Calvin's Institutes 4.16.7-13

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Reformation 21 is blogging through Calvin's Institutes this year. You can find their reading plan here.

In 4.16.10 Calvin writes about that critics of paedobaptism are pressed with:

the resemblance between baptism and circumcision, they contend that there is a wide difference between the two signs, that the one has nothing in common with the other. They maintain that the things meant are different, that the covenant is altogether different.

But this is incorrect. The Baptist does not have to say that the one has nothing in common with the other, or that the covenant is altogether different. Overlap and continuity can be recognized, as well as relevant difference and discontinuity.

Consider first the notion that baptism and circumcision are interchangeable in their meaning. There are both direct and indirect arguments against this notion. The direct arguments simply point to the fact that, according to the biblical record, circumcision signified specific promises and blessings that baptism does not signify, and has never signified. God made many promises to Abraham in the covenant of circumcision (Genesis 17, which confirmed the covenant of Genesis 15), and circumcision signified the promises of that covenant. For instance: “I will make you very fruitful” (physical descendants as many as the stars in the sky) — baptism does not signify this promise, but circumcision did. Or “you will be a father of many nations”—baptism does not signify this promise, but circumcision did. Or “kings will come from you”— baptism does not signify this promise, circumcision did. Or “the whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you”—baptism does not signify this promise, but circumcision did. Thus, the meaning of circumcision and baptism is not interchangeable. Here there has clearly been a change in meaning: the specific, earthly, generational promises are no longer signified.

The indirect arguments are threefold. First, if these rites were interchangeable in meaning, then why was there a change in the recipients of these rites, from males only (circumcision) to males and females (baptism)? Does this not argue quite strongly for the notion that there was something signified in circumcision (namely, the promised Seed, and the promise of blessing to the nations through the seed of Abraham) which is not and cannot be signified in baptism?

Second, if these rites were interchangeable in meaning, then why was there a change in the rite itself, from circumcision to baptism? If circumcision was sufficient for the covenant community under Abraham, Moses, David, etc., why was it insufficient for the New Covenant community?

And third, if these rites were interchangeable in meaning, then why baptize those who had already been circumcised (as was universally the case in the early church)? Since even paedobaptists recognize the three main facts just adduced, they must concede that any continuing significance of the Abrahamic Covenant into the New Covenant era is compatible with quite a bit of significant change.

So even if Baptists and paedobaptists were to agree with respect to fundamental continuity of the Abrahamic covenant, there remains a disagreement over the degree of that continuity. Since paedobaptists already accept – despite the “everlasting” nature of the Abrahamic covenant – that there has in fact been a change in sign, meaning of sign, and recipients of sign, they will be very hard pressed indeed to insist that fundamental continuity ensures infant recipients of sign. So it looks like the Baptist position is quite compatible with a confession of essential continuity with respect to the Abrahamic Covenant. The disagreement is over the degree, not over the fact, of continuity and discontinuity.

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In 4.14.7 Calvin says:

It is therefore certain that the Lord offers us mercy and the pledge of his grace both in his Sacred Word and in his sacraments. But it is understood only by those who take Word and sacraments with sure faith, just as Christ is offered and held forth by the Father to all unto salvation, yet not all acknowledge and receive him. In one place Augustine, meaning to convey this, said that the efficacy of the Word is brought to light in the sacrament, not because it is spoken, but because it is believed.

Like I mentioned in the last post on 4.16.1-6 , if Calvin is to maintain this position that it's not the sign but the belief that makes Word and sacrament efficacious, I must again ask... Can infants fulfill this requirement? If not then the sign has no meaning to them if Calvin is consistent.

-----Added 11/19/2009 at 07:09:55 EST-----

Calvin goes on in the next paragraph:

Accordingly, Paul, in speaking to believers, so deals with the sacraments as to include in them the communicating of Christ. For example, he says, "All of you who have been baptized . . . have put on Christ" [Gal. 3:27, cf. Vg.]. Again: "All of us who have been baptized in Christ are one body and one spirit" [I Cor. 12:12-13].

Can infants put on Christ?

-----Added 11/19/2009 at 07:15:58 EST-----

4.14.8 he says:

For first, the Lord teaches and instructs us by his Word. Secondly, he confirms it by the sacraments. Finally, he illumines our minds by the light of his Holy Spirit and opens our hearts for the Word and sacraments to enter in, which would otherwise only strike our ears and appear before our eyes, but not at all affect us within.

How can we know infants are taught and instructed by the Word if the sacrament is only meant to be a confirmation of that Word?
I think that you're putting too much emphasis on the time of the administration of the Sacrament. Baptism is God's seal upon the believer not the other way around.
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