Call it a digression if you will, but the contributor of the next few articles for this department intends to use the allotted space for a brief discussion of our Form for the Baptism of Infants, as we find it in our Psalters.
An apology for this digression is hardly required. The Form itself is significant and rich enough to warrant a discussion at any available opportunity. The subject matter is always of fundamental importance, and is especially timely today while a new interest is being aroused by the discussion of this subject both in the Netherlands and in our own country. And though it may not entirely comply with the nature of this department, a discussion of this kind can serve the practical purpose of enriching for us the significance of our own baptism and the baptism of the covenant seed of the church, as well as reminding us anew of our covenant obligations resulting from this baptism.
The Form for infant baptism is but one of the many forms that we use in our public worship as the occasion requires. Accompanying this part of the form is another for the baptism of adults. Besides, we have a form for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, for the confirmation of marriage, for excommunication and. for the readmitting of excommunicated persons, for the ordination of ministers, of elders and deacons, of professors and of missionaries,
All these serve a very definite purpose within the church. They serve to instruct the church in the significance of her various institutions, in order to help her in keeping them according to the mandate of Scripture. The Baptism Form treats the significance of baptism and the necessity of infant baptism, and directs the church in the proper administration of it. The forms for ordination, of office bearers discuss the significance of the office and lead the ordination in its proper channels.
But the forms do also more than that. They serve to unite the churches that have these forms on a common basis of faith and confession. In that sense they are confessions as well as the well-known Three Forms of Unity. With this difference, that in these forms the church confesses her faith in regard to the rites that she is called to keep, whether it be baptism, the confirmation of marriage, the ordination of office bearers, et cetera.
Thus they also serve to preserve the truth as confessed in these Forms for the generations to come. They are witnesses of the truth over against all heresy that seeks to undermine it. The very fact that they have been used for more than three hundred, years, and are still accepted as the standards of the church, shows that they are time-tried bulwarks of truth, capable of preserving it for the future. A church that understands and cherishes her forms will not readily depart from the truth, that is confessed in them.
That does not mean that our forms are beyond all criticism. This would only spell a stagnation, for the church. Nor does it mean that they can be placed on a par with Scripture as an appendix to it. Scripture is the infallible Word of God, our confessions are the work of men. Scripture lays down the fundamental truths, our confessions draw their formulation of these truths from Scripture. Yet even in this the church of the past has been so guided by the Holy Spirit that she was able to formulate these truths as she saw them in the form of a confession.
Of the various forms we possess the Baptism Form is by no means the least important. And that for various reasons. In the first place, it deals with one of the most fundamental truths of Scripture, which is the peculiar heritage entrusted to the Reformed churches, namely, the truth of God’s covenant. That truth is as fundamental to our Reformed faith as the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, and therefore worthy of serious study. Secondly, the truth of God’s covenant, and with it the sacrament of infant baptism have always required a staunch defense over against the foes that have continually assailed them. This is as true today as it has ever been in the past, for the opposition is as keen and bitter as ever before, even within the stronghold of Reformed persuasion. Possibly their greatest enemy is the error of the freewill that forces its way into the Reformed churches. It is a matter of either-or; either you hold the truth, of God’s covenant throughout, or you deny it by introducing the error of the free-will. The two cannot live together under the same roof, for the one annuls the other. And, finally, the Baptism Form is important because of its practical value. If the sacrament of baptism is to mean anything to us, and our baptism is to have positive value for us, we must understand their significance. In this a serious study of our Form can greatly aid us, for it is compact, yet complete; simple, yet to the point; doctrinal, yet at the same time deeply spiritual and practical.
Biesterveld informs us in “Het Gereformeerd Kerbboek”, that our present form for infant baptism is a composite of various other forms existing in the churches of the Reformation at that time. The first section, up to the prayer, is said to be taken from the forms of Calvin and Micronius. The prayer was adopted from the form of Zurich. The questions to the parents were composed by Datheen, who made use of the questions from the form of a Lasco, from which also the thanksgiving was borrowed. Various synods from 1578-1586 advised the use of the form in the public worship, and the Synod of Dordrecht, 1618-19, made a few revisions before it became the finished product as we now know it.
For convenience the Form can be divided as follows:
I. A brief discussion of the significance of baptism.
This is again divided into three parts:
A. Baptism as a sign of our entrance into God’s covenant through regeneration.
B. Baptism as a seal of the establishment of God’s covenant with us.
C. The fruit of baptism for those sealed.
II. A discussion of the necessity of infant baptism, pointing to the Scriptural basis for it.
A. A defense of infant baptism over against those who deny it.
B. The basis for it.
III. The ritual for baptism,
A. The prayer.
B. The address to the parents, including the questions to be affirmed.
C. The ritual proper, as given in Scripture.
D. The concluding thanksgiving.
The Form starts out by saying, “The principle parts of the doctrine of baptism are these three. . . .”
Although it speaks of the “doctrine” of baptism, we note at once that the church is speaking, and is giving expression to her faith in regard to the sacrament of baptism as that faith lives in her heart. She draws from her own Christian experience as it is based on the Word of God. She confesses that “we and our children are conceived and born in sin, and therefore are children of wrath, in so much that we cannot enter into the kingdom of God, except we are born again.” To that she adds that “God . . . . makes an e ternal covenant of grace with us, . . . .adopts us for children and heirs, . . . . washes us in His blood from all our sins, . . . . and sanctifies us to be members of Christ, . . . .daily renewing our lives . . . .” And, finally, she speaks of a new obedience that is worked in us by the Holy Spirit, namely, “that we cleave to this one God. . .trust in Him, love Him with all our hearts, with all our souls, with all our mind, and with all our strength; that we forsake the world, crucify our old nature, and walk in a new and holy life.” We immediately recognize the three well-known parts of our Heidelberg Catechism; a confession of our misery, our deliverance and our gratitude; all of which is signified and sealed to the believer by holy baptism.
The first paragraph reads: “First, that we with our children are conceived and born in sin, and therefore are children of wrath, in so much that we cannot enter into the kingdom of God, except we are born again. This the dipping in, or sprinkling with water teaches us, whereby the impurity of our souls is signified, and we admonished to loathe and humble ourselves before God, and seek for our purification without ourselves.”
(Here baptism is called a sign which signifies the impurity of our souls and our need for purification outside of ourselves.
Very plainly the fathers immediately set out to oppose the Roman Catholic conception of the sacrament, as if the grace of God were inherently present in, and transferred to us through the channel of the sacrament. In that case the value of baptism would lie in receiving the water itself, so that the Catholics are always eager to baptize the child as soon as possible after birth to be sure to transfer this grace to it. The danger of that error is not altogether foreign to our Reformed circles, especially among those who speak of a certain “baptismal grace” which the child receives at the time of its baptism. The form emphasizes that the water is symbolical, a sign.
Yet, if we would call it a mere sign we would fail to do justice to the sacrament. There are many signs in nature and in our daily lives, which are by no means sacraments. Jesus says that all things “happen in parables”, that those to whom it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven may both see and understand. A sower goes out to sow, wheat and tares spring up and mature in the same field, the wind blows where it listeth. These are so many signs, as also the vine, the olive tree and the oak, the lion, the lamb and the eagle, the sun, moon and stars in the heavens, the grass and the flowers of the field, the evening and the dawn of each day. But these are not yet sacraments, for sacraments are holy signs, which differ from all other signs because they are instituted by God to be administered and kept by the church to strengthen the faith of the believers. (The word ‘sacrament’ means ‘holy sign’). Both baptism and the Lord’s Supper were thus instituted by God. The latter, the Lord’s Supper, was instituted when Christ celebrated His last Passover with His disciples in the night of the betrayal.. The former, baptism, was instituted when Christ sent His disciples out to preach the gospel of the kingdom of heaven, with the instructions to baptize those who believed. . Both of these had been instituted in another form in the old dispensation, for the Lord’s Supper came in the place of the Passover, and baptism came in the place of circumcision.
And because they are holy signs through the institution of God, they are also seals, sealing to us the promise of God which comes to us through His Word.