Like a growing number of people in the Reformed churches I did not begin my Christian life there. I began my Christian life in an evangelical (Southern) Baptist setting. As part of my initiation into that culture I was given an explanation for why there are other approaches to reading Scripture, beyond those I saw and experienced in my evangelical Baptist circle. E.g., I was told that Roman Catholics baptized infants but that was purely out of tradition. Ours, I was told, was the biblical practice. When I learned that there were Protestants, however, who baptized infants that was more difficult. They too professed to follow Scripture as their principal authority. In those cases I was given a twofold explanation. Some of them, e.g., the mainline Presbyterians (PCUSA), I was told, are liberal and thus, like the Romanists, do not really adhere to Scripture. They baptize infants out of sentiment more than conviction. The others are still under the influence of Romanism. In their Reformation, they did not progress far enough.
Recently, a commenter on the HB raised this last case and explained that she has been taught the claim that Calvin continued to practice infant baptism because he was unable to break away from Roman tradition. Let’s consider this.
John Calvin (1509–64) was born in Noyon, Picardy. He was raised and educated in the Roman communion. Arguably, Luther did not reach anything like his mature Protestant position until 1521, when he defied the Empire and Rome on the basis of the unique, final, and sole authority of Scripture (sola Scriptura) over against ecclesiastical authority and tradition. Naturally, his theology continued to develop and it is not really until 1525 that he hit his stride. In that year he published one of his most significant works, On the Bound Will (De servo arbitrio). In this work one sees many of the great themes that would resonate for the rest of his career and beyond. In 1525, Calvin was just 16 years old. By that point he would have been, by late-modern standards, extraordinarily well educated. He would have had a number of years of Latin instruction and his is reading assignment would baffle most undergraduate students today but it would not be for 11 more years until he published his first work as a Protestant theologian, the first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Nevertheless, he was only 27 years old when he published it.
Calvin was, by nature, a truly conservative and cautious fellow. He encountered the Reformation teaching and particular Luther’s writings when he was in University. He was intrigued but cautious. He was, he later reported, unusually addicted to Romanism and stubborn. This might support the thesis that Calvin was unduly influenced by Roman tradition and unable to break away but actually it supports the opposite conclusion. It means that he did not reject Romanism hastily. He rejected it only after serious consideration.
One reason why he left Rome was his involvement in the Humanist Renaissance movement. Humanism, in this context, does not refer to an anti-Christian movement. In the 15th and 16th centuries it referred to a movement largely led by Christians to recover the Scriptures in their original languages and read in their original context. He was a law student who had been taught to move away from the traditional summaries of civil law and to get back to the original sources (ad fontes). By his own testimony, when he encountered the Protestants and when he re-read Scripture, in its original language and context, in light of what the Protestants were saying, he began to see things very differently. He was not a mere traditionalist. He had respect for tradition but for Calvin, the sources, especially the holy Scriptures, were superior to tradition and even Roman ecclesiastical authorities. His humanist training taught him to read texts and arguments critically, to ask whether an interpretation was correct, whether it agreed with the original text as read in its original context.He applied those same methods to his study of Scripture.
After reading Luther and other Protestant (or “evangelical”) as well as humanist writers (many of whom remained in the Roman communion), and the early church Fathers (especially Augustine but also Chrysostom), and after re-reading Scripture he concluded that just as the humanists had given a better account of the history of the law, the classical texts, and the original intent of the original sources, read in light of their original context, so too the Protestants were right about Scripture. He realized that the consensus (but not yet dogmatic) medieval and Roman position on salvation was not correct: we are not saved by the infusion of a medicinal substance (gratia) and by cooperation with that substance. Rather, he realized that, read in its own context, on its own terms, according to the intention of the original human authors and the divine author behind and operating within all the human authors, the Holy Spirit himself, Scripture did not agree with the medieval church nor the sixteenth-century Roman teaching on a number of points.
The claim that Calvin (and other Reformers) continued to teach infant baptism because they remained unduly influenced by Roman teaching rests on an unstated assumption: the only reason one might baptize infants is because of Roman tradition (or perhaps sentiment), that it cannot possibly be a conviction driven by Scripture itself. This is an unwarranted assumption.
It is true that for both Calvin and Luther the tradition of the church was weighty. They were evangelicals in an older sense of the word: they were “gospellers” as Tyndale put it. They were not, however, modern evangelicals. They did not assume that the church had begun just a few years before their experience. Many American evangelicals more or less assume that the church did not really get things right until the 19th century, that most of church history (except for bits of the Reformation perhaps) was a giant mistake from the 2nd century until the 19th to be bracketed and regarded as a source of amusement. Rather, they saw the whole history of the church as their history, as family history. They came to disagree with some of what had occurred in their family history but they were impressed that, as far as they knew, the universal understanding of Scripture was the believers and their children were to receive the sign of visible admission to the covenant community. That consensus, however, was not definitive for them. They rejected the widespread medieval consensus on a number of topics. Clearly they were prepared to reject earlier positions when they were not biblical.
It was Scripture, not the tradition, that drove them to hold infant baptism. Both gave lectures on Genesis and were impressed by the continuity between the way God dealt with Abraham and the way the New Testament speaks. They made a distinction that many Baptist(ic) evangelicals do not: they understood that Abraham and Moses had different places in the history of redemption. Both were utterly committed to the unique, final, sole authority of God’s Word.
Remember, many of the Anabaptists of the period did not accept sola Scriptura. One of the major Anabaptist leaders of the 1520s Thomas Muntzer mocked the confessional Protestants (e.g., Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli) for their reliance on the Scriptures as God’s Word. Muntzer and others were more like today’s Pentecostals, who claimed to have continuing, extra-biblical revelation. Indeed, Muntzer arguably anticipated Karl Barth’s doctrine that Scriptures only become God’s Word to us in an existential encounter. In other words, the confessional Protestants, as distinct from the Anabaptists had a higher doctrine of Scripture and were utterly willing to follow it where ever it leads. That the Anabaptists and later the Baptist movements rejected their way of reading Scripture (hermeneutic) and their understanding of redemptive history (e.g., the continuity of the Abrahamic covenant) does not make them slaves to the medieval tradition.
Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531) was confronted directly by the Anabaptists, in Zürich over this very question. He admitted that, for a time, he was tempted by the Anabaptist case, that the discontinuity between the Old Testament (broadly) and the New is so great and the New Covenant is so eschatological (heavenly) that it is no longer possible that infants should be included in the visible people of God, that in the New Covenant, only those who make profession may be considered members of the covenant people and that baptism is only for those who make profession. He rejected that position, however, not because he was unduly influenced by Rome nor because (as some Baptists have suggested to me) he was worried about falling out of favor with the civil authorities, but because he was convinced by Scripture that there is one covenant of grace instituted by God with a variety of administrations. He became convinced from Scripture that believers are in the same covenant of grace as Abraham and that just as God had promised to a God to Abraham and to his children, so too he has promised to believers and their children in the New Covenant.
It is a tempting, easy answer to think that the reason the confessional Protestant Reformers and Churches all disagreed with the Anabaptists and modern Baptist evangelicals about baptism is because they were still unduly influenced by Romanism but that answer simply does not account for the actual history of the Reformation. It does not account for their own lives, writing, and ministry.