Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Doctrine Of Baptism

Donald Robinson

I hope I do not start off on the wrong foot if I surmise that some evangelical clergy are less enthusiastic about the glory of our liturgy when it comes to the baptismal services than when they speak of the Prayer Book in general. There is an impression abroad that our Reformers did not manage to revise the service of baptism as thoroughly as they did the communion office. Our service is better known for the embarrassment it causes some of our brethren than for its Reformed theology! If we are not, perhaps, very loyal churchmen, we conduct it with glosses and emendations of our own; and, even if we are loyal, we say some parts of it very quickly!

Let it be said at once, however, that Archbishop Cranmer, and those associated with him, did pay careful attention to the theology of baptism, even though baptism did not occupy the same prominence in the controversies of the time as did the Lord’s supper. As a matter of fact, Cranmer’s baptismal service, which is the one we still use, differs more extensively from the Sarum Use than does any other service which he compiled. Two other circumstances of the Reformation suggest to us that Cranmer and his friends are not likely to have been nodding when they introduced the people of England to new baptismal services. First is the fact—to which Dr. D. B. Knox has recently drawn attention in his newly published book, The Doctrine of Faith in the Reign of Henry VIII—that justification by faith only had been clearly grasped and vigorously expounded by our English theologians in book after book during the twenty years before the first English Prayer Book appeared. For Cranmer himself nothing was more central than this doctrine. He applied it with profound insight to the nature of worship no less than to personal religion. Nor was he ignorant that justification touches baptism very closely indeed. It would be surprising, therefore, if in his baptismal service he did not give a consistent picture of this cardinal doctrine. Secondly, it is worth recalling that our English Reformers did not work alone. They were conscious of standing on the same ground as the Protestant leaders of other churches, both Lutheran and Reformed. They were anxious that the formularies they produced for their own people should be submitted to the scrutiny of their friends abroad, and should express, as far as possible, the common faith of the Reformation. Dr. Geoffrey Bromiley has pointed out that “in their basic theology of baptism the Anglicans not only agreed substantially with the Protestant churches abroad, but they were proud of that agreement”.1 They did not have, if we may say so, the inhibitions about intercommunion which have arisen more recently among us. Consequently, it mattered to them that they should walk in step with their brethren in those things which concerned the nature of the visible Church. The due administration of the sacraments was one of these things.

For our Church’s doctrine of baptism we must go first of all to the Thirty-Nine Articles. The Prayer Book services must always be interpreted in accordance with the Articles, and not the other way about. There is also the section of the Catechism dealing with the sacraments. This, as you know, was added in 1604 at the request of the leading Puritan divines of our Church; and it also is secondary to the Articles. Article XXVII, Of Baptism, was, as a matter of fact, drawn up in 1552, the same year that the second form of the baptismal service—virtually that which we now have in the 1662 Book—was composed. I should like now to speak briefly about two things: first on what may be called the “sacramental idiom” used by the compilers of our services, and secondly on their theology. The two, of course, are closely linked. But there is some advantage in dealing with the sacramental language or idiom separately, as it is not always understood.

To read the entire Churchman article, click here.

Donald Robinson was the Vice Principal of Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia, and Archbishop of Sydney.

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