Next to the Sacrament of Holy Communion, the Sacrament of Baptism has occasioned possibly most discussion within the circle of the Christian Church.
There is a tendency, against which we must be on our guard, to attribute to the external sign the value of efficacy of the thing signified. This is what Calvin calls “that figment which places the cause of justification and the power of the Spirit in the sacramental elements, as in so many vehicles” (Institutes Bk. IV c.XIV, p. 415, Allen’s translation, London 1838).
This so-called opus operatum theory of the sacraments has influenced statements on baptism since the days of Thomas Aquinas, who declared that “a certain virtue in the water passes into the soul of the receiver” when he or she possesses what are called “the due dispositions.”
Instead of teaching, as Calvin does, that “God Himself accompanies His institution by the very present power of His Spirit” (Ibid p. 414), we are led to believe that God renders the sensible sign the channel of His grace.
It is worthy of notice in view of this widespread conception, that the language of Article XXVII follows very closely the form which is observable in the Institutes.
Calvin condemns the view of “those who have imagined that baptism is nothing more than a mark or sign by which we profess our religion before men” (Ibid p. 424). Yet he also states “It is a mark by which we openly profess our desire to be numbered among the people of God” (Ibid p. 430).
The correspondence between these statements and the words “Baptism is not only a sign of profession, etc.” will be at once apparent. Calvin also speaks of baptism as a seal to confirm the promises of God to us, and also asserts, more than once, that faith is confirmed by it.
He also says, “We are not only engrafted into the life and death of Christ, but are so united as to be partaker of all His benefits” (Ibid p. 425). And again “we are introduced by baptism into the society of His Church” (Ibid p. 429).
These are parallel with the statement “whereby as by an instrument… we are grafted into the Church.”
There is a difference of opinion as to what the words “whereby, as by an instrument” mean. The Latin word “instrumentum” has a wide range of meaning. It can mean “a tool” or “baggage” or ‘a legal conveyance.”
Dr Moule, in “English Church Teaching” draws attention to this latter usage, which has the authority of, Suetonius, and suggests this may be its sense here.
Usher takes the same view when he wrote in his “body of Divinity” that the promises of God were “estated” upon us in baptism. Calvin speaks directly of baptism as “a legal instrument properly attested” (p. 423).
On the other hand, we have to notice that Dr Lamb, in reproducing the Articles of 1552, uses the Latin word “infero,” where the later Article of 1563 employs the word “Macro,” which occurs in the Latin Vulgate in Romans XI. 17, 19, giving point to Jewel’s translation “are grafted into the Church.”
It may be contended that the simile of grafting would imply that the term “instrument” was employed in the sense of a “tool” rather than “a legal conveyance”; and the change from “infero” to “Macro” would enforce that meaning.
But we have to notice again that Calvin does not hesitate to speak of “a legal instrument properly attested,” and yet employs the simile of “engrafting” and “introducing” without any consciousness of a change of sense.
Also, it may be noted that both “infero” and “insero” can carry the suggestion of introducing a person or thing into a particular state. It may, therefore, be inadvisable to press either simile too far.
We are justified in asserting that the usage of the sixteenth century does not rule out the thought of “legal conveyance.” Indeed, Calvin speaks of “engrafting” as “the certain testimony that baptism affords us” p. 425).
We can, therefore, confidently assert that the suggestion of a legal conveyance is not wholly ruled out.
Controversy has also clustered round the word “rightly.” Many follow the view of Dr Henry Phillpotts, Bishop of Exeter, who became prominent owing to his action in the Gorham Case of 1850. He held that “rightly” means “rightly ministered to the baptized.”
The Bishop urged in defence of this view the language of Article XIX, where the words “duly ministered” read in the Latin “recte administrantur.” But it has been pointed out that “rightly administered” has a different sense from “rightly receiving,” and the latter may well include moral obligation on the part of the recipient.
The Bishop of Exeter sought to support his view by pointing out that the word for “receive” in the Latin of Article 27 is the verb “susciprio,” which he states includes “even passive and unconscious susception,” while the verb “percifrio,” which implies “both action and intention” is employed with reference to the reception of Holy Communion.
But it can be pointed out that the verb “percifrio” is used in the 26th Article of receiving both sacraments, It would strain the sense of the Article if we were to assume that the distinction between “percifrio” and “susciprio,” introduced by the Bishop, compelled us to the conclusion that the unworthiness of the minister hindered the effect of the sacrament in cases of “passive and unconscious susception.”
Neither verb has, of necessity, the rigid meaning supplied by the Bishop, and the alternative use of them in the manner indicated casts doubt on this narrow interpretation.
It appears fitting, however, in view of the clause commending the baptism of infants, that the verb “susciprio” should be employed rather than “percifrio” which, while it does not always imply it, leaves room for the meaning of conscious intelligent reception.
This dispute concerning the meaning of the word “recte” is most important.
Both the words “recte” and “rite” have a very wide application in Latin usage. Neither are limited to correct employment of material or ceremonial. “Rite” has the greater significance in a ceremonial sense.
It seems to bear that sense in Article 26, where the words are rendered “by faith and rightly receive them,” and also in Article 25 “that we should duly use them.”
Still, “rightly” is used by Bishop Jewel to translate both “rite” in Article 26 and “recte” in Article 27, so that it seems hazardous to import a very different sense into the words; though it must be conceded that “rite” has a closer application to ceremonial usage than “recte.”
To receive rightly may mean to receive with proper intention, and “recte” would be the more correct Latin term to express the latter meaning.
Possibly the use of “susciprio” rather than “percifrio” may have dictated the stronger word more indicative of deliberate acceptance to counter any idea that baptism conferred grace in a different manner from Holy Communion.
The earliest commentary on the articles by Rogers supports this view. Rogers writes: “The Papits therefore be in a wrong opinion, which deliver that the Sacraments are not only seals, but also causes of grace; and the Sacraments do give grace, even because they be delivered, and received ex opere operatum (p. 268 Parker Edit.).
And again “Baptism of St. Paul is called the washing of the new birth, of others the sacrament of the new birth, to signify how they which rightly (as all do not) receive the same are ingrafted into the body of Christ, as by a seal be assured from God that their sins be pardoned” (Ibid. p. 276).
Bullinger’s Decades were widely used. Convocation in 1586 resolved that they must be read by all clergymen under the degree of Master of Arts or Bachelor of Law.
Bullinger writes:—”Many receive the visible sacraments, and yet are not partakers of the invisible grace, which by faith only is received” (Vol. V, Parker Edit. p. 273).
The whole subject is discussed at length pp. 270-274, but the words cited express accurately Bullinger’s interpretation.
Whitgift, answering Cartwright’s accusation that “we attribute to the sign that which is proper to the work of God in the blood of Christ; as though virtue were in water to wash away sin,” replied, “You know very well that we teach far otherwise, and that it is a certain and true doctrine of all such as profess the gospel, that the outward signs of the sacrament do not contain in them grace, neither yet that the grace of God is of necessity tied unto them, but only that they be seals of God’s promises, notes of Christianity, testimonies and effectual signs of the grace of God, and of our redemption in Christ Jesus, by the which the Spirit of God doth invisibly work in us, not only the increase of faith, but confirmation also… We know that wicked men may receive these external signs, and yet remain the members of Satan” (Vol. III, Parker Edit. p. 382).
Lest it be contended that Whitgift was a strong Calvinist and, therefore, interpreted the Article according to his judgment, which is not necessarily the opinion of all holders of the Article, it may be well to quote here Dr Burnet, a man of a different colour, living at the close of the seventeenth century.
Burnet wrote: “Baptism is a federal admission into Christianity, in which, on God’s part, all the blessings of the Gospel are made over to the baptized; and on the other hand, the person baptized takes on him, by a solemn profession and vow, to observe and adhere to the whole Christian religion. So it is a very natural distinction to say that the outward effects of baptism follow it as outwardly performed, but that the inward effects of it follow upon the inward acts; but this difference is still to be observed between inward acts and outward actions, that when the outward action is rightly performed, the Church must reckon the baptism good and never renew it; but if one has been wanting in the inward acts, those may he afterwards renewed, and that want may be made up by repentance” (Exposition of 29 Articles, p. 363, London 1840).
The Article speaks of faith being confirmed in baptism which assumes the existence of faith independently of the sacrament.
This is sufficient to refute Dr Philpott’s argument based on the use of “susciprio”. The reference is not directly to infant baptism, but if we are asked how faith can be confirmed in the case of an infant, we have only to refer to Paul’s language in Romans 11.29: “Circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit and not in the letter.”
If the Jew could respond to the ordinance of circumcision with a heartfelt acknowledgment of the promises outwardly conveyed by it, so can the baptized rejoice in the covenant privileges sealed in baptism, and experience thereby confirmation of faith.
The baptism of infants demands and shall receive a further article.
From the Vault of the Australian Church Record, 19 January 1961. This article is part of our Articulate series, listening to T.C. Hammond unpack the 39 Articles one by one.