In an 1873 article in the Mercersburg Review, E.V. Gerhart, a professor at Mercersburg seminary, argued that nineteenth-century views of baptism had departed radically from the viewpoint of the Protestant confessions:

“Claiming to be the faithful representative of Reformational ideas, the religious press of our day, generally at least, denies, respecting the efficacy and necessity of Baptism, what the most authoritative Confessions of the Protestant Church with one voice affirm, and affirms what these confessions explicitly deny” (p. 537).

The issue turned on whether Baptism was a symbolic religious ceremony or a seal that conferred some “spiritual gift” on the baptized at the moment of baptism. Gerhart argued that the latter was the consistent teaching of Protestantism, and that the former was an innovation of recent origin.

Analyzing the answer to question 66 of the Heidelberg Catechism, he writes that Baptism both signifies and “seals grace to the subject,” adding: “The terms of the question imply that it is done in Holy Baptism. These words, ‘in Holy Baptism,’ are significant. They are used in connection with the present tense - thou hast part. The language is not, thou mayest have part, or thou shalt have part in the one sacrifice of Christ. That would imply that Baptism is only a pledge of some spiritual good that is yet future. Nor is the form of the verb thous hast had part. The Catechism does not use the past tense. That would imply that divine grace, communicated at some other time and in some other way, has not Baptism added or attached to it by way of certification, as the seal of the magistrate is put on a legal document.” Rather, the present tense is used, and this “means that Holy Baptism is a present sealing transaction, or rather, that Christ seals to us in Holy Baptism the redeeming virtue of His sacrifice” (539).

This happens because Christ “appointed this outward washing with water, and has joined therewith His promise.” And this promise “expresses not something future but a present spiritual good” (540).

Gerhart also focuses on the first-person pronoun in the Catechism: What is washed is not the body or the soul but “I,” which is “the deepest and most comprehensive form of expression for the mystery of personal existence. I am washed from the pollution of my soul” (540).

The Catechism states that I am washed as surely as I am washed outwardly with water. Outward and inward are distinguished, but not separated: “We may say the water-bath and the mystical washing go together. They prevail in one and the same moment of time.” This sort of sacramental parallelism doesn’t satisfy Gerhart. Instead of saying that water and mystical washing happen distinctly but simultaneously runs counter to the New Testament, which teaches “a union of the natural and the supernatural.” The Catechism doesn’t hold the inner and outer washing in conjunction, but emphasizes that the former is as certain as the latter (541).

The Catechism’s point, he says, “is to convey to believers the strongest certitude, that by Baptism they are made partakers, truly, of the full benefit of the one all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus Christ for all their sins; so that what they come to possess by grace is adequate to all their wants as sinners, and it is not necessary to supplement the work of Christ done for them by any additional works of their own” (542).

As Gerhart says, this didn’t represent the Baptismal theology of nineteenth-century American Reformed Protestantism. It doesn’t represent the Baptismal theology of Reformed Protestantism today either.

(Thanks to Pastor Ralph Smith of Mitaka Evangelical Church, Tokyo, for calling my attention to this article.)

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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