nathaniel stephens on baptism
As I've mentioned before, a study of 16th and 17th century Reformed understandings of baptism and, in particular, infant baptism yields the result that there was a wide variety of views that were discussed and, seemingly, acceptable within a generous Reformed orthodoxy, which we can define broadly as a confession consistent with the teachings of the Synod of Dort.
For instance, there were various questions with regard to the relationship between the covenant membership of infants of believers and the sacrament of baptism. Some questions involved whether the covenant promise extended only to the children of those who gave a credible profession of faith or if it extended to include grandchildren or the children of those who, though baptized, were living scandalously or had apostatized. Thomas Blake's The Birth-Priviledge or Covenant-Holinesse of Beleevers and Their Issue
(1644) extends the covenant privilege and right to baptism very broadly.
Other questions involved the way in which baptism marked out covenant membership, whether, for instance, children were admitted to the covenant by
baptism (the view of a few) or whether they were baptized because they were already
members of the covenant (the dominant view). For others, the truth lay somewhere in between, as with one divine who wrote that infants of believers are within the covenant as a "jus ad rem
," but do not have a "jus in re
" with regard to the covenant until baptized.
The Westminster Larger Catechism presumably reflects this variety of views when it states, "infants descending from parents, either both, or but one of them, professing faith in Christ, and obedience to him, are in that respect
within the covenant" (Q 166), thereby providing a statement ambiguous enough to satisfy a majority of parties.
Another area of diversity concerns "obsignation," that is, the nature of the sacrament as a "seal" of the covenant, something that assures and confirms to faith that the grace signified is given. For instance, in a discussion between two Puritan divines, one wrote that the "instrumental conveyance of the grace signified to the due receiever, is as true an effect of a sacrament, when it is administered, as obsignation, and is pre-existing in order of nature to obsignation." That is to say, a sacrament can only assure us as a seal of grace if that grace is first conveyed by the sacrament
as God's instrument.
The other divine, however, replied, that such grace is "properly the grace of the covenant, which God doth confirm and seal by the sacraments." That is, a sacrament can only assure as a seal of grace if that grace is first offered in the covenant
which, once the covenant is accepted by faith, is confirmed to that faith subsequently by the sacraments.
Still other divines, without denying the primary function of seals for assurance and confirmation of faith, also took the language of "seal" to include the sense that the grace signified by the sacrament was sealed to those who rightly received the sacrament, where "sealed" means something like "pressed onto," as sealing a package joins things together. The idea would be that the grace of the sacrament is "proffered and given" to the recipient of the sacrament and, to those who receive the sacrament rightly, also "effectually conveyed." They would not, of course, say that it is the material element or action of the sacrament itself that effects this sealing, but rather the promise of God contained with the sacrament and the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.
In light of this diversity, it is interesting to look at the baptismal theology of Nathaniel Stephens, who published a defence of infant baptism in 1651 directed against the growing Baptist sect in England and the writings of certain Mr. Everard who was of the Baptist persuasion. Stephens' book was entitled A Precept for the Baptism of Infants Out of the New Testament
Stephens, who lived from 1607 to 1678 was an English Puritan and Presbyterian, probably best known for having been George Fox's pastor before Fox founded Quakerism. He served as the rector of the parish of Fenny Drayton in Leicestershire until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, though he returned to its pulpit in 1645 where he remained until the Act of Uniformity resulted in his ejection in 1662.
Stephens subscribed his name to the Solemn League and Covenant and was, from what I can gather, a supporter of the Westminster Assembly and the Standards it produced.
His treatise on baptism is interesting in several respects.
First, Stephens does not deploy the argument from circumcision as a central point in his demonstration. Rather, he argues from other biblical considerations, of which circumcision is only a subsidiary point. He summarizes his argument in this way:
I have gone through the three places of Scripture from which I did undertake to prove a precept for the baptism of infants in the New Testament. We have seen, first, that the children are comprehended inclusively and collectively in the word "them" [in] "teach all nations, baptizing them" (Matth. 28). Secondly, we have declared that
the children are included in the word of the command, "be baptized every one of you," because they are expressed in the word of promise (Acts 2.38,39). Thirdly, we have proved, because infants are born in original sin, they have now the same need of the regenerating seal by outward washing, "Except ye be born of water of the the Spirit" (John 3.5).
Second, as is evident from the above quotation, Stephens takes "water" in John 3:5 to refer to the sacrament of baptism, an exegetical opinion that was rapidly becoming a minority view in his day among those of Reformed perspective.
Third, Stephens provides one understanding of what can be meant by the term "seal" in the mid-17th century, apparently leaning towards some notion of "offer" and, to right recipients, "conveyance," as well as primarily denoting assurance and confirmation of faith. His discussion here focuses particularly upon the notion that baptism is a "seal of regeneration." It seems to me that, within the wider theological currents of his day, when Stephens says "regeneration" it is not merely a one-time event but also includes an ongoing process of purging sin and newness of life.
That is, I hope, a more than adequate introduction. The following is excerpted from his text:
In the conference with Nicodemus, our Saviour doth insist much upon the pollution of the natural birth and the necessity of regeneration, both by water without and the Spirit within. Now in this Scripture there is included a precept to believers to apply the outward washing to their children (born in original sin) the seal of the inward washing.
That this may be made manifest I will:
First, clear the text from two ordinary mistakes.
Secondly, from the words rightly expounded, I will show how the precept is deduced by necessary consequence.
For the mistakes, in the first place they do overshoot themselves that plead from hence an absolute necessity of the baptism of infants. Indeed there is an absolute necessity that all that are born in original sin, if they be saved, they must be saved by the covenant, but there is not a like necessity of the seal. In the times of the first dispensation to comfort believers in respect of their children born in original sin, the promise then was, "The seed of the woman shall break the serpent's head" (Gen 3.15). Yet there was no seal of this promise, no initial seal, for two thousand years together, from Adam to Abraham. Further there was not such absolute necessity of the seal in the times of circumcision for those that died before the eighth day.
There was then (as now is) an absolute necessity of salvation by the promise and covenant: but the necessity of the seal was only conditional, so far forth as it might be well had. Therefore, when the ancient writers (Fathers and Schoolmen) speak so much of the "necessity of baptism," and of the salvation of infants, strictly and precisely upon terms of baptism, to my understanding they ascribe too much to the outward ordinance and so do err in the other extreme. For the hope of salvation does not lie so much in the seal, as in the promise to which the seal is annexed.
Indeed the Lord having made a promise to believers concerning their children born in original sin, "That he will be their God and the God of their seed," in this case they must believe his word, and where he hath ordained a seal for the confirmation of their faith, they must take heed how they neglect to apply it, they must not (as more than too many do in these days) think it superfluous or an idle figure. All that we plead is this, that there is a necessity that lieth upon believing parents to baptize their children born in original sin. But how? The necessity is not absolute but conditional. In case the child die before baptism, he may be saved by the covenant and by the promise of God; yet I think such a parent that doth carelessly omit his duty, he will very hardly answer his neglect to God himself, his church, and I think at last, to his own conscience.
Secondly, to my understanding also they go too far, whosoever they be that do conclude that baptism itself doth regenerate or that it doth confer grace by the work done. It is a difficult point rightly to divide the matter between two extremes. If therefore I may deliver my thoughts concerning this matter, I do believe that as the Word preached, so the seals administered, according to the mind of Christ, in this they are the conduit pipes to carry the Spirit to the souls of men. But how? Not always, in all men, and at all times; but only when it pleaseth the Lord to work by them. But as to the particular of baptism, what the ordinance doth confer we will resolve in answering these several queries:
Query 1: What doth baptism confer to the pardon of original sins in infants?
Answer: It is certain that all who are born in the ordinary way since the fall of Adam, are born in the guilt of his original sin (Rom 5.12-14). Now this is the comfort to believers, that in Christ the promised seed there is pardon of this sin to their natural seed. Therefore, if the children of believers die before baptism, there is hope of their salvation by the promise. But if they die after baptism, the hope is not only grounded upon the promise, but it is also ratified by the seal. Therefore the infants that die unbaptized, the hope of their salvation is by promise; but the baptized infants of believers have hope of salvation both by promise and by seal. Thus far (as I conceive) baptism doth confer to the pardon of original sin in infants.
Query 2: What doth baptism confer to the pardon of actual sin in men of riper years?
Answer: It is a sure rule, that baptism doth not only seal the pardon of original, but also the pardon of actual sin. Ananias said to Paul, "Why tarriest thou? Arise and be baptized and wash away thy sins, calling upon the name of the Lord" (Acts 22.16). So then, if the person baptized continue after baptism in cleansing and purging out sin, in judging and condemning himself daily for sin, he may be fully assured that the Lord will continue a daily pardon of sin. As sin is daily confessed, so it shall be daily pardoned upon true confession.
If any doubt should arise in the conscience concerning the continuation of pardon by the blood of Christ, whether the Lord would continue to pardon such sin as is committed after justification, the Apostle saith, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1.7-9). Why doth he say that he is faithful and just to forgive sin? This doth imply that he hath somewhere bound himself by promise to forgive sin to them that truly repent. It is true, he hath bound himself to the person baptized at the time of baptism to forgive and pardon sin, so far forth as sin is repented of. The person baptized may say, "I am assured of this, I have had it sealed to me forty, fifty, sixty years ago, at the time of my baptism." Where the conscience doth make a question, whether God will continue to pardon sin, the washing of baptism doth seal the assurance thereof.
Query 3: What doth baptism confer to the taking away of the pollution of original sin in infants?
Answer: Though the Pelagians of old and Mr. Everard of late do strongly dispute that children have no natural pollution derived from Adam, yet in this we cannot yield to them. It is plain from the scope of Scripture that as soon as men have a being, they have a polluted and sinful being. In case therefore they die in infancy, how is this pollution done away? In this we leave them to the extraordinary grace of God. He can cleanse them in an extraordinary way whom he will not suffer to come in the ordinary way to salvation. And this is all that we will say of that question.
Query 4: What doth baptism confer to the taking away from the pollution of nature in men of riper years?
Answer: It is plain by experience that all that are baptized are not regenerate. Therefore we cannot look upon baptism, but only as on a seal of regeneration. Forasmuch as the Lord for his part doth promise to give his Spirit to the person baptized that he may be regenerated; the person baptized for his part doth solemnly engage himself, that he will look for the Spirit which the Lord hath promised to give, that so he may come to the inward washing. In this (as I conceive) the efficacy and use of baptism doth principally stand. It doth principally stand in the agreement betwixt God and the believer, the Lord for his part, in the first place, under his seal, doth promise to give inward grace to the cleansing away of the pollution of nature; and the party baptized doth set to his seal, that he will endeavour to cleanse and wash, by the power and help of grace received.
The reason that moveth me so to think, is this. When the Lord said, "Circumcise the foreskin of your hearts and be no more stiff-necked" (Deut 10.16). Here if you go strictly to work, how could he require the circumcising of the heart, as spiritual and supernatural duty, how could he require this to be performed by weak and sinful men? To speak truly, in all the time of that administration he did never require them to circumcise the foreskin of their hearts by their own natural ability; but he required them to look to the promise sealed to them in the outward circumcision of the flesh. Because he required them to circumcise the foreskin of their heart in the word of command, he doth say, "I will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed in the word of promise" (Deut 30.6). And therefore the Psalmist finding by experience that he was conceived in sin and born in iniquity, he did pray to the Lord, that he would create in him a clean heart and renew within him a right Spirit (Psalm 51.5, 10). In this he did but pray for the inward circumcision of the heart, according to the word of promise, to which he had already obliged and bound himself to look after in the time of his outward circumcision.
The like reason may be given of the times of the New Testament, where the Lord doth command us "to be renewed in the spirit of our minds, to wash, to cleanse ourselves from all pollution of flesh and spirit." In this case we are not to take it as though we had an inward power to wash or cleanse our minds, but we are to consider when the Lord doth lay such a command upon us, it is in correspondence and relation to the promise sealed in the sacrament of baptism. Because he hath promised to give his Spirit inwardly to wash and cleanse our natures when we receive the outward washing, we for our parts do oblige and bind ourselves inwardly to wash by and through the supply of his Holy Spirit. Therefore, to shut up all, though baptism doth not confer regeneration, yet by that ordinance the Lord doth bind himself to give his Spirit toward that inward regeneration, so far forth as we do and shall endeavor to look after his promise.
And thus far I have gone in clearing the text from two great mistakes. I do not plead from the words ("except ye be born of water and of the Spirit") an absolute necessity of baptism by the outward element of water, but only a conditional. I do not plead that all who are outwardly baptized are inwardly regenerated, but that the Lord doth enter into covenant with them to give his regenerating Spirit, so far forth as they look and wait for it in the use of those means he has appointed. This is all that I do desire to speak concerning this matter, and I do it the rather because I would not give offence. I hope then that I shall be more willingly heard when I prove a precept but for the baptism of infants and for the necessity of their baptism from this Scripture.
The probation of the precept doth lie in two particulars:
First, by "water" is meant the outward water in baptism, as it doth refer to the inward washing of the Spirit.
Secondly, because children are born in original sin, there doth lie a necessity upon the parents to bring them to baptism, the seal of their regeneration.
That the outward baptism of water is here meant, the reasons that move me so to judge are these:
First, the general consent of all antiquity, together with many late writers, agree in it, that the external elementary baptism is here intended as a seal of the inward washing.
Secondly, it is more immediate to the words of the text to take the washing of water as the outward sign and the washing of the Spirit as the inward grace.
Thirdly, other places in Scripture do carry but one and the same sense. The washing of baptism is called "the washing of regeneration" (Tit 3.5). And the reason is this, because the inward washing of the Spirit in regeneration is sealed with the outward washing in baptism. Now is this all one with the birth by water and the Spirit? But if any man shall stand in it, that these and many other Scriptures cannot be meant of water baptism, then I would entreat him to show me the reason why the work of regeneration in the New Testament is so often called by the title and the name of washing? There is a purging by fire, so metals are refined (Mal 3.2). There is a purging by wind, so the corn is cleansed (Matt 3.12). Why then is the cleansing and purging and the inward renewing of the heart so frequently set forth by the washing of water? I think all will easily agree in it, because the outward washing is appointed as a seal of the inward washing of the new birth. If this be so, the birth by water must needs refer to the water of baptism as to the outward sign.
Fourthly, that which hath moved some late writers to depart from this interpretation, for the reason that hath moved them, we can clearly make it appear, that other Scriptures have the like show of difficulty of which no question is to be made but they speak of outward baptism. Of some of them apprehend that the present text ("except a man be born of water adn of te Spirit") cannot be meant of outward baptism, because then the baptism of water would be absolutely necessary to salvation. He that is troubled with this difficulty, let him consider that place, "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved" (Mark 16.16). In these words no man doubteth but the Lord Christ doth point to the outward baptism by water and in a sort he doth say that this baptism is necessary to salvation. How then are the words to be expounded? We must take them in this sense, that faith is more absolutely necessary to salvation, yet in a sort it is true, that baptism is necessary as the outward means. Why else would our Saviour say, "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved"? We may in the present case give the same explanation. According to the manifest course of divine dispensation, we come to salvation by the new birth, and in the ordinary way, so far as it may conveniently be had, the outward washing is a seal of the inward washing of the Spirit.
These and many more reasons might be brought to prove that the outward baptism is intended in the words, "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit." But in so plain a case these shall suffice. Now we come to prove the precept.
First, if it be granted that the outward elementary baptism is here intended, I think it will easily follow, in the conscience of every believing parent, that there is a necessity lieth upon him to bring his child to baptism. For if the Lord Christ that giveth salvation, doth require the outward baptism of water, and the inward baptism of the Spirit, both these as the ordinary mean to salvation in such a case for a parent that is mindful of the salvation of his infant, it is not for him curiously to dispute, whether an infant unbaptized may be saved? But it lieth upon him to do that which is required, and so to avoid the danger. But let us more particularly insist upon the baptism of infants, the word of command must necessarily be applied, because of the pollution of their natural birth. The scope of the text is chiefly concerning these three particulars:
First, that all by nature are defiled with original sin.
Secondly, there is a necessity of the new birth.
Thirdly, the outward washing in baptism is a seal of the inward washing.
This being laid as a ground that the infant is born in original sin, and that they outward baptism is a seal of the washing away of they pollution of sin by the Spirit of Christ, upon such a supposition I think we may not use many arguments to the believing parent, to bring his infant to the washing of baptism. No man can be ignorant, where the disease is, there is a need of the remedy. And therefore when our Saviour doth press a necessity of washing both by water and the Spirit, he doth not urge this so immediately in reference to actual sin, as in reference to birth-sin, and to the natural pollution in which infants are born. The consideration of the guilt and the pollution of the birth-sin, doth draw in the necessity of infant baptism. And therefore in the former ages of the church we shall find all along that they that understood the vileness of the natural pollution (as Augustine and others), they were more forward for baptism in infancy. On the other side, those that thought infants to be free from all original pollution, as derived from Adam (for of this judgments were the Pelagians of old and Mr. Everard and his followers of late), they both were and now are most lax and careless in the perfomance of that duty to their own children.
But if this will not convince, let it be considered in the fear of God, wherefore there was suck a strict command given to the Jews to circumcise thier infants in their dispensation. If the like reason doth hold that infants have now one and the same need of the seal of the new birth, under this last, as well as they had under their dispensation, why should not parents now make the same conscience to bring their children to the seal of regeneration or the new birth now as well as then?
If you've read this far, that is quite a feat.
Some of the details of exactly what Stephens is saying still remain unclear to me. Nevertheless, it is clear that Stephens, like a number of other Puritans, did see baptism as something like a "converting ordinance," in the sense that conversion or renewal of heart was among the ends of the sacrament and part of the grace offered and sealed to those who received the sacrament rightly.
Whatever the case, the more I read various Reformed figures in the 16th and 17th century, the more difficult I find it to categorize them neatly, particularly in terms of what later came to be understood (perhaps in the 19th century) as "standard Reformed theology" or "vanilla Presbyterianism" or however one might prefer to name it.
And, while there are exceptions to the following observation, I am also continually impressed by the generosity of spirit and moderation with which sometimes sharply disagreeing divines regarded one another so long as there was a shared confession in the essential articles of evangelical and Reformed religion.