The theology of baptism expressed in The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) has been likened to the ‘chief theological controversy of the early and mid-nineteenth century’.1 For Evangelical Anglicans, the central contention that conversion occurs at the time of one’s personal faith in Christ is exceedingly difficult to reconcile with statements in the BCP baptism liturgy that declared an infant to be ‘regenerate’ by the end of the service, well before they had opportunity to express such faith.2 Consequently, for Bebbington, that this wording remains in the BCP1662 infant baptism liturgy, is something of an ‘anomaly’ which continues to ‘trouble… Evangelical Anglicans’ to this day.3
This essay received the 2020 Leeper Prayer Book Essay prize. I am thankful to Rhys Bezzant for his invaluable feedback.
This essay examines and critiques the theology of baptism expressed through words and shape of the baptism service in the BCP1552 and BCP1662. I have structured my argument into two main sections: First, we examine the shape and words of the baptism service itself. Second, we evaluate the BCP theology of baptism in two contentious areas: (1) The so-called ‘anomaly’ of baptismal regeneration; and (2) The validity of vicarious repentance and faith.
Upon evaluation, I believe that while the vocabulary used in the infant baptism service appears to communicate a theology at odds with the Evangelical Anglicanism, the shape of the service, validates the Evangelical place of repentance, faith and regeneration. In other words, I believe the theology of baptism expressed in the words and shape of the 1552 and 1662 service is consistent with that of Evangelical Anglicanism, though it is not without issues.
As may be surmised from the above statements, the Evangelical Anglican tradition will form the basis of my critique of the BCP baptism service.4 Since the Anglican Church upholds the theological legitimacy of paedobaptism, our discussion will concentrate on the baptismal liturgy itself.5 We will be primarily examining the 1552 and 1662 versions of The Book of Common Prayer, though when necessary, reference will be additionally be made to the BCP1549 and BCP1559 editions.6 Finally, we will be examining the BCP baptism liturgy on its own merit, rather than later debates in the 1840s.7
A. Shape and Words of 1552 & 1662 Baptism Service
In this first section we examine the shape and words of the baptism services themselves. By means of introduction, I must point out that the shape and words of the public baptism service in both the BCP1552 and BCP1662 are virtually identical to one another, with only minor modifications to the liturgy between the two. I will make mention of any noteworthy differences as we proceed.8
In terms of the formation of the baptism liturgy, the BCP1552 ceremony was shorn of the exorcism, triple-immersion and chrism anointing present in its 1549 predecessor.9 By contrast, the BCP1662 liturgy retained virtually all of the shape and words of 1552, with the most obvious change being the addition of a new baptismal rite to ‘such as are of Riper Years’ for those who weren’t baptised during the interregnum.10
Baptism service shape and liturgy
The elements of both the BCP1552 and BCP1662 public baptism services form a mirrored shape that I summarise as follows:
___(i) Necessity of baptism and regeneration,
______(ii) Infants as embraced recipients of baptism,
_________(iii) Repentance and faith,
______(iv) Infants embraced as they receive baptism,
___(v) Declaration of regeneration.
(i) Necessity of baptism and regeneration: exhortation and opening prayers
The initial exhortation is centred upon the words of Christ in John 3:3–7, beseeching the congregation to pray that God would mercifully receive the child in baptism.11 Alongside this, the explicit language of ‘regeneration’ first occurs in the opening exhortation. While Carson cautions against postulating an explicit relationship between water baptism and spiritual regeneration from John 3:5, the BCP certainly sees the two as connected entities, as did the early church.12
The two prayers that follow contain various scriptural echoes, presenting safe passages through waters to establish a covenant motif for the congregation: the protection of Noah and his family in the ark, the safe passage of the Israelites through the Red Sea, the baptism of Christ, and the promises of God.13 Upon this basis, the second prayer is an appeal for God to ‘give now unto us that ask’, that he would grant ‘remission of [the infant’s] sins by spiritual regeneration’.14 The shape of these elements rests the effectiveness of the baptismal rite upon God’s grace and the faithful prayer of the congregation.15
(ii) Infants as embraced recipients of baptism: Scripture reading, exhortation and prayer
After reading Mark 10:13–16, the minister exhorts the congregation, reasoning that since Christ, ‘by his outward gesture and deed… declared his good will toward [children]’, ‘he will likewise favourably receive this present Infant; that he will embrace him with the arms of his mercy’.16
It is remarkable that this Markan pericope forms the basis of Cranmer’s apologia for infant baptism, particularly as it is clearly speaking of blessing children, not baptising them.17 Brooks goes as far as calling the BCP treatment of Mark 10 an example of eisegesis.18 At the very least, we must concede that ‘the wording of the narrative establish[es] a positive context in which to consider the question of infant baptism’.19 The exhortation is followed by prayer that God would grant this, using the same theological language as the exhortation.20
(iii) Profession of faith: preamble to sureties, vicarious repentance, faith and vow
What follows is then a profession of faith, where the candidate’s sureties respond to a demand of repentance, an affirmation of faith, and a desire to be baptised into the Christian faith. The BCP1662 additionally calls for a vow of Christian obedience.21
Strictly speaking, in the wording of the liturgy, Children make this profession by their sureties, rather than parents make profession on behalf of their children.22 This conveys a heightened sense that the rite belongs not to the family, but to the church. According to Motyer, the vows in the service represent a further parallel with the covenant motif: to renounce, believe and keep.23 The proxy nature of these vows is an issue which demands further examination, therefore we will discuss the validity of vicarious repentance and faith in the second section of this essay.
(iv) Infants embraced as they receive baptism: prayers, immersion and sign of the cross
After the candidate makes their declaration (by their sureties), the Priest prays that God would grant the results of their profession, followed by a second prayer pertaining to the forthcoming baptism.24 The immersion itself is a straightforward affair: the child is first taken up into the arms of the Priest (cf. Mark 10:16), is named, then dipped (or sprinkled) while the Priest recites the familiar words of Matthew 28:19: ‘N. I baptize thee in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen’.25 Immediately after this, the Priest makes a cross upon the child’s forehead, stated to be a ‘token’ of their declared allegiance to the crucified Christ and to the church.26
(v) Declaration of regeneration: declaration, prayers and closing exhortation
The liturgy of the final section contains two further references to regeneration; first, to the congregation: ‘Seeing now, dearly beloved brethren, that this Child is regenerate and grafted into the body of Christ’s Church’; and then in the second prayer: ‘it hath pleased thee to regenerate this Infant with thy Holy Spirit’.27 These confident declarations prompted some commentators to pronounce an ex opere operato theology of baptism in the BCP.28 This major doctrinal issue of baptismal regeneration will be critiqued in the second section of this essay.29
The baptism liturgy concludes with a congregational declaration, a recitation of The Lord’s Prayer, followed by a final prayer of thanks for God’s work in the baptised infant.30 The final element in the service is a closing exhortation made to the Godparents, reminding them of their ongoing responsibility for the development and growth of the child. Again, the language used makes clear that the child made the profession:
Ye must remember that it is your parts and duties to see that this Infant be taught, so soon as he shall be able to learn, what a solemn vow, promise and profession he hath here made by you.31
The BCP1662 then converts the final 1552 rubric into a spoken command to the Godparents, stating that they must bring the child to be confirmed as soon as they are able to take this profession upon themselves.32
The shape of the baptism service
We have seen that the baptism service follows a deliberate shape: What begins with the need for regeneration, concludes with the declaration that the candidate is regenerate.33 Christ’s welcome of infants is defended and affirmed, this is then mirrored through the gestures and words of the Priest. And these are all drawn together in the centre as a profession of repentance and faith is made.34
The language of baptism in the BCP
The language used to describe baptism in the BCP has been concerning for some writers. Upon closer examination, however, it is clear that what the Articles, Catechism and services state about the meaning of baptism is consistent with the teaching of Scripture.35 Stott helpfully organises the data into four categories, which we will briefly outline below.
(i) Baptism signifies union with Christ
The final prayer in the baptism service states clearly that the candidate is united in Christ’s death, burial and resurrection.36 Motyer notes that the relationship between baptism and union in Christ’s death and new life in Romans 6:3–4 was ‘complete justification for the statement in the Prayer Book concerning Baptism and Regeneration… At the very point where even some Anglicans themselves have uneasy consciences, the Book of Common Prayer is merely echoing the words and formulations of Holy Scripture’.37
(ii) Baptism signifies the forgiveness of sins
The liturgy regularly refers to the ‘forgiveness’/‘remission’/‘release from’/‘death to’/’washing away’ of sin.38 There are clear scriptural links between baptism and these concepts (Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Corinthians 6:11; Titus 3:5).39
(iii) Baptism signifies the gift of the Spirit
Before the profession of faith, the Priest prays, ‘Give thy Holy Spirit to this infant’.40 Again, these concepts are linked in Scripture (Matthew 3:11; Acts 2:38–39).41
(iv) Baptism signifies incorporation into God’s people
The closing section of the liturgy announces that the child is ‘grafted into the body of Christ’s Church’, being incorporated into the God’s people.42 The union of the church around baptism is clear from Ephesians 4:4–6. To further understand the function of baptism, many advocates of paedobaptism appeal to covenantal theology, but this curiously finds ‘no verbal support in the liturgical text’.43 However, even though the specific language of ‘covenant’ is absent from the articles and baptism liturgy, the permeation of allusions and echoes of God’s covenant dealing (as mentioned prior) are ‘very present and very evident’, according to Motyer. He concedes that the ‘absence of the explicit use of the word ‘covenant’ is, of course, greatly to be regretted’.44
As we have seen, while the language employed in the liturgy to describe baptism remains concerning for some writers, what the baptism services state about the meaning of baptism is consistent with the teaching of Scripture. However, both the pervasiveness of ‘regeneration’ language and the centrality of a vicarious profession of faith in the liturgy demand further examination before we can adequately evaluate the BCP theology of baptism.
B. CRITIQUE OF BAPTISM THEOLOGY
We have examined the shape and words of the baptism service itself. In this section, we will evaluate the BCP theology of baptism in two contentious areas: First, we evaluate the so-called ‘anomaly’ of baptismal regeneration in the BCP, which I argue is consistent with Evangelical doctrine when understood correctly. Second, we determine the validity of vicarious repentance and faith, concluding that the concept is supported by Scripture, and therefore valid.
1. The so-called ‘anomaly’ of baptismal regeneration
Ryle rightly observes that the BCP1662 language implying baptismal regeneration is something that troubles the ‘minds of many true Christians in the Church of England’.45 Again, for Bebbington, the language proves to be something of an ‘anomaly’.46 That this concept was troublesome is evidenced by the complete removal of regeneration language in Australian updates to the baptism liturgy.47 Motyer, however, is quick to challenge a simplistic interpretation of the liturgy:
It would be wrong, for example, to conclude in a superficial way that, because the Service includes the words, ‘seeing now that this child is regenerate’, therefore the Church of England teaches automatic and invariable regeneration in baptism. Evidence improperly used ceases to be valid evidence on the point.48
Even so, the BCP liturgy appears deliberate in bringing baptism and regeneration together.49 We must therefore determine the relationship taught by the BCP between the rite and the effect of baptism.
Ex opere operato view
Demarest believes the BCP explicitly teaches ex opere operato baptism—the view that the sign always conveys the gift.50 For Cranmer, this Roman Catholic view of baptism meant that all baptised persons are regenerate, particularly infants.51 By the 1540s, Cranmer, influenced by Augustinian theology, rejected the concept of a sacramental rite conferring grace without faith.52
The baptismal account of Simon Magus (Acts 8:13–24) is germane to our discussion, as Scripture itself depicts a baptism which conferred no spiritual advantage to Simon at all.53 ‘If faith is necessary for salvation, then the unbelieving candidate is not saved through baptism’, as Stott argues.54 Accordingly, Article XXVII states that only those who receive baptism ‘rightly’ are grafted into the church, meaning that ex opere operato baptism is not taught in the BCP.55
A sign which seals blessings
Article XXVII just referenced describes the Anglican position on baptismal regeneration: ‘… they that receive Baptism rightly, are grafted into the Church; the promises of the forgiveness of sin, and our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed’.56 In other words, the sign not only signifies the gift, but seals (pledges) it in such a way as to convey not the gift itself, but a title to it.57
Following the Old Testament relationship between rite and blessing in circumcision, ‘baptism has replaced circumcision as the covenant sign’, meaning that if and when the baptised person believes, they will inherit the blessings which are entitled to them. According to Stott, the baptised person then may receive this gift by faith—which is expressed at a point not dependent of the timing of them rite itself. ‘The receiving of the sign and seal, and the receiving of the blessings signified, are not necessarily (or even normally) simultaneous’.58 Stott continues:
It is possible to receive the sign before the gift, as is usual in the case of infants, or to receive the sign after the gift, as is usual in the case of adults.59
The gift, therefore, is not tied to the time of the sacrament’s administration.
Nevertheless, if baptism doesn’t technically confer grace, why does the BCP liturgy use words that suggest that it does?60 The answer is simply that the only baptism performed in the BCP, is that of a professing believer (whether adult or infant); it never envisages baptising unbelievers.61 The assumption in any Christian liturgy must be that participants are Christians. Ryle writes: ‘A Liturgy for unbelievers and unconverted men would be absurd, and practically useless!’62 The BCP, then, describes the ideal, where the members of the church are presupposed to be ‘in reality what they are in profession’, and the shape of service means that the statements of regeneration are made after the profession of repentance and faith (albeit done vicariously).63
And so we can conclude, the BCP assumes the separation of the rite from the grace signified, and correctly announces regeneration after repentance and faith. This teaching is consistent with Evangelical doctrine, though frustratingly it requires meticulous study for this distinction to be maintained.
2. The validity of vicarious repentance and faith
Obijole believes the crux of the controversy around infant baptism, is the appeal to the vicarious nature of professed repentance and faith.64 Upon examination, though this method of profession is controversial, we will see that vicarious faith is supported by Scripture, and therefore can be valid when performed rightly.65
As we have established, the infant baptism service is centred around the required profession of repentance and faith. The Catechism pre-empts the inevitable objection: ‘Why then are Infants baptized, when by reason of their tender age they cannot perform [repentance and faith]?’66 The Catechism then simply states that parents do this because infants cannot answer for themselves.67 It might frustrate us that no further justification is given for this ‘proxy-faith’, but the BCP sees the problem as merely ‘administrative, and the office of god-parenthood is offered as the solution’.68
The strongest evidence supporting the validity of vicarious faith is the witness of Scripture itself, where we find numerous accounts describing healing and forgiveness, each being granted through the petition and faith of someone else (Matthew 8:5–13; 15:21–28; Luke 5:17–26; 8:49–56; John 4:46–54).69 In these examples, it is remarkable that three instances are of a parent making a faithful petition to Christ on behalf of their child. Legitimate vicarious faith is both recognised as valid and is even praised by Christ (Matthew 8:10; 15:28). Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 7:14, the Apostle Paul supports vicarious faith, where the faith of a parent is unambiguously said to sanctify their children (and partner).
The efficacy of the baptismal rite, therefore, rests on genuine conversion amongst the parents, all being underpinned by God’s grace in bringing about repentance and faith.70 ‘The right of Christian infants to baptism is only through their parents.’71 Stott’s conclusion highlight’s the crux of our discussion:
Our task [as ministers] is to be faithful in teaching the significance of baptism and the conditions of its efficacy; and then not to baptize any but those who profess to be penitent believers, and their children.72
This essay examined and critiqued the theology of baptism expressed through words and shape of the BCP baptism services. I have argued that the theology of baptism expressed in the words and shape of the 1552 and 1662 services is consistent with that of Evangelical Anglicanism. The shape of the service highlights the importance of genuine repentance and faith, before regeneration is declared. The language and allusions used throughout the liturgy are consistent with Scripture’s teaching on baptism. The blessings attached to the rite are conditional, not inevitable. And genuine vicarious repentance and faith by sureties is supported by Scripture.
Unfortunately, as has become clear in the second section, developing an Evangelical defence of baptismal regeneration and vicarious faith in the BCP is possible, though I must concede that the theological complexity of such a task is tedious and I fear that the BCP liturgy may be at risk of killing the simplicity and magnificence of Christian baptism; much ‘like a joke that stops being funny after you have explained it in too much detail’.73
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