The Necessity of Checking Polemical Works Against Primary Sources

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Phil D.

Puritan Board Junior
In the course of researching the history of the mode of baptism, I have encountered wrong assumptions made by parties on both sides of the issue. Seeing the extent to which this can occur, I think, serves to show how important it is to examine controversial issues rather closely, rather than simply relying on polemical works that tend to summarily make dogmatic declarations. Right now I’m exploring Calvin’s statements on the topic (and he certainly had a lot to say...), and some of the most glaringly presumptuous interpretation in this particular arena that I’ve encountered are in the works of Francis Nigel Lee. Take for example his analysis of this passage from Calvin:

[Calvin; Institutes, 4.15.19; Battles’ translation] Whether the person should be wholly immersed, and whether thrice or once, whether he should only be sprinkled with poured water—these details are of no importance, but ought to be optional to churches according to the diversity of countries. Yet the word ‘baptize’ means to immerse, and it is clear that the rite of immersion was observed in the ancient church.​

[Lee; The Sacraments of Baptism and The Lord’s Supper] Some Baptistic persons...delight in quoting Calvin’s Institutes, 4.15.19. There, they tell us, Calvin declared: ‘It is evident that the term “baptize” means to immerse, and that this was the form used by the ancient Church.’​
...Here, the word ‘ancient’ is not the same as the word ‘apostolic.’ Baptistic persons omit to add that (in the original French) Calvin here actually wrote ‘that the custom of thus entirely immersing, was anciently observed in the Church.’ Our English word ‘anciently’ here translates the original French word anciennement. That latter word in this context hardly means specifically ‘during apostolic times’—but certainly refers particularly to the mid-patristic period, especially after the rise of the heresy of baptismal regenerationism.​

Several things can be said concerning this claim. First, Calvin actually wrote the original edition of his Institutes in Latin (1536), as he indeed would do with each succeeding edition (see, W. de Greef, The Writings of John Calvin). The first known French version to be released, a translation by others of Calvin’s 1539 Latin edition, didn’t appear until 1541. As such the question at hand is best approached by trying to understand what Calvin intended when he used the Latin phrase veteri ecclesise in this context.

Upon review, one thing that does become clear is that Calvin did variously use this phraseology to denote the New Testament (apostolic) church, the early post-apostolic (patristic) church, and even the Old Testament church (Israel). However, for what would seemingly be obvious reasons, when used in the context of favorably comparing or otherwise discussing the right use of the sacraments, Calvin always uses veteri ecclesise in reference to the apostolic church (e.g. Institutes, 4.17.43 {concerning the Lord’s Supper}; Commentary, on 1 Cor. 10:16; et al). It then would be very difficult to explain why Calvin used the term concerning baptism in a different sense than he clearly did regarding the other sacrament in a neighboring and kindred section of the very same work.

Second, and even more importantly, Lee’s interpretive assertion does not take into account a number of very specific statements that Calvin made elsewhere on the matter.

[Calvin; Commentary, on Acts 8:38] ‘They went down into the water.’ Here we see the rite used among the men of old time in baptism; for they put all the body into the water. Now the use is this, that the minister doth only sprinkle the body or the head. But we ought not to stand so much about such a small difference of a ceremony, that we should therefore divide the Church, or trouble the same with brawls. We ought rather to fight even an hundred times to death for the ceremony itself of baptism, inasmuch as it was delivered us by Christ that that we should suffer the same to be taken from us.​

[Calvin; Commentary, on John 3:23] The Evangelist says that there were many waters there, and these were not so abundant in Judea. Now geographers tell us, that these two towns, Enon and Salim, were not far from the confluence of the river Jordan and the brook Jabbok; and they add that Scythopolis was near them. From these words, we may infer that John and Christ administered baptism by plunging the whole body beneath the water; though we ought not to give ourselves any great uneasiness about the outward rite, provided that it agree with the spiritual truth, and with the Lord’s appointment and rule.​

Lee also made another similarly framed assertion regarding the last passage above.

[Lee; The Anabaptists and their Stepchildren] Certain Baptistic persons delight in quoting from Calvin’s Commentary on John’s Gospel (3:22) that ‘John and Christ administered baptism by total immersion...’ Yet they neglect to add that such ‘im-mersion’ (or ‘putting into’) is not the same as sub-mersion (or ‘putting under’). For all Presbyterian Ministers ‘im-merse’ (but never sub-merse) their fingers in baptismal water, before sprinkling babies therewith.​

For one thing, this statement bears all the classic marks of semantic sophistry. Factually, the fallacy of the claim is easily shown when we again simply look at the actual Latin terms Calvin employed. For comparison, with regard to Philip’s baptism of the eunuch in Acts 8:38 Calvin used the phrase, “totum enim corpus in aquam mergebant.” In the passage on John 3:23, which supposedly reveals Calvin’s intention to denote something quite different than a submersion, the reformer’s unmistakable wording was, “baptismum fuisse celebration a Johanne et Christo totius corporis submersione.”
 

RPEphesian

Puritan Board Junior
It's the hardest thing to discuss the views of someone you disagree with, without misrepresenting them. On the unintentional side of misrepresentation, you know the view of the other person is broader and perhaps more nuanced than you perceive, probably includes a number of details you are missing, yet in polemics some level of succinctness is needed just so the matter can be discussed.

Then of course, there's that temptation to violate the Ninth Commandment and either leave things out intentionally, or overbear the faults of the other side. Which ultimately puts off those on the other side, proving to them that you obviously don't have an argument if you must resort to such tactics.

The former will be excused by the charitable. The latter is neither forgiven nor forgotten.
 

Phil D.

Puritan Board Junior
yet in polemics some level of succinctness is needed just so the matter can be discussed.
Agreed. I would, however, make a distinction between polemics that are more simply matter-of-fact, and those that engage in sectarian disparagement and triumphalism. I have found in those cases, again, on both sides of this particular issue, that they are relatively unreliable upon fact-checking (how's that for PC terminology...).
 
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RPEphesian

Puritan Board Junior
Agreed. I would, however, make a distinction between polemics that are more simply matter-of-fact, and those that engage in sectarian disparagement and triumphalism. I have found in those cases, again, on both sides of this particular issue, that the are relatively unreliable upon fact-checking (how's that for PC terminology...).

Thanks for that distinction. And big points for your treasury of social justice merit.
 

Phil D.

Puritan Board Junior
OK, here’s one more plain example I came across a while ago, and then I’ll ...probably... give it a rest.

This instance, though in the end still being a mistaken representation of a historical case, is definitely in the category of unintentional, and even understandable. As such, I also find it very forgivable (that was a great point to make, Jake). Nevertheless, I think it again heavily underscores the value of double-checking and verifying sources.

In his well-known work on baptism, the eminent Princeton theologian Dr. Samuel Miller (1769–1850; Presbyterian) presented the following story as an example of non-immersion in the early church:

...Mr. Walker [William; 1623–84; Anglican], in his “Doctrine of Baptisms” (chapter 10), speaks of a Jew, who, while travelling with Christians, in the time of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus [Roman emperor from 161–180], about sixty or seventy years after the apostles, was converted, fell sick, and desired baptism. Not having water, they sprinkled him thrice with sand, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. He recovered, and his case was reported to the bishop (or pastor, there being no prelates then), who decided that the man was baptized, (si modo aqua denuo perfunderatur) if he only had water poured on him again. This record shows, not merely that the “difficulties” referred to, are far from being ideal; but also that when the defect of the baptism by sand was attempted to be supplied, it was not by any sort of immersion, but only by the pouring on of water.
(Infant Baptism Scriptural and Reasonable, [Belfast: 1837], 81)

Historically, the original account is from a Byzantine monk named John Moschus (c.550–619), and more specifically, from his part semi-autobiographical and part hagiographical work The Spiritual Meadow. In it Moschus tells about numerous interactions he had with other ascetic desert monks whom he had personally known. This fact in itself is enough to suggest that the 2nd century dating of the story is most likely wrong (unless it had been something retold him concerning a much earlier time).

First, for any interested in undertaking the exercise, here is an English translation (by John Wortley) of the most relevant portions of this indeed fascinating story, taken from Moschus’ original work:

Abba Palladios told us he had heard one of the fathers whose name was Andrew (whom we also met) say: When we were in Alexandria, Abba Andrew at the eighteenth mile post told us saying: As a young man I was very undisciplined. A war broke out and confusion reigned so, together with nine others, I fled to Palestine. [A variety of details irrelevant to our purpose are then recounted.]

…With many tears, we decided to abandon him [a dying Jewish traveling companion] in the wilderness and go our way. We could see death from thirst also lying in store for us. We were in tears when we set him down in the sand. When he saw that we were going to leave him, he began to adjure us, saying: ‘By the God who is going to judge both the quick and the dead, leave me not to die as a Jew, but as a Christian. Have mercy on me and baptize me so that I too may depart this life as a Christian and go to the Lord.’

We said to him: ‘Truly brother, it is impossible for us to do anything of the sort. We are laymen and baptizing is bishops’ work and priests’. Besides, there is no water here.’ But he continued to adjure us in the same terms and with tears, saying: ‘Oh, Christians, please do not deprive me of this benefit.’

While we were most unsure of what to do next, the fellow with initiative among us, inspired by God, said to us: ‘Stand him up and take off his clothes.’ We got him to his feet with great difficulty and stripped him. The one with initiative filled both his hands with sand and poured it three times over the sick man’s head saying: ‘Theodore is baptized [transliterated Greek:‘O de philoponos paerosas psammou tas cheiras autou, epi tris katecheen {pour over} autou te kepsale, legon baptizetai Theodoros], in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’, and we all answered amen to each one of the names of the holy, consubstantial and worshipful Trinity.

The Lord is my witness, brethren, that Christ, the Son of the living God, thus cured and reinvigorated him so that not a trace of illness remained in him. In health and vigor he ran before us for the rest of our journey through the wilderness. When we observed so great and so sudden a transformation, we all praised and glorified the ineffable majesty and lovingkindness of Christ our God.

When we arrived at Ascalon [in Palestine], we took this matter to the blessed and saintly Dionysios, who was bishop there, and told him what had happened to the brother on the journey. When the truly holy Dionysios heard of these things, he was stupefied by so extraordinary a miracle. He assembled all the clergy and put to them the question of whether he should recognize the effusion of sand as a baptism or not [anatithetai auto to pragma, kai ei ara opheilen auto logisthenai eis baptisma e tes psammou epichusis {pouring upon} e ou]. Some said that, in view of the extraordinary miracle, he should allow it as a valid baptism; others said he should not. [A protracted discussion of what several patristic writers had said regarding baptism follows.]

…When they had said all this and much more beside, it seemed good to the blessed Bishop Dionysios to send the brother to the Holy Jordan and for him to be baptized there [edoxe to makario Dionusio to episcopo aposteilai ton adelphon eis ton agion ‘Iordanen, kakeise baptizesthai]. The fellow with initiative he ordained a deacon. (The Spiritual Meadow
, 176; John Wortley, trans., The Spiritual Meadow, (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1992), 144f.)

In then tracing the ensuing transmission of the story, as pertains to the chain of authors in our case, one discovers the following:

Miller indicated his source was William Walker. Walker indicated his source was the Byzantine church historian Callistus (c.1246–1335). Upon review, it is evident that Callistus’ Greek account was only a brief paraphrase of Moschus’, and in the process of transmission a number of changes and additions were made. Moreover, it turns out Walker was actually citing from a somewhat vague Latin abbreviation of Callistus, which appeared in a 16th century church history written by several German Lutheran scholars, known as The Magdeburg Centuries. Even at a relatively early point, then, we find ourselves dealing with a translated abbreviation of a vague abbreviation. And, there could very well have been other unidentifiable intermediate sources involved which contributed to the confusion over the centuries.

All the details of how the story evolved over time is somewhat convoluted and difficult to follow. As such, for my own benefit I ended up creating a table in order to organize and make sense of the various changes that occurred, primarily as they relate to the historical timing and remedial method of baptism. (I also included elements of a Latin translation by a respected 15th century monk, Ambrose Traversari, which, except for a few items at the very beginning, corresponds very closely with Moschus’ Greek.) In addition to other factual details that also changed, the story clearly took place in the 6th century, not the 2nd, which largely renders its alleged significance moot.

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Tom Hart

Puritan Board Senior
Lee also made another similarly framed assertion regarding the last passage above.

[Lee; The Anabaptists and their Stepchildren] Certain Baptistic persons delight in quoting from Calvin’s Commentary on John’s Gospel (3:22) that ‘John and Christ administered baptism by total immersion...’ Yet they neglect to add that such ‘im-mersion’ (or ‘putting into’) is not the same as sub-mersion (or ‘putting under’). For all Presbyterian Ministers ‘im-merse’ (but never sub-merse) their fingers in baptismal water, before sprinkling babies therewith.
For one thing, this statement bears all the classic marks of semantic sophistry. Factually, the fallacy of the claim is easily shown when we again simply look at the actual Latin terms Calvin employed. For comparison, with regard to Philip’s baptism of the eunuch in Acts 8:38 Calvin used the phrase, “totum enim corpus in aquam mergebant.” In the passage on John 3:23, which supposedly reveals Calvin’s intention to denote something quite different than a submersion, the reformer’s unmistakable wording was, “baptismum fuisse celebration a Johanne et Christo totius corporis submersione.”
I found F.N. Lee's comment on the French text some time ago:

"Calvin’s word ‘immerse’ (French plonger) is not the same as the word ‘submerge’ (French submerger). For Presbyterian Ministers indeed ‘immerse’ their fingers into the baptismal water — without ‘submerging’ either them or the candidate under that water."​

Lee is wrong. I reviewed Calvin's French text and it is difficult to read it as Lee says. Plonger (the origin of the English plunge) does in fact refer to complete submersion in virtually every case. It seems that in his desire to rescue Calvin out of an error, Lee has forced another meaning onto his words.
 

Phil D.

Puritan Board Junior
Lee is wrong. I reviewed Calvin's French text and it is difficult to read it as Lee says. Plonger (the origin of the English plunge) does in fact refer to complete submersion in virtually every case. It seems that in his desire to rescue Calvin out of an error, Lee has forced another meaning onto his words.

I've found that just looking at a book's title can give pretty good indication of their character. With regard to this topic, those that sound the most dogmatic, or are outright derogatory often play rather fast and loose with the facts and their historical citations. For example, on the Baptist side:

Rhantism vs. Baptism; or, Infant Sprinkling Against Christian Immersion (Seacome Ellison; 1835)​
Sprinkling not Christian Baptism (William Barnes; 1851)​
On the non-Baptist side:

Modern Immersion Not Scripture Baptism (William Thorn; 1831)​
Bible Baptism: or, the Immerser Instructed. (James E. Quaw, 1841)​
Immersion Proved not to be a Scriptural Mode of Baptism but a Romish Invention, (William MacKay; 1880)​
Anabaptists and their Stepchildren (F. N. Lee, 198?)​

Even then, some theological stalwarts on either side will sometimes endorse such books, or include some of their dubious arguments in their own, overall, more level-headed works. I can't even begin to tell how many lay-persons I've seen take such things at face value, as though they settle the argument, and they need inquire no further. And I guess that gets at my main purpose here in trying to caution against the potential pitfalls that exist in so doing.
 

Phil D.

Puritan Board Junior
It seems that in his desire to rescue Calvin out of an error, Lee has forced another meaning onto his words.
Others, I'm finding, are content to simply throw Calvin under the bus.

Both the clauses of Calvin, quoted above, are only the opinions of a great man who had spent but little time in the study of questions concerning water baptism. Baptists accept the last clause and reject the first. I reject both the last and the first, because both are incorrect and unscriptural, and because both clauses contain the opinion of a man too indifferent about the subject to be able to give an intelligent opinion. Water baptism was not Calvin's forte.​
(Thomas Gallaher, Short Method with the Dipping Anti-paedobaptists, [St. Louis: Presbyterian Publishing Co., 1878], 38.)​

Gallaher then proceeds to say that “the same or similar remarks can be made with regard to…the eighty or ninety [theologians and lexicographers] quoted by Booth” (Ibid.), which includes such names as Luther, Witsius, Gomarus, Beza, Casaubon, Diodati, Hammond, Owen, and Poole. (Abraham Booth, Paedobaptism Examined, 1:40–59.)

Wow.
 
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