Baptismal regeneration is the name given to doctrines held by some Christian denominations which maintain that salvation is intimately linked to the act of baptism, without necessarily holding that salvation is impossible apart from it. The etymological background the term might be taken as implying it means "being born again" (regeneration, or rebirth) "through baptism" (baptismal). However, etymology deals with the origins and root meanings of words and these “continually change their meaning,… …sometimes moving out of any recognisable contact with their origin … It is nowadays generally agreed that current usage determines meaning”. In this case there is no standard usage: for Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof, “regeneration” and "new birth" are synonymous; for Herbert Lockyer, they are not. Critics of the doctrine frequently allege that it tends to emphasize external form (including the role of water) rather than internal content; supporters associate the two closely.
Adherents of this doctrine include the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican (especially its High-Church and Anglo-Catholic parties), and Reformed churches. Lutherans support this doctrine, but article 251 of Luther's Small Catechism and other Lutheran teachings recognize this is not absolutely necessary, one can be saved without Baptism and a Baptized Christian can lose salvation if he later falls from faith. The twentieth century Lutheran theologian Edmund Schlink citing Titus 3:5 comments, "In this act of salvation all human activity is expressly excluded. It is done entirely by God's deed, by the one act of the washing and the activity of the Spirit through which regeneration and renewal take place."
- 1 The Doctrine as held in Major Denominations
- 2 Other groups said to teach baptismal regeneration
- 3 Criticisms
- 4 Claim that Churches of Christ teach baptismal regeneration
- 5 Notes
- 6 See also
- 7 External links
The Doctrine as held in Major Denominations
Section 1215 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: This sacrament [baptism] is also called "the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit," for it signifies and actually brings about the birth of water and the Spirit without which no one "can enter the kingdom of God."(Titus 3:5) Quoting the Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity:14(para 1), Christopher J. Walsh comments that the Second Vatican Council reaffirms the traditional understanding of Christian initiation as a unity and a process. "It is not something achieved with a trickle of water one Sunday afternoon, but a progressive entry into a commitment and a relationship ... Becoming a Christian is a conversion a growing adherence to Christ in faith and sacrament over an extended period of time." (See also Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1229–31)
Against this background the more detailed doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church can be summed up in the following statements from that catechism:
- While in John 3:5 Jesus himself affirms that baptism is necessary for salvation, and no one should refuse to be baptized, the effects of sacramental baptism are brought about also by "Baptism of blood" (dying for the sake of the faith) and "Baptism of desire", whether explicit, as in the case of catechumens, or implicit, as in the case of anyone who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it,
- As regards children who die without baptism, the Church entrusts them to the mercy of God.
- In Roman Catholic teaching, baptism, like all the sacraments, presupposes faith and by words and objects also nourishes, strengthens, and expresses it.
- Baptism is the sacrament of faith (cf. Mark 16:16). But faith needs the community of believers. It is only within the faith of the Church that each of the faithful can believe. The faith required for Baptism is not a perfect and mature faith, but a beginning that is called to develop.
Saint Cyprian of Carthage explained the salvation promised by Jesus to one of the thieves crucified with him ("Today, you shall be with me in paradise", Luke 23:43) but who is not reported to have been baptized with water, by saying he was baptized in his own blood as a martyr, an opinion shared by Saint Jerome, while Saint Augustine of Hippo said that "the thief received the baptism of substitution ... through the faith and conversion of the heart, taking into account that circumstances made it impossible for him to celebrate the sacrament".
Augustine's explanation corresponds to the Roman Catholic Church teaching of the existence of baptism by desire for those who would partake of the Sacrament if they could and experience a perfect desire to do all that pertains to salvation, but are prevented from receiving baptism by circumstances beyond their control, while Cyprian's corresponds to the same Church's teaching on baptism of blood for martyrs.
The following claims are made on websites associated with Orthodox Churches:
- Orthodoxy (and it is only fair to add, also the Roman Catholics and Anglo-Catholics) has always held to baptismal regeneration. In other words, that spiritual life begins with baptism.
- The Bible's "sacramental theology" states that there is [a need for the taint of sin to be removed] since "...through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men." (Romans 5:12) For this reason, "...there are none righteous, not even one" (i.e. not infants). (Romans 3:10) How are these young ones saved from the sin they have received from Adam's race? They are saved through the regenerative power of baptism and the faith of the Church (i.e. the Christian faithful) [here Titus 3:5; Acts 2:38; John 3:5 & 1 Peter 3:20, 21 are quoted] Baptism is not just a symbolic testimony of what God has done in the heart of an adult believer, but is in itself a dynamic means of actually effecting the power of the Gospel (the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ) in a life (Romans 6:4). Christian baptism is the means whereby we encounter and identify with Jesus Christ Himself Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America
If infants can receive the blessings of laying of hands by the Lord, they can also receive baptismal grace of regeneration. The theology behind this is that grace precedes faith (Eph. 2: 8) and prevenial grace is a reality. The initiative is from God always. If God takes the first step in dying for us, He also takes the first step in saving through the free gift of regeneration without the precondition of faith. The Syrian Orthodox Church in North America
Martin Luther elaborated the regeneration and the saving power in Baptism:
It is not the water that does them, indeed, but the Word of God which is in and with the water, and faith which trusts this Word of God in the water...
Lutheranism affirms baptismal regeneration, believing that Baptism is a means of grace, instead of human works, through which God creates and strengthens faith. However, Lutherans agree that one can be saved without Baptism.
Lutherans believe that the Bible shows how Christians are connected through baptism with Christ and the new life Christ’s work gives us. The Bible's author uses the picture of cleansing to show how baptism applies Jesus Christ's saving work to receivers. Lutherans believe that the Bible depicts the connection between faith, baptism and being clothed with Christ. The result of the connection is that Christians are children of God with all the rights, privileges and blessings that go with that status. Lutherans state that in his letter to Titus, Paul introduces the work of the Holy Spirit, again linking baptism, new life, and the blessings Jesus has won. Lutheran scholars concluded that in the Scripture:
we see that baptism is not a mere symbol of what God does for us. It is not just a ceremony done to connect someone outwardly to a church. God is at work through baptism. He is connecting us to Christ’s death and resurrection. All of his mercy and grace are directed at the person being baptized. The Holy Spirit is giving the new life of faith in Jesus. The results are amazing: buried and raised with Christ; clothed with Christ; washed clean of sin; a forgiven, believing child of God; an heir of eternal life.
In 1552 an invitation to the congregation was inserted into the Anglican baptism rite to give thanks to God that the newly baptized are "regenerate and grafted into the body of Christ's congregation". There were at least three periods in the history of English Anglicanism when the doctrine caused heated debate. In the seventeenth century, some puritans objected strongly (it was mentioned specifically at the Savoy Conference in 1660); the subject come to the fore again in 1810 and after the rise of the Tractarian Movement it was again hotly debated and gave rise to the celebrated Gorham Case.
Differing Anglican attitudes
[Page references in this section are to Nockles unless otherwise stated.]
In his summary of the situation from 1810 onwards, Nockles detects at least seven different strands of thought on the subject:
- The Extreme Highchurch view: This insisted that the spiritual effects of baptism were inseparable from it even to the point of an opus operatum or purely mechanical understanding of the rite and this was the only acceptable doctrine of the Church of England.(pp. 230,232,233)
- The moderate HighChurch: While holding a high view of Baptismal Regeneration themselves, they recognised diversity of opinion must arise but held that the Liturgy provided a corrective.(p. 235)
- Calvinist Evangelicals: These accepted a rigorous doctrine of predestination, and with it that of antecedent grace, and therefore denied baptismal regeneration outright as unscriptural.(p. 229)
- The majority of Evangelicals: For them baptism was little more than initiation into the visible Church.(p. 229)
- Some of the former: The "little more" included the recognition of baptism at least as a sign of regeneration as stated by Article 27 of the Thirty-Nine Articles(p. 229)
- The moderate Evangelicals: These, and J.B. Sumner (Archb of Canterbury 1848-62) was one, accepted what was, from the Highchurch perspective, a modified version of the doctrine in which the spiritual effects are not inseparably tied to the rite. While holding this position, Sumner was not prepared to label Gorham's Calvinistic arguments heretical and insisted that Elizabethan divines (theologians) had allowed that the grace of spiritual regeneration could be separated from the sacrament of Baptism.(p. 230)
- A Protestant position: Formulated in the first instance by James Mozley as he moved away from Tractarianism and investigated the opinions of early generations of highchurch theologians on baptismal regeneration as Sumner had done. He discovered "statements made sometimes, which, if put into easy English and placed before our [Highchurch] friends, would be set down as heresy, but which occur in undoubtedly orthodox authorities"(quoted Nockles, p. 234)
The fundamental theological issue
Griffith Thomas summed it up as follows: "Articles XXV, XXVI, XXVII are all clearly against the opus operatum[i.e. the invariable spiritual regeneration of every baptized infant (ed)] and yet the Baptismal Service has, "Seeing now that this child is regenerate"; and the Catechism also speaks of, "My Baptism wherein I was made a member of Christ," etc. How are these to be reconciled? The question largely turns on the interpretation of the word "Regeneration," and differences of opinion are largely due to its ambiguity". The Highchurchmen took their stand on the fact that "the liturgy declared the infant to be regenerate"; the Evangelical knew this "and wrote books to prove that he might use the service with a good conscience, interpreting the liturgy in a charitable sense" Bishop Moule spoke for this second group when he wrote:"In the sense of title and position, he [the newly baptized] is at once regenerate. He receives the right and pledge and entitlement to covenant blessing. But the infant who in sacramental title is regenerate needs in heart and spirit to be inwardly and really born again." The bishop then widens the scope of his argument appealing to sacramental theology in general by quoting Archbishop Cranmer, Archbishop Ussher and Richard Hooker who in different ways state that the outward application a sacrament does not necessarily communicate the grace of the thing signified.
In the twentieth century, Anglo-Catholic theologian E.L. Mascall has expressed the view that, "[T]he entry upon the supernatural realm which is bestowed by incorporation into Christ and which is fittingly described as a new birth is also a deliverence from the realm of fallen human nature -- the sphere in which man lies under the curse of original sin -- and an insertion into the realm of the perfect manhood of Christ. Mascall explains that, "The grace of incorporation into Christ, the normal channel of which is baptism, is a supernatural fact in the ontological order which does not of itself immediately produce physical and moral effects; but it does produce such effects mediately and progressively when, and to the degree in which, the soul co-operates with this grace and surrenders itself to its influence. The work of the Holy Spirit in Baptism has been emphasized by a several theologians. Richard A. Norris has said, "Forgiveness of sins and incorporation into Christ... are only made possible for people by the action of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit who... is God working within people to connect them with Christ and thus to set them in their proper relation with the Father. Baptism, consequently, has always been understood as a sacrament which signifies the gift of the Holy Spirit. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, an evangelical Anglican theologian, has written, "Baptism as identification with Christ is the sacrament of the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit, not of my consciousness and confession of faith. It is the sign of faith only as this is itself the work of the primary and sovereign divine operation." And Anglican theologian and bishop Hugh Montefiore says, "Baptism is efficacious if it is asked for in faith, in the sense that it enacts sacramentally what has been begun spiritually, and the very fact that it is an outward and visible sign both strengthens the faith of the baptized and is a public witness to that faith."
The Reformed confessions consistently teach a conjunction between baptism and regeneration. The confessions teach that baptism is an external sign of an inward reality (regeneration and cleansing from sin), and that baptism actually confers the inward reality which it signifies. The power of baptism, however, resides in the Holy Spirit rather than the act of baptism itself. Further, the application of the grace conferred in baptism is not tied to the time at which it is administered. The promise offered in baptism is conditional on faith and repentance, which may occur at a time later than the act of baptism.
The British Congregationalist New Testament scholar and theologian H. T. Andrews, after an examination of five texts (1 Cor. 6:11, 1 Cor. 15:29, Eph. 4:5 and 5:26, Titus 3:5), concluded: "In the light of these statements it is difficult to believe that the more neutral phrases, e.g. 'baptized into Christ,' 'baptized into one body,' imply a merely symbolical interpretation of baptism. With this evidence before us it seems very hard to resist the conclusion (however little we may like it) that if the Epistles do not enunciate the ecclesiastical doctrine of baptismal regeneration, they at any rate approximate very closely to it." The twentieth century Scottish theologian D. M. Baillie has remarked that "[I]n New Testament thought baptism was closely connected with the death and resurrection of Christ. It stood for the great spiritual event in which a man, united by faith with the death and resurrection of Christ, dies to himself and the world and rises to newness of life, puts off the old man with his deeds and puts on the new man."
Other groups said to teach baptismal regeneration
Gregory A. Boyd says that Oneness Pentecostals teach what he calls baptismal regeneration. The publication Vantage Point attributes what it calls baptismal regeneration to "Roman Catholicism, Seventh-day Adventism, Mormonism, United Pentecostalism (and other Oneness churches), most Churches of Christ and Eastern Orthodoxy".
Some Protestants claim that baptismal regeneration is not clearly taught in Scripture and thus contradicts their fundamental belief that all things necessary for salvation are taught in the Bible clearly enough for the ordinary believer to find them there (Clarity of scripture; also see Sola fide). Evangelical, Fundamentalist, and Pentecostal Christians emphasize the need for a conversion experience that involves a personal encounter of the individual with the power of God. Generally, these denominations teach that those without such a conversion experience are not "saved" and therefore are not true Christians. These groups frequently refer to personal salvation as being "born again." This term comes John 3:1-21 where Jesus tells Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Jewish ruling council, that "no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again."
Claim that Churches of Christ teach baptismal regeneration
Because of the belief that baptism is a necessary part of salvation, some Baptists hold that the Churches of Christ endorse the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. E. Calvin Beisner of the Evangelical Free Church of America made this claim in a debate with Jim R. Everett which appeared in a series of articles that appeared in The Preceptor beginning in May 1983 (Everett rejected Beisner's claim). However, members of the Churches of Christ reject this, arguing that since faith and repentance are necessary, and that the cleansing of sins is by the blood of Christ through the grace of God, baptism is not an inherently redeeming ritual.:p.133:p.630,631 Rather, their inclination is to point to the biblical passage in which Peter, analogizing baptism to Noah's flood, posits that "likewise baptism doth also now save us" but parenthetically clarifies that baptism is "not the putting away of the filth of the flesh but the response of a good conscience toward God" (1 Peter 3:21). One author from the churches of Christ describes the relationship between faith and baptism this way, "Faith is the reason why a person is a child of God; baptism is the time at which one is incorporated into Christ and so becomes a child of God" (italics are in the source).:p.170 Baptism is understood as a confessional expression of faith and repentance:p.179–182 rather than a "work" that earns salvation.:p.170 Douglas A. Foster denies this contention regarding the Restoration Movement as a whole, a contention denied also by other representatives of the movement.:133
- Caird, G.B. "The Language and Imagery of the Bible". London: Duckworth (1980), p.44
- Berkhof, L. Systematic Theology, London: Banner of Truth Trust (1963), p.465
- Lockyer, Herbert. Encyclopedia de Doctrinas Bíblicas, Miami: Logoi(1979) p.260.
- WELS Topical Q&A: Belief of other Church, Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, stating: "As Confessional Lutherans we believe in baptismal regeneration, the real presence of Christ's body and blood in the Lord's Supper, and infant baptism."
- WELS Topical Q&A: Baptismal Regeneration refuted
- WELS Topical Q&A: Real Presence and Baptismal Regeration in the Early Church, archived by Internet Archive
- WELS Questions & Answers: Is Baptism necessary for salvation?, Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, saying: Yes, it is necessary in the sense that God tells us to do it and that it provides the means of grace, the gospel of Christ, that works faith and salvation. It is not absolutely necessary since a person can come to faith through the gospel in God's word without being baptized. It would be a sin to despise and refuse baptism or to deny baptism to children.
- WELS Topical Q&A: Sacrament of Holy Baptism - Salvation, saying: We believe that Christians can fall from faith (Luke 8:13). If a person who was baptized as an infant subsequently falls from faith, he needs to be called to repentance.
- Schlink, Edmund. The Doctrine of Baptism. St. Louis: Concordia, 1972. p. 59.
- "If anyone says that baptism is optional, that is, not necessary for salvation (John 3:5), let him be anathema" (Council of Trent, canon 5 on baptism).
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1259
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1257-60,1261,1123,1153
- André Daigneault, The Good Thief 2005 ISBN 1-59781-358-3, pp. 41, 49, 50
- Catholic Encyclopedia 1913, Baptism, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02258b.htm
- WELS Topical Q&A: Sacrament of Holy Baptism - Salvation, Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod
- WELS Topical Q&A: Baptism, Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, stating: "In baptism, however, we do not do something for God, rather he does something for us and in us. He works to either create or to strengthen faith. It is true that neither baptism nor the proclamation of the gospel will benefit anyone apart from faith. However, through the proclamation of the gospel and through baptism the Holy Spirit works faith. The means of grace have the power to create the faith they require."
- Colossians 2:11-12, quoted by Otto, Joel D., Alive in Christ, p9-11
- WELS Topical Q&A: Baptismal Regeneration refuted, Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod
- Romans 6:3-4, quoted by Otto, Joel D., Alive in Christ, p9-12
- Ephesians 5:25-27, quoted by Otto, Joel D., Alive in Christ, p12
- Galatians 3:26-27, quoted by Otto, Joel D., Alive in Christ, p12
- Titus 3:5-7, quoted by Otto, Joel D., Alive in Christ, p12
- Otto, Joel D., Alive in Christ, Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Essay File, pp12
- Holeton, David R. (1988), "Church, Sacraments and Ministry: 4 Initiation", in Stephen, Sykes; Booty, John, The Study of Anglicanism (London: SPCK): 264
- Procter; Frere (1902), A New History of the Book of Common Prayer, London: MacMillan and Co, p. 181f
- Nockles, Peter B. (1994). The Oxford Movement in Context. Cambridge: CUP. p. 229.
- Chadwick, Owen. The Victorian Church(vol 1) London: Adam & Charles Black, 1966. p. 250
- Nockles, Peter B. (1997). The Oxford Movement in Context. Cambridge: CUP. p. 229ff.
- Chadwick, Owen (1966). The Victorian Church (vol I). London: Adam & Charles Black. p. 250.
- quoted by Hague, Dyson (1948), Through the Prayer Book, London: Church Book Room Press, p. 296f
- Mascall, E.L. Christ, the Christian and the Church. London: Longmans, 1946. p.84.
- Mascall, E.L. Christ, the Christian and the Church. London: Longmans. 1946. p. 87.
- Norris, Richard A. Understanding the Faith of the Church (The Church's Teaching Series). New York: The Seabury Press, 1979. p. 218.
- Bromiley, Geoffrey W. Children of Promise: The Case for Baptizing Infants. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979. p. 72
- Montefiore, Hugh. Credible Christianity: The Gospel in Contemporary Society. London: Mowbray, 1993; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994. p. 191
- Letham, Robert (2009). The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context. The Westminster Assembly and the Reformed Faith. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing. pp. 338–339. ISBN 978-0-87552-612-6.
- Andrews, H. T. "Sacraments in the New Testament," in P. T. Forsyth, ed. Lectures on the Church and Sacraments. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1917. pp. 145-150.
- Baillie, D. M. The Theology of the Sacraments. New York: Scribner's, 1957. p. 74.
- Gregory A. Boyd, Oneness Pentecostals & the Trinity
- Vantage Point, November 1998
- What Do We Mean by Sola Scriptura? by Dr. W. Robert Godfrey
- "Becoming A Christian". Archived from the original on 10 October 2007. Retrieved 2007-10-11.
- Douglas A. Foster, "Churches of Christ and Baptism: An Historical and Theological Overview," Restoration Quarterly, Volume 43/Number 2 (2001)
- Jim R. Everett, "Written Debate on Baptism"
- Tom J. Nettles, Richard L. Pratt, Jr., John H. Armstrong, Robert Kolb, Understanding Four Views on Baptism, Zondervan, 2007, ISBN 0-310-26267-4, ISBN 978-0-310-26267-1, 222 pages
- Douglas Allen Foster and Anthony L. Dunnavant, The Encyclopedia of the Stone–Campbell Movement: Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, Churches of Christ, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004, ISBN 0-8028-3898-7, ISBN 978-0-8028-3898-8, 854 pages, entry on Regeneration
- KJV, italics inserted.
- Everett Ferguson, The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1996, ISBN 0-8028-4189-9, ISBN 978-0-8028-4189-6, 443 pages
- "If by baptismal regeneration the accusers mean that the act of immersion inherently regenerates or converts or saves a person, then the charge is not true. From the earliest days of the Stone-Campbell Movement, the teaching has been that the only proper subjects for baptism are those who have faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and who repent of their past sins. It is the blood of Jesus that cleanses people from all sin by his grace. Baptism is not a ritual act that has inherent redeeming power. It is not true that when people “get baptized,” they are automatically “born again.”" Douglas A. Foster, "Churches of Christ and Baptism: An Historical and Theological Overview," Restoration Quarterly, Volume 43/Number 2 (2001)