Baptism and Christian Identity: Ecclesial Pedagogy and John Calvin

If you recall (I know it has been a while) that our last post on Gordon Mikoski’s volume Baptism and Christian Identity we looked at Gregory of Nyssa. Now we turn our attention to John Calvin. Mikoski offers justification for his rather odd pairing:

Gregory of Nyssa and John Calvin shared enough similarities on the matter under investigation that meaningful comparison is both possible and useful in service to developing overtures to a contemporary trinitarian practical theology of formation. Both were servants of the church and dedicated their lives to the defense and promotion of the Christian faith…More to the point, both Gregory of Nyssa and Calvin held together the sacrament of baptism, the doctrine of the Trinity, and the practices of ecclesial pedagogy in dynamic interplay” (132).

Calvin’s development of Baptism, Mikoski argues, arose out of the Roman liturgical “subfamily in the early Western church.” This liturgy included: Pre-Baptismal Rites (anointing and renunciation); Baptism Proper; and Post-Baptism Rites (White garment, anointing, imposition of hands and prayer by bishop, anointing of forehead by bishop, and eucharist). Calvin’s developed his understanding of the liturgy as connected with the preaching of the Word, and within a covenantal framework and Augustinian conviction of the primary of grace (contra voluntarism), Calvin’s focus was the baptism of infants. Calvin’s liturgy developed in the following way:

  1. The rite opened with Psalm 124:8, which served to emphasize the priority of divine initiative and grace. The minister would then ask the parents if they were presenting their child for baptism. If they answered yes, the rite continued.
  2. The minister next launched into a lengthy baptismal exhortation. This exhortation began with an account of original sin, the necessity of complete renunciation of trust in self, regeneration through Christ, and the work of the Spirit.
  3. This led into a prayer of invocation, concluding with the Lord’s prayer.
  4. Next, the minister asked the parents if they desired to have their child baptized in the name of the Trinity.
  5. Next, the minister directed the parents to claim and carry out their vocation as the primary Christian educators for their child. This charge focused specifically on teaching the Apostle’s Creed to the child when they came of age, and to instruct that the One God who exists as Three Persons was to be the sole object of their common worship and life. They were also to focus their pedagogy on Christ, the incarnate one’s work in human history, and his death, resurrection and ascension.
  6. The minister then read the story of Jesus blessing the children in Matthew 19.
  7. The minister, for a third time, turns to the parents and asks them to affirm that they are presenting the child for baptism. Once the parents affirm, the minister asks for the name of the child (the parents had to offer an acceptable name!).
  8. The minister would pour “clear and pure” water on the head of the child saying, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Interestingly, this was without definite description of the agency as the Latin rite which proclaimed that, “I baptize you….” The minister would offer a short prayer asking for grace to make the newly baptized a true member of Christ Jesus and bear the appropriate fruit.
  9. The baptismal rite concluded with a benediction from Matthew 28:20, invoking the promise of Christ’s presence with the command to teach and baptize in the Triune name. (147-153)

One of the underlying realities for Calvin in developing the rite this way was his understanding of the sacramental sign. Mikoski explains, Calvin “argued for a crucial distinction between the baptismal sign of water and the divine reality to which the sign served as pointer. The baptismal rite had as its meaning and substance none other than the crucified, risen, and ascended Jesus Christ. Nothing but the singular event of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ can bring about salvation for human beings” (154). Therefore, far from an “empty sign,” Calvin posited a sacramental view of baptism because of the necessary action of the Triune God to make it what it is.

It is at this point where Calvin posits the covenantal reading of baptism by invoking the rite of circumcision. It has been far too long since I’ve read this material in Calvin himself, but I generally regard it as Calvin at his worst. Does anyone else think that? Are people persuaded by that line? I just don’t find it to be either plausible or faithful to the biblical texts. Like I said, it has been a while since I’ve worked through his arguments on this, but I would love to hear your thoughts.


6 thoughts on “Baptism and Christian Identity: Ecclesial Pedagogy and John Calvin

  1. Pingback: Items of note (11/6/09) : Theopolitical

  2. What is wrong with Calvin’s linking of circumcision and baptism? I know you said its been a while since you’ve reviewed the argument but i’ve never heard someone refer to it as ‘Calvin at his worst’…. Just looking for a bit of insight here. Anyone?

  3. I just don’t find the biblical work plausible. Circumcision in the old covenant parallels circumcision of heart in the new. If we follow Paul’s line of argumentation concerning the people of God, in my opinion, what makes you a child of Abraham is no longer blood lineage but faith. Faith is what ties you to the father of faith. Likewise, circumcision, on this view, is circumcision of heart in God’s act of regeneration.

    • but what is the ‘sign’ of that faith? Doesn’t baptism at least signify one’s initiation into this people of God, carrying the ‘set-apartness’ that circumcision would also have conveyed?

  4. Geordie, yeah, I think that is right, but a sign needs to signify what it is a sign of – faith – which is what I think baptism is doing in the New Testament. In other words, there is no “in the people of God” outside of faith – and I believe that God does the circumcising (regeneration) which is why we seek to respond with a sign of faith – baptism.

  5. Perhaps the divide becomes clearer if we ask the question, ‘Who’s faith are we talking about in baptism?” If the faith is mine alone, then baptism is a sign of my faith. But if the faith is Christ’s, in the sense that I am baptised into Christ and with Christ’s baptism, then the focus becomes less on me and my faith and my ‘in or outness’ in terms of the people of God, and more a reposing upon the grace of Christ.

    I also see that you want to make a link with circumcision and regeneration, which of course Paul does in talking about circumsicion of the heart. But how does that relate at all to the OT concept of circumcision? Are you saying that OT circumcision as initiation into the people of God is equivalent to our regeneration/sanctification/justification in Christ? And that we respond to that act of God for us with the response of faith?

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