The Reformed Baptism Form: A Commentary, Bastiaan Wielenga. Ed. David J. Engelsma. Reviewed by David J. Engelsma

The Reformed Baptism Form: A Commentary, Bastiaan Wielenga. Ed. David J. Engelsma. Jenison, MI: RFPA, 2016. Hardcover. 425 pp., $39.95. [Reviewed by David J. Engelsma.]

This is the title of a book that is hot off the presses of the Reformed Free Publishing Association (RFPA). The book is an unusual publication of the RFPA. It is not authored by a Protestant Reformed man or woman. Nor is it an original piece of writing. Rather, it is the translation into English for the first time of a commentary on the Reformed Baptism Form. The commentary was originally written in the Dutch language by a well-known and highly regarded minister in the Netherlands.

The commentary was published, originally, in 1906. The commentary, therefore, is of great value to all members of Reformed churches everywhere in the world who can read the English language. For the Reformed Baptism Form that many, if not all, of these members use often in the worship of their churches—whenever the sacrament of baptism is administered—is a grand, authoritative document in the churches and in the spiritual life of the members of the churches. Arguably, the Baptism Form is the most outstanding secondary confession of the Reformed churches. It is certainly the one most often read in their worship services.

The Baptism Form officially expresses the Reformed doctrine of baptism, especially infant baptism. Important aspects of the truth of infant baptism that the Form explains and confesses are the inclusion of the infants of believers in God’s covenant of grace; the salvation of infants in their infancy; the necessity of this salvation for the required rearing of the children; and the relation of the covenant of grace, particularly with these baptized children, and divine election.

Lacking these many years has been a thorough, sound commentary on this vitally important Form of the Reformed churches. This lack is now supplied by the good services of the RFPA.

Explaining and applying all of the fundamental teaching of the Form, the commentary is rich and profitable. It will be profitable to Reformed ministers, who use and explain the Form in their preaching and teaching; to the parents of baptized children; and to all Reformed believers of all ages regarding the meaning of their own baptism, usually in infancy.

The chapter titles of the commentary are: “Nature and History of the Reformed Baptism Form”; “The Doctrine of Baptism in General”; “The Doctrine of Infant Baptism in Particular”; “The Prayer before Baptism”; “Admonition to the Parents”; and “Thanksgiving after Baptism.”

Nor does the commentary overlook, or slight, the practical teaching and implications of the Form. The commentary considers such a matter as the question whether it is more fitting to sprinkle the one being baptized three times or only once. More importantly, the commentary addresses the issue, whether the baptized child is to be viewed and reared as a regenerated, saved child of God, or is to be viewed as an unsaved “little viper.” The commentary settles this issue from the language itself of the Form.

By no means was the commentary written only, or even mainly, for the benefit of ministers, although it will be of the greatest interest and value to them. But the author wrote the commentary for Reformed people—for all the members of Reformed churches. The Reformed believer, without theological training, will profit greatly from the riches of the distinctively Reformed doctrine and practice of the covenant of grace uncovered in the Baptism Form by this commentary. Nor will the profit be only knowledge of the riches of the grace of God to his or her infant children. But the Reformed believer will know more deeply the riches of the grace of God sealed to him or her in his or her baptism many years ago.

. . .May the reader be assured that my endeavor was not first, not even most importantly, to provide material for an elevated theoretical, dogmatic view of baptism. But the ardent desire of my heart is that by the publication of this writing many people reading this work learn to regard baptism more purely, appreciate it more warmly, and more zealously plead the covenantal promises on behalf of be believers and their children, before the throne of him who calls himself I Am That I Am (Preface, xvii).

The history of the Baptism Form commends its worth and authority. With this history the commentary begins. Ultimately, the form derives from John Calvin, and the earliest days of the Reformed Reformation. Because the Reformers who composed the liturgy of the Reformed churches leaned heavily on Calvin and even corresponded with Calvin about this liturgy, the author of the commentary on the Baptism Form declares that “Calvin stamped the mark of his marvelous spirit in this way also on our Reformed baptism form, although indirectly.” Already in 1574, merely some fifty-odd years after the Protestant Reformation began in 1517, the Reformed provincial Synod of Dordt worked on the wording of this Form. The Synod of Dordt, 1618/1619, adopted the official text of the Form. The Form, therefore, is the very early and official statement of the truth of the sacrament of baptism, particularly with regard to the baptism of the infant children of believers, by the Reformed churches in the Netherlands. The doctrine of the Form is that of John Calvin and others at the fountainhead of Protestant and Reformed Christianity, that is, the doctrine of Holy Scripture.

A significant element of the commentary is the official text of the Baptism Form as decided by the Synod of Dordt. With this, the commentary begins. Various important notes and observations concerning the text of the Form are included. One of these notes concerns the question whether the Form speaks of “two parts” or “two parties” in the covenant. Another concerns the phrase, “here in this Christian church.” Wielenga explains why in the questions to the parents at the baptism of a child, there occurs the mysterious reference to a “witness” or to “witnesses,” a reference that still is found in the Form used by the Protestant Reformed Churches, although it ought to be omitted.

The author of the commentary was the highly regarded Dutch Reformed pastor, Dr. Bastiaan Wielenga. Wielenga was a student and disciple of Herman Bavinck. The commentary represents the orthodox Reformed thinking about the covenant of grace deriving from Calvin and the Protestant Reformation and developed in the Afscheiding (Secession) and Doleantie (Grieving Movement) in the Netherlands in the nineteenth century.

Wielenga was not pushing any particular theological agenda in his commentary. As he himself avowed, it was his purpose with the commentary simply to explain the language itself of the Baptism Form.

My main goal was not to provide a polemical treatise. . . . Nobody is impartial, but I have insisted on open-mindedness, which is necessary for proper exegesis. The question I continually asked myself was, what does the form say? How did the Reformed fathers account for their view of baptism in this act of the Reformation? . . .It is not my idea of baptism…that I have tried to represent here, but a valuable liturgical heritage from the century of the Reformation (Preface, xvi).

With the rare exception, the commentary faithfully and convincingly, even powerfully, elucidates the doctrine of the Form itself.

This is not to suggest that, in the course of explaining the Form, Wielenga did not settle the controversies still troubling the Reformed churches, particularly, that of infant salvation and that of the relation of covenant and election. In fact, it was Wielenga’s hope that “a truthful explanation of the form could assist in the sorely needed tempering of the still-continuing tremors of unrest” concerning infant baptism in the Reformed churches.

The language of the commentary is simple and often moving. Explaining the line in the Form concerning the spiritual condition of the infant children by nature, “we with our children are conceived and born in sin,” Wielenga wrote:

We know that this tiny, fragile babe is born with inborn filthy sins, thus making him hideous before a holy God. That he is born to die and to suffer grief. That at the end of the narrow, bumpy path of life that begins at the infant’s crib stands a coffin and awaits a yawning grave, and behind it, a mocking abyss. Behold, this should make the parents’ heart tremble even more and in distress implore the great Judge to have mercy on this child (27-28).

There is even some most interesting church history in the commentary. Fascinating beyond all telling are the accounts of happenings in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands on the occasion of baptism at the time of the conflict of the Reformed churches with the Arminians. During a baptism service, seeing the Arminian, Uytenbogaerdt, in the audience, because the child to be baptized was his grandchild, the preacher, Plancius, took the opportunity to preach “with great zeal against the doctrine of the Arminians.” Then the Reformed preacher asked the Arminian theologian, who was functioning as the strange “witness,” to respond positively to the question, whether he agreed with the doctrine taught “here” in this Christian church, pronouncing the word, “here,” with the greatest emphasis.

On another occasion, the Arminian heretic, Episcopius, also functioning as a “witness” at a baptism, replied to the question about the doctrine “taught here in this Christian church” by mumbling and by paraphrasing in his answer the question put to him. Whereupon, the Reformed pastor publicly and loudly rebuked Episcopius for his conduct, which resulted in great commotion in the congregation.

Apart from indicating the importance of the phrase, “here in this Christian church,” in the question to the parents, this history reveals that in that bygone time Reformed pastors were stalwart men, willing to contend for the (Reformed) faith once delivered to the saints (in the Baptism Form), and totally unschooled in ecumenical politeness.

This is a publication of the RFPA that is of such a nature as to warrant circulation far beyond the sphere of the Protestant Reformed Churches, indeed wherever in the world the Reformed Baptism Form is used and men and women can read English. It should indebt many to the RFPA.

The translator was the accomplished linguist, Annemie Godbehere. She did not live to see her work in print. Hardly had she completed the translation than she died of cancer. Her death affected the intention of the RFPA to publish the companion volume by Wielenga consisting of a commentary on the Reformed Lord’s Supper Form.

The volume itself is a handsome hardcover of 400-odd pages. It sells for $39.95, and can be ordered from the RFPA (1894 Georgetown Center Drive, Jenison, MI, USA 49428-7137). The email address is mail@rfpa.org; phone: (616) 457-5970.