John Calvin's Baptismal Liturgy

Both Baptists and Pædobaptists agree that the sacrament of baptism is the sign of one's union with Christ; but the sign also reminds us that we belong to one another in a holy community. What the two parties disagree upon, primarily, is the proper candidate for this sacrament. For Calvin, for Arminius and for those in the Reformed churches as well, the early Baptists and Anabaptists (or Mennonites) were defrauding people not only of the benefits of the sacrament of baptism, by their refusal to include their infants and children, but also fleecing the holy community of Christ's church and society.

Karen E. Spierling, in her book, Infant Baptism in Reformation Geneva: The Shaping of a Community, 1536-1564, explains, in Calvin's baptismal liturgy, the significance of community with regard to infant baptism. Incidentally, my question for Calvin, and Calvinists who are also pædobaptists, is: In what sense can the liturgical prayer, offered by the minister from Calvin's baptismal liturgy, be considered consistent with Calvin's and the Calvinist's doctrine of unconditional election? In other words, the Calvinist complaint about "Arminian prayers" seems appropriate against the prayer of Calvin, as well. In this post, the reader will note British spelling of certain words. The concluding paragraph is, in my opinion, remarkable and quite encouraging. Spierling writes the following.


Having addressed the development of the sacrament of infant baptism and some of the sixteenth-century disagreements over it, let us now turn to a specific example of a Reformed baptismal liturgy. Much like Zwingli and Bucer, Calvin made significant changes from the Catholic baptismal ritual in order to maintain the "dignity of baptism." He incorporated these alterations into the baptismal liturgy published with his 1542 orders of service. This document provides few details regarding participants or specific actions in the ritual, and it does not reveal with certainty how the ceremony was performed in the Genevan churches. It does, however, provide insight into Calvin's doctrine, which will help us to understand the arguments that arose among his Genevan parishioners concerning baptism.

The order of service began with an admonition that the baptism should occur either on Sunday or on another sermon day, "under the eyes of the whole Congregation." With this instruction, Calvin established from the start the importance of community participation and witness in the ritual. When the sermon ended, the child was presented. The liturgy did not indicate who was to present the child, and Calvin avoided this issue throughout the description of the ceremony, apparently leaving open the option for either parents or godparents to bring the child forward. He simply indicated that the minister should ask, "Do you present this child to be baptised?" and the answer should be, "Yes."

After the affirmative response, the minister spoke, defending infant baptism, explaining to the parents and congregation the important points of the Reformed baptismal doctrine. Such a defence was important and necessary, particularly in light of Anabaptist ideas. Even in Gevena, Anabaptist arguments occasionally surfaced, and Calvin was seeking to fortify his congregation against any such notions. It is impossible to say whether the Genevan ministers always presented this text exactly as Calvin wrote it, but its inclusion in the liturgy provides evidence of what Calvin himself thought was important about the ceremony.

This defence of infant baptism covered issues including salvation by God's grace and baptism as a continuation of the covenant established with circumcision. It concluded with a brief discussion of the nineteenth chapter of Matthew, in which the children were presented to Jesus:
By declaring the kingdom of heaven belongs to them, laying hands on them, and recommending them to God his Father, he clearly teaches that we must not exclude them from his Church. Following this rule, then, we will receive this child into his Church, in order that it may become a partaker of the blessings which God has promised to believers.
This passage addressed, at least in part, what Calvin considered erroneous Anabaptist teachings. In order for the church to function within society, as Calvin envisioned it, all members of society needed to be included within the membership of the church; God did not exclude children from the institutions God had provided to order society.

As suggested earlier, the inclusion of infants in the church community necessitated an emphasis on education. The very presence of this lengthy explication within the baptismal ceremony indicated Calvin's concern for just that: the education of his congregation. Such an explanation was an integral part of both sacraments, vital for correcting the situation in the Catholic church, where "they thought it enough if the priest mumbled the formula of consecration while the people looked on bewildered and without comprehension."

Calvin believed that, in order to avoid the superstition and ignorance created by such Catholic practices, preaching of the doctrine must always accompany a sacramental ceremony. "Accordingly, when we hear the sacramental word mentioned, let us understand the promise, proclaimed in a clear voice by the minister, to lead the people by the hand wherever the sign tends and directs us." This instruction was firmly grounded in Calvin's understanding of the sacraments as gifts from God to help humans in their weakness: through obvious signs like the sacraments, God would lead the congregation into faithful lives.

A lengthy [pre-written] prayer [like those found in the Book of Common Prayer] followed the minister's speech, summing up Calvin's doctrine of baptism:
O Lord God, eternal and omnipotent Father, since it hath pleased thee of thy infinite mercy to promise us that thou wilt be our God, and the God of our children, we pray that it may please thee to confirm this grace in the child before thee, born of parents whom thou hast called into thy church; and as it is offered and consecrated to thee by us, do thou deign to receive it under thy holy protection, declaring thyself to be its God and Saviour, by forgiving it the original sin of which all the race of Adam are guilty, and thereafter sanctifying it by thy Spirit, in order that when it shall arrive at the years of discretion it may recognise and adore thee as its only God, glorifying thee during its whole life, so as always to obtain of thee the forgiveness of its sins.

And in order to its obtaining such graces, be pleased to incorporate it into the communion of our Lord Jesus Christ, that it may partake of all his blessings as one of the members of his body. Hear us, O merciful Father, in order that the baptism, which we communicate to it according to thy ordinance, may produce its fruit and virtue, as declared to us by the gospel.
This prayer touched upon all the elements of the doctrine of baptism explicated earlier. The opening acknowledged God's mercy, rather than any human merit, as the sole reason for the relationship between God and the congregation. The statement that "thou wilt be our God, and the God of our children" illustrated once again the importance of the family relationship in Calvin's baptismal doctrine. The propriety of infant baptism lay first and foremost in the fact that the child's parents were faithful Christians.

This mention of the parent-child relationship also pointed to the perpetual nature of the covenant between God and God's people, which evoked the connection with circumcision that Calvin drew so directly in other places. The request that God receive the child into holy protection not only acknowledged the power of God but, on a more mundane level, recognised the fear that parents might have been feeling for the life of the child [especially given the high infant mortality rate during both the medieval and renaissance periods in history].

The suggestion that the child would grow into the recognition and adoration of God implied the need for nurturing and education, which parents, godparents and the congregation as a whole were responsible for providing. And finally, the request that God incorporate the child into "the communion of our Lord Jesus Christ" demonstrated most directly Calvin's concern for community as well as the nature of baptism as a rite of incorporation. The benefits of God's grace were not something to be put off but were, rather, granted to every child from the beginning of his or her life. Only in this way could the Genevan church hope to create a truly Reformed society, rather than simply a pious enclave within a broader society.


Karen E. Spierling, Infant Baptism in Reformation Geneva: The Shaping of a Community, 1536-1564 (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2005), 55-57.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.