The Reformed Churches are rich in their liturgical heritage! This heritage, in distinction from that of many other churches, is not enveloped with numerous externals that only enhance superstition and contribute little or nothing at all to the true worship of God; but it is composed of a series of simple, well-written, doctrinal formularies that are invaluable aids in bringing out the significance of singular worship practices of the church.
Though these forms do not stand on a par with the inerrant Word of God and are not even to be equated with the major confessions, known as the Three Forms of Unity, yet their importance is not to be underestimated. We must maintain a Reformed emphasis not only in the official preaching of the Word but also in the administration of the sacraments, the ordination of office bearers, the execution of Christian discipline, etc. In all of these liturgical practices the specific content of the form used is of utmost importance, for therein is the liturgical meaning defined. If then the liturgy of the church is to speak directly to the lives of the members of the church, it must be understood and appreciated. None of these acts performed on various occasions is without or void of significance. If they were, the faith of the church would degenerate into something superficial and purely traditional.
In considering these liturgical formularies it must be remembered that our main interest here is liturgical rather than doctrinal. This should be remembered, lest we expect to find in these articles a detailed doctrinal exposition of the nature and purpose of these various liturgical practices. Much as such a study may be desired and however necessary it may be in our present day because of the widespread eclipse of the meaning of these things, it would be quite improper to review the doctrinal aspects of these subjects in this column.
Nevertheless let not the reader construe this to mean that we will altogether exclude dogma from our considerations. Our liturgical formularies are in their very nature doctrinal and it would be impossible to consider them without alluding to these things. However, we will try to retain a proper balance. Certain details we will have to omit at the expense of leaving unanswered many questions, simply, because these things belong properly to the field of exegesis and theology rather than liturgies. Though the liturgy of the church is clearly interwoven with its doctrinal pattern, we will strive to avoid a doctrinal discussion as much as is possible.
Turning our attention to the several liturgical formularies, we will begin with the one that bears the title:
FORM FOR THE ADMINISTRATION OF BAPTISM
From earliest times holy baptism has been held in. high esteem and has been regularly practiced in the Reformed Churches. Throughout the church world this sacrament has been regarded as the sacrament of initiation into the church of Christ. To us it is a sign and seal of our incorporation into the covenant of grace and Christ Himself, or His church.
In our churches we believe that children as well as adults are the proper subjects of baptism and so we have provided in our liturgy two forms for baptism. This does not mean, of course, that we believe in two baptisms. On the contrary we hold to the truth contained in Ephesians 4:4, 5. “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in. one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” Yet we make use of two forms,—one for adults, and another for the children born of believing parents. The circumstances surrounding the entrance of these two classes into the church are so vastly different and reflect so richly the manifold grace of God, that the explanation of the manifestations of God’s grace in the one case does not quite cover these in the other case. But still in both cases we insist on baptism as the sign and seal of divine grace manifested in drawing us out of the world unto God. We will, firstly, concern ourselves with the form for the administration of baptism as it pertains to infants.
The importance of baptism may also be historically attested. Anyone that is acquainted with the history of the Christian church knows that some of the most radical schisms and heresies which have rent the body of Christ on earth were occasioned by divergent views of the sacraments. These have been the chief battlefields of the followers of Christ. Lutherans and Reformed have parted ways largely because of radically different interpretations of the presence of Christ in the Holy Supper. One of the most basic rifts in Christendom exists between Baptists, on the one hand, and all other denominations on the other. This difference concerns far more than merely the question of whether the children of believing parents should be baptized. But even among those who insist on infant baptism we find almost irreconcilable differences. The Greek Orthodox baptize all by immersion, children as well as adults. The Roman Catholics and to a smaller degree the Lutherans have added to the administration certain other practices such as exorcism, the presence of godparents, the sign of the cross, and less known rites. Although our form for baptism does not directly reflect upon all these differences, it is to be noted that the liturgy followed in our churches is determined by our doctrinal view of the subject; and so we believe that our formularies reflect most completely and beautifully the plain teachings of the Bible. This is sufficient refutation to all heresy. More potent rebuttal is not to be found anywhere. When, then, the members of the church understand the basic teachings on this subject and discern how these are distinguished from the administration of many other denominations, they will be able to truly appreciate this sacrament as a part of the liturgical practice or public worship of the church.
Baptism is the mark and ensign of the Christian!
By baptism we are distinguished from all those who are outside of Christ, who are alienated from the commonwealth of the promise, who he in the midst of death. It is the badge of the army of the Lord in this world. Those who have received the sacrament in accordance with His Word belong to Him and represent His cause here below.
Therefore in baptism are we received into the fellowship of the church. This is evident from the clear language used in our Belgic Confession which reads: “By which (baptism) we are received into the Church of God, and separated from all other people and strange religions, that we may wholly belong to Him, whose ensign and. banner we bear; and which serves as a testimony to us, that He will forever be our gracious God and Father. Therefore He has commanded all those, who are His, to be baptized with pure water. . . .”
Here we see that our Confession makes no distinction between the church as institute and organism; the church as it is formed and manifests itself in the world and the church which in essence is the body of Christ. Neither does it differentiate between, baptism as an outward sign that is borne by all who are affiliate with the institute and that deeper spiritual reality by which believers are incorporated into Christ and made to be one with Him. To our fathers the church was no human society for the propagation of religion and the betterment of the world, and baptism was no half-way sort of thing on the way to salvation. The church is essentially the body of Christ, and through baptism the members of that body are joined to Him by the spiritual bond of faith and made heirs of the promises of God. Baptism signifies and seals the righteousness of God which is by faith in Jesus Christ. This view is basic to our understanding the Baptism Form, which, incidentally, is one of our most beautiful, profound, and expressive confessions.
A sound view of baptism is not only desired, but it is very necessary in an age and world where all kinds of unbalanced and erroneous conceptions are freely propagated, with the result that the proper place of the sacrament in worship is obscured and forgotten. This inevitably is damaging to spiritual life, and one must be blind to fail to see the evidences of a lack of baptism-consciousness in the church world today. Where is the evidence of the spiritual ensign and mark of the Christian?
Many churches teach that baptism is the direct instrument or vehicle of divine grace, so that those who are baptized with water actually receive divine grace. Still others hold that it is merely a ceremony initiating into the visible church as a religious society. Others insist that it is the token of active faith on the part of those who receive the sacrament. Some have completely rejected baptism as a sealing ordinance and hold that it is only a symbol announcing that Christianity is the religion of purification. On the part of some we find too high a value ascribed to the outward element used and the formula pronounced by the officiating clergy. Here spiritual grace is identified with external administration, and this results in superstition. In most other cases there is a radical divorce between the grace of God and the administration, with the result that baptism is robbed of all spiritual significance; All this tends to accentuate the need for a sound but brief form setting forth the truth concerning baptism, so that the church may be led to understand clearly its meaning. Such is our beautiful Baptism Form, which we purpose, D.V., to begin to discuss in the next issue.
Our Baptism Form was composed by one Petrus Datheen, who was a Flemish Reformer who had been driven by persecution to England, and then later to Germany. He is best known in that he wrote a number of the well-known Holland Psalms. Ds. B. Wielenga, minister of the Word in Arnhem, informs us that Datheen did not do this alone. He tells us that Caspar van der Heyden gave much assistance in this work, and he also contends that both A Lasco and Calvin had a large influence upon this work. It is even possible that the prayers of this form have upon them the stamp of men like Micronius and Zwingli. Yet Datheen is the main author, and in its original form the Baptism Form was considerably longer than the one in use today. It was at the Synod of Dordt in 1574 that the original was abridged. Since that time very few alterations have been made.