Baptismal Regeneration & the Book of Common Prayer
The popular claim by Anglo-Catholics and non-Anglican Evangelicals that the Book of Common Prayer contains the doctrine of baptismal regeneration in the pejorative sense, i.e. that every single person – especially so in relation to an infant - is born anew by water and the Spirit in the administration of the baptismal rite is a grievous misconception. The Book of Common Prayer is primarily a liturgical and devotional medium/aid. Therefore its language - and by inclusion the Office(s) of Baptism - is not rendered in precise technical mode or doctrinal terminology but cast in pastoral language that hypothetically assumes (from the view-point of the Church) the gracious favour of God towards every baptismal candidate brought to the baptismal font “to be washed by the laver of regeneration”.
This principle of “charitable presumption” is in accord with Scriptural paradigm and apostolic practice. The singular invariable effect of water Baptism (as a sign of profession and mark of difference) is incorporation into the visible Church of Christendom, thus fulfilling its status as an entrance or admission rite into ecclesiastical membership with concomitant privileges.
To determine the theology of the Prayer book on the spiritual effect of Baptism - its mode and operation - one must first consult the 39 Articles of Religion (1571). That is to say, the liturgy of the Church of England must be understood in light of its confessional formulary (“theory precedes practice”). The tone of Article XXVII is reformed evangelical to its core. It was framed with the intention of excluding the Romish heresy of ex opere operato, i.e. grace conceived of as a quasi-substance is infused by the mechanical performance of the rite within a sacramental system that is dependent upon communion with the See of Rome which claims Apostolic Succession; and the Anabaptist error of “bare tokenism”, i.e. the sacraments are mere symbols of the spiritual reality they point to, in effect, reducing Baptism to an exclusively legal rite emptied of its spiritual efficacy.
The historic teaching of the Anglican Church confirmed in the Gorham judgment (1850) reaffirms the conditional character of Baptism whereby “prevenient” grace which regenerates (by imputation of Christ’s merits, cf. Article XI and infusion of the Holy Ghost, cf. Article XVI, where the gift of Grace is identical with the Giver Himself) and initiates Conversion (Sanctification) also bestows the gift of faith on the elect so that the exercise thereby procures the fruits of the sacrament that it intends to convey. Thus, the judgment preserves the ordinary link between worthy reception and sacramental efficacy (cf. Article XXV), a requirement which goes beyond a lack of obstacle (obex) placed by the candidate, thus emphasising the classical Protestant teaching that faith is the “instrumental cause” in the first instance and the indispensable element in subjective appropriation; and material substratum or underlying principle of Baptism - as a phase in the ordo salutis, i.e. order of salvation.
Therefore, the Baptismal Office(s) is to be interpreted in consonance with the doctrines of grace and sacraments contained in the Articles. Thus, the consistent pattern throughout the Office(s) as shown in the commencement of the rite is exhortation and prayer. The baptismal language is evidently crafted in hortatory and precatory form so that the subsequent pronouncement by the officiating priest is in the subjunctive mood; and not indicative or an assumption of fait accompli (i.e. an accomplished fact).
This is further demonstrated by the requirement of sponsorship/suretyship that baptised adults assume on behalf of the candidate in the Infant Baptismal Office which entails, in the immediate context, catechetical recitation by proxy; and a pledge of godly upbringing or the Interrogatories (cf. the preface of the Office). Worthy reception in the narrower sense (i.e. faith alone) is required of the infant also if he is to be born again (from above) which is the beginning of the Christian life.
The association of regenerating grace with election is implicit in the prayer preceding the administration of the water, i.e. the Prayer of Consecration, where worthy reception is explicitly grounded in being a “faithful and elect children” of God. In the broader sense, worthy reception in the way of godliness and continual obedience to God’s Word and resting on the promises of Christ are requisite for the assurance of receiving the benefits of Baptism. These benefits may be seminally resident in the elect infant. Furthermore, the faith of the parents or sponsors (in conjunction with the rest of the ecclesial community alongside prayers and supplications) receives for the infant what he is presumed to be incapable of exercising. Infantile age is no barrier to worthy reception of the salutary effects of Baptism.
As such, appropriation of the efficacy of Baptism rests on the intercessions of the Church (ex opere operantis ecclesiae) on behalf of the individual as much as it is incumbent upon the candidate to exercise faith, especially in the case of an adult. This sphere (i.e. sponsorship) of Covenant theology is an integral feature of the Baptismal Offices; in particular the Baptism of Infants as shown in the Interrogatories (creedal and personal). Thus, the Anglican tradition - in common with the other Reformation Churches - maintain the “Augustinian” doctrine of Original Sin (i.e. individual guilt and innate depravity are inherited from Adam) within the greater theological infrastructure of the “Covenant of Grace”.
It means that the efficacy of baptism (as alluded to in the preceding paragraphs) does not proceed from out of the Church’s “deposit of grace” in the Sacraments (the Roman view) but its locus is in the promise of God’s Word (the Reformed view) to save not only individuals but families also (i.e. believing parents and their seed considered as an organic entity) along the lines of succeeding generations in the Church. Therefore, parents should desire continuity of the covenantal line in the family. Baptism is where the ritual display of the Covenant comes into focus to make tangible the promises of God in His Word and to assure or “confirm His oath” to them of His favourable disposition towards their seed.
From the standpoint of God, He alone knows who the elect are amongst the baptised. In the sight of the Church, all are considered “regenerate” although Reformed theology informs us that the decree election and reprobation cuts right across the covenantal line just as much as in sphere of the world (cf. Calvin’s Institutes, Book 3, chap. XXI, sec. 6 & 7; Romans 9).
Therefore, the two perspectives (i.e., God’s eternal decree and the Church’s temporal oversight) must be kept in tandem in order to make sense of the Baptismal Office(s). And the two do not often coincide – a paradox (an apparent contradiction in time which is only reconcilable on the other side of eternity), not a theological dilemma, but a pastoral constraint necessarily imposed because of human limitation and by the preceptive will of God (i.e., His will of revelation confined to the Bible alone to be our guide). As such, the priest does not presume to know the eternal destiny of the infant (nor it should be said of the church as a whole, e.g., the inward condition of an adult believer) when receiving him into the local congregation.
Given these factors, the Office(s) do not lay out – in systematic fashion or in accordance with Protestant Scholastic theology (which pre-dates the 1662 edition of the Prayer book and the Lambeth Articles, 1595) – the logical order or phases of salvation; instead, there is a catalogue of Regeneration and its concomitant effects conceived of as a total renewal of man – the remission of his sins, the death of the old Adam, the birth of the new man, sanctification etc. – his inner (spiritual and moral) transformation.
Accordingly, the regenerative language employed in the Baptismal Office(s) operates at two distinct levels.
Firstly, the Reformation pedigree of the Protestant Scholastic conception of the order of salvation (which the mainstream Elizabethan Settlement of the Church of England inherited) means that Regeneration is not inseparable from (water) Baptism being the secret work of the Holy Spirit (alluded to in John 3:8) but is inseparable from Conversion (Sanctification) as the consequence. At this level, Regeneration is synonymous with Baptism, i.e. both speak of an inward change.
Secondly, the anomaly arising out of the different definitions given to Regeneration can be avoided if Regeneration is understood to possess two theological meanings, a) denotative and; b) connotative. The latter is a theological aberration of the former. In other words, the original biblical, Patristic and Reformation usage of regeneration to indicate the New Birth has come to acquire in the course of Church history an added meaning, to include conversion or the conscious turning to Christ, as distinguished from the incipient instantaneous implantation of the life of Christ with the latter subsumed under the former.
Thus, Regeneration has come to be concentrated primarily in the one discernable event (or “phenomenal” experience) in one’s life. This notion is essentially synergistic, i.e. the teaching attributed to Jacobus Arminius and Moses Amyraldus - who reacted against the perceived rigidity of 17th century orthodox Protestant theology - that Regeneration is dependant upon the cooperation of the “free will” of man having been operated by the “moral suasion” of the Spirit (an exclusively intellectual illumination); and akin to the Medieval scholastic conception of pre-Regeneration disposition or volition (e.g. Gabriel Biel’s conception of the pactum as summed up in facere quod in se est – God does not deny those who do their best).
“Personal experience” of this kind was introduced into confessional Lutheranism by Pietism, which in turn influenced the “experimental theology” of the 18th century “Great Awakening”. In fact, such a development was also anticipated by the later Puritans (i.e. post-1662) in their theology of assurance which was overlaid with mystical overtones. The stress on evidences of “being born again”, and sudden or “crisis” conversions and sometimes the eruptions of emotional fervour regarded as indicators of the timing of Regeneration parallels the other error of identifying the former solely with Baptism.
Between the errors of “Sacramentalism” and “Revivalism” stands the classical Anglican position (the via media) as expressed in the Prayer book tradition. Regeneration is posited as participation of the individual elect sinner in the death and resurrection of Christ, adoption as a child of God, incorporation into the mystical Church (see Thanksgiving Prayer, post-administration) and reception of the Holy Ghost. This “total renewal” in the definitive sense is instantaneous and non-sensible (this is where the early-Reformation definition of Regeneration and the post-Reformation structure of order of salvation are merged as a logical development of one of the other). A participation of this kind cannot be experienced anymore than Justification, which relates to the legal/forensic aspect and ground of our salvation, contra “Revivalism”. The imputation of the righteousness and merits of Christ (Justification) alongside the infusion of His grace (Regeneration) are exclusively the operation of the Holy Spirit; and may occur at any time according to the sovereignty of God, contra “Sacramentalism”.
Recall that according to Article XXVII, “Baptism is a sign of Regeneration or [N]ew Birth”. Under this theological designation, the language of the Baptismal Office(s) – apart from its hortatory and precatory form – must be interpreted as “metonymic” or “symbolic” consistent with its pastoral tone, i.e. the reality it speaks about only is realised in a specific class of recipients – “they that receive Baptism rightly…”. In line with the rest of the Article (i.e. in the context “sealing” and “confirming”) what can be said to occur in Baptism is the “giving birth” (i.e. parturition or nativity) that takes place in the bosom of Mother Church of the previous spiritual conception especially in the case of an adult believer --- or first indication of organic growth stimulated by the water of Baptism and its subsequent blossoming or fruition into the flower of Christian growth and maturity.
At this stage, the secret operation of the Spirit is “made” to coincide with, i.e. “brought forward in a visual and sensible manner or made present” in Baptism (as a sign of profession and mark of distinction) so that it is only in the sight of the Church and the world that the person is considered then as “regenerate” or pronounced as such. The actual timing of the Spirit’s work of Regeneration is not inquired after nor determined for that would be to delve into the secret counsels of God. Such an approach is not to negate the theological abstract distinctions within the order of salvation but to preserve the objective delineation-marker of the Sacrament of Baptism in establishing the tangible ground of assurance of our standing before God and by extension His Church where we receive continual nourishment in the Word and the Eucharist.
It is the Christian’s engrafting into and connection to the Church that enables him to apprehend more comprehensively the rich benefits and fullness of grace which he has received by gracious Adoption through Regeneration sometime before but now “presented” or “impressed” upon him in Baptism (water, Trinitarian formula, minister, the Church, the rituals, the Office) for all to witness. It is also where inward (spiritual) and outward (sacramental) aspects of Regeneration is concentrated in a moment in time.
On this second level, Regeneration is analogous with Baptism, i.e. the latter is an efficacious sign of the former. A temporary digression is in order: The supernatural signs and wonders such as that existed in the apostolic period have ceased. These phenomena existed for a time alongside the permanent ordinances of the Church as instituted by Our Lord to function as the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies (alluded to Acts 2:16-22 in reference to the prophecy of Joel) that in the “last days”, the economy of salvation will no longer be formally restricted to the nation of Israel but truly encompass a catholic Church (i.e. universal) as witnessed by the “outpouring of the Spirit” (on Pentecost, cf. Acts 1:8 and chap. 2 where different tongues or languages were spoken by the nucleus of the Church as heard by the pious Jews from all over the Roman Empire and beyond).
They signify the departure of the Presence and Glory of God from the apostate Old Testament Church “localised” within the borders of the Promised Land to be given or poured out in its fullness to the “universalised” Body of Christ (cf. the rent of the Temple veil on the ninth hour of Christ’s crucifixion in Matthew 27:51, which previously screened or hid the Holy of Holies - the most sacred “dwelling” space - from the rest of the Tabernacle within the House of God as an Old Testament type and the Ezekiel prophecy of apostasy, judgment and restoration with Hebrews 8-10 and Ephesians 2:11-22 as the New Testament fulfilment or reality) and the formal ushering in of the New Testament era.
The supernatural signs then such as the visual descent of the Holy Spirit in distinct forms on Jewish (such as the “the cloven tongues of fire” in Acts 2:3) and Gentile converts (e.g. Acts 10:44-46 in the case of Cornelius and his household as manifested also in tongue-speaking) reminded the apostles and evangelists of the catholicity of the Body of Christ (cf. Acts 8, and recall the prophetic words of Jesus in John 4:23 in His discourse with the Samaritan woman). That the miniscule Jewish remnant has undergone a metamorphosis and shed its old skin of ethnic identity which was the nation at large to embrace ethnic inclusiveness, thus counting all believers as true children of Abraham not on the basis of lineal descent but faith and election (see Romans 4 and 9 respectively).
For the way is paved for the unity of both communities in the Church by breaking down the barriers of the Old Testament and tearing apart the deep-seated prejudices of the early Jewish believers steeped in their former religious culture (cf. Acts 1:6 and chap. 10 in the case of St. Peter the chief apostle). These signs also distinguish God’s people from others and set a stamp of approval upon them.
With the spread of the Gospel beyond Jerusalem and Judea into Samaria and further, hence pushing the missionary frontiers steadily outwards to the far corners of the world in fulfilment of Acts 1:8, the significance that dawned upon the nascent Church would have gradually become assimilated into the mind and instinct of the Church so that these outward signs supernaturally given to accompany the apostles and evangelists would have ceased their function; and be gradually phased out of the life and witness of the Church.
In the aftermath of the adjustment and normalisation of the ministry of the Church and regularisation of ministerial orders, “coterminous” with the completion of the Bible (albeit pre-dating its collection and compilation as single entity), only Baptism and the Eucharist function as permanent signs and seals of God’s gracious testimony towards His people.
Just as the outward or sacramental sign of the Spirit’s fall (a supernatural phenomenon) upon the believer represent his inward Baptism (i.e. Regeneration) in the Book of Acts, so too does the Sacrament of Baptism now encapsulate the prior Regeneration of the post-apostolic believer by its sign and seal (i.e., the miraculous sign has been replaced by the natural matter, the extraordinary by the ordinary).
This is the Anglican understanding of the terms, “sign” and “seal” within the broad parameters of classical Protestantism and Reformed Orthodoxy.
We therefore reject as strange the Pentecostal teaching of a post-Baptism in the Spirit.
The gift of Regeneration once bestowed - upon infant and adult - germinates into the fruits or virtues of the Spirit (enumerated in the Office of Confirmation) as necessary marks of election (cf. the last of the 4-fold petitions beginning with “Grant…”and the Prayer of Consecration). The indefectibility of grace is implicit in the(se) impetration(s), thus proving the Scriptural “eminence” of the Baptismal Office (e.g. Romans 8:29-30) and its Reformed orthodoxy (cf. Article XVII). The logic is clear --- the baptismal language assures us of the perseverance of the saints based upon the particularity of grace (in this case of regeneration)!
See also the “Flood Prayer” in which the petition is premised upon the complete deliverance of Old Testament figures and the nation of Israel from the Deluge and the Red Sea respectively as signifying the cleansing waters of Baptism. Note also the parallel between Noah’s ark and the Church, which is to say everlasting life is inseparably connected with Regeneration.
The catena patrum (i.e. the list of excerpts) from the Church of England and Continental Divines as compiled e.g. by Dean William Goode in his magisterial book, The Doctrine of the Church of England in relation to the Efficacy of Baptism in the case of Infants more than amply demonstrates the doctrinal consensus of the English branch of the Reformed Churches in the context of Baptism.
And it has been the argument of this tract - in consonance with the doctrine of the Reformed English Church and by extension Anglicanism - that the grace of regeneration is not bound to the Sacrament nor tied to the moment it is administered but is wholly the prerogative of God and “they that receive baptism rightly are grafted into the Church, the promises of the forgiveness of sins, and of our adoption to be the sons of God, by the Holy Ghost are visibly signed and sealed, faith is confirmed, grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God”.
As for the unworthy recipients (i.e. non-elect), they do not partake of the inward grace “offered” (read: “presented”, Latin: “offero”) in the Sacrament but only the sign (e.g. Article 25; this is one place where the teaching of the 39 Articles on “reprobation” or non-election is to be found, cf. Article 17, 1st paragraph).
The Church of England condemns the Arminian error of universal grace as Semi-Pelagianism in modern garb (see Toplady’s Historic Proof of the Doctrinal Calvinism of the Church of England, the chap. on Elizabeth I, Works). The only safeguard against the Synergistic error whether in the sphere of the Sacraments or within the wider structure of Covenant theology (as is the case in Continental Reformed and Presbyterian churches) is to defend the Protestant Reformation insistence on the particularity of grace grounded in the eternal and unchangeable decree of predestination, and only then can we - who stand in the lineage of the 16th cent. revival of true religion - do justice to the theology that the Reformers and their successors have recovered, developed, defended vigorously; some as martyrs for the Reformed Catholic religion.
May the Lord use this tract in support of the historic Reformed theology of the Church of England as maintained in the Church of England (Continuing).
Baptism is an integral feature in the life and witness of the Church where the grace of God is to be had to the salvation of His elect Church. May God “shortly accomplish the number of [His] elect, and hasten [His] kingdom” (Office of the Burial of the Dead). “Yea, come Lord Jesus, come quickly …”.
Labels: Baptism, Ecclesiology, Sacramental Theology