In the next several articles we intend to study the baptism form as we find it in the back of our Psalter.
The baptism form is one of our liturgical forms. By a liturgical form we mean a document or form designed to aid us in public worship. The word “liturgical” describes that which pertains to public worship and prayer. In the back of our Psalter we find several such forms. In addition to our baptism form we also find forms for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, for Excommunication, for Readmitting Excommunicated Persons, for Ordination of Ministers, Elders, and Deacons, Professors of Theology, and Missionaries. There is even a form for Confirmation of Marriage.
These forms are often called minor creeds or confessions. They are to be distinguished from our major confessions: the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dordt—the Three Forms of Unity.
Our liturgical forms are called minor confessions or creeds for good reason.
First, these liturgical forms include statements of faith and therefore partake of the nature of a confession or creed. A creed is a statement by the church in which she expresses what she believes to be the truth of God’s Word. And this is exactly what we find in our liturgical forms. The truth of God as it relates to baptism, the Lord’s Supper, excommunication, the work of officebearers in the church, and marriage are all summarized in our forms. Hence, they are to be considered confessions or creeds of the church.
However, and this in the second place, our liturgical forms are to be considered as minor confessions because of their limited scope. Our Three Forms of Unity are comprehensive statements of faith. Through them the church confesses the whole of the truth of God’s Word as she has come to believe and cherish it. However, in the liturgical forms the church touches only upon certain aspects of the truth. In many instances these truths are truths set forth in the Three Forms of Unity but more fully developed in the forms. But the liturgical forms are not intended to be comprehensive statements of faith. Hence, they are minor confessions in distinction from our major, comprehensive confessions.
Quite in harmony with this, the doctrinal statements in our liturgical forms are binding upon the church. It is required of every officebearer in the church to sign a Formula of Subscription. By so doing he expresses agreement with -the Three Forms of Unity. He also promises to teach and faithfully defend the doctrines set forth in them. Should an officebearer knowingly teach contrary to the Three Forms of Unity he is by that fact to be suspended from office. This establishes the doctrines of our Three Forms of Unity as official church doctrine. All officebearers and members are bound by these creeds. Now the Formula of Subscription does not make mention of our liturgical forms. However, our Church Order does. As the Church Order regulates the administration of the sacraments, the ordination of officebearers in the church, excommunication, and marriage it specifies that in each instance the proper forms be used (cf. Articles 4, 22, 24, 58, 62, 70, 76, 78). In this way the Church Order certainly elevates the doctrinal statements of the liturgical forms to creedal statements that are official doctrine in the church and binding on all officebearers and members.
For that reason our liturgical forms are also profitable for study. From them we glean a wealth of instruction concerning the precious truths of God’s Word. This we hope to do in the next several articles as we treat the baptism form.
We may ask: why have liturgical forms?
Many churches do not have forms for baptism, Lord’s Supper, ordination, and excommunication as we do. In turn, there are many who question the wisdom of liturgical forms. The objection is that the use of liturgical forms tends to make the worship of the church a mere formality, a meaningless ritual. “Worship becomes automatic, mechanical and thus meaningless when liturgical forms are used.”
In response we must acknowledge that dead formalism is always a danger in worship. How often haven’t we been guilty of being miles away in thought while the form for baptism or Lord’s Supper has been read in the worship service? This certainly makes our worship a meaningless formality. However, the same can be said for other parts of worship. How often haven’t we been just as guilty of mental absenteeism during the congregational prayer or the sermon? This suggests that the use of liturgical forms as such does not lend itself to or promote meaningless formality in worship.
There are especially three things that contribute to dead formalism in worship: 1) ignorance of what one is doing in worship, 2) an erroneous conception of what one is doing in worship, 3) a spirit of indifference toward worship. Any one of these or combination of these will eventually render worship an empty ritual.
The key to overcoming much of this is instruction. Certainly ignorance and a faulty view of worship is overcome with instruction. And because indifference towards worship is often rooted in ignorance, this too is often helped by sound instruction. By all means the church must be knowledgeable about what she is doing in worship. She must be taught the meaning of the sacraments, of ordination into office, of excommunication, and other aspects of her worship. Error must be exposed. The light of God’s Word must be shed on every aspect of her worship. Only then can worship be meaningful, edifying, and God-glorifying.
This is especially true of the sacraments. The sacraments are means of grace which the Holy Spirit uses to strengthen our faith. However, the sacraments do not work magically or automatically. The water of baptism itself does not effect salvation. Neither do the bread and wine of the Lords Supper themselves strengthen faith. The sacraments work as a means of grace only when they are understood as signs and seals of the cross and only when they are used as such by us in faith believing. Those who are ignorant of the true nature of the sacraments or have erroneous conceptions of them receive nothing from them.
For this reason the church must be instructed in these things. Now conceivably this could be left to the minister every time the sacraments were celebrated. However, in this way error is more apt to creep in. And the instruction may be incomplete, perhaps even one-sided. Consequently, the Reformed fathers saw the need for-liturgical forms to guide the church in the celebration of the sacraments and other important acts of worship.
We ought to understand a little of the history of our baptism form.
Our Form for the Baptism of Infants may be traced back to a form written by Peter Datheen in the Netherlands. Datheen had translated the Heidelberg Catechism from the German language into the Dutch in 1563. With the help of Van der Heyden, Datheen also wrote other liturgical forms which were published in 1566. Among them was a baptism form which was modeled after other forms written by Calvin, a Lasco, Micron, and Olevianus.
In 1568 the Reformed churches in the Netherlands were charged by the Wezelian Convention to use the questions found in Datheen’s baptism form, although some churches by this time were using this form. In 1574 the particular Synod of Dordt shortened the form and required all the churches to use the whole form, not just the questions, for the administration of baptism. Several other Synods after this concerned themselves with the wording of this form, and made various revisions. One of these Synods to revise the form was the great Synod of Dordt of 1618-19 which gave us our Canons. However, none of these Synods published an official, up-to-date text of the form. In 1897 Dr. F. L. Rutgers and his assistants, Dr. H. Bavink and Dr. A. Kuyper, prepared an edition of the baptism form taking into account the various revisions of the past Synods. An English translation of this form is what we find in the back of our Psalter.
If we turn to the back of our Psalter we also find a section for the baptism of adults, entitled “To Adult Persons.” This has a somewhat different history. This section was composed by the great Synod of Dordt (1618-19). In composing this part of the form the Synod of Dordt relied heavily on two other forms in use at that time. The one was a form drafted by the churches in North and South Holland in 1603 and which was also used by the churches of Friesland and Gelderland. The other form from which the Synod of Dordt drew was the form drafted by the Synod of Vere in 1610. This section for the baptism of adults was intended by the Synod of Dordt to be used along with the first part of Datheen’s baptism form which treats the doctrine of baptism in general. This is the first part of our form which begins with the words, “The principal parts of the doctrine of holy baptism are these three.”
We conclude this introduction of the baptism form with a brief outline of the Form for Infant Baptism.
I. Doctrinal part.
A. The significance of baptism in general.
1. Our original sin and need for regeneration is symbolized and taught to us through the sprinkling of water.
2. Baptism is a sign and seal of the washing away of sins through Jesus Christ and thus of God’s eternal covenant of grace.
3. Through baptism we are taught to take our part in the covenant.
B. Infant baptism in particular.
1. The objection is anticipated that infants can not be baptized because they do not understand these spiritual realities.
2. The reply:
a. Our children are partakers of Christ without their knowledge.
c. For this reason God commanded children to be circumcised in the OT and Christ blessed them (Mark 10).
d. Since baptism is come in the place of circumcision, infants are to be baptized.
II. Liturgical part.
A. The prayer before baptism.
B. The exhortation to parents with the questions to be affirmed.
C. The act of baptism proper.
D. The thanksgiving prayer.