On Calvin’s Birthday: The Biography Channel Is Wrong (Updated)

Today is John Calvin’s birthday. He was born in 1509, in Noyon. In his honor let us watch a video and discuss it.

[Editor’s Note: In 2013 someone posted a video featuring the American church historian Martin Marty discussing John Calvin. That video is no longer available online. The current biography channel video, however, is also a great illustration of of the very confused popular story about John Calvin.].

This video is a great example of much that is wrong with both academic and popular historiography. Here we see a world-renowned historian, Martin Marty and a narrator, repeating academic theories that were disputed over a century ago (e.g., B. B. Warfield) and that, today, are known by Calvin scholars to have been quite misleading.

The principal error of this video is the assertion that Luther had one religious or theological system and Calvin had another. [Ed. note: The current video makes this same mistake.] This claim was first made, in the modern period, by Alexander Schweizer (1808–88), who argued that there was in Lutheranism and in Reformed theology a series of “central dogmas.”1 The Lutheran Central Dogma was said to be justification by grace alone through faith alone. The Reformed Central Dogma was said to be predestination. He argued that the Reformed orthodox devised a speculative and deductive theology based on their doctrine of God. Schweizer re-cast Reformed theology in Schleiermachian terms, even though 16th- and 17th-century Geneva had nothing in common with 19th-century Halle and Berlin, but Schleiermacher had re-defined the Christian faith as an expression of the consciousness of absolute divine dependence (Gefuhl).

This approach was widely influential in the modern period. It influenced Heinrich Heppe (1820–79), who’s Reformed Dogmatics (a series of selections from the Reformed orthodox, organized according to Heppe’s values) would influence Barth and become a principal sourcebook for those seeking to understand Reformed theology. This story was widely influential in the modern period. It was transmitted to modern scholars by Ernst Bizer and others.

The great difficulty is that this story is almost entirely without foundation in the original sources. In that case why was it credible? How could a scholar of the magnitude and influence of Martin Marty get things so wrong? Ironically, despite the attempt of modern historians to move beyond “confessional history,” the Central Dogma story fit into the prevailing, confessional Lutheran account of Calvin and the Reformed as crypto-sacramentarians, i.e., those who pretended to agree with Luther but, who, at bottom, were really just Zwinglians who talked like Protestants. The Lutherans confess that the Reformed are “crafty sacramentarians.” Marty is a Lutheran historian. The Lutherans told the story of the Reformation first and, as often happens, the first story won and the revisionists have struggled ever after to correct the story. Further, that deep distrust by Lutherans of the Reformed continues to influence the way the story of the Reformation and of Calvin’s role in it, is told. Thus, when Schweizer proposed the Central Dogma theory, it fit an prejudice that Calvin and his followers were all about that evil dogma predestination and Luther and his followers were animated by God’s free grace.

Another part of the explanation lies in the difference between intellectual historians and social historians. These two tribes have drifted farther apart in the late modern period so that social historians don’t tend to read primary sources or the best literature in intellectual history. Marty is a good social historian but this interview illustrates the weakness of relying on even long-accepted tertiary (textbook) accounts of the history of doctrine. I guess he knows Richard Muller’s name but that he hasn’t read much of Muller’s monumental Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics or The Unaccommodated Calvin or much of the rest of the Muller literary corpus. Following Muller, there has developed an entire body of literature challenging the older accounts of Calvin, Calvinism, and Reformed orthodoxy. See e.g., Trueman and Clark, eds. Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment or Willem van Asselt, Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism.

Calvin was deeply influenced by Luther. He was conscious of deviating from Luther’s theology on, e.g., anthropology, Christology, the Supper, church government, and the principle by which worship is organized but he agreed fundamentally with Luther on the Reformation solas and he spoke about them in the same or very similar ways as Luther.2 He accepted and built upon Luther’s basic hermeneutical/theological distinctions between law and gospel and God hidden/God revealed. Further, to hear Marty, one would think that Luther never wrote about predestination. That would be a shock to Luther, who was well known in Europe by the early 1520s for teaching the doctrine of predestination. That is why Erasmus responded to him in defense of the freedom of the will and Luther responded point by point in The Bondage of the Will (1525), which treatise he considered his most important. At the Colloquy of Montbeilard (1586) Reformed invoked Bondage of the Will as a summary of their understanding of election and reprobation. Lutheran orthodoxy, however, abandoned significant aspects of Luther’s doctrine of predestination and conveniently assigned the doctrine to their (now) enemy Calvin, who became associated in the modern period with the doctrine while Lutheran historians (and those influenced by Lutheran historiography) played a shell game with De servo arbitrio.

Marty’s account of Calvin’s doctrine of predestination is simply appalling. He clearly has never read book 3 of the Institutes of the Christian Religion or if he has, he quite misunderstood it. In Book 3 Calvin took exactly the a posteriori approach Marty attributes to Luther. According to Calvin, we’re never to ask, “Am I elect?” The question is: do I believe? Calvin never ordered or constructed the sort of doctrine of predestination that Marty attributes to him. The version of predestination Marty attributes to Calvin is a caricature of supralapsarianism, a distinct minority in Reformed theology—the Synod of Dort and the Westminster Divines taught infralapsarianism—that not even all supralapsarians have held.3 To speak of a “lucky few” in the context of the doctrine of election, as if the church had not been teaching election and reprobation for 2,000 years prior, is outrageous. Thomas Aquinas explicitly taught unconditional election and the decree of reprobation of the fallen. It was taught in the 9th century in France and St. Augustine taught it in the early 5th century. This narrative says more about the Enlightenment view of humanity than it does about the history of doctrine.

It is this sheer assumption that there must be (because of the Lutheran confessional assertions in the 1570s and 80s) a fundamental difference between Luther and Calvin and that assumption drives the narrative that the Reformation in Geneva was “harsh and uncompromising.” Life in Wittenberg was no picnic for the Schwärmerei (Anabaptists) either, but because Luther and Melanchthon are the “good guys” in this narrative and Calvin is the “bad guy,” the Reformation in Geneva is said to have been “harsh.” Well, if it was so rotten in Geneva, why did folk from across Europe flock to Geneva in the 16th-century, while Calvin was there to torture them? The Red Cross didn’t come into existence until 1881 but Geneva was flooded with refugees from England, Scotland, France, Italy, Germany, and East and Central Europe more than two centuries before the formation of the Red Cross. That fact alone suggests that Geneva could not have been as ugly as the dominant narrative would have us think. In fact, Calvin was not a tyrant in Geneva but it’s inconvenient to let the facts get in the way of a popular meme.4

There are other, more minor, issues. The video creates the impression that magisterial Reformation was a violent uprising. That’s misleading. The Reformation movements did create considerable upset but the Peasant’s War (1524–25) was more associated with the Anabaptist Radicals, who were not Protestants, than it was with the Magisterial Reformers, who were much more conservative of the status quo. The Reformation was a “revolution” that swept through Europe but mainly of an intellectual variety. There were significant social and institutional changes but we have to tell the whole story. Many civil authorities took the opportunity created by the Reformation to instituted long-desired changes. There was iconoclasm in the 1560s but much of the earlier physical changes made to churches etc was instigated by magistrates, not by mob violence.

Finally, the idea that Calvin and Calvinists found an “answer to their painful spiritual predicament” (i.e., the alleged doubt they experienced about whether they are elect) is utterly without foundation in Calvin, Reformed orthodoxy, or the Reformed confessions. It is a theory of the German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) and his followers. The Protestants did have a doctrine of good works as fruit and evidence of faith. Martin Luther taught it c. 1518 in his sermon De duplici iustitia and in a 1519 sermon and in De servo. He continued to teach it for the rest of his ministry. The notion that Calvin and Calvinists were mired in doubt and introspection is rooted in the assumption that must have been the case more than in the actual teaching of the Reformed. Did some Reformed become overly introspective? Certainly. Did some Lutherans turn inward looking for experience? Yes. They were called pietists. As a matter of history, however, Calvin was not a theologian of doubt but of consolation. Calvin and the Reformed learned their doctrine of good works from Luther.

The Biography Channel and the History Channel have their virtues. They provide entertainment that can sometimes be informative. In this regard, I think Rick Harrison of Pawn Stars is often a good, critical historian and a better example of how to do history than Marty is, in this instance. Why? Because he has money at stake. In the show, people bring in items that they think are valuable that they want to sell for quick cash. In order to make money Harrison must value those items correctly. He has learned through hard experience to tell fakes from the real thing.

This is an excellent example of how to do critical history. He knows not to accept fake Rolex watches because he knows the marks of the real thing. He knows that certificates of authenticity can be easily forged but a Rolex cannot. He has to get to primary sources—which he does with antiques as well—a practice that, in this instance any way, Marty has neglected.

Remember, the job of the History and Biography channels is to sell stuff. In order to do that they entertain. History, telling the truth about the past as best we can, getting it right, is not their first job. If they can teach a little history along the way, that’s fine but their principal job is to keep you entertained and attracted so that you’ll watch the commercials. There’s nothing wrong with that but consumers of these channels should not be fooled into thinking that what they offer is accurate, critical, responsible history.



1. Die Glaubenslehre der evangelische-Reformierte Kirche, 2 vols, (1844/47).

2. There were and real remain differences between the Lutherans the Reformed but areas of agreement should not be ignored. See here and here.

3. In broad terms supralapsarianism says that, logically considered, when God decreed to elect (save) and reprobate (damn) he did so considering humanity as potential but not yet as created or fallen. The infralapsarians, broadly, taught that God when God decreed to elect, he did so considering the fall and he decreed to allow those who would fall to remain in their fallen state. Here’s a simple chart.

4. Here and here are a couple of posts illustrating how pervasive this meme is.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

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  1. Thanks for the great post. Certainly, justification by grace for the elect remnant and predestination are not opposed. Christ obtained for all the elect all the benefits which come with the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

    One problem is that legal preachers like Paul Washer think they can see the effects of regeneration (predestined new birth) but not the effects of justification (based on atonement for the elect alone).

    As for the attempt of Lutherans to say that the Reformed are Zwinglian, a) many in presbyterians pews are, no matter what you in the seminaries say and b. as for those of us who are (without shame) Zwinglian in our view of the Lord’s Supper and water, we can believe in both justification by grace and predestination without being “Reformed” in our view of the “sacraments”.

    I would agree with you that being “Reformed Baptist” makes no more sense than being “Lutheran Baptist”.

    • Mark, I haven’t really read your comments before, but now I am intrigued since you admit to being Zwinglian. I am currently and slowly evaluating the teaching on baptism, specifically the issue of who should be baptized. I tried to once dialogue with a “Reformed” Baptist minister of the ARBCA, but he didn’t seem interested; fortunately there is another minister who seems willing to correspond with me electronically.

      Are you a Baptist? If you are, do you know of any good Baptists blogs where I can find input from different theologically minded Baptists? I am specifically avoiding Dispensationalists of different varieties.

    • DG Hart said Reformed Baptists should call themselves Calvinist Baptists because that’s what they are.

  2. Besides heartburn, I often come down with a “painful spiritual predicament” after watching junk like this. Solution: Let first responders like Dr. Clark deal with it. Then I can comfortably consume more red-meat Protestantism courtesy of J. H. Merle d’Aubigne.

  3. The narrator is indeed Edward Hermann. I can’t forget the sound of his voice from watching him play Richard Gilmore in the T.V. series the Gilmore Girls for seven years.

  4. It makes no more sense to call myself a “Calvinistic Baptist” than to call myself a “Reformed Baptist.” For one thing, I no more agree with Calvin’s view of church and sacrament than I do with Lutherans. For another thing, I am way more upfront about Christ having died only for the elect alone than most “Reformed” people who make a distinction between the new covenant and election. The way they do this is to collapse and flatten many biblical covenants into one “the covenant of grace.” But Abraham had two sons, with two mothers.

    As for being Zwinglian, I “admit” nothing. Let’s stop saying that people who disagree with us “admit” things! I reject Zwingli’s argument for infant baptism from circumcision. Even though that argument is an advance over the Augustinian notion that water baptism regenerates (traces of which are found not only in Lutheran but also Reformed confessions), it is entirely unconvincing to me and seems to be an ad hoc strategy Zwingli adopted when the anabaptists in his Bible study became politically inconvenient.

    What is really new in Zwingli is the disconnect between water and spiritual reality, along with the vital recognition that what we do with water is what we do with water, and not what God does with water. Zwingli also helps us to ask if we should think “water” when we see the word “baptism” in the Bible.

    Most Reformed discussions of “sacrament” simply begin with the presupposition that the positive commands (water baptism, the Lord’s supper) cannot be sola symbolic. They do not argue the case. They appeal to the catholic tradition as if to say any disagreement is simply a result of ignorance of history.

    But Zwingli knew the history of water baptism, and repudiated it. And the anabaptists knew that everybody had always been christening all infant citizens, and killing heretics. Nevertheless they didn’t continue in the tradition, as Calvin and Luther did.

    I can’t be Zwinglian. He died on the battlefield. I am a pacifist, a five point definite atonement gospel kind of pacifist. There’s about enough of us to make one small congregation, if we lived all in the same place.

    Some call themselves “sovereign grace baptists”, but I have two problems with that. 1. Mahaney and the neo-“Calvinist” charismatics havd bought the “trademark” on that label. 2. The gospel is about more than God’s sovereign grace. The gospel is about the justice of God and the death of Christ to satisfy that justice once the sins of the elect have been imputed to Christ.

    • Mark,

      1. Where in the Reformed confessions do you see traces of baptismal regeneration? Can you give specifics?

      2. I quite doubt your account of Zwingli’s theological development and motives re baptism. To speak frankly, your’s is a self-serving Baptist myth. Zwingli did struggle over baptism and did sympathize with the Anabaptists for a time but I think his development was driven less by politics and more by hermeneutics, his reading of Scripture, and particularly his covenant theology. As he read Scripture he came to see what the 2nd-century fathers had seen, that Scripture is unified by a covenant of grace and that infant initiation into the visible covenant community isn’t Mosaic. It’s Abrahamic. He came to appreciate the role that Abraham plays in the history of redemption and particularly in the NT, a role that the Anabaptist and Baptist view must downplay or reject.

      3. Would it be fair to describe your theology as predestinarian and Anabaptist?

      • There are a lots of different issues here, and I have limited time today to deal fairly with them. I am predestinarian and I am a pacifist and a credobaptist, but I would not say those three issues defined me or the gospel. The gospel is about Christ and His death (and resurrection) which satisfied justice for the elect. All for whom Christ died will be justified. All for whom Christ died will be in the new covenant. There are many who are predestinarian but who only speak of election in terms of transforming sinners and do not rejoice in the good news of the imputation of the sins of the ungodly elect to Christ and their forensic justification. And of course all anabaptists historically have endorsed human “free-will” and taught a false gospel which conditions salvation on what the sinner does. So I am not that.

        But I never meant this to be about me. And I certainly agree that I gave a shorthand partisan view of Zwingli (even though it’s not quite as abbreviated as some dismissals by Reformed folks as being “gnostic” or “inherently humanistic).

        There are many different arguments for paedobaptism, some of which contradict each other. Of course bad arguments don’t prove something is wrong. 1. There can be several different arguments for a right thing. 2. there can be a bad argument for a right thing.

        To be simple, I divide the arguments into two:
        1. Augustine (and before him): infant water takes away original sin (defined mostly as corruption not as guilt, even by Calvin).
        2. Zwingli/Bullinger : infants were included in the Abrahamic covenant, so unless there is an explicit change, they are included in “the one” covenant of grace, which is all the covenants lumped into one. But (also) surely God is not less gracious in the new covenant than in the old.

        1. Romanists say that water baptism infuses faith into the infant. In the recent 4 views books, The Role of Works at the Final Judgment, the Roman Catholic (Micahel Barber) explains that “initial justification” is not by our works because it is by water baptism. (p113, righteousness is covenant faithfulness, p115 I Cor 6:11 shows that baptism constitutes union with Christ ,p117 quotes Aquinas that “man needs to be justified inwardly by baptism so that he can perform works)

        2. Lutherans will say that infants have faith. Of course I think they have to define faith in a magical way to do this, ie faith as an experience without an object/content.

        3. If I have time later, I will look at the use of the regeneration wrod in the WCF. But the key here is the idea of “efficacy” Sure, not necessarily at the time of baptism, so that it kicks in after a time gap. Sure, not effective with all who baptised, but with some. And then I begin to ask : water with the Spirit is effective to do what? I believe that the Bible (the Word) is necessary but not sufficient (without the Holy Spirit) in effectual calling. So not everybody who hears the gospel hears the gospel. And this does not deny the power of the gospel. But I don’t see this same equation with water. As I said, this is a big topic and this is a blog, and a comment in a blog!

        4. Dutch Reformed (Protestant Reformed, Kuyper, Hoekema)-presumptive regeneration, knowing that not all infants are elect, but assuming in charity that they are. While this “organic view” avoids the anxiety of puritan neonomian conversionism, it also denies that the non-elect are ever “really” in the new covenant, and this is a good defense against the conditionality of the federal visionists (and of John Piper and Tom Schreiner). I guess, if I were going to be a paedobaptist (with the right job offer, to be a bit cynical) then this is the kind of paedobaptist I would be.

        5. And then back to Zwingli, who argued that since circumcision had nothing to do with faith, then infant baptism has nothing to do with faith, so then it’s a matter of not letting “the one church” (and its magisterial ally) get divided up into sects, a matter of not separating true Christians from one another over issues like baptism etc….I am trying to be generous to Z here (we are all “political” in our own way)

        Also part of this is that you can get cut off and cursed from the covenant that baptism puts you in. Meredith Kline sounds a little like Zwingli, at least in the judgment emphasis. As in, it must be a “sacrament”, because what else can get even a true Christian killed if they do it wrong?

        I got to go. Feel free to jump in and correct me. One thing I have learned over at “old life”. Don’t assume that all paedobaptists are alike

  5. First question for Alberto: What does it mean to be in Christ, and how is it different from Christ indwelling us? The second question: Does this indwelling in Christ have anything to do with being handed the sacrament? Certainly Calvin thought so.

    We need to read Calvin on this, to see what he did and did not believe. Calvin only believed in an union with the humanity of Christ, and did not teach an union with God defined as creatures indwelling the Creator.
    But Calvin’s anti-rational streak, which cannot explain and refuses to explain, becomes very mystical when it comes to “sacrament”. (See Bruce McCormack and Michael Horton essays in Tributes to Calvin).

    Alberto, does the Bible teach that God effects “union with Christ” by means of water NO. I doubt that we will ever get away from that sacramental idea until we get away from equating “union with Christ” with “definitive sanctification” or “regeneration”.

    1. We need to define what we mean by “regeneration”. Since the Bible word is “new birth”, we need to think about this new birth in terms of “effectual calling” by the power of the Holy Spirit with the word of the gospel. We need to get away from the idea that “regeneration” is a “change in substance or nature” and then a time gap between that and the hearing of the gospel.

    2. We need to define “in Christ” in terms of justification. Although the Bible does teach that the sheep are always in Christ by election, Romans 16 teaches that some of the sheep are in Christ before other of the sheep. This change is not a first of all a change in our hearts (regeneration or new birth) but is legally a change of status before God. To be in Christ in this way is to be justified. Union with Christ is legal marriage to Christ the person AND His work and His benefits.

    3. God justifies the ungodly. God does not justify because of faith. God does not justify because God knows that God is going to regenerate and change the person. God changes the person because God has justified the person. The change from a belief in the false gospel to the true gospel is evidence of justification, but it is never the reason for God justifying.

    Romans 6:17 “But thanks be to God, that you were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were called…”

    Roman 6:20 “When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. What fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed?”

    Romans 6 defines the “in Christ” in terms of being placed into the death of Christ. Instead of a “sacrament” which makes you a participant in Christ, our hope as the justified is that God has counted the death of Christ as our death.

  6. Believe it or not, I have read your soundbite about credobaptists confusing Abraham with Moses. But the counter to that is that many paedobaptists ignore (or minimise) the continuity between the conditionality of the Mosaic covenant and the conditonality aspect of the Abrahamic covenant. You sometimes speak as if the Mosaic skips over Abraham and goes only back to “the covenant of works”. But Reformed people like Charles Hodge knew that there was more than one aspect to the Abrahamic covenant.

    Charles Hodge: “It is to be remembered that there were two covenants made with Abraham. By the one, his natural descendants through Isaac were constituted a commonwealth, an external, visible community. By the other, his spiritual descendants were constituted a church. The parties to the former covenant were God and the nation; to the other, God and His true people. The promises of the national covenant were national blessings; the promises of the spiritual covenant (i.e., the covenant of grace), were spiritual blessings, reconciliation, holiness, and eternal life.”

    mark: I would not say two covenants, as Hodge did (and also John Gill!), but Hodge’s basic point remains valid. There is a “connection” of some aspects of the Abrahamic covenant with the Mosaic covenant, because the land/national aspect is conditional (legal). Btw, I am amill, not dispy, so I don’t see a continuing land promise, but neither do I see a continuing “genealogical” promise which warrants infant initiation. Some aspects of the Abrahamic covenant must be abrogated when the Mosaic economy is abrogated.

    Galatians 4:21 Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. 23 But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. 24 Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar.

    If circumcision was for Abraham a seal of the (other) promises to Abraham that Abraham would have children and take a lot of land, then we cannot say that circumcision is ONLY a seal of righteousness that he had by faith. The circumcision is a sign of more than one thing. But some paedobaptists tend to read the Old Testament as if the Arahamic covenant and the new covenant were the same, and thus reduce the Abrahamic covenant to being only about the righteousness earned by Christ. And if you don’t agree with them about all this, they accuse you of having more than one gospel.

    The Romans 4:11 text says that circumcision was a sign to Abraham that he Abraham had the righteousness. The circumcision is a sign that Christ will bring in the righteousness, but not a sign to
    anybody else that they have or are promised the righteousness.

    Israel is a type fulfilled by Christ, not by a mixed body of justified and non-justified folks we call “the church”. Circumcision is a type of the forensic “cutting off” from legal identity in Adam by means of Christ’s death. Christ’s death is our death, and that death is not water, not regeneration, not “covenant membership” in a conditional probation.

    It’s not water that fulfills the type of circumcision, because it’s Christ’s death to the law imputed to the elect which is the ultimate thing signified by circumcision. Christ did not become cleansed or regenerated, but His blood was shed to satisfy justice, and that’s the central truth to which circumcision speaks.

    This does not mean that we should ignore the other preliminary things signified by circumcision. We don’t have to agree with Hodge that there were two different Abrahamic covenants to agree that circumcision had more than one significance.

    So when a paedobaptist writes “And if this spiritual sign—a seal of the
    righteousness that comes by faith—was administered to Abraham and his infant sons, then we cannot say that the thing signified must always be present before the sign is administered.”, we have to say 1. in the case of Abraham, the righteousness signified had already been imputed to Abraham before circumcision. and 2. there is more than one thing signified.

    Even in regard to the righteousness which is signified, there is an ambiguity in which paedobaptists have their cake and eat it also.On the one hand, they tell us we can’t know who is justified, and so the sign is not about an infallible knowledge that this infant will be justified. But agreeing with that, why not then give the sign to everybody?

    But then, on the other hand, the confessions teach that there is a promise to the children of those who are Christians. And here there is more ambiguity, since first we can’t infallibly know which parents are justified, and second, there is no promise to Christians that they will even have children, and third, What exactly is this promise to the children of those who are Christians?

    There is no promise that specific children will be justified. So at
    most, what you have is some idea that they are “in the covenant” and
    thus subject perhaps to “covenant curses”. But again, how are these
    infants different from any other infants, since all infants are born
    guilty in Adam and all need that righteousness, and none of them is
    promised that righteousness, and they can only know they have it if
    God gives them faith in the gospel?

    To summarize, dispensationalists can’t really see the newness of the
    new covenant, because they can’t let go of the idea that the Abrahamic covenant promised land unconditionally to ethnic Israel. And some paedobaptists can’t really see the newness of the new covenant, because they can’t let go of the genealogical principle of Abraham having a seed which ends in Christ.

    Despite that fulfillment in Christ, paedobaptists still think there is a genealogical principle at work in the new covenant. This is why they can’t attend to what Colossians 2:11-13 actually says, and so they assume that water baptism is the fulfillment of the sign of circumcision.

    • Mark,

      1. Your replies don’t really explain where the Reformed confessions teach or suggest or contain hints of baptismal regeneration (i.e., that God confers new life through baptism).

      2. Your second reply simply repeats Baptist mischaracterizations of Reformed theology. Yes, the Reformed aren’t baptist. We know that and that’s about all your account demonstrates. It doesn’t demonstrate a sound grasp of how the Reformed actually read redemptive history.

      3. On your objections, Paul could never have said “Abraham is the father of all who believe.” But he did. Moses is not the father of all who believe (even though he is an example of faith in Hebrews 11).

      I’ve explained this at length here:


      • Of course, what the WCF teaches about water regeneration is a debated topic.

        David F. Wright : What then about the efficacy of baptism according to the Westminster Confession? Its central affirmation seems clear: “the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited and conferred by the Holy Ghost” (28.6). It is true that a variety of qualifications to this assertion are entered…But these qualifications serve in fact only to highlight the clarity of the core declaration, which is set forth as follows in the preceding chapter on sacraments in general: neither doth the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that doth administer it, but upon the work of the Spirit, and the word of institution; which contains…a promise of benefit to worthy receivers (27.3).

        Wright: The Westminster divines viewed baptism as the instrument and occasion of regeneration by the Spirit, of the remission of sins, of ingrafting into Christ (cf. 28.1). The Confession teaches baptismal regeneration. (from “Baptism at the Westminster Assembly” in The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century, volume 1, ed. by J. Ligon Duncan III, Mentor 2003:168-9)

        Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 167
        The needful but much neglected duty of improving our baptism, is to be performed by us all our life long…by serious and thankful consideration of the nature of baptism, and of the end for which Christ instituted it, the privileges and benefits conferred and sealed thereby, and our solemn vow made therein; by being humbled for our sinful defilement, our falling short of, and walking contrary to, the grace of baptism, and our engagements; by growing up to assurance of pardon of sin, and of all other blessings sealed to us in that sacrament; by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized, for the mortifying of sin, and quickening of grace; and by endeavouring to live by faith, to have our conversation in holiness and righteousness, as those that have therein given up their names to Christ; and to walk in brotherly love, as being baptized by the same Spirit into one body.

        1. I deny that the Holy Spirit is the agent of baptism. Christ baptizes with the Holy Spirit. Nowhere does the Bible teach that the Holy Spirit baptizes into Christ.

        2. I deny that the water is Christ’s instrument is giving the Holy Spirit, or that the water is the Trinity’s instrument in placing the elect into Christ.

        3. Therefore I do not claim to speak for other credobaptists, but I do agree that credobaptists cannot be “reformed”.

        3. I have read enough of Vos and Kline (and especially David Gordon and Mark Karlberg) to know that the Reformed don’t always read redemptive history the same way. Mike Horton certainly doesn’t read union with Christ in the new covenant the same way Richard Gaffin does. But the diversity, complexity, won’t go into a soundbite.

        4. I never denied the difference between Abraham and Moses. I quoted Hodge to agree that there are two sides to covenantal Abraham, one side which points out that Abraham believed before he was circumcised, and that’s the side which says “father of all who believe”. But I can and do recognize that and still point to the conditionality, which is also there. But you can’t seem to see it, not in Abraham, only in Moses. It wouldn’t serve your system to notice it.

        But Daniel Fuller noticed it, and he turned his argument against dispies into an argument also against “covenant theology”, and the federal visionists (also John Piper) now rejoice in the “beauty of gospel threats” (Future Grace). And you can see, but Fuller and Piper and Shepherd are not “covenant theologians” and I agree, but I agree with Engelsma that you won’t get to the bottom of it to until you get too the conditionality….

        I will not copy in my explanations.

        WCF: Baptism is a sacrament of the new testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church; but ALSO to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of HIS INGRAFTING TO CHRIST, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life.

        p69, Four Views of The Role of Works at the Final Judgment, Michael Barber, Roman Catholic—–“Christ is the object of faith, not the knowledge of one’s own salvation. It is Christ who is acting in the sacraments.”

  7. Mike Horton’s “Covenant and Salvation” has made good use of the essay by Bruce McCormack, but I wanted to add one quotation here.
    (Of course, Horton’s fourth “drama” volume is a robust defense of sacramental efficacy, and of course I do not endorse McCormack’s Barthian view of election and atonement.)

    p110, “What’s At Stake in Current Debates Over Justification?”, Bruce
    McCormack: “Nowadays, we are suffering from ‘creeping perichoresis’, that is, the overly expansive use of terms which have their homes in purely spiritual relations between humans who do NOT participate in a common ‘substance’ and who therefore remain distinct INDIVIDUALS. This surely has to be the relation of the human believer to the human Jesus as well.

    “What has prevented us from seeing this is, I think, the degree of
    residual Catholic content in the Reformation understanding of
    eucharistic feeding. It is in the context of his treatment of
    eucharistic feeding that Calvin borrows rhetoric from the early

    “The image of vine and branches might easily be seen to connote an
    organic connectedness of Christ to the believer. The early church
    thought of an ontological union of a ‘person” in whom being is mixed
    with non-being (that’s us) with a ‘person’ in whom being is pure from
    non-being (Jesus). Where that occurs, the life communicated from the vine to the branches flows organically…

    “The difference between the relation between a vine and a branch and
    the relation between Christ and the believer is that the first
    relation is impersonal and the second is personal. The flow of
    nutrients from the vine to the branches take place automatically.But
    in the case of Christ and the individual believer,the ‘bearing of
    fruit’ takes place on the foundation of justification.”

    “The term ‘ingrafting’ is used in Romans 11 to speak of inclusion in
    the covenant which results in a share in all the gifts and privileges.
    That Paul would preface his use of the horticultural image with the
    affirmation that the adoption belonged to the Israelites before the
    Gentiles suggests that the image of ‘ingrafting’ is used as a synonym
    for ADOPTION. The horticultural image is subordinated to the LEGAL.”

    Horton and McCormack rightly point us to Galatians 4:4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. 6 And BECAUSE YOU ARE SONS, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”

    • Mark,

      1. David Wright’s Argument is notable because it is fairly unique. He was generous to me but I disagree with him quite sharply here. His interpretation of the Westminster Confession is quite implausible and contrary to the way the confession was understood at the time and contrary to virtually all the Reformed orthodox who explicitly repudiated baptismal regeneration.

      2. The Reformed Churches confess that, in baptism, covenant children are ingrafted into the covenant community. We do not confess that they are, by the act of baptism, united to Christ. We distinguish between two ways of being in the one covenant of grace: externally and internally. All baptized persons are externally in the covenant of grace. This is a real membership in and participation in the covenant of grace. This is the sort of participation to which Hebrews 6 refers when it speaks of being enlightened and tasting and sharing.

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