John Calvin: Mind Numbingly Incongruous on Baptism

With this being the 500th anniversary of his birth, I have been reading through John Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion. I have enjoyed the journey thoroughly.  One thing in particular is the pastoral tone throughout the work.   It has alerted me that anyone who tries to pass off Calvin as the dour dictator of Geneva has obviously spent little time actually reading the man.  Not too surprising I suppose.

Another aspect that has been particularly edifying is Calvin’s repeated statement that we must depend on Scripture alone for faith and practice.  His constant  embrace of the text of Scripture and persistent reluctance to go beyond the clear teaching of Scripture is very instructive.  About 250 pages in I told a fellow-reader that I needed to start keeping track of all such statements.  Alas, I never started keeping the list and the statements just kept on coming.

So it was particularly dissapointing to me when I read the following:

Whether the person baptised is to be wholly immersed, and that whether once or thrice, or whether he is only to be sprinkled with water, is not of the least consequence: churches should be at liberty to adopt either, according to the diversity of climates, although it is evident that the term baptise means to immerse, and that this was the form used by the primitive Church. (Institutes 4.15.19)

I have no problem at all with the last phrase, “although it is evident that the term baptise means to immerse, and that this was the form used by the primitive Church.”  I have no problem with this because pretty much anyone who is honest with the evidence admits the same thing.  As Phillip Schaff has written, “Respecting the form of baptism, the impartial historian is compelled by exegesis and history substantially to yield the point to the Baptists.”  The word “baptism” means immersion.  Immersion was the practice of the NT church and the entire church for the next several centuries.

So after 1100 pages with multiple injunctions to rely wholly on Scripture for faith and practice; after stating the biblical word means immersion; after conceding that the church for centuries actually did immerse; we are told, “Whether the person baptised is to be wholly immersed, and that whether once or thrice, or whether he is only to be sprinkled with water, is not of the least consequence: churches should be at liberty to adopt either…”

In other words, throw out the clear meaning of Scripture; disregard centuries of church practice (20+ centuries if you consider the Orthodox witness); every church is free to practice whatever is convenient.  Sobering.

I praise God for the impact John Calvin had and continues to have on the kingdom of Christ.  I am unworthy to unlatch his shoe.  But I pray that God’s Spirit would graciously continue to convict me of all my beliefs that are theological instead of Scriptural.

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