Calvin Against Baptism By The Laity

20. It is also pertinent here to know that it is wrong for private individuals to assume the administration of baptism; for this as well as the serving of the Supper is a function of the ecclesiastical ministry. For Christ did not command women, or men of every sort, to baptize, but gave this command to those whom he had appointed apostles. And when he ordered his disciples to do in the ministering of the Supper [Matt. 28:19] what they had seen him do—while he was performing the function of a lawful steward [Luke 22:19]—he doubtless willed that they should follow his example in it.

For many ages past and almost from the beginning of the church, it was a custom for laymen to baptize those in danger of death if a minister was not present at the time. I do not see, however, how this can be defended with sound reasoning. Not even the ancient writers themselves, who either followed this practice or condoned it, were certain whether it was right to do it. Now Augustine displays this doubt when he says: “Even if a layman compelled by necessity should give baptism, I do not know whether anyone might piously say that it should be repeated. For if no necessity compels it to be done, it is a usurping of another’s office; but if necessity urges it, it is either no sin at all or a venial one.” 37xConcerning women, it was decreed without exception in the Council of Carthage that they should not presume to baptize at all.

Yet (you say) there is danger lest he who is ill, if he die without baptism, be deprived of the grace of regeneration. Not at all. God declares that he adopts our babies as his own before they are born, when he promises that he will be our God and the God of our descendants after us [Gen. 17:7]. Their salvation is embraced in this word. No one will dare be so insolent toward God as to deny that his promise of itself suffices for its effect.

Few realize how much injury the dogma that baptism is necessary for salvation, badly expounded, has entailed. As a consequence, they are less cautious. For, where the opinion has prevailed that all are lost who have not happened to be baptized with water, our condition is worse than that of God’s ancient people—as if the grace of God were now more restricted than under the law! For men will think that Christ has come not to fulfill the promises but to abolish them [cf. Matt. 5:17], seeing that the promise (which was then effective enough of itself to confer salvation before the eighth day) [Gen. 17:7; cf. v. 12] now would not be valid without the aid of a sign.

21. The practice before Augustine was born is first of all inferred from Tertullian, who held that a woman was not allowed to speak in the church, and also not to teach, to baptize, or to offer. This was that she might not claim for herself the function of any man, much less that of a priest. Epiphanius also is a trustworthy witness of this matter when he upbraids Marcion for having given women permission to baptize.

And I am well aware of the answer of those who think otherwise: that there is a great difference between common usage and an extraordinary remedy required by dire necessity. But since Epiphanius declares that it is a mockery to give women the right to baptize and makes no exception, it is clear enough that he condemns this corrupt practice as inexcusable under any pretext. Also in the third book, where he teaches that permission was not even given to the holy mother of Christ, he adds no reservation.

—John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles. The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 4.15.20–21. (More on lay baptism.)

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  • 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.

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