Sundry Matters On Baptism

“In the ceremony of baptism, both of children and of adults, the minister shall use the respective forms drawn up for the administration of this sacrament.

—Article 58, D.K.O.

THE LITURGICAL FORMS

The use of liturgical forms in connection with the celebration of the sacraments is for more than one reason a good thing. The main benefit derived from their use is that they put life and meaning into what is otherwise a dead symbol. The spiritual significance of the external sign must be explained because the sign in itself does not speak. It is silent. It is dependent upon the Word and the preaching of the Word for its meaning. This meaning is conveyed to the consciousness of the believers through the reading of the form that is adapted to the particular sacrament that is to be administered. 

The use of the form for the administration of baptism is, according to the above quoted article of the Church Order, mandatory in all the churches. It would not do to allow each minister to individually explain the meaning of baptism each time that the sacrament was to be administered. This could very well lead to the danger of having certain facets of the doctrine of baptism over-emphasized at the expense of other essential elements of the truth. Moreover the second benefit that is reaped by the use of a commonly adopted form would be lost. This is the fact that a desired uniformity is secured in the administration of the sacraments. The same would be lost if each consistory drew up and adopted its own form. This would not be desirable. It is much better that those churches that agree in faith and doctrine jointly adopt a form in which they express what each and every church believes to be the truth of the Word of God regarding the sacraments and that this form be used in all the churches. 

Churches that use such forms are not “formlistic” in the bad sense of the word. Formalism is the evil that creeps into the church as a result of the spiritual deterioration of its members. The latter proceed through the rituals of worship without spirit or meaning. Religion becomes a matter of superstition. Customs handed down from of old are blindly followed and any emphasis that can still be aroused is placed upon externals. Such religion thrives upon ignorance and is in actuality nothing but an open sham. The use of forms which in a concise and lucid manner set forth the truth of God’s Word with regard to the sacraments and other practices of the church are not conducive to such a sad state of affairs. These forms, like the preaching of the Word itself, enliven the ceremonies of the church by giving to them content and meaning. They militate against a dead formalism and are useful to uproot erroneous conceptions and usages that might otherwise easily creep into the church. As means of instruction they stimulate the faith of the church and arouse in the believers a deeper appreciation for those holy signs and seals which God has given His Church. 

This is not the place to discuss the content of the liturgical forms used in the churches. That would belong to the rubrics of “Our Doctrine” or “Our Confession.” The Church Order purposes merely to set forth the rule that these forms, adopted by all of the churches, are to be used by them and refusal to do so or the substituting of them with self-made forms is a violation of the Act of Agreement and a step in the direction of individualism which cannot be tolerated in the church. 

A few things, however, may be said in this connection about these forms in general. We limit ourselves to the Forms for Baptism since this is the subject of the Article of the Church Order we are presently discussing. In our churches we have two such forms: one for the baptism of infants and one for the baptism of adults. Our form for Infant Baptism was originally drawn up by Petrus Datheen, a Flemish Reformer who had been driven by persecution to England and later to Germany. He was a very able man who translated the Heidelberg Catechism from German into Dutch. He also prepared a metrical version of the Psalms and wrote various liturgical documents for the churches. The baptism form which he composed (perhaps together with Van der Heydenj was prepared after the Forms of Calvin, a Lasco, Micron and Olevianus. Originally it was much longer than its present form but the Synod of 1574 abbreviated it and recommended that all the ministers in the churches use it. Later synods also concerned themselves with this matter but did not adopt any particular Form as an official text. The great Synod of 1618-19 recommended certain changes in the 1611 edition of the Baptism Form but it was not until as late as 1897, during the time of Dr. Bavinck and Kuyper, that this addition with the incorporated changes advised by the great Synod of Dordt was published and in 1902 the Synod of Arnhem approved this Form. 

Our Form for Adult Baptism dates back to the Synod of Dordt, 1618-19. The doctrinal part of this form is the same as that for Infant Baptism. This, of course, is proper for baptism has the same meaning or significance for adults as it does for infants. The main difference lies in the questions that are asked. When infants are baptized the parents are asked to answer three questions. In adult baptism no less than five questions are put to the candidate for baptism and each question is answered separately. Consistency, it would seem, would require that this same practice of answering the questions individually be also followed in connection with infant baptism. This would greatly enhance the solemnity of the occasion.

ADULT BAPTISM

“Adults are through baptism incorporated into the Christian church, and are accepted as members of the church, and are therefore obliged also to partake of the Lord’s Supper, which they shall promise to do at their baptism.” 

—Article 59, D.K.O.

We know only a few instances where adults have received the sacrament of baptism in our churches. This is generally speaking more the exception than the rule in the Reformed Churches for the vast majority of its members are baptized in their infancy. This does not mean that the propriety of adult baptism is in any way subject to question. Scripture itself gives direct support to this practice and this article of the Church Order makes provision for it in the churches.

Of significance in this connection is the meaning of the statement, “Adults we through baptism incorporated into the Christian church.” Concerning this there are marked differences of opinion. In the Church Order Commentary, for example, Monsma and Van Dellen express the view that this refers only to being received as members of a local congregation. We quote these authors as follows: 

“The significance of this statement is that those who have come to years of discretion and comparative independence can only be admitted to Church membership by profession of faith and baptism administered upon this profession. The term ‘Christian Church’ as used in Article 59 does not stand on par with the expression ‘Church of Christ’ as used in Article 1. The expression ‘Church of Christ’ is used to indicate the body of believers living in a certain region or country. It does not as a rule refer to these believers as they are organized into a Church or Churches. The term ‘Christian Church’ in the present article, however, refers to a specific congregation or organized Church. The opening provisions of Article 59 therefore simply specify that adults who stand outside of the organized Churches can only be incorporated into a local or particular Church upon confession and Baptism, and that thus they are admitted to full membership rights in the Church which so receives them. A literal translation of Article 59 on this score would make this interpretation very evident. Literally we read, ‘Adults are to be incorporated into the Christian congregation by Baptism, and are thus to be accepted as members of the congregations.’ He who has been granted adult Baptism thereby receives all the privileges of Church membership. He stands on par with those who were baptized in infancy and who in later years made profession of their faith.” 

The argument in the above is that “Christian church” means the “church institute” or “local congregation” and therefore the term “incorporated” must denote no more than the bestowal of the rights and privileges of membership in that congregation. On the same basis it must be evident that the baptism of infants merely denotes the bestowal of the same rights. With this position we differ as we shall show later. This reasoning is just in reverse. Why not reason from the meaning of the term “incorporated” to the meaning of the term “Christian church”? 

This is the view taken by Rev. G.M. Ophoff in hisChurch Right. He writes: 

“Adults are through baptism incorporated into the Christian church and are accepted as members of the church. ‘Incorporated’ is a term that implies a body in which the adult is incorporated in the organic sense; and this body is the spiritual body of Christ as manifested in the Church Institute with its ruling and teaching and alms giving ministry. This incorporation takes place not magically through baptism apart from faith but through a living faith having for its content the truth symbolized by baptism and confessed by the adult.” 

In support of this view several things may be advanced. First of all we must point to the organic conception of baptism embodied in our Baptism Form and supported throughout Scripture. Baptism is not a mechanical rite but it is a sign instituted by God which signifies and seals the righteousness of Christ unto believers. Not all who receive the outward sign receive actual baptism. To be baptized is to be buried with Christ into His death and to be raised again in newness of life (Rom. 6:4-6). This is indeed incorporation into the real body of Christ and it is the only baptism that Scripture and the Confessions know. 

In the second place it should be noticed that this term as well as the idea of the term is found in our Baptism Form as well as in this article of the Church Order. In both places it must be interpreted alike. In the prayer of baptism, God is implored to “graciously look upon these children and incorporate them by the Holy Spirit into His Son Jesus Christ.” In the first question asked of parents the phrase “Sanctified in Christ and, therefore, as members of His church,” indicates the same idea. Finally the thanksgiving prayer at the conclusion of baptism proceeds from the fact that the baptized are “in Christ” and not simply members of a visible, earthly institute and endowed with certain rights and privileges. 

—G.V.d.B.