Arminius: What Does Baptism Effect?

Being a Reformed covenantalist pastor and theologian, Jacob Arminius (1559-1609) defends the long-held Christian tradition of pædobaptism (infant baptism), and properly defines and outlines the event as a sacrament of the New Testament by which "the covenant-people of God are sprinkled with water by a minister of the church in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." This sacrament signifies and testifies to "the spiritual ablution [a washing or cleansing] which is effected by the blood and Spirit of Christ."1 (emphasis added)

The word effected is appropriate here, since the blood of Christ is effectual by faith (cf. Rom. 3:25), and is applicably so by the activity of the Holy Spirit. He continues: "By this sacrament those who are baptized to God the Father, and are consecrated [set apart for holy use] to His Son by the Holy Spirit as a peculiar treasure, have communion with both of them and serve God all the days of their life."2 Credobaptists can agree with these notions as long as the candidate for such is a believer of "the age of accountability." But Arminius, in his Reformed context, includes infants as part of this sacrament. Why? How could such be granted to one without understanding?

The answer derives in the loving grace of God. All grace commences from the eternal perspective of God: the "Author of the institution [of baptism] is God the Father, in His Son the Mediator of the New Testament, by the eternal Spirit of both."3 Yet the baptismal event is two-fold "with respect to the thing signified -- one being of water, the other of blood and of the Spirit -- the First external, the Second internal; so the matter and form ought also to be two-fold, the external and earthy of the external baptism, the internal and heavenly of that which is internal."4 The external is the water used to signify cleansing -- the goal of which is a "confirmation and sealing of the communication of grace in Christ, according to the New Covenant, into which God the Father has entered with us in and on account of Christ."5 But there is also a secondary end or goal.

Arminius argues that a secondary goal of the grace of baptism is that it "may be the symbol of our initiation into the visible church, and an express mark of the obligation by which we have been bound to God the Father, and to Christ our Lord."6 (emphasis added) Again, one may ask, why is the infant granted this blessing when she or he cannot first trust in Christ and, in fact, may not even trust in Christ throughout adulthood? Is that a valid argument by way of question? Well, we can certainly ask that same question to the People of Faith under the Old Covenant, can we not?



We could rightly ask by way of challenge: Why would God require that every single infant boy be circumcised, and considered part of the faithful Covenant Community, when he may not grow up trusting in and following God? Such a challenge leads Anglican Michael Green to insist:
No argument can be produced against infant baptism which does not equally hold good against infant circumcision. While we have no direct command in the New Testament Scriptures to baptise [sic] infants, we have repeated and explicit commands in the Old Testament Scriptures to circumcise infants. And the same God is the author of both Testaments. Had he changed his mind, would he not have told us?7
Arguments for or against infant baptism aside, we want to learn what baptism effects for the infant in the theology of Arminius, what baptism actually accomplishes for the infant. He states that "the object of this baptism is not real," having to do with reality or corporeality, referring merely to the body,8 but "only personal," or that pertaining to the metaphysical reality of the soul or spirit. He qualifies: "that is, all the covenanted people of God, whether they be adults or infants, provided the infants be born of parents who are themselves in the covenant, or if one of their parents be among the covenanted people of God."9 This, so believe pædobaptists, is faithful to the theology of St Paul at 1 Corinthians 7. What occurs during this sacramental act?

The "ablution," washing, spiritual cleansing, "in the blood of Christ" is "promised to" the adult convert and the infant in the act of baptism: "because by the Spirit of Christ they are ingrafted into the body of Christ."10 In this sacrament, the grace of God in Christ by the Spirit is conferred to the recipient, and ought not be repeated.11 Some will ask if the infant thusly baptized is, then, saved and regenerated. Opinions differ on this significant issue. For Arminius, baptism confers the grace of God to the infant, but our theologian does not indicate that original sin is washed away, as per the theology of St Augustine, nor that the infant is regenerated, as maintained by others. Arminius' views on the subject comply with those of most Anglicans. Again, Green comments:
Neither [circumcision nor baptism] automatically brings about what it signifies. Both are once and for all. Both admit the recipient into the fellowship of the people of God on this earth. Both call for a life of holiness. Both are the sign of the covenant. Both are the seal of the righteousness which comes by faith (Rom. 4:11). And if, despite the fact that infants could not believe, the sign of righteousness by faith was applied to them under the Old Covenant, and by divine decree at that (Gen. 17:9ff), why should it be denied to the children of believers under the New Covenant?12
This is the same type of language that Arminius uses: the "blood and the Spirit of Christ is the thing signified in outward baptism, and the matter of that which is inward. But the application both of the blood and the Spirit of Christ, and the effect of both, are the thing signified by the application of this water, and the effect of the application."13 What Reformed pastors and theologians desire most, in order to be faithful to the tradition of the early Church fathers, who received their instruction from the apostles, is the continuation of conferring the grace of God in Christ to the children of believers; and, while the grace is conferred at baptism, the same is made effectual by the continuous grace of the Holy Spirit through faith in Jesus Christ. (Rom. 3:25)

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1 Jacob Arminius, "Seventy-Nine Private Disputations: Disputation LXIII. On Baptism and Pædobaptism," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 2:440.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., 2:441.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Michael Green, Baptism: It's Purpose, Practice, and Power (Tyrone: Authentic Media, 2006), 58.

8 Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 84, 257-58.

9 Arminius, Works, 2:441.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid., 2:442.

12 Green, 63.

13 Arminius, 2:441.