Now it is indeed true that especially through the labors of the late Dr. A. Kuyper, Sr., the theory of presupposed regeneration (the view that all the children of the covenant must be supposed to be regenerated, and that only on the ground of such a presupposition may Holy Baptism be administered to the seed of the church), has again been on the foreground in recent years.
However, this by no means implies that the theory itself is of recent origin. On the contrary, it may be pointed out that the theory dates from the seventeenth century; and it is generally acknowledged that during the period which the (Christian Reformed) Synod of 1924 called “the flourishing period of Reformed theology” there were various theologians who held this view. Even Professors M. Noordtzij, D.K; Wielenga, H. Bavinck, and P. Biesterveld write that “the viewpoint of all Reformed men up to about the middle of the seventeenth century” was “that the children as well as the adults were believers,” (Opleiding en Theologie, p.76). It cannot be said with certainty just how Calvin presented the matter, although one sometimes receives the impression that also he defends the abovementioned position. In his “Institutes,” IV, 16, 20, he writes that the children “are baptized into future repentance and faith; for though these graces have not yet been formed in them, the seeds of both are nevertheless implanted in their hearts by the secret operation of the Spirit.” Here it is indeed asserted that little children in their earliest infancy can be partakers of the gift of regeneration, as a seed of faith and repentance,—something which no one would deny. But the conclusion that Calvin would presuppose this of all children who are born in God’s covenant cannot legitimately be drawn from this statement. That this conclusion is not legitimate, and that one would be pressing Calvin’s statement too far if he drew this conclusion from it, becomes plain when Calvin just a little later leaves an entirely different impression. In IV, 16, 21, Calvin writes, over against the opponents of infant baptism: “They contend that this passage leaves not the least room for the baptism of infants, who are not capable of that in which the truth of baptism is here stated to consist. But they frequently fall into this error, of maintaining that the thing signified should always precede the sign.”
Zacharias Ursinus writes in his “Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism,” p. 370: “. . . for infants do believe after their manner, or according to the condition of their age; they have an inclination to faith. Faith is in infants potentially and by inclination, although not actually as in adults. For, as infants born of ungodly parents who are without the church, have no actual wickedness, but only an inclination thereto, so those who are born of godly parents have no actual holiness, but only an inclination to it; not according to nature, but according to the grace of the covenant. And still further: infants have the Holy Ghost, and are regenerated by Him. John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb, and Jeremiah is said to have been sanctified before he came out of the womb. (Luke 1:15; Jer. 1:5) If infants now have the Holy Ghost, he certainly works in them regeneration, good inclinations, new desires, and such other things as are necessary for their salvation, or he at least supplies them with every thing that is requisite for their baptism.” Let us note that also here it is not said that we must presuppose of all children from their very birth that they are regenerated. On the contrary, the decisive language which Ursinus employs shows that he has in mind only the elect children of the covenant.
Rev. A.M. Diermanse, in his “De Uitverkoren Kinderen Wedergeboren, Eisch des Verbonds?” (The Elect Children Regenerated, Demand of the Covenant?), quotes from the well-known work of Kramer: “Bullinger says that the children have the Holy Ghost. Thus also Micronius. Of a Lasco, in spite of everything, Kramer presents no stronger and unambiguous testimony than this, that faith is reckoned (or: imputed) to the children, since they belong to Christ and Christ fulfills all in them, although it is true that he presents us with expressions which make us think of the possibility of regeneration immediately at the time of their reception of human existence. From the London Catechism Kramer cites the rather indefinite statement that the children are also sanctified to be temples of God through the Spirit.
“Guy de Bres speaks as follows: the Apostle says, ‘he that hath not the Spirit of Christ is none of his.’ The children belong to Christ, and therefore they have the Spirit of Christ. The children are also renewed by the Spirit of God according to the measure and receptivity of their age. And this divine power, which is hid in them, gradually grows and increases in them, and at its own proper time clearly manifests itself.”
Further, in the same work by Diermanse still others are mentioned as proponents of a similar view of the children of the covenant, such as Dathenus, Manzo Alting, Casper van der Heyden, Jean Taffin, Kimedoncius, and Acronius. Also Franciscus Junius must have maintained that the children possess faith in the principle of the habitus, inasmuch as they possess the Spirit of faith. And Festus Hommius expresses himself thus, that the children “possess faith in its first act, in its root and in its seed.” Voetius taught that all the elect who are born in the covenant of believing parents are partakers of regeneration as soon as they are born. Revetus and Vossius taught that the children are regenerated from the time of their baptism. Further, Puppius, Udemannus, Bontemps, Bastingius, Walaeus, Gomarus, Maccovius, Leydekker, Fitsius, Vitringa, and others are also mentioned by Kramer.
However, with respect to all these expressions of Reformed theologians, we must not overlook the fact that there is a marked difference between their view and that of a certain presupposed regeneration of all the children of the covenant without distinction. For the fathers did not speak of a presupposition, but of the certainty of faith. The children belonged to Christ, according: to their presentation, and therefore they were also regenerated and had the Holy Spirit. According to their view, the children are holy and possess faith in principle. In all this there is no presupposition, but certainty. Now it is true that in these expressions they make no distinction between children of the promise and children of the flesh. But it is nevertheless very clear that they have in view only the former, and therefore mean to speak of the elect seed of the church. Of the elect children they confess that, being born in the covenant, they are also at once regenerated. And this is certainly altogether different than the assertion that we must presuppose concerning all the children of the covenant, without distinction, that they are regenerated from infancy.
It should also not escape our notice that in the confessions of the Reformed churches there is not a trace of such a view to be found. Nowhere is it asserted that baptism is administered to infants on the ground of the presupposition that all the children, head for head, born in the covenant, are regenerated. It is not even maintained that the elect children of the covenant are already regenerated at birth. We read in Question 74 of the Heidelberg Catechism: “Are infants also to be baptized? Yes: for since they, as well as the adult, are included in the covenant and church of God; and since redemption from sin by the blood of Christ, and the Holy Ghost, the author of faith, is promised to them no less than to the adult; they must therefore by baptism, as a sign of the covenant, be also admitted into the Christian church; and be distinguished from the children of unbelievers as was done in the old covenant or testament by circumcision, instead of which baptism is instituted in the new covenant.” And in Article 34 of the Netherland Confession we read concerning the baptism of little children as follows: “. . . therefore we detest the error of the Anabaptists, who are not content with the one only baptism they have once received, and moreover condemn the baptism of the infants of believers, whom we believe ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as the children in Israel formerly were circumcised, upon the same promises which are made unto our children. And indeed Christ shed his blood no less for the washing of the children of the faithful, than for adult persons; and therefore they ought to receive the sign and sacrament of that, which Christ hath done for them,” etc. There is in these expressions of our confession certainly no semblance of a doctrine of presupposed regeneration of all children born in the covenant. The confessions do not even express themselves as to whether the elect children are regenerated from childhood.
Not even in the Baptism Form is the doctrine of a presupposed regeneration to be found, as has sometimes been incorrectly alleged. There it is said in the Prayer of Thanksgiving: “Almighty God and merciful Father, we thank and praise thee, that Thou hast forgiven us, and our children, all our sins, through the blood of thy beloved Son Jesus Christ, and received us through thy Holy Spirit as members of thine only begotten Son, and adopted us to be thy children, and sealed and confirmed the same unto us by holy baptism. . . .” Beautiful and strong language of faith, indeed! But for that very reason also, all the more free from every presupposition! We will return to this point later. At present we only wish to remark that this language certainly can never be understood unless we proceed from the organic existence of the church, which here gives thanks for the benefits bestowed in Christ Jesus upon the elect kernel of the church, after which the whole church is named.
Also the Conclusions of Utrecht leave the real issue rather undecided. With respect to presupposed regeneration they declare that it “is less correct to say that baptism is administered to the children of believers on the ground of their supposed regeneration.” And with a view to the question whether every elect child of the covenant is already regenerated at his birth, that Synod of Utrecht declared “that the thesis that every elect child is already regenerated before baptism cannot be proved either from Scripture or from the confession, inasmuch as God fulfills His promise according to His sovereign power at His own time, whether it be before, during, or after baptism.” These expressions do not help us very much, since they are negative and rather vague. But they can serve to show that after all that has been written, there still is no sharp and well-defined view concerning the seed of believers. Surely, there is certainly room yet for further development on the basis of the Word of God and within the limits of the lines already drawn in the confessions.
(to be continued)