03 August 2001

bucer's baptismal theology

One of the interesting things about Martin Bucer is to trace the development of his baptismal theology over the course of his teaching as a Reformer.

In the earliest part of his career, during the 1520's, he directed his teaching against what he perceived to be Roman Catholic extremes regarding the ex opera operato functioning of the sacraments, particularly as that was explained by nominalist theologians. Thus he makes a sharp distinction between the "baptism of water [by which] we are received into the outward church of God" and the "baptism of the Spirit" which the elect alone experience (cf. particularly his commentary on John). Thus, with regard to infant baptism, Bucer asserts, "if they were chosen of God before the foundations of the world were laid, the Lord will grant them the Spirit and faith when he sees fit, but our washing them with water will not for one moment grant them faith or God's Spirit" (from his 1527 Ephesians commentary).

By the mid-1520's, however, the Reformer Carlstadt had rejected the practice of infant baptism, paving the way for the radical reformation of the Anabaptists. At first Bucer was not particularly concerned since, after all, "baptism is just an external" (as he once told Luther). Nevertheless, over time Bucer grew less and less sanguine about the Anabaptists and, in his reply to them, found himself returning to an emphasis on the efficacy of baptism and the true instrumentality of the rite by the power of the Spirit.

Thus, by the late 1530's, the rupture between "inward" and "outward" was overcome in the context of a rapidly developing Reformed sacramental and covenantal theology. This same trend and trajectory can be found throughout this period in the thought of many other Reformed Protestants: Calvin, Capito, Oecolampadius, Farel, even Zwingli (see Hughes Oliphant Old's The Shaping of the Reformed Baptismal Rite in the Sixteenth Century, Eerdmans 1992, especially Chapters 4-6).

And by the time of his 1536 commentary on Romans, Bucer is able to state, "Christ commended baptism as the means whereby participation in himself and heavenly regeneration should be imparted and presented through the church's ministry." And in his 1548 Brief Summary of the Christian Doctrine and Religion Taught as Strasbourg he writes,
We confess and teach that holy baptism, when given and received according to the Lord's command, is in the case of adults and little children truly a baptism of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, whereby those who are baptized have all their sins washed away, are buried into the death of our Lord Jesus Christ, are incorporated into him and put him on for the death of their sins, for a new and godly life and the blessed resurrection, and through him become children and heirs of God.
A similar progression can be found in Calvin's writings proceeding from the 1536 Institutes and his early commentaries, to the later Catechism of 1545, the 1556 reply to Westphal, and the final additions to the 1559 edition of the Institutes.

A lot of historical research still needs to be done on this and similar topics, research that would no doubt benefit those churches which trace their heritage to these Reformers.