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Infant Baptism and Regeneration

Infant Baptism and Regeneration

By Chuck Collins
May 29, 2021

The charitable language of Thomas Cranmer's baptism service has been a problem in Church of England history. Some hear the seeing-now-that-this-child-is-regenerate language in the baptism liturgy and assume that Anglicans hold to the Roman Catholic understanding of baptismal regeneration. But the Church of England, and Thomas Cranmer in particular, did not have this in mind. In the 1530s the archbishop was convinced of the Lutheran teaching of justification by faith, and "the question that would occupy Cranmer for the remainder of his life was how exactly the sacraments of the church fit into this new narrative" (Ashley Null). For Cranmer, then seeing everything through the glasses of solifidism (faith alone), the key to understanding sacramental grace (baptism and holy communion) is faith - receiving the grace of the rite rightly - by faith - "they that receive baptism rightly" (Article 27 "Of Baptism").

Roman Catholics believe that the sacraments (ex opere operato) automatically and always effect what they signify - that the bread and wine of Communion is the actual, corporeal body and blood of Christ whether it is received by a faithful penitent or accidentally by a mouse under the communion table nibbling the crumbs. And everyone who is baptized, newborn or adult, is automatically born again. Anglicans, on the other hand, view the instrumentality of the sacraments connected to faith, which is necessary for the reception of God's grace. Catholics say that a person is born again when they are baptized. Anglicans say that God's grace is communicated in the sacrament, and when this is received by faith in the hearts of God's elect, they are born again.

Whenever he speaks of someone's faith, Cranmer charitably assumes they are believers. This is not just "English politeness," but a humble acknowledgement that God is God and we are not. Cranmer assumes that an infant or child who is brought for baptism is a believer, just like he believes this for everyone who dies and is buried from the church. Everyone knows that this isn't true of all infants who are baptized, and it's certainly not true of everyone who dies. But who is to decide in each of these cases but God alone? In the case of baptism, who would otherwise then decide when someone is old enough for baptism - or mature enough - or faithful enough? Are adults who are baptized knowledgeable enough or faithful enough? Surely not! Should this be the minister's discretion to determine what only God knows? The Anglican baptism service uses charitable assumption in its baptism language, and this, put along side of the Articles of Religion, declares the importance of a faithful response to the grace that God gives us in the sacraments for them to effect what they signify. Bishop J. C. Ryle said, "The person baptized is pronounced regenerate upon the broad principle of the Prayer-book, that, in the Church-services people are charitably supposed to be what they profess to be."

John R.W. Stott writes:

"The question may be asked why, if baptism does not by itself confer the graces it signifies (but rather a title to them), the Bible and Prayer Book sometimes speak as if they did. I have already mentioned such phrases as 'baptized into Christ' (Rom 6:3), 'as many as were baptized into Christ did put on Christ' (Gal 3:27), 'baptism saves us' (1 Peter 3:21), and 'this child is regenerate' (Book of Common Prayer).

The answer is really quite simple. It is that neither the Bible nor the Prayer Book envisages the baptism of an unbeliever; they assume that the recipient is a true believer. And since 'baptism and faith are but the outside and the inside of the same thing' (James Denney), the blessings of the New Covenant are ascribed to baptism which really belong to faith (Gal 3:26, 28). Jesus had said 'he that believes and is baptized shall be saved', implying that faith would precede baptism. So a profession of faith after hearing the gospel always preceded baptism in Acts. For instance, 'they that received the word were baptized' (2:41), 'they believed Philip preaching... and were baptized' (8:12), 'Lydia gave heed to what was said by Paul. And when she was baptized...' (16:14, 15), 'believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved...' (16:31-3). It is the same in the Prayer Book service. There is no baptism in the Church of England except the baptism of a professing believer, adult or infant. The adult candidate's declaration of repentance, faith and surrender is followed by baptism and the declaration of regeneration. The same is true of an infant in the 1662 service, where it is not the godparents who speak for the child so much as the child who is represented as speaking through his sponsors. The child declares his or her repentance, faith and surrender, and desire for baptism. The child is then baptized and declared regenerate. So he is regenerate, in the same sense as he is a repentant believer in Jesus Christ, namely in the language of anticipatory faith or of sacraments. It is in this sense too that we must understand the Catechism statement 'I was made a child of God'. It is sacramental language. I was 'made' a child of God in baptism, because baptism gave me a title to this privilege, not because baptism conferred this status on me irrespective of whether I believed or not."
Evangelical Theology 1833-1856: A Response to Tractarianism, Peter Toon

Christian Theologies of the Sacraments: A Comparative Introduction, Ed. Justin S. Holcomb and David A. Johnson

Thomas Cranmer and the Doctrine of Repentance: Renewing the Power to Love, Ashley Null

Knots Untied, J. C. Ryle

BaptismSacramentsThomas Cranmer

Chuck is the Director for the Center for Reformation Anglicanism

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