20 September 2007

goode on baptismal regeneration

William Goode (1801-1868) was a 19th century evangelical Anglican theologian, editor of the Christian Observer, the rector of All Hallows the Great in London, and an articulate opponent of Puseyism, as the Anglo-Catholic movement in the Church of England was then often called.

One of his most significant works was a historical study called The Doctrine of the Church of England as to the Effects of Baptism in the Case of Infants, a close survey of the opinions of around 70 different Anglican theologians - mostly bishops - from the 16th and 17th centuries concerning the doctrine of baptism in general and of infant baptism in particular. Through this survey he hoped to vindicate an evangelical Anglican understanding of baptism over against that of certain sorts of Anglo-Catholicism.

Goode's position - in keeping with the Reformed tradition, as he ably demonstrates - is that baptism remains an actually regenerating ordinance only for those elected to salvation, who in the case of adults ordinarily receive baptism in faith and who in the case of infants ordinarily have the beginnings of faith. This, he suggests, is the evangelical, Reformed, and historic Anglican position over against those he was opposing.

At this point a Reformed variety of objection might proceed as follows: if those for whom baptism is effective are those who already believe or at least have the beginnings of faith, then they are already regenerate - for faith presupposes regeneration - and thus baptism cannot be the means of their regeneration. Goode seems to anticipate and head off such an objection. He writes,
But baptism is the formal act of incorporation in Christ's body, the Church; not merely the visible Church, but (when God acts in this ordinance) the true Church, the mystical body of Christ. And therefore it may be justly said, that, where it is efficacious, there we are regenerated by it. For whereas, before, we were only the children of Adam, and so of wrath; we are hereby made children of grace, members of Christ. But it must be remembered, that as in the natural birth there was life previously; so in the spiritual new birth, life, a living principle of faith must have been implanted to make the birth by baptism effectual to the production of being spiritually alive. And Holy Scripture, clearly, often speaks of the implantation of this principle of spiritual life as the act of regeneration, inasmuch as it is the most important part of the work of spiritual new-birth. While it also speaks of that new-birth as connected with baptism, but evidently in the sense just mentioned. And if this easy distinction is kept in view, all the passages of Holy Scripture on the subject harmonize fully with one another. (42-43)
That seems to me to be a very helpful perspective. If the beginnings of our regeneration and its first growth are akin to natural conception, then baptism is birth into a new world - entering fully into the family of God, taking one's first breaths in the air of the kingdom, being seen and recognized as a new child in the household of faith, taken up into the waiting arms of our sisters and brothers.

Goode goes on directly to add,
It is also to be borne in mind, that as spiritual regeneration is thus connected with baptism, which is its sign and seal, there is a sense in which all that are baptised may be called by man regenerate; not as having beyond doubt received spiritual regeneration, but as having received the Sacrament of regeneration, and thus being sacramentally regenerate; and that Sacrament is also called by the name of that which it is a sign. (43)
This too is an important point and a commonplace of historic Reformed divinity worth remembering.