About the Validity of Baptism


From “A Reader in Holland” we received the following questions concerning the recognition of the baptism of those who come from other denominations: 

“On what basis do we recognize as valid the baptism of those who come to our churches from other denominations,—whether it be adult baptism or infant baptism? 

“Could we ever recognize a baptism which is not in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost? For example, if Unitarians, who deny the Trinity, would baptize someone, could that, baptism be recognized? 

“In a discussion, however, we were particularly concerned with the Roman Catholic Church, which the Netherlands Confession seems to brand as the false church. Yet we recognize baptism when such Roman Catholic members seek to affiliate with us! Perhaps this leads us off the point; but the matter of what or who that false church is, which the Netherlands Confession claims is so easy to determine, enters in. 

“If you find this a question that would serve the edification of the Standard Bearer readers, we would like to see a published answer.” 


This is indeed an interesting question, or series of related questions; and I will try to shed some light. It is always well, I think, to consider questions of this kind first from an historical point of view, that is, to inquire what has been the practice of Reformed churches in the past. And then it is rather interesting to learn that the very Reformed fathers who condemned Roman Catholicism so strongly (and there can be no doubt that the Confession in its references to the false church has in mind, first of all, the Roman Catholic Church)—these very same Reformed fathers of Reformation times recognized as valid the baptism administered by the Roman Catholic Church. There is an informative passage in Van Dellen and Monsma, The Church Order Commentary, pp. 235, 236, on this very question. Incidentally, I checked up on the references in this paragraph to the decisions of the Synod of Emden and the Synod of Middelburg; and these are correctly summarized in the commentary of Van Dellen and Monsma. The passage is as follows: 

“The Reformation Churches soon faced the question of the validity of Baptism administered in the Roman Church. Synod of Emden, 1571, held that those who had been regularly baptized in the Roman Church did not have to be baptized once again, fearing that the Roman Baptism was of no value. But our fathers doubtlessly felt that although the Roman Church was filled with error, that yet it was a Church of Christ in essence; and that therefore its Baptisms were valid. If therefore Baptism was administered by an authorized priest, with water and in the name of the Triune God, then re-Baptism did not take place. Even the Baptism of ‘vagabond priests,’ constantly traveling from place to place, was held to be valid (Synod of Middelburg, 1581) inasmuch as these were officially called. But the Baptism of monks was considered to be invalid, for they have no charge to Baptize. Even ’emergency Baptisms’ administered by mid-wives, doctors, etc., were usually held to be valid because the Roman Church charges individuals to Baptize a child which is about to die. Whether the Reformation Churches were justified in acknowledging even these latter classes of Baptisms is indeed a question. 

“The Baptism of Anabaptists was recognized, if Baptism had taken place in the name of the Triune God. This was not always the case, because some Anabaptists entertained erroneous conceptions regarding the doctrine of the trinity. However, Baptism administered by the Socinians was rejected because they had broken with the essence of Christianity. We assume the same attitude toward the Baptism administered by Unitarians, Mormons, etc., inasmuch as these have broken with the Christian religion.

“The early Reformed Churches also faced the question, what should be done by parents living in parts where there was no Reformed Church? Some had to flee to Germany during the days of persecution and lived for a time among the Lutherans. What of children born to these people? Should they remain unbaptized? The Reformed people residing at Frankfort also faced this question because the government of Frankfort forbade the Reformed religion in 1562. Many Reformed theologians held that none of these parents should turn to the Roman Church for Baptism, but that the Lutheran Church should be asked to baptize their children, provided the Ministers were willing to omit certain Lutheran ceremonies such as exorcisms (banishing of evil spirits), etc. Calvin also judged that if Reformed parents found it impossible to move within the pale of a Reformed. Church that then they should ask the Lutheran Church to baptize, with the understanding, however, that the Roman remnants of a superstitious character would be omitted, and that the parents retain their Reformed convictions and that the child would be reared in the Reformed faith. 

“In general it may be said that the Reformed Churches have always recognized the validity of Baptisms administered by other groups if Baptism was administered 1) according to the institution of Christ (the rightful element, water, not wanting), 2) in a community or association of believers confession the Trinity, which association is therefore in principle a Church of Christ, 3) by one duly authorized to administer this Sacrament by a Church or Christian association.” 

With the above I find myself in essential agreement. 

Perhaps a few additional comments are in order, however. 

In the first place, it should be evident that the truth of the Trinity is crucial here. This is true, first of all, with respect to baptism itself. Baptism must be according to the institution of Christ. This means, literally, that it must be “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Right here is the essential criterion of all true baptism. For we must remember that this question of the validity of baptism is not a merely formal question of official membership in a certain church communion here on earth. No, baptism is the sacrament of our incorporation into the body of Christ; and the question of the validity of baptism is, after all, the question of whether baptism is valid in the sight of and according to the Word of Christ Himself. And then the question becomes: through what baptism is Christ Himself pleased to speak His Word? And the answer can only be: through that baptism which isaccording to Christ’s Word. And the baptism which is according to Christ’s Word is, without doubt,Trinitarian. Closely connected with this, secondly, is the question of the proper administration—or better, the proper administrator—of baptism. Christ has instituted the sacraments as means of grace to be administered by His church. Now where, historically speaking, is the boundary line between church and non-church? When, from this point of view, can it be said of a certain religious group that it in no sense of the word belongs in the class of historic Christendom, belongs historically to the church in the midst of the world? That utmost boundary is the truth of the Holy Trinity. Historically, all who deny the truth of the Trinity in their confession are outside of the Christian Church. Such a church will, of course, also not baptize in the name of the Triune God, i.e., according to the institution of Christ. The late Rev. Herman Hoeksema points in this direction in Volume I of The Triple Knowledge (2nd edition), pp. 353, ff. After calling attention to the confession of the church concerning the Trinity, he writes first:

“Essentially nothing has been changed in or added to the doctrine of the trinity as adopted by the early Church. The Nicene Creed is still the expression of the faith of the entire Church of Christ in the world. There were controversies and restatements of doctrine with respect to other parts of the truth, but the dogma of the trinity remained the same since its adoption by the Council of Nicea. The Church of the Middle Ages adopted this truth, and the great minds of Scholasticism did not alter it either in form or in content. It is true that there were always individual thinkers that departed from the line of this fundamental doctrine. Old heresies were revived and appeared sometimes in a new form. Some presented views that reminded of Nominal Trinitarianism, like Scotus Erigena and Abelard; others separated the Persons of the Godhead, and were inclined to tritheism, or even to tetratheism. But all such deviations were regarded by the Church as heretical, and never was she seriously disturbed by any of them. And the same is true of the period of the Reformation.” 

And at the end of the same chapter on the Trinity he writes: 

“This doctrine of the trinity has found a place in all the main creeds of the Protestant Churches, nor dared the Roman Catholic Church differ from them in this respect, although the declarations of the Council of Trent take issue with the Protestant faith on many other points.” 

And, finally, he writes: 

“The overwhelming testimony of the Church, therefore, brands the. Unitarians as heretics, outside of the Christian Church. Servetus launched a violent and blasphemous attack upon this most fundamental of Christian truths, and it cost him his life. But the fathers of modern Unitarianism, and of modern Rationalism, are the two brothers Laelius and Faustus Socinus. They agreed in denying the trinity, and they succeeded where Servetus failed, in founding a sect of their own. They found an asylum in one of the Polish Palatines, produced a number of theologians, and formulated a creed of their own. From there it made inroads into other parts of the world, especially in England and America, while on the continent it found a powerful ally in rationalistic philosophy. But in its Anti-Trinitarian position it stands condemned by the entire Church of all ages, for the Spirit that leads into all the truth constantly taught her, through the Holy Scriptures, to confess that God is one essence, distinct in three persons, and that these three persons are the one, only, eternal God, Whom to know is eternal life!” 

In the second place, the preceding ‘should already largely clear up the matter of apparent conflict between our Reformed fathers’ willingness to recognize the validity of Roman baptism, on the one hand, and their considering Rome as false church, on the other hand. For one thing, it is plain that the fathers could not and did not brand Rome as standing outside the pale of historic Christianity: for then they could not have recognized baptism by the Roman Catholic Church as valid. Secondly, however, I would call your attention to the fact that the viewpoint in our Netherlands Confession’s articles on the true church and the marks of the true church—and I think this is often overlooked both in theory and in practice—is a peculiar one. The viewpoint there is that of the very poignant and personal question: where am I in duty bound before God to join myself? The test for the answer to that question is that of the well-known three marks of the church. The fathers evidently would not apply that test when it came to the question of the validity of baptism. Had they done so, they would have branded themselves as sectarian and cut themselves off from the historic Christian church. Their view was in a true proper sense broader than that.