him. Likewise the Larger Catechism:

Question 165: What is Baptism?

Answer: Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, wherein Christ has ordained the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, to be a sign and seal of ingrafting into himself, of remission of sins by his blood, and regeneration by his Spirit; of adoption, and resurrection unto everlasting life; and whereby the parties baptized are solemnly admitted into the visible church, and enter into an open and professed engagement to be wholly and only the Lord's.

The things signed are the things conveyed! Derksen, by contrast, has the things signed not conveyed, but merely confirmed. I humbly submit that the language of "confirmation" is not how the Standards describe the efficacy of the sacraments.

Increasing of faith? Yes. Signing, sealing, and applying the benefits of Christ? Yes. But "confirming the thing signified?" No.

To summarize: Derksen's arguments carry some weight, given his copious research into the views of the Westminster Divines. But his sources are concentrated too heavily in the Divines, not heavily enough in the early Reformers (especially Calvin), and they create odd difficulties on the very point he wants to establish. In short, Derksen has over-emphasized the views individual theologians to provide an idiosyncratic read of the Confessions.

In particular, Derksen's adoption of the "confirming, not converting" formula creates a false opposition. Baptism is neither; it is a kingly seal that testifies to God's promise, and it is an initiatory sacrament.

By contrast, the Westminster Confession presents a clear testimony, consistent with Calvin, Ursinus, 2HC, and the Gallic Confession that baptism effects what it signifies: namely, the washing away of sins and our union with Christ, at the moment of faith.

Charles Hodge deserves the last word:

How then is it true that baptism washes away sin, unites us to Christ, and secures salvation? The answer again is, that this is true of baptism in the same sense that it is true of the word. God is pleased to connect the benefits of redemption with the believing reception of the truth. And he is pleased to connect these same benefits with the believing reception of baptism. That is, as the Spirit works with and by the truth, so he works with and by baptism, in communicating the blessings of the covenant of grace. Therefore, as we are said to be saved by the word, with equal propriety we are said to be saved by baptism; though baptism without faith is as of little effect as is the word of God to unbelievers. -- C. Hodge, Comm. Eph. 5.17-33.


My central (and current) objection to BWS is that it conflates baptism as a means of grace with the efficacy of baptism as a sacrament. The two are quite different, the first referring to baptism's temporal effect at the moment of application, the other referring to baptism's sacramental effect, independent of the moment of application. Consequently, Derksen rejects several eminently Reformed statements of the sacramental effects of baptism, such as "baptism saves us" or "baptism unites us to Christ."

Consider the Word as a means of grace. It is used by the Spirit, in a moment of time, to create or to strengthen genuine faith. The benefits of Jesus’ work are then apprehended by faith.

If we consider the sacraments as a means of grace, focusing on their operation in time, then we find that sacraments do not create saving faith (at least not in their normal function as means of grace – the Spirit is of course not limited), for the simple reason that the sacraments are never found without the Word. A "seal" with no promise to seal is nothing. The seal confirms the promise, and so strengthens faith, but it does not create it.

It is precisely in this sense that Rutherford and Cunningham affirm that the sacraments are "confirming, not converting" ordinances. They specifically rejected the Anglican and Lutheran notion that the act of baptism creates new faith in the recipient. Berkhof puts this succinctly:

According to Reformed theology it is not, as the Roman Catholics claim, the means of initiating the work of grace in the heart, but it is a means of for the strengthening of it or, as it is often expressed, for the increase of grace. (Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 641).

So viewing baptism as a means of grace, in its operation in real time, I would agree with Derksen that baptism is a confirming, not converting ordinance: that is to say, the act of baptism does not, of itself, impart saving faith.

However, there is another question concerning baptism’s efficacy as a sacrament. This effect of baptism is not causal, not linked in time to the moment of administration. What does God do through baptism, as a sacrament?

The sacrament seals the promises of God – specifically, it seals the promise to cleanse us from sin, and the promise to unite us to Christ. What is signed is also what is effected. As the Confession states,

There is, in every sacrament, a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified: whence it comes to pass, that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other. – WCoF 27.2

How can this be? Is it a mere fiction of language? Thus the Zwinglians, who make the sign empty by saying that it is a symbol only, with no effect. But their error, besides discarding the mystery of God, is to assume that the efficacy of baptism has to do with the action itself. It does not.

Instead, the efficacy of baptism is contained in the promises that it seals. The baptism itself is nothing – that is, merely a seal to the promise. The promise is everything. When the promise is believed, the baptism has had its effect – whether before or after (or rarely, during) the action of baptism itself. Thus the Confession again:

The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God's own will, in His appointed time. – WCoF 28.6.

There is an element of mystery about this, how it is that God links the sign to the thing signified; but notwithstanding, we can understand at least that baptism points to the promise; when the promise is believed, the pointing has done its work.

It is this sense that baptism is considered an initiatory and saving rite. Sacramentally speaking, it confers what it signs: justification and union with Christ. It is this sacramental language that Calvin and other Reformers used so readily. Here is Ursinus:

There is in baptism a double washing: an external washing with water, and an internal washing with the blood and Spirit of Christ. The internal is signified and sealed by that which is external, and is always joined with it in the proper use of baptism. – Ursinus, Comm. Heidelberg Catechism, Qn. 70.

He then comments on "proper use" and "improper use" of sacramental language, saying that the latter is figurative or sacramental (Comm. HC, Qn. 72). Improper use includes such phrases as "Baptism saves us." The question then arises, Why does the Holy Ghost call baptism, "the washing of regeneration" and "the washing away of sins"? (HC Qn. 73).

The answer is in three parts, but his second is this: Because in the proper use of the sacraments, the exhibition and reception of the signs, and the things signified, are inseparably connected. (ibid)

Of modern theologians, there was division in terms of this usage. One finds that such as Dabney and Berkhof eschew the sacramental language. Berkhof goes so far as to say

In view of the fact that according to our Reformed conception, this baptism presupposes regeneration, faith, conversion, and justification, these surely are not to be conceived as wrought by it. (Berkhof, Systematic Theology 632).

Here is particularly concerned to contrast the Reformed view with the Roman Catholic.


But [sacraments] are not the channels or vehicles for acquiring the saving grace first; inasmuch as the possession of those graces is a necessary prerequisite to proper participation in adults. The efficacy of the sacrament, therefore, is in no case more than to strengthen and nourish saving graces. – Dabney, Lectures in Systematic Theology 740.

Nevertheless, Dabney does admit that baptism is an initiating sacrament:

As to baptism, we assign this reason why it is never to be repeated to the same subject like the Lord’s supper: It is the initiating sacrament, like circumcision. The man who is in the house needs no repeated introduction into the house. It "signifies our ingrafting into Christ." He who is grafted in once is virtually united, and requires no new union to be constituted -- Lectures, 747

Hodge on the other hand embraced the sacramental language, cheerfully claiming,

Unless the recipient of this sacrament be insincere, baptism is an act of faith, it is an act in which and by which he receives and appropriates the offered benefits of the redemption of Christ. And, therefore, to baptism may be properly attributed all that in the Scripture is attributed to faith. Baptism washes away sin (Acts xxii. 16); it unites to Christ and makes us the sons of God (Gal. iii. 26, 27) ; we are therein buried with Christ (Rom. vi. 3) ; it is (according to one interpretation of Titus iii.5) the washing of regeneration. But all this is said on the assumption that it is what it purports to be, an act of faith. -- C. Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. 3, 589.

One of Hodge’s concerns was to minimize the daylight between adult and infant baptism:

But baptism signs, seals, and actually conveys its benefits to all its subjects, whether infants or adults, who keep the covenant of which it is the sign. As a believer who recalls some promise of the Scriptures which he has read or heard, receives the full benefit of that promise ; so the infant when arrived at maturity receives the full benefit of his baptism, if he believes in the promises signified and sealed to him in that ordinance. Baptism, therefore, benefits infants just as it does adults, and on the same condition. -- Systematic Theology, Vol. 3, 590.

Clearly, there is a bit of ambiguity in the Reformed statements here, and it is fair to say that Derksen and I have attacked opposite ends of the question.

On the one side, rejecting ex opere operato, are those who focus on baptism’s effect in time. They (correctly) assert that baptism is not a "converting" ordinance, in that the act of baptism does not create saving faith. We can put Rutherford, Cunningham, Dabney, Ursinus, and Berkhof into this bin.

On the other, rejecting Zwinglian empty sign theory, are those who focus on the fact that in some mysterious way, God conveys the graces signified by baptism (justification and union with Christ), in the time of His choosing. We can put Calvin, Ursinus, various Reformed Confessions, and Hodge into this bin. Even Dabney and Berkhof admit this, though they pass quickly over it (as does Reymond).

Which is correct? Well, the reader will have already picked up that the first is correct in its proper temporal sense, while the second is correct in its proper sacramental sense.

My issue with Derksen, then, is simply this: he does not admit the validity of the sacramental language. That is, he rejects the language "baptism saves" or "baptism justifies" or "baptism unites us to Christ in his death" as unReformed.

In my view, this is overly strict. It creates an uncomfortable situation in which a preacher must teach Rom 6.3-4 in this way: "You were buried with Christ through baptism. But you weren’t really, and we mustn’t say this."

This cognitive dissonance is especially evident when Derksen deals with the term "applied" in the Catechism. On his account, the graces that are signed in baptism are not "applied" per se (that is, actually given to the worthy recipient); instead, the word "applied" must mean "confirmed." In this, he follows Cunningham, citing

[W]e take the position, that the doctrine that the sacraments are for believers, and assume the previous existence in worthy recipients of the great spiritual blessings with which faith is invariably connected, is far too explicitly and too fully set forth in the Westminster symbols, in accordance with the general doctrine of the Reformed churches, to admit of its being set aside or involved in uncertainty, on the ground of a single vague and ambiguous expression, even though there were greater difficulty than there is, in interpreting that expression in harmony with the general strain of their teaching. – W. Cunningham, The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation, pp. 277-279, cited in BWS Part 4.

Baptism as it is such is a seal, and a seal as a seal addeth no new lands or goods to the man to whom the Charter and seal is given, but only doth legally confirm him in the right of such lands given to the man by prince or state, yet this hindereth not but baptism is a real, legal seal, legally confirming the man in his actual and visible profession of Christ, remission of sins, regeneration... (ibid, 211)

The reader can see Cunningham’s confusion clearly: he is hung up on the temporal effect of the sacraments, so that instead of embracing the sacramental language, he reinterprets the word "apply" to mean "confirm" (which is lexically absurd).

The alternative, and the one I recommend generally, is to clearly separate the temporal action of the sacrament as a means of grace, from the time-independent sacramental effect of baptism.



Anonymous said...

Very good work Jeff. My single continuing problem with your thesis is the idea that God gives benefits based on a future event. I cannot find a single instance of this in the Bible. God never ever acts on the basis of a future event, but always on the basis of present or past events.

It reminds me of the anti-election argument that God elects us because on his knowledge of future free will decisions made by us.

Grammatically speaking there is nothing in the confessions or scripture that requires us to think that the moment of faith is the moment of the reception of salvation. To say that we are justified by faith in no way necessarily implies that we are justified when we believe.

That is an assumption based upon the modern evangelical idea of making a decision for Christ, whereby the moment you say your sinners prayer is the moment of your forgiveness, without reference to sacraments.

In short, your idea of faith as the moment of salvation is based on an unrecognized theological assumption, and a grammatical mistake.

Warm regards

Jeff Cagle said...

Thanks for the thoughts, Roger.

I do think there's more than merely unfounded assumptions going on wrt the timing of justification. But that's probably another series.


Jeff Cagle said...

On further reflection, here's a thought:

Roger: My single continuing problem with your thesis is the idea that God gives benefits based on a future event. I cannot find a single instance of this in the Bible. God never ever acts on the basis of a future event, but always on the basis of present or past events.

I agree with you. The justification of an adult is not on the basis of his future baptism.

But here's the thing: the justification of anyone, adult or child, is never on the basis of baptism.

And that's the idea I wanted to convey in part 3. The efficacy of the sacraments is not a normal cause-effect, action-state kind of efficacy. Instead, it is an efficacy of a message. Baptism says something (as opposed to does something) ... and when the message is received, then baptism has had its effect.

Let me encourage you to meditate further on baptism's role as a seal of the Gospel message. For example: why is it that the sacrament is not a sacrament unless the Word also be preached with it? Or, what reasons do the Reformers give for the salvation of the unbaptized, such as the thief on the cross?

I think the missing link here is the jump from normal cause-effect to sacramental efficacy. The Reformers seemed very determined to distinguish between those two.


David Weiner said...


This has just been a marvelous series. I can’t thank you (or God) enough. I feel as though many layers of fog have been lifted from my understanding of the ‘truth’ of baptism. Also, I finally see why you (reformed) have so little regard for the ‘Baptist’ view. To the extent that you have covered it here, I agree with you.

I just kept thinking as I followed your argument ‘this isn’t so hard if only we could describe it without words. The words are killing us.’

I just wanted to posit one question. You had your hypothetical preacher say in regard to Romans 6:3: "You were buried with Christ through baptism. But you weren’t really, and we mustn’t say this." You are clearly seeing ‘water baptism’ here, no? But, I see Paul talking to actual believers (not that he knows who they are). He knows that whoever they are they have actually died to sin. And, he knows that they have actually and truly been ‘united/baptized’ with Christ. How can we be sure from the context that he had any view here toward water (even acknowledging it is truly the sign and seal of the promises) and not totally and simply to spirit baptism?

Jeff Cagle said...

Praise the Lord, David. I'm so glad it's been helpful to you.

I believe Romans 6 to be speaking of water baptism as a symbol of Spirit baptism: both together.

It is an example of Ursinus' "improper use" (or sacramental use) of language.

It's similar to "With this ring, I thee wed": You actually wed the bride by taking a vow, but the ring symbolizes it to such a degree that the vow and the ring are interchangeable.


Jeff Cagle said...

I didn't really answer your question -- why do I think that Rom 6 refers to water baptism (together with Spirit baptism, which is clearly in view)?

For two reasons:

(1) The train of thought is similar to Col. 2.12, in which we were "circumcised with Christ" when we were baptized, and

(2) Because the earliest church interpreted it that way.


Jeff Cagle said...

To explain the reasoning on Col. 2: What cleanses in Col 2 is clearly the "circumcision done by Christ" -- Spirit circumcision.

But the plain fact of choosing that language brings in the physical act as a symbol of the spiritual. We remember that Abe received circumcision as a sign of the righteousness (= "cleanness", justification, purity from sin) that he had by faith.

Likewise with baptism.