Baptism Impasse: Baptists vs. Presbyterians, Part II

In my last post, I explained how Baptists really have a “one-ordinance-one sacrament” ecclesiology. I said this: “what Baptists really believe, in modern parlance, is that there is one ordinance (baptism which is a sign or symbol only) and one sacrament (the Lord’s Supper in which feeding upon Jesus Christ takes place).1 Jesus Christ is present with bread and wine but not water. It’s a “one-ordinance-one-sacrament” ecclesiology that Baptists really confess.”

Now, I will explain how Baptists can really push Presbyterians in the debate.

Baptists fail to really push Presbyterians in the debate. Baptists give too much leeway to their Presbyterian brethren on this issue. Presbyterians say they believe in two “sacraments,” but do they? If a Baptist pushed on this point it would look like this:

Baptist: “Do you believe baptism is a sacrament?”
Presbyterian: “Yes.”
Baptist: “Really? So, you believe baptism saves the child?”
Presbyterian: “No. It is a sign and a seal of the covenant of grace. Jesus gives a promise to the child.”
Baptist: “So, you’re saying that Jesus is made present with the sacrament of baptism to give the child a promise, but baptism doesn’t save?”
Presbyterian: “Right. It’s a sign and a seal of the covenant of grace.”
Baptist: “You keep saying that ‘sign and seal’ statement as if that’s an answer to avoid my question, ‘Does baptism save in your understanding of the sacrament since Jesus is made present in the action of baptism?’ You think Jesus Christ is made present, but then you think, Jesus Christ, who is present in the action of baptism, now lacks the power to save the child through the sacrament. What’s the point of Jesus being present in the sacrament if he doesn’t save?”
Presbyterian: “Jesus gives the child a covenant promise.”
Baptist: “What is the promise?”
Presbyterian: “The promise to the child is that if the child believes in Jesus, he will be saved.”
Baptist: “So, Jesus is made present in baptism, to give the child a promise—a promise already given to him and every other unbeliever throughout the world? Are you sure you believe baptism is a sacrament? What passages of Scripture teach that Jesus is present in baptism?

What the Baptist is exposing here is the fact that modern Presbyterians really don’t believe in two sacraments either. If the Presbyterian is forced to the passages that speak of Jesus being present in baptism (i.e. Rom. 6, Gal. 3, 1 Peter 3, etc.) it will be hard for him to explain Jesus’ presence and avoid the saving efficacy that is also mentioned in these passages as well.

Modern Presbyterians really believe in one ordinance and one sacrament as well. Just like the Baptists. Both Baptists and Presbyterians, for all practical purposes, hold to a “one-ordinance-one-sacrament” ecclesiology. Jesus Christ is present with bread and wine but not water.

The Presbyterian confusion over this goes all the way back to Calvin. Calvin had no problem affirming baptism as a sacrament, and therefore, as a means by which the child was regenerated. Any perusal of Calvin’s writings from his Geneva Catechism to his Antidote to Council of Trent to his Institutes could easily reveal efficacious sacramental language attached to baptism. Calvin believed the passages that speak of baptism saving a person did just that—baptism saves. But Calvin also stressed that the saving work of Christ in baptism and the Lord’s Supper was for the elect only in light of his views on predestination. In other words, did baptism save the child in Calvin’s view? Absolutely, Yes! If the child is elect.

But how do you know if the child is elect? How do you know if the baptism was efficacious? This reveals a fissure between the elect and non-elect in the efficacy of the sacraments in Calvin’s theology. The sacraments are efficacious but only for the elect in God’s eternal decree. It was left to later Reformed theologians to attempt to reconcile the implications of the eternal decree and predestination in light of the promises specifically attached to what God does in the sacraments. Hence, begins the long history of Reformed sacramental theology beginning and culminating in the ambiguity of its sacraments.2

“Calvin’s fissure” was not something that plagued the baptismal theology of Martin Luther and the Lutherans. Although Luther held to a high Augustinian view of predestination, he did not let the mystery of predestination control the promises attached to baptism. Martin Luther had no problem affirming that baptism was a sacrament, and as a consequence, efficacious in its work in saving a child.

As if anticipating the problems that would later develop in Reformed theology, Luther states:

When a man begins to discuss predestination, the temptation is like an inextinguishable fire; the more he disputes, the more he despairs. Our God is opposed to this disputation, and accordingly he has provided against it in baptism, the Word, the sacraments, and various signs. In these we should trust and say: “I am baptized; I believe in Jesus Christ; what does it concern me, whether or not I am predestined?” He has given us ground to stand on, that is, Jesus Christ, and through him we may climb to heaven. He is the one way and the gate to the Father. But when we begin in the devil’s name to build first on the roof above, scorning the ground, then we fall!…. I forget all that Christ and God are, when I get to thinking about this matter, and come to believe that God is a villain. We ought to remain by the Word, in which God is revealed to us and salvation offered, if we believe it. Moreover, in trying to understand predestination, we forget God, we cease to praise and we begin to blaspheme. In Christ, however, are hid all treasures; without him none may be had. Therefore we should give no place whatever to this argument concerning predestination.3

When Reformed theology started “building on the roof above” instead of starting with the promises attached to the sacraments, it gave rise to an inevitable question mark over the rite of baptism in Reformed theology. The question mark was ultimately given an answer in the practice of the conversion experience several generations later. Since no one could confirm that God actually saved the child in baptism (because no one say for certain if the child was elect), the conversion experience was trusted more as validation over what was promised in baptism. Baptism, and the promises attached to it, was relegated to the conversion experience. The conversion experience took those promises attached to baptism, and made them its own. (Of course, as history makes evident, this meant that individuals would simply begin to question the legitimacy of conversion experiences like they did baptism before.) But for Presbyterians and Baptists, the only question left was, do you give this water “ordinance” to the child (Presbyterian) or wait until the real sacrament of conversion takes place and only after that give the ordinance to the adult (Baptist)? Welcome to our modern debate.

This “one-ordinance-one-sacrament” ecclesiology has a long history in Reformed and Presbyterian theology. However, there’s been a helpful improvements and corrections in recent years. With the publication of books like Dr. Peter Leithart’s The Baptized Body we are seeing a return of a robust “two sacrament” ecclesiology to Reformed theology. As Leithart writes, “…the whole project is an effort to drag conservative Reformed churches, all kicking and screaming, into the twentieth century, the century of ecclesiology.”4

In Leithart’s view, Jesus Christ is present with bread, wine and water. Jesus isn’t present in baptism to simply give a general promise that has already been given to everyone else in the unconverted world. Jesus is there with baptism for a reason. However, Leithart isn’t interested in simply returning to Calvin. His sympathies lie with Luther’s concern above, yet he goes back to St. Augustine, and ultimately to the Scriptures, in order to correct Calvin. In Leithart’s view, all baptisms—adult and infant—are efficacious in uniting the person to Jesus Christ. As a consequence, all adults and all infants in the church are invited to eat and drink of Jesus Christ in the Lord’s Supper. It’s paedobaptism and paedocommunion in the one body of Christ! It’s a return of St. Augustine wrapped in a Protestant view of justification and Scripture, and strategically placed within Reformed theology.

When this “two sacrament” ecclesiology is applied to the modern Presbyterian-Baptist debate, it gets really interesting. It yields fresh insight into the debate that has for too long been formed around a “one-ordinance-one-sacrament” ecclesiological assumption.

Is baptism given to believers only or to believers and their children? If baptism clothes us in Jesus Christ, uniting us to his death and resurrection, then the conclusion to the Presbyterian-Baptist debate is this: The New Covenant Church consists of believers only because children of believers are believers in union with Jesus Christ through baptism. The impasse in this modern debate is based upon a false dichotomy (i.e. believers vs. their children). This question could only arise in a “one-ordinance-one-sacrament” ecclesiology. It’s a poor question to begin with because it’s not a real antithesis.

It is with this new conclusion that we find a consensus reached combining the Baptist concern of having believers only in the New Covenant Church, as well as the Presbyterian concern of including children into the New Covenant Church. But of course, getting both parties to agree to this, assumes that since they both already believe that Christ is present with bread and wine, they might be persuaded that Christ is present with water as well.

But if the modern debate continues to proceed along a “one-ordinance-one-sacrament” ecclesiological assumption, then we can rest assured that many Reformed “two sacrament” theologians will happily join the Lutherans in the peanut gallery as the comedy show unfolds, and hilarity ensues.

Rev. Mani Marprelate is a pen name of a Reformed pastor in the USA.

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References   [ + ]

1. Not all Baptists hold to this view. But many Calvinist Baptists do, and the primary debates on the sacraments that I can find are from various Calvinist Baptists.
2. For a deep and thorough read of the history of how this Baptist-Presbyterian debate began in the Puritan era along with the sacramental changes in Reformed theology see The Covenant Sealed: The Development Of Puritan Sacramental Theology In Old and New England, 1570-1720 by E. Brooks Holified.
3. https://archive.org/details/conversationswit00luth Conversations with Luther pg. 135-37
4. Leithart, The Baptized Body Canon Press. Introduction, p. X
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