By Jesse B. Thomas, D. D., LL.D.
THE HEREDITARY THEORY
Protestantism soon fell apart into two bodies, the conservatives clinging to Luther, while the so-called Reformed churches followed Calvin. The Lutheran Church of to-day is still the conservative body. Calvinism is represented by the Reformed, the Presbyterian, and (with notable qualifications) by the Congregational churches. The characteristic peculiarities of Calvinism were its emphasis on election as determining the constituency of the Church, and denial of sacramental power to "christen," or impart grace to any of the non-elect.
Commenting upon the phrase "the Holy Catholic Church," in the Apostles' Creed, Calvin declares that it includes "not only the visible Church, . . . but likewise all the elect, including the dead as well as the living."
In his Tracts (Vol. II, 115, ed. '49) he says: "Though the children of believers are
of the corrupt race of Adam, he [God] nevertheless accepts them in virtue of this covenant (to be "our God and the God of our seed to a thousand generations"), and adopts them into his family."
In the same volume (p. 338) he adds: "Did not God transmit his grace from parents to children, to admit new-born children into the Church would be a mere profanation of baptism."
Again, in the same volume (p. 87) he leaves no doubt of his belief in the sacramental efficacy of baptism when restricted to those thus rightly born; for he says: "It is certain that both pardon of sins and newness of life are offered to us in baptism and received by us."
In how far these ideas are still theoretically cherished by the Calvinistic bodies above specified will appear on consulting the language of their accepted standards, and their interpretation by representative leaders of each.
1. Reformed churches. The Reformed churches in America were formerly organized into two separate bodies: one called the Reformed Dutch; the other, the Reformed
German. Of these, the former accepted as its standard of faith the Belgic Confession, and the canons of the Synod of Dort (Schaff, "Creeds, etc.," III., 581). The latter clung to the Heidelberg Catechism.
In the Belgic Confession, 1561 (Revised 1619), the definition of the Church is as follows:
Art. XXVII. "We believe and profess one catholic or universal Church, which is a holy congregation and assembly of true Christian believers, expecting all their salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed by his blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Ghost.
"The Church hath been from the beginning of the world, and will be to the end thereof; which is evident from this, that Christ is an eternal King, which, without subjects, he can not be. . . .
"Furthermore, this holy Church is not confined, bound or limited to a certain place or to certain persons, but is spread and dispersed over the whole world; and yet it is joined and united with heart and will, by the power of faith, in one and the same spirit."
Art. XXVIII. "We believe that since this holy congregation is an assemblage of
those who are saved, and out of it there is no salvation, that no person of whatsoever state or condition he may be, ought to withdraw himself, to live in a separate state from it; but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it, maintaining the unity of the Church," etc.
Art. XXIX. "The marks by which the true Church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing sin - in short, if all things are managed according to the pure word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church. Hereby the true Church may certainly be known, from which no man has a right to separate himself. . . ."
As to hereditary right, it is said in Article XXXIV.: "We believe that every man who is earnestly studious of obtaining life eternal ought to be but once baptized with this only baptism, without ever repeating the same: since we can not be born twice. . . . Therefore we detest the error of the Anabaptists, who are not content with the one
only baptism they have once received, and moreover condemn the baptism of the infants of believers, who, we believe, ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as the children in Israel formerly were circumcised upon the same promises which are made unto our children" (Schaff, "Creeds, etc.," III., 417-425).
From the Canons of Dort (1618) we gather the following statement: Art. XVII. "Since we are to judge of the will of God from his word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature, but in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they together with the parents are comprehended, godly parents have no reason to doubt of the election and salvation of their children whom it pleaseth God to call out of this life in their infancy" (Schaff, III., 585).
In the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) Question 54 asks: "What dost thou believe concerning the Holy Catholic Church?" The answer is: "That out of the whole human race, from the beginning to the end of the world, the Son of God, by his Spirit and Word, gathers, defends and preserves for himself unto everlasting life, a chosen communion in the unity of the true faith; and
that I am, and forever shall remain, a living member of the same."
Question 69: "How is it signified and sealed unto thee in holy Baptism that thou hast part in the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross?" Answer: "Thus: that Christ has appointed this outward washing with water and has joined therewith this promise, that I am washed with his blood and Spirit from the pollution of my soul, that is, from all my sins, as certainly as I am washed outwardly with water whereby commonly the filthiness of the body is taken away."
Question 74: "Are infants also to be baptized?" Answer: "Yes; for since they, as well as their parents, belong to the covenant and people of God, and both redemption from sin and the Holy Ghost, who works through faith, are through the blood of Christ promised to them no less than to their parents, they are also by Baptism, as a sign of the covenant, to be ingrafted into the Christian Church, and distinguished from the children of unbelievers, as was done in the Old Testament by Circumcision, in place of which in the New Testament Baptism is appointed" (Schaff, "Creeds, etc.," III., 324, 329, 330).
In commenting on this last answer, Dr. Bethune ("Lectures on Catechism" - N. Y., '64 - II., 258) says: "The church is the visible representative of the kingdom of God on earth. As the children of a citizen inherit, of course, the citizenship, so does the child of a church-member, by actual descent, become entitled to church membership until he forfeits it by his own conduct."
2. Presbyterian churches. The Westminster Confession of Faith, still the recognized standard of Presbyterianism (issued in 1647), contains the following definitions:
Art. XXV. 1. "The catholic or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be, gathered into one, under Christ the head thereof: and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all" (citing various passages from Ephesians and Colossians).
2. "The visible church, which is also catholic and universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation as before, under the law) consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, and of their children (American edition has "together with their children"); and is the kingdom
of our Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. . . .
4. "This catholic church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less, visible. And particular churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them. . . .
Art. XXVIII. 4. "Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one or both believing parents, are to be baptized" (divers passages from Old Testament and New Testament cited). . . .
6. "The efficacy of baptism is not tied to the moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited and conferred by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God's own will, in his appointed time" (Schaff, "Creeds, etc.," Ill, 657-9, 661-3).
The same ideas as to subjects and efficacy
of baptism are repeated in the Shorter Catechism (1647), in answer to Questions 91-5.
"Children born within the pale of the visible church, and dedicated to God in baptism, are under the inspection and government of the church, and are to be taught to read and repeat the Catechism, the Apostles' Creed and the Lord's Prayer. And when they come to years of discretion, if they be free from scandal, appear to be sober and steady, and to have sufficient knowledge to discern the Lord's body, they ought to be informed that it is their privilege and duty to come to the Lord's table" ("Presbyterian Directory for Worship," Ch. IX., S 1).
Professor Witherow, in his "Form of the Christian Temple" (ed., '89, 200-213), identifies the Church with the Kingdom, and, after the citation of divers passages from the Old Testament, as well as the New, asks: "Does any doubt exist in the mind of any intelligent person who has examined these passages, that the aggregate of all Christian congregations - that is, all in the world who profess the true religion - constitute, along with their children, what is called the Universal or Catholic Church? This body may be viewed in a twofold aspect,
either as consisting of all who profess to belong to Christ, or of all who are Christ's in reality. In one aspect it is called, for sake of distinction, the Church visible, because the profession of Christianity, which marks its members out from the world and binds them all together, is itself a visible thing; in another aspect it is called the Church invisible, because the bond of faith and love, which binds them all to Christ and each other, can not be seen by mortal eye. . . . The congregation of Christian people dispersed throughout the whole world is the Church visible and catholic; that is, the kingdom of Christ on earth."
As to the invisible Church, "the congregation of all saved souls is, in the highest and truest sense, the Church of Christ, one, holy, catholic and apostolic - the collective company of those whom He loved, and for whom He gave himself, and whom He will present spotless and perfect to the Father at the last day."
Dr. Hodge gives the following definitions:
1. The true or invisible Church, as a whole, consists of the elect (Ephesians 5:25-27).
2. The true or invisible Church on earth consists of all believers.
3. The profession of faith made by those who are baptised, or come to the table of the Lord, is a profession of true faith; i. e., they are presumptively true believers ("Systematic Theology" - N. Y., 77 - III., 545; Ch. XX., Sec. 9).
He adds: 4. The Church under the new dispensation continues identical with that under the old (Romans 11:16, 17, etc.).
5. The terms of admission into the Church before the Advent were the same that are required for admission into the Christian Church.
6. Infants were members of the Church under the Old Testament economy (Genesis 12:3, and 17:7).
7. There is nothing in the New Testament which justifies the exclusion of the children of believers from corresponding membership in the Church (Acts 16: 15, 33, etc.).
8. Children need, and are capable of receiving, the benefits of redemption ("Systematic Theology," III., 547-558).
As preliminary to this defense of infant baptism, he defines the visible Church, remarking that, in order to justify the baptism of infants, we must attain and authenticate
such an idea of the Church as that it shall include the children of believing parents. "The word 'church' is used in Scripture and in common life, in many different senses.
1. It means the whole body of the elect, as in Ephesians 5:25. The church is often said to be in this sense the body, or the bride, of Christ, to be filled by his Spirit, etc.
2. "It means any number of contemporary believers, collectively considered; or the whole number of believers residing in any one country or district, or throughout the world. In this sense we use the word when we pray God to bless his Church universal, or his Church in any particular land.
3. "It is used as a collective term for the body of professed believers in any one city; as we speak of the church of Jerusalem, of Ephesus, or of Corinth.
4. "It is used of any number of professed believers bound together by a common standard of doctrine and discipline; as the Episcopal, the Presbyterian, the Lutheran or the Reformed Church. And
5. "It is used for all the professors of the true religion throughout the world, considered as united in the adoption of the same
general creed, and in common subjection to Christ. . . .
"In the present discussion, by the Church is meant what is called the visible Church; that is, (1) the whole body of those who profess the true religion, or (2) any number of such professors locally united for the purpose of the public worship of Christ, and for the mutual exercise of watch and care" ("Systematic Theology," III., 547).
The subject is again elaborately treated by Dr. Hodge in his "Discussions in Church Polity" (N. Y., 78). He there begins with the statement that "in that symbol of faith adopted by the whole Christian world, commonly called the Apostles' Creed, the Church is declared to be 'the communion of saints.'"
It is obvious that the Church universal, considered as the "communion of saints," (1) "does not necessarily include the idea of a visible society organised under one definite form. . . . There can be no kingdom without a king, and no aristocracy without a privileged class. There may, however, be a communion of saints without a visible head, without prelates, without a democratic covenant. . . .
2. "Again, the conception of the Church
as the communion of saints does not include the idea of any external organisation. . . . The Church, therefore, according to this view, is not essentially a visible society; it is not a corporation, which ceases to exist if the external bond of union be dissolved. It may be proper that such union should exist; it may be true that it always has existed; but it is not necessary. The Church, as such, is not a visible society" ("Polity," p. 5).
"If the Church is the 'communion of saints,' it includes all saints; it has catholic unity, because it embraces all the children of God. . . . Wherever the Spirit of God is, there the Church is; and as the Spirit is not only within, but without all external Church organisations, so the Church itself can not be limited to any visible society" (Ib., p. 27).
"Protestants teach that the true Church is visible:
1. "Because it 'consists of men and women, in distinction from disembodied spirits or angels.'
2. "Because its members manifest their faith by their works" (outward life).
3. "Because believers are, by their 'effectual calling,' separated from the world" (in the spirit of their life).
4. "The true church is visible in the external church, just as the soul is visible in the body . . . the external church, as embracing all who profess the true religion - with their various organizations, their confessions of the truth, their temples, and their Christian worship - make it apparent that the true church, the body of Christ, exists, and where it is. These are not the church, any more than the body is the soul; but they are its manifestations and its residence" (Ibid., pp. 56-58).
"The Protestant distinction between the church visible and invisible, nominal and real, is that which Paul makes between 'Israel after the flesh' and 'Israel after the Spirit' " (Ibid., p. 59).
"It is to be remembered that there were two covenants made with Abraham. By the one, his natural descendants through Isaac were constituted a commonwealth, an external visible community. By the other his spiritual descendants were constituted a church. The parties to the former covenant were God and the nation; to the other, God and his true people. . . . When Christ came 'the commonwealth' was abolished, and there was nothing put in its place. The Church
remained. There was no external covenant, nor promise of external blessings, on condition of external rites and subjection. There was a spiritual society with spiritual promises, on the condition of faith in Christ. . . . The Church is, therefore, in its essential nature, a body of believers, and not an external society, requiring merely external profession as the condition of membership" (Ibid., 67).
As to heredity of church membership, notice the following from representative leaders of Presbyterian thought:
Dr. H. J. Van Dyke, in the Presbyterian Review of 1885 (VI., 62), says: "Children of professed believers . . . are members of the visible church, and presumptively regenerate, upon the same grounds that their parents are." (Cites Westminster Confession and Catechism.)
"Baptized infants are professing Christians and members of the visible church in the same sense that their parents are, and we are bound to admit to the Lord's table all members of the visible church who express an intelligent desire to partake of it" (Ibid., VIII., 482; 1887).
John Hall, in "Questions of To-day"
(263), says: "The children are born into the Church. ... It is a medieval superstition that represents the child as 'christened' or made a Christian in the rite: and the only reason why the baptized child does not sit at the Lord's table, of course, is the counterpart of the restraint on the vote of the American youth."
3. 3. Congregationalist definitions. The Cambridge Platform of 1648 defined the "Church Catholic" as "the whole company of those who are elected, redeemed, and in time effectually called from the state of sin and death unto a state of grace and salvation in Jesus Christ" (Ch. II, Art. XII.).
Article II. says that "this church is either triumphant or militant. Triumphant, the number of them that are glorified in heaven; militant, the number of them who are conflicting with their enemies upon earth."
Article V. adds that "the state of the members of the militant visible church walking in order was either before the law, economical, that is in families; or under the law, national: or, since the coming of Christ, only congregational (the term 'independent' we approve not)."
In Chapter III. the "matter" of a visible
Church is defined to be "saints by calling" and "the children of such, who are also holy."
As to formal organization, it is said in Chapter IV. that "saints by calling must have a visible political union among themselves, or else they are not yet a visible church." As a "body," a "building" or "house." . . . "Hands, eyes, feet and other members must be united, or else, remaining separate, are not a body. Stones, timber, though squared, hewn and polished, are not a house, until they are compacted and united: so saints, or believers in judgment of charity, are not a church, unless orderly knit together." This "knitting together" is then said to be properly effected by a "church covenant" (Walker, "Creeds and Confessions of Congregationalism," 204-208).
The Savoy Declaration, which Dr. Schaff reckons the "fundamental Congregational confession of faith and platform of polity," was issued in 1658, during the Cromwellian Protectorate. It assents in detail to the utterances of the Westminster Confession, except in certain particulars specified. This "Declaration" was adopted by the Congregationalists
of America in the Synod of Boston, 1680, and incorporated in the Saybrook Platform in 1708.
The National Council of Congregationalists in 1871 issued the so-called Oberlin Declaration, which is very brief. Among its few articles we read: "They agree in the belief that the right of government resides in local churches, or congregations of believers, who are responsible directly to the Lord Jesus Christ, the one Head of the Church universal and of all particular churches; but that all particular churches, being in communion with one another as parts of Christ's Catholic Church, have mutual duties consisting in the obligations of fellowship" (Schaff, "Creeds, etc.," III., 719-737).
The so-called "Commission" creed of 1883 says, in Article XI. (referring to the "sacraments which Christ has appointed for his church"), that baptism is "to be administered to believers and their children, as a sign of cleansing from sin, of union with Christ, and of the impartation of the Holy Spirit" (Walker, "Creeds, etc.," 581).
It appears, thus, that as to the normal composition of the Church, and the grounds
on which infants are included, Presbyterians, Reformed churches and Congregationalists are substantially at one.
II. Summary of Hereditary Theory.
1. The Church universal is composed exclusively of the elect. As such it is a historic prolongation of the Old Testament Church - the Israelitish race. Calvin held the doctrine of a limited atonement. The "church which Christ purchased with his own blood" is composed only of that predetermined number for whom he died. Since this can neither be increased nor diminished by the act or omission of man, the notion that saving grace is dependent upon sacerdotal or sacramental conveyance is repudiated. Baptism is the "seal," not the channel, of regeneration.
2. The Abrahamic covenant is still in force, and still "runs with the blood." Calvin repudiated the traditional interpretation of John 3:5 ("Except a man be born of water," etc.) as referring to baptism, and teaching regeneration thereby. But he desired to retain infant baptism, the justification of which had rested chiefly on that passage so interpreted. He therefore transferred the defense of the custom to another
ground. He made baptism in the Christian Church the divinely appointed counterpart of circumcision in Israel. It thus became the birthright of the child of the believer.
3. Birth of Christian parentage is a presumptive evidence of election and effectual calling. (See ante, p. 51.) All children of Abraham were genealogically "children of the covenant," and the objects of exclusive divine favor. That favor expresses itself in the "new covenant" by the gift of a "new heart." The language of 1 Corinthians 7:14 is held to teach that the children of believers are, as such, "holy." God's election being invisible, and parentage being visible, the latter is the only tangible test of the former. To be the child of a believer in the new dispensation is tantamount to being a child of Abraham under the old; and birth being itself in God's hands, such birth must be the appointed token of his purpose of grace.
IV. Logical Sequences of the Theory.
1. Serious embarrassment engendered.
(1) As to interpretation of Scripture language. If the Abrahamic covenant be interpreted literally, how can it be extended beyond those who are literally the "seed of
Abraham"? But we are not of Abrahamic, nor even Semitic, stock. If, on the other hand, the true children of Abraham become such by faith, as Paul seems to teach, and as adults are supposed to do (though of unbelieving parentage), how can they become children of the covenant by birth apart from faith?
(2) As to application of the theory.
a. To remote descendants. The promise was not only to Abraham's children, but to his children's children indefinitely. The early New England Congregationalists were for a long time sharply divided over the request of believing grandparents for the baptism of their grandchildren, the intermediate parents not being Christian. Their seemingly rational request was at last denied.
b. As to collateral members of the household. The Presbyterian General Assembly was called upon in 1855 to decide whether the infant slaves of Christian masters might be baptized at the request of the head of the household. This was allowed, on the strength of the precedent in the house of Abraham, in which those "bought with money" were circumcised. As that proceeding included adults as well as infant, it would
seem to justify the baptism of grown-up slaves, as well as their children, on the same application.
2. Disparagement of Scriptural authority.
(1) As to relative authority of Christ and tradition. It is admitted that Christ explicitly commanded the baptism of the believer. Such a claim is made by nobody as to infant baptism. Admitted to be only inferentially required and to be continued as an adopted custom. Yet the human custom, traditionally transmitted, is allowed to supersede and obstruct the voluntary observance of the divine ordinance as explicitly commanded. The word of God is thus subordinated to the "commandments of men."
(2) As to universal need of regeneration. If baptized children be "presumptively regenerate" (the Catechism justifying that view); if they are withheld from the Lord's table by lack of intelligence only and not of spiritual change - how can they be reasonably taught that they need to be "born again"? Dr. Horace Bushnell, in his "Christian Nurture," holds that it is a serious error not to persuade the believer's child
that he is already regenerate. But Nicodemus was a circumcised "child of the covenant," and it was to him that the pressing need of the new birth was commended by Christ himself.
3. Confusion as to constituency of the church. The uniform language of the creedal documents based upon the hereditary theory represents the Church as consisting of "believers and their children." Infants are alluded to as "born into the pale of the Church," as "birthright members," and otherwise entitled, prima facie, to all the rights of full membership.
Yet the Congregationalists, while using precisely as strong language on the subject as the Presbyterians, practically nullify its force by their opposite treatment of the subjects of the rite. Presbyterians, theoretically at least, insist that the "tares and wheat must grow together till the harvest"; and that children of believers, whether in fact regenerate or unregenerate, are "saints by calling"; i.e., full members of the body. The Cambridge Platform defines the "matter" of the visible Church as "saints by calling," made up of those who have "by profession of their faith and repentance,
and by their blameless walk, positively shown themselves such"; but also made up of "the children of such who are holy." Yet these same holy children, who were "born into the church," and have been "sealed" by baptism, must reach full membership by the same process of open profession as the unholy and unbaptized offspring of unbelievers. This effort to maintain the principle of a regenerate church membership, while clinging to the covenant theory, "gave much trouble to New England Congregationalists," says Professor Ladd, of Yale, in his "Principles of Church Polity" (N. Y., '82), 196.
Finally came the famous "Half-way Covenant," which Professor Walker styles a "half-way house between the church and the world." By it those baptized in infancy might, upon "owning the covenant" - that is, by assenting intellectually to the doctrines, and promising to conform to the rules, of the Church - be admitted to voting membership without sharing in the Lord's Supper, and might have their children baptized. This, again, led to further relaxation, so that the same persons, while still confessedly unregenerate, became full members. In the
end the worldlings, thus admitted, came to be a majority. They called pastors after their own heart, and Unitarianism thus gained a foothold and absorbed a large part of the property of the Congregational churches in New England. The subterfuges resorted to in argument by those who favored the "Half-way Covenant," says Professor Ladd ("Principles of Church Polity," 199), "are really distressing." Joseph Cook, himself a Congregationalist, says in his "Lectures on Orthodoxy" (p. 270 seq.) that "infant baptism was the germ of Unitarianism and skepticism in New England." Prof. G. F. Wright wrote in the Bibliotheca Sacra, 1874, a strong article on the subject, showing the peril of confusion of thought introduced by infant baptism.
4. Uniting of Church and State and persecution of nonconformists. Resort to the Abrahamic covenant by Calvin, in one particular, naturally drew on the whole Old Testament scheme of organization, and Geneva became a theocracy. Servetus was executed by the civic authorities, who, as ecclesiastics, had first condemned him for heresy. New England Puritans fleeing from the tyranny of the "lord bishops," established
what one of their victims called the "tyranny of the lord brethren." Baptists and Quakers were whipped and exiled for attempting to exercise that liberty of conscience to establish which the Puritans and Pilgrims had professedly come hither. The persecutors were sincere, but sincerely wrong and inconsistent. And this was logically traceable in great part to the determined retention of a perverted rite which has uniformly bewildered and stultified its devotees when so perverted.
The Congregationalists have stoutly asserted always that they sought to preserve a regenerate and voluntary church membership. They have as stoutly, in practice, insisted on a membership involuntary and mixed.
The hereditary theory thus leads into self-contradiction as well as contradiction of Scripture.
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