Skip to content
March 23, 2008 / vivator

Calvin and Baptism

John Calvin wrote commentaries of New Testament books save 3 John and Revelation.  They can be viewed and/or downloaded at http://www.ccel.org/.  On Mark 16:16 he wrote (underlined emphasis is added):

He who shall believe and be baptized shall be saved. This promise was added in order to allure all mankind to believe; as it is followed, on the other hand, by a threatening of awful destruction, in order to terrify unbelievers. Nor is it wonderful that salvation is promised to believers; for, by believing in the only begotten Son of God, not only are they reckoned among the children of God, but receiving the gift of free justification and of the Spirit of regeneration, they possess what constitutes eternal life. Baptism is joined to the faith of the gospel, in order to inform us that the Mark of our salvation is engraved on it; for had it not served to testify the grace of God, it would have been improper in Christ to have said, that they who shall believe and be baptized shall be saved. Yet, at the same time, we must hold that it is not required as absolutely necessary to salvation, so that all who have not obtained it must perish; for it is not added to faith, as if it were the half of the cause of our salvation, but as a testimony. I readily acknowledge that men are laid under the necessity of not despising the sign of the grace of God; but though God uses such aids in accommodation to the weakness of men, I deny that his grace is limited to them. In this way we will say that it is not necessary in itself, but only with respect to our obedience.

Calvin considered Baptism as mark of our salvation and admitted that it is joined to the faith yet he denied its absolute (I use his own word) necessity, i.e. it only shows our obedience.  Compared his statement with that of Luther in my earlier post. On 1 Peter 3:21 he wrote (underlined emphasis is added):

The like figure whereunto I fully think that the relative ought to be read in the dative case, and that it has happened, through a mistake, that is put, and not . The meaning, however, is not ambiguous, that Noah, saved by water, had a sort of baptism. And this the Apostle mentions, that the likeness between him and us might appear more evident. It has already been said that the design of this clause is to shew that we ought not to be led away by wicked examples from the fear of God, and the right way of salvation, and to mix with the world. This is made evident in baptism, in which we are buried together with Christ, so that, being dead to the world, and to the flesh, we may live to God [Romans 6:4]. On this account, he says that our baptism is an antitype (νττυπον) to the baptism of Noah, not that Noah’s baptism was the first pattern, and ours an inferior figure, as the word is taken in the Epistle to the Hebrews, where the ceremonies of the law are said to be antitypes of heavenly things, Greek writers apply the same word to sacraments, so that, when they speak of the mystical bread of the holy Supper, they call it the antitype. But here there is no comparison made between the greater and the less; the Apostle only means that there is a likeness, and as they commonly say, a correspondence. Perhaps it might more properly be said to be correspondency, (ντστροφον,) as Aristotle makes Dialectics to be the antistrophè of Rhetoric. But we need not labor about words, when there is an agreement about the thing itself. As Noah, then, obtained life through death, when in the ark, he was enclosed not otherwise than as it were in the grave, and when the whole world perished, he was preserved together with his small family; so at this day, the death which is set forth in baptism, is to us an entrance into life, nor can salvation be hoped for, except we be separated from the world.

It seems to me Calvin admitted that Baptism is entrance to life.  He considered Baptism as Sacrament in what he further wrote:

Not the putting away of the filth of the flesh This was added, because it might be that the greatest part of men would profess the name of Christ; and so it is with us, almost all are introduced into the church by baptism. Thus, what he had said before would not be appropriate, that few at this day are saved by baptism, as God saved only eight by the ark. This objection Peter anticipates, when he testifies that he speaks not of the naked sign, but that the effect must also be connected with it, as though he had said, that what happened in the age of Noah would always be the case, that mankind would rush on to their own destruction, but that the Lord would in a wonderful way deliver His very small flock.

We now see what this connection means; for some one might object and say, “Our baptism is widely different from that of Noah, for it happens that most are at this day baptized.” To this he replies, that the external symbol is not sufficient, except baptism be received really and effectually: and the reality of it will be found only in a few. It hence follows that we ought carefully to see how men commonly act when we rely on examples, and that we ought not to fear though we may be few in number.

But the fanatics, such as Schuencfeldius, absurdly pervert this testimony, while they seek to take away from sacraments all their power and effect. For Peter did not mean here to teach that Christ’s institution is vain and inefficacious, but only to exclude hypocrites from the hope of salvation, who, as far as they can, deprave and corrupt baptism. Moreover, when we speak of sacraments, two things are to be considered, the sign and the thing itself. In baptism the sign is water, but the thing is the washing of the soul by the blood of Christ and the mortifying of the flesh. The institution of Christ includes these two things. Now that the sign appears often inefficacious and fruitless, this happens through the abuse of men, which does not take away the nature of the sacrament. Let us then learn not to tear away the thing signified from the sign. We must at the same time beware of another evil, such as prevails among the Papists; for as they distinguish not as they ought between the thing and the sign, they stop at the outward element, and on that fix their hope of salvation. Therefore the sight of the water takes away their thoughts from the blood of Christ and the power of the Spirit. They do not regard Christ as the only author of all the blessings therein offered to us; they transfer the glory of his death to the water, they tie the secret power of the Spirit to the visible sign.

As Sacrament, Baptism has two elements, (outward) sign and Grace (Calvin called it “thing”).  The (outward) sign is water – it makes God’s Grace, which is beyond our comprehension (something we cannot feel or sense using our five senses), becomes visible. What God through His Grace does to for us in Baptism, as Calvin wrote (correctly), is washing of the soul by the blood of Christ and the mortifying of the flesh.  Calvin clearly disagreed with those who consider Baptism only as sign, a view that is held by many Protestants today. At the same time Calvin accused Catholics (or papists in his term) to concentrate on the outward sign of Baptism (i.e. water) as mean of salvation and to forget Christ.  This charge is, of course, unfounded – Catholics do consider Baptism as necessity but it is not the only requirement of salvation.  In order to further separate Baptism from salvation Calvin wrote:

What then ought we to do? Not to separate what has been joined together by the Lord. We ought to acknowledge in baptism a spiritual washing, we ought to embrace therein the testimony of the remission of sin and the pledge of our renovation, and yet so as to leave to Christ his own honor, and also to the Holy Spirit; so that no part of our salvation should be transferred to the sign. Doubtless when Peter, having mentioned baptism, immediately made this exception, that it is not the putting off of the filth of the flesh, he sufficiently shewed that baptism to some is only the outward act, and that the outward sign of itself avails nothing.

The problem is, earlier Calvin admitted that Baptism is the washing of the soul by the blood of Christ, i.e. it is not the washing of our bodies as Peter stated as removal of dirt from body. 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: