Questions for the CanRC (11) -- Part Deux

Scott's eleventh question, again: Schilder was known to say that everyone is in “the covenant” “head for head” and that “the covenant” is “all or nothing.” The effect of such formulations seems to deny the historic and confessional Reformed distinction between the two ways of being in the one covenant of grace, i.e., the distinction between the internal relation and the external relation to the covenant of grace. How widespread is the “head for head” and “all or nothing” view in the CanRCs?"

Answer: My recent foray into ritual studies led me to Bryan Spinks, the Professor of Liturgical Studies at Yale University. Dr. Spinks has written some fabulous material, not least a book entitled, Reformation and Modern Rituals and Theologies of Baptism (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2006).

Herein Spinks writes (pp.42ff.), "The influence of Farel in Geneva may account for the fact that Calvin's writings between 1537 and 1539 show an increased tendency to distinguish between the outward and the inward. The 1539 Institute added a very lengthy discussion on circumcision, baptism and infant baptism. Gone is any reference to Luther's idea of child faith. Instead we have an approach similar to Zwingli's, justifying infant baptism on analogy with circumcision.

. . . Once in Strasbourg, however, it seems that Calvin came under Bucer's influence, and adopted or extended Bucer's terminology of instrument and exhibit. . . .The sacraments are instruments through which God works as he pleases and through which he gives us the reality he promises."

Spinks goes on to quote Christopher Elwood who writes, "In the notion that the sacraments are instruments of God's grace we have the read hallmark of the Calvinist doctrine. Calvin invokes instrumentality as a way of distinguishing sacramental signs from the communicative power that proceeds from and is the exclusive prerogative of God. The signs are efficacious not because of an inherent capacity but in the sense that they are instruments God has chosen to attest to the genuine operation of the Spirit's power to unite believers with the body of Christ."

Dr. Spinks has also written a very enlightening essay entitled, "Calvin's Baptismal Theology and the Making of the Strasbourg and Genevan Baptismal Liturgies 1540 and 1542" (Scottish Journal of Theology 48 [1995], 55-78). What follows is a very lengthy, but instructive quotation:

"The first and most striking change that Calvin has made is that he has abandoned Farel's Declaration on baptism, and has replaced it by his own lengthy explication within the service itself (70).

. . . In [Farel's Declaration of baptism] he denies that grace is bestowed through the outward ceremony, noting that good and bad receive baptism, citing Paul and Simon Magus. He then draws a sharp distinction between the outward ceremony and the inward baptism of grace by the Holy Spirit. This latter is not bound by time, place or ceremony. The outward ceremony is entry into the Church, and it is hoped that at some stage the candidate will receive the baptism of the Spirit. This teaching reflects very much the early years of the Reformation when for both Zwingli, with his neoplatonic stoic anthropology and its division between flesh and spirit, and for Bucer, there was concern to make a distinction between outward and inward baptism (71; my emphasis, BDJ).

. . . But the later Bucer moved away from this position, insisting that baptism is a signification and exhibition of the reality of grace. Farel, however, does not seem to have moved as far as Bucer had, and there is still a hint of the earlier Zurich division between inward and outward, spirit and flesh. Calvin had expounded some similar ideas in the 1539 Institute, but the fact that he dispenses with this suggests that he did not feel this theology particularly helpful. It was the Anabaptist threat which helped change Bucer's mind, and it may be the case that Calvin's experience with the Anabaptists persuaded him also that this was an unfruitful theology (71).

. . . Whereas Farel is concerned to explain the limitations of the human rite, Calvin is more concerned to stress the positive nature of a sacrament instituted by God. For Calvin, baptism is an objective sign which God gives us, and it may mediate grace, because the initiative is God's. Calvin is concerned to emphasize that God does not give empty signs" (73).

One more quote, unrelated to this post, but sweet nevertheless: "Last, Calvin has reversed Farel's order of commandments and then creed. This may be because Calvin believed that faith through grace leads to the keeping of the law as a response, while Farel's sequence, like the scheme of Beza and the later Heidelberg theologians, suggested that the demands of the law are prior to grace and faith. In Calvin's sequence of creed and then commandments the priority of grace is maintained" (73).

I wrote an essay about this here which I just discovered is footnoted in this interesting book.

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