28 July 2004

on baptism and regeneration

It looks like I won't be able to return to my more detailed "baptismal taxonomy" thread anytime soon, so I thought that in meantime I might say a little bit about the various ways the concept of "regeneration" can function in relation to baptism in traditional Reformed dogmatics.

To begin, the concept of "regeneration" itself can be understood in several different ways:

[1] In a number of earlier Reformed divines, the term "regeneration" referred primarily to the ongoing process of mortification of sin and newness of life that was an effect of faith.  We find such a view in theologians as disparate as Calvin, Musculus, Polanus, Knox, Craig, Rollock, Perkins, Ames, Chamier, du Moulin, among others.

While this process of regeneration certainly has a point of inception and is a creative work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers in union with Christ, it was typically seen in its beginnings as coordinate with the gift of faith and in its progress as an effect of faith, rather than as a discrete event that remains logically prior to faith.

Such a concept of regeneration seems to be in view, for instance, when the Belgic Confession states in Article 24, concerning "The Sanctification of Sinners" that "true faith, produced in man by the hearing of God's Word and by the work of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a 'new man,' causing him to live the 'new life' and freeing him from the slavery of sin."  Similarly, the First Book of Discipline of the Scottish Kirk says, "this the Scripture calleth our 'regeneration,' which standeth chiefly in these two points: in mortification, that is to say, a resisting of the rebellious lusts of the flesh; and in newness of life, whereby we continually strive to walk in...pureness and perfection."

[2] Some Reformed authors will also speak of an objective "baptismal regeneration" or a "sacramental and visible regeneration" or, sometimes (particularly among Reformed Anglicans), of an "ecclesiastical regeneration."  In this case, "regeneration" refers not so much to a subjective transformation as to an objective status in which the offer and promise of salvation has been given and sealed to a person so that he is set apart and admitted to the visible church as one covenanted with God, enjoying all the privileges of Christ's kingdom, along with the common operations of the Spirit. 

Thus the Scots theologian, John Forbes, writes of those who are "regenerated and holy through baptismal regeneration and sanctity," citing the sanctification of which Hebrews 10:29 speaks (Instructiones Historico-theologicae). Likewise, the Puritan, Richard Baxter, writes in these terms: "God hath chosen you out of the world to be members of his visible church, and given you the great privilege of early entrance into his holy covenant, and washed you in the laver of visible regeneration" (Compassionate Counsel to all Young Men, Chapter 5, Section 2).

While the status of visible regeneration is one that is objectively conferred, it also ought, through faith, to become one that is truly lived out, issuing in subjective regeneration.  This, however, does not necessarily happen in every case, but only where a true and persevering faith is present, receiving what has been promised, offered, and sealed.

[3] In later Reformed dogmatics, particularly in the wake of the Synod of Dort, though anticipated earlier, the term "regeneration" came to refer to that secret and immediate work of the Holy Spirit upon the heart of a person, in connection with the call of the Gospel through the Word, introducing what was sometimes called a "new principle of life," transforming the person from death to life and thereby enabling him to believe.  On this conception, regeneration is logically prior to faith.

Thus, under the "Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine," the Canons of Dort state:


...by the effective operation of the same regenerating Spirit, he also penetrates into the inmost being of man, opens the closed heart, softens the hard heart, and circumcises the heart that is uncircumcised. He infuses new qualities into the will, making the dead will alive, the evil one good, the unwilling one willing, and the stubborn one compliant; he activates and strengthens the will so that, like a good tree, it may be enabled to produce the fruits of good deeds. (Article 11)

This is "regeneration" in the narrow and strict sense of modern Reformed dogmatics and likely how the term is popularly understood among most Calvinist evangelicals.  Earlier Reformed dogmatics, however, often spoke of "regeneration" in this sense more in terms of "effectual calling," of which the ongoing process of regeneration was the effect.

[4] A number of Reformed theologians will also speak of covenant infants having the "seed" or "principle" of regeneration or "initial regeneration," whether in connection with baptism or prior to it.  In this case, further "actual" regeneration--by which is meant either the calling of God effectually bringing the person to new life and faith and/or the ongoing process of spiritual renovation--is something that follows from those first beginnings of regeneration.

So, for instance, Francis Junius makes this distinction: "Regeneration is considered, in one way, as it is in its foundation--that is, in Christ in principle--and, in another way, as it is active in us" (Theses Theologiae, 51.8).  Similarly, Gijsbert Voetius can write of "the initial regeneration of the Holy Spirit--by which is impressed the beginning and seed of actual conversion or renovation, which is to follow in its own time" (Selected Theological Disputes).

In some Reformed authors, this initial regeneration seems to approach closely the kind of sacramental and visible regeneration that I spoke of above under [2] and thus is something enjoyed by all covenant infants.  In others, it is tied more closely with a kind of subjective transformation, even if only present in principle or incipiently.  In this case, it is typically limited to those covenant infants who are elect to salvation.

We can now turn to the question of baptism in relation to these various notions of regeneration.

[1]  If we are speaking of actual regeneration as a process of death to sin and newness of life, then based on texts like Romans 6, Titus 3:15, and Colossians 2-3, almost all 16th and 17th century Reformed authors see this benefit of salvation as one that is found in union with Christ as he is offered and promised to us by the Spirit in baptism, where he is found and received by us through faith.  In this sense, baptismal regeneration is the historic teaching of the Reformed church.

Thus, Calvin writes in his Antidote to the Council of Trent:

We assert that the whole guilt of sin is taken away in baptism, so that the remains of sin still existing are not imputed. That this may be more clear, let my readers call to mind that there is a twofold grace in baptism, for therein both remission of sins and regeneration are offered to us. We teach that full remission is made, but that regeneration is only begun and goes on making progress during the whole of life. Accordingly, sin truly remains in us, and is not instantly in one day extinguished by baptism, but as the guilt is effaced it is null in regard to imputation. Nothing is plainer than this doctrine. (reply to the First Decree of the Fifth Session) 
The Westminster Larger Catechism expresses a similar perspective when it speak of "improving our baptisms" in terms of "drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized, for the mortifying of sin, and quickening of grace" (Q&A 167).

In connection with the notion of regeneration as a process, we can consider the Reformed emphasis that the effect of baptism is not tied to the moment of administration, but rather extends through the whole of the Christian life as it is lived out under the sign of baptism.  Thus the Belgic Confession states, "Yet this baptism is profitable not only when the water is on us and when we receive it but throughout our entire lives" (Article 34).  Or in the words of the Second Helvetic Confession, "baptism once received continues for all of life, and is a perpetual sealing of our adoption" (Chapter 20). 

[2]  If we are referring to some kind of objective, visible and sacramental regeneration, those Reformed authors who speak in these terms obviously connect that regeneration with baptism itself as a rite that marks out the visible people of God, sometimes even calling the regeneration involved "baptismal."

While this merely baptismal regeneration is directed towards spiritual renewal and renovation as its end (so that such further regeneration is also, in that sense, baptismal), such further regeneration would only be enjoyed by those who receive their baptismal regeneration in faith (whether at the time of baptism or subsequently), reckoning to themselves in fact what they already were, by baptism, in name.  In this approach we find an echo of the Pauline emphasis to become what we already are, the imperative following upon the indicative.

[3] With regard to the narrower notion of regeneration as the implantation of new principle of life, associated with effectual calling, the relation to baptism is more complex. 

After all, in this sense of "regeneration," regeneration is prior to faith and, moreover, Reformed theology generally holds that apart from faith, baptism does not produce transformative effects within the baptized.  Thus, from this perspective it would be difficult to see baptism as directly instrumental in regeneration since regeneration is necessary for faith and faith, in turn, is necessary for baptism's effects.  "Baptismal regeneration" would then seem to introduce confusion into the ordo salutis.

In addition, since regeneration in this sense is the outcome of effectual calling, it is more closely associated with the Spirit's work in and through the Word (particularly as it is preached) than with  baptism (cf. WCF10.1).  Furthermore, it seems that this kind of regeneration is something that might equally well occur prior to, along with, or after baptism and thus cannot be tied to the moment of administration.

That being said, it is also the case that, in the ordinary course of events, effectual calling by the Word and Spirit will come to regenerative fruition in faith and that faith is one which will publicly and visibly express itself in baptism as the place in which Christ is visibly received, faith is strengthened and confirmed, and regeneration itself is ratified and sealed.  Moreover, the grace of regeneration produces further sanctifying effects that are themselves of a piece with that initial grace and those effects can be seen as offered and received in baptism. 

Turretin, for instance, says that the "Holy Spirit is repeatedly promised and given also to believers" and that this is "the progress and increase of regenerating grace" by which the Spirit acts "to promote and perfect the good work which began in them" (Institutes 15.5.20).  And baptism, both in its administration and ongoing relevance to the Christian life, is certainly one of those occasions upon which the Holy Spirit is promised and given as part of the progress and increase of regenerating grace, even in this narrower sense of "regeneration."

[4] Finally, infant baptism provides an interesting lens through which we can view these various perspectives on the relation of regeneration and baptism. 

While we can easily enough see how infants might have regeneration in the sense of a objective, sacramental status in which they are covenanted to God and receive the offer and promises of Christ, the more subjective and transformative senses of "regeneration" complicate matters, since it is not clear that infants can fully experience regeneration in those senses.  It is here, then, that Reformed divines have often spoken in terms of the seed, root, principle, or beginnings of regeneration as enjoyed by covenant infants.

Precisely how these initial beginnings of regeneration in covenant infants are related to baptism is a matter of some discussion within the Reformed tradtion.  Some have maintained that covenant children come into the world enjoying the seed of regeneration and are therefore properly baptized since they alread posess the beginnings of what baptism signifies and seals.  Others have tied these beginnings of regeneration much more closely with the adminstration of baptism itself, though always allowing that, for covenant infants dying apart from baptism, the promise of God is sufficient for salvation. 

A further complication is whether these beginnings of regeneration are enjoyed by all covenant infants (which Calvin sometimes seems to suggest), all baptized covenant infants (a view we find in Cranmer, Davenant, Samuel Ward, Thomas Bedford, Le Blanc, and Jurieu, among others), or only elect covenant infants, whether received at baptism or some other time (though the views of Zanchius, Junius, Chamier, Cornelius Burgess, and others tie the initial regeneration of elect infants closely to baptism).

A related matter is that of faith.  Regardless whether regeneration is seen as prior to faith or as an effect of faith, if some infants enjoy even the seed, root, and principle of regeneration, this raises the question of whether such infants also have faith.  The response to this question on the part of most Reformed theologians has been to distinguish, as with regeneration, between faith in principle and faith in its exercise.

Thus Turretin distinguishes between those who have "the saving habit of acting faith" (or "actual faith") and those who have faith in its "principle and root," which an infant can possess since he "can have the Holy Spirit, with which to believe in his own time" (Institutes 19.20.19). Likewise, Junius says, "regarding the species of faith, it is to be considered both with regard to its first act and (as they say) its second." Infants are capable of faith as it in its first act and thus "it false to argue that infants are completely incapable of faith," though this is "God's secret and hidden thing" (Theses Theologicae 51.7).  Alsted similarly maintains that while infants may be "destitute of what is called 'actual faith', they are not on that account destitute of all faith...Faith in principle and seed, and virtually, is to be attributed to elect infants" (Theologia, Scholastica Didactica, 785).

Questions about the relative logical priority of the beginnings of faith and the beginnings of (transformative) regeneration can thus be raised here in a manner analogous to their priority in adult converts. 

Thus, conceived in terms of a process of dying to sin and newness of life, regeneration in principle and seed might be seen as logically following from the principle and seed of faith, so that as faith grows and matures into actual faith, it will concomitantly produce a struggle against sin and yielding unto obedience, wrought by the Holy Spirit.  On such a conception, (at least elect) covenant infants who have the principle and seed of faith are, also in principle and seed, regenerated in baptism, in which the regenerating gift of the Spirit is offered in Christ.  As that baptismal offer and gift remains always present, such infants would continue to receive the further actualization of those beginnings of regeneration as part of living out their baptisms.  Many of early Reformed authors who spoke of regeneration in terms of ongoing transformation understood infant baptismal regeneration in this way (e.g., Zanchius, Chamier).

On the other hand, conceived in terms of an initial work of the Spirit calling a person to belief in the Gospel, the principle and seed of regeneration would remain logically prior to the seed and principle of faith, awaiting the effectual call through the Word and Spirit by which it might be transformed into actual regeneration, producing actual faith.  While on such a view the beginnings of regeneration are offered and received by (at least elect) covenant infants in baptism itself, the ministry of Word would still retain its primary place in effectual calling and the exercise of actual faith.  Some later Reformed authors who spoke of regeneration in terms of an initial work of the Spirit, in turn producing faith, understood infant baptismal regeneration in this way (e.g., Burgess, Bedford).

None of these observations resolve these differences in approach, emphasis, and terminology among a wide swath of early Reformed theologians.  Nor do they address the substantive issues of biblical theology regarding the notion of regeneration and its relation to Christian initiation.  Nevertheless, this has hopefully charted some of the relevant territory and thus will prove helpful in further reflection.