Baptism and Fulfillment


In browsing through old issues of the Princeton Theological Review, I came across this article from 1905 by T. F. Fotheringham, “The Doctrine of Baptism in Holy Scripture and the Westminster Standards.” Fotheringham’s thesis is that the dominant understanding of baptism in Presbyterian circles of his day is wrong (nothing’s changed). Baptism for infants and for adults must have the same meaning, he argues. The language of scripture is clear that baptism is about fulfillment, thus infant baptism cannot merely indicate promise (OT category). It’s an interesting read.

In other words, he realizes what Baptists and Catholics have been saying all along: baptism indicates union with Christ, adoption by the Father, and sealing by the Holy Spirit.



  1. Thank you for this article. God’s promises are potency (my word does not return to me empty). “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:6).

  2. The promise/fulfillment distinction is more a matter of dividing the old covenant from the new. In a sense, the new covenant is not “full” fulfillment — it is not yet “consummation” — so it still retains promise for this consummation. The old covenant, likewise, contains some fulfillment, but not the fulfillment of the NT. In the OT, the law is not yet written on the hearts of the elect (“they shall all be taught of God” — see John 6 and all of 1 John), and the conquering of death in the Cross-Resurrection is not yet. All of this is connected, in the NT, to the commissioning of the Holy Spirit.

    The difficulty with the Reformed doctrine of baptism is that, for infants, baptism functions as circumcision did in the OT; whereas, baptism in the NT is connected with the fulfillment of this promise for the elect. The only way to get around the difficulty is for the Reformed to argue that the promise in baptism for the infant will issue forth in salvation/regeneration. But, the Reformed confessions reject this. Catholics avert the difficulty because they believe that baptism does regenerate (even though not permanently, which is another matter).

  3. Well, I’m a bit further in that book on hope which I quoted before – so my comments reflect that reading…

    It’s always helpful to hear from others what Catholics believe (like the article, which describes “Rome’s error”). What Catholics believe is generally a bit tougher for me because as a Catholic, faith comes first (recognizing God’s action in history) and understanding (theology) comes second.

    So, thinking a bit about your description of Catholic belief… I’d say that baptism does regenerate permanently (definitive incorporation into Christ/Church, removal of original sin and any actual sin, indelible mark, no rebaptism; or see this Easter homily).

    It seems to me that baptism is like a seed, like a tiny fertilized speck in a chicken egg. Eventually that speck will conquer every bit of the egg so that when the chick hatches all that is left is yellow fluffiness. The new life in Christ is real and definitive, but as a human life it requires time and freedom and friendship to unfold.

  4. The doctrine of baptismal regeneration is one of the big issues that keeps me out of Catholicism. The Reformed understanding of paedobaptism makes salvation by faith, albeit the faith of the parents in God’s covenant with their children. I guess Catholic parents have faith in the sacramental power of baptism, but I get squeamish about putting my faith in any human act (even a sacrament).

    The sacraments are different from other questions Christians face. They aren’t ethical questions (husband/wife roles or sexual orientation rules). They aren’t scientific issues (extent of the Flood or length of the “days” in Genesis). They aren’t practical (proper polity or most effective Sunday School). And they aren’t “catholic” in the sense that all Christians everywhere have always held the same view.

    Baptism is especially important, in my opinion, because it affects so much corporate and individual behavior. Just take a look at your typical Southern church that practices believer’s baptism. Kids line up at eleven or twelve to “take the plunge.” Where are those kids five years later? By and large, they AREN’T studying their Bibles and sharing the Gospel! For all practical purposes, their “believer’s baptism” has little more impact on their lives than the sprinkling the Catholic or Presbyterian child got as an infant.

    My own six children were all baptized as believers, and each one made a very personal choice at a very different age. The first to be baptized is probably the only one who shouldn’t have been–she was 13 or so and was wrestling with her identity and an inchoate sense of separation from God. She thought perhaps baptism would get her “in,” somehow. (All this, of course, is how she sees things now–at the time she just felt “convicted” that she “needed” to be baptized.) She was baptized–and nothing changed. Two years later, God broke in on her troubled soul with POWER and she has never been the same.

    The others were baptized much later–my youngest son at the age of 19. I think that was probably too late. He had long since laid his life at Christ’s feet and put the world behind him. He probably needed a kick in the pants around the age of 17.

    I’m very happy with the way it all worked out for my family… but if we were living 1000 years ago without today’s medicines, I would have been VERY nervous about letting my precious babies go unbaptized into the world.

    But the right doctrine of baptism CAN’T depend on infant mortality rates…

    ‘Tis a puzzlement!

  5. Scott,

    Baptism confers faith – not magically or automatically – but precisely as a seed whose trajectory is totality (and this seed could explode in 2 or 20 years). Baptism is human insofar as it’s a human begging for the salvation that only Christ brings. But even more, baptism is the living and active promise of God. God has answered the cry of sinful man in the person of Jesus Christ who is human and divine. If baptism is an incorporation into Christ, then it will necessarily be both human and divine…

    I was a devout child but I felt my baptism truly explode when I was 20 after a week listening to Jean Vanier (lay leader and preacher, founder of l’Arche). It is 21 years later for me now and I see that the faith I received in baptism is conquering me in ways I could not have imagined so many years ago. And I am confident that the one who began a good work in me will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.

    Note bene: water is poured on infants, not sprinkled. During Easter time, when we renew our baptismal promises, we use sprinkling as a reminder of the common baptism of the whole ecclesia (similar to the sprinkling of Israel with blood as a sign of the Covenant).

  6. Greetings. I’ve been gone all day at work. I appreciate the points made. I have to say that I don’t understand the “permanency” of baptism for Catholics. I’ve read in the Catechism that baptism leaves an “indelible” mark, or something like that. But, I really don’t know what that means. For a Protestant, more or less Reformed, the permanency of regeneration equates with perseverance (i.e., not capable of mortal sin or, rather, no such thing as mortal sin).

  7. According to Catholic teaching, baptism above all effects an ontological change: the Christian is a new creation (I’ve described this as I can above); whereas for a Protestant, baptism is seen in its juridical (remission of penalty for sin) or ethical (a worthy witness to a redemption that has already taken place) aspects.

    In Catholic teaching, baptism changes a person (I think of the character Hazel Motes from the novel Wise Blood who is ever Christ haunted even when he rejects his Christianity, and I have known many Hazel Motes in my life); baptism contains an explosive dynamism that impels the Christian toward greater union with Christians and greater service of our Lord. And you don’t have to be Catholic to have experienced this dynamic power of baptism in your life.

    The reality that a baptized person, that is a Christian, can commit horrific sins of contempt against God and man is troubling. And it’s still troubling if such a one has an assurance of having been saved…

  8. Perhaps this “potency” for “explosive dynamism” can be put in Protestant-friendly terms through language of “gift” of the “Holy Spirit,” in addition to (as you state) “new life in Christ” and “incorporation into Christ.” The Protestant (especially evangelical and Reformed) fear is that the Catholic-speak makes baptism into an inward change that becomes immanent and generative to/from the individual himself, who then can forfeit it as an object of his own possessing. If baptism entails the gift and sealing of the Holy Spirit, then an objective referent for the redemption within is secured. Thus, the permanency of baptism (in this Protestant view) is found not in ourselves, but in the Holy Spirit as the agent of Christ’s continuing High Priesthood.

    I don’t know if that makes sense, but I think it has a lot of advantages (from both a dogmatics standpoint and a practical — person in the pew — standpoint).

  9. Thus, I don’t think the Protestant view of baptism is reducible to juridical or moral-witness categories, though it includes these. Of course, such a crass view can be found in many contemporary pastors.

  10. Kevin,

    It’s difficult to summarize another’s position fairly.

    Baptism is the initiative of Christ (Christ has seized us in baptism! proclaims Pope Benedict) through the power of the Holy Spirit. This dynamic gift is never an entitlement to salvation, but it is a persistent goad which reminds me of the Apostle Paul’s words: Woe to me if I preach and woe to me if I don’t.

  11. baptism indicates union with Christ, adoption by the Father, and sealing by the Holy Spirit.

    Would Calvin disagree? I thought his view was that the children of the faithful are born within the Church and thus have a right to baptism. They may lack the capacity for active faith, but they are considered already regenerate (in the narrow sense), having the germ of faith present in them. Thus the task of parents and the Church is to raise them so that this faith comes to maturity. Children need to be converted, called to active (and ever more active) faith, but their conversion takes place within the covenant community as they grow up. They, like other Christians, are considered to have faith according to their capacity, and so as they reach the years of discretion they are catechised and invited to profess their faith, becoming eligible to receive communion after something like confirmation (even if that name isn’t used). Unless and until they depart from the Church, they are treated as part of it, being, at least in the judgment of charity, amomng the elect, fellow Christians indwelt by the Spirit.

    Fred’s egg analogy captures it well: the process of coming to faith for those baptized as infants is organic, occuring in stages as the person grows up. Of course, from a Reformed perspective I’d disagree in that I don’t think baptism exactly effects the ontological change; it rather seals the change that has already taken place. But to use a classic analogy: baptism confers the deed, and in the giving of the deed the thing itself is given, so instrumental language is as appropriate as sealing language. Another analogy is to coronation: when does the successor become king or queen? By British law the throne is never vacant; as soon as the sovereign dies, the successor is the new monarch. But the coronation does not happen immediately, since it would be unseemly to have a joyous event in a period of mourning. Though the change in the person now reigning has already taken place, it is sealed at the coronation, and the event of becoming king is as it were resolved into the coronation ceremony, so that it quite correct so see the coronation as when the monarch becomes king. In like manner, those presented for baptism are already (at least presumed) regenerate, yet just as the successor is made king at the coronation, so in a real sense the baptized person is regenerated in baptism, with the grace represented being presented again and sealed by the work of the Spirit.

    I hope this rambling isn’t completely non-sensical… BTW, J.B. Mozley did two fascinating studies on baptism as part of his turn away from the Tractarian movement: The Primitive Doctrine of Baptismal Regeneration and A Review of the Baptismal Controversy. The latter was in effect a defense of the Gorham decision, and it is interesting still today for the case it makes in support of the essential catholicity of the Reformers’ views on baptism.

  12. Thanks, John. I’m more concerned with how later Reformed theology viewed baptism in light of their working-out of the doctrine of election. If we say that the baptized infant has the “germ of faith,” then are they among the elect? Confessional Reformed theology denies that covenant children are necessarily among the elect and only the elect have (or will have) faith. The point of the Baptist critique of the Reformed position is that baptism everywhere in the New Testament is connected with the elect — those who have been brought from darkness to light (buried with Christ and risen with Him). If a child is baptized, then, in order to keep with NT usage of baptism, the child is buried with Christ and risen with Him (or, at least, this will happen later). But, once again, Reformed theology rejects that infant baptism signifies or guarantees such salvation. Thus, in Reformed theology, baptism for infants cannot mean the same thing as it does for the adult. It will always retain a “perhaps” for the infant, while it signifies “actuality” for the adult.

  13. All members of the Church are elect in the judgment of charity. So yes, the baptized infant is as much among the elect as the baptized adult convert. In either case there is a rebuttable presumption that the person is what in baptism he is called: an adopted child of God, indwelt by the Spirit, buried with Christ and risen to newness of life in him.

    Confessional Reformed theology denies that all the baptized are necessarily among the elect as known by God. There is nothing peculiar about the status of infants: they, like those baptized as adults, may apostatize; but unless and until they do, both are to be regarded as fellow Christians, members of the household of God. To be sure, there is a “perhaps” for the infant, but it’s the same “perhaps” that’s there for the adult.

    Mozley drives this point home, explaining how it is that the founders of Anglicanism, while essentially Reformed in their theology (and in some cases actually weaker on the sacraments than Calvin), could nonetheless preserve the regeneration language of the prayerbook’s baptismal office. He remarks on how there is a type of statement “literal in form, but hypothetical in meaning.” I’d recommend having a look at his studies, if only for the curious fact that what drove Manning to Rome, the Gorham case, had the opposite effect on Mozley, leading him to re-examine his theological committments, and eventually to move away from Tractarianism toward a more classically Anglican position.

    FWIW, given the above, the Reformed counter-critique to the Baptist outlook is to ask on what grounds we exclude the children of believers from the Church. To borrow a metaphor: Are we grafted into the tree of life only one by one as isolated individuals? Is what naturally branches out from us not also part of the tree? When we see a good tree bud, do we presume it will bear good fruit or bad? When a new branch begins to form off of one already established, do we break it off in expectation that perhaps it will be bad, and graft it back in only once it is shown to be good? Or do we wait to see, expecting it to be good, all the while letting it grow and doing our best to nurture it, and only taking it away if it becomes manifest as a bad branch? This is not so much as argument as an illustration of the kind of thinking at work among those who uphold infant baptism.

  14. BTW, there is a third work closely connected to the other two by Mozley: On the Augustinian Doctrine of Predestination. Mozley, high Augustianin that he was, was careful in his treatise on the baptismal controversy to show how the Reformers combined their understandings of election with their view of sacramental efficacy.

  15. I’ll definitely have to check-out the Mozley.

    To be sure, there is a “perhaps” for the infant, but it’s the same “perhaps” that’s there for the adult.

    Yes, but the adult being baptized is not confessing “I may be saved.” He’s saying “I am saved,” even if he’s wrong. When the Church baptizes an infant, the Church (or parents) are saying, “He/She may be, or will be, saved.” This is all they can say, while the adult coming to be baptized must not add “perhaps” or “maybe,” else he/she should be rejected from receiving baptism.

    As for the root/branches analogy and all other similar familial-covenantal arguments, the Baptist does not really have a problem with them. The problem is why baptism should be involved. What does baptism do? What is it for? If it is for the converted as an expression of conversion, then the infant is not intended for baptism. Whether or not the infant is to be treated as in a special and sanctified union with the believer is not the question (1 Cor. 7:12-16 settles that). The question is whether baptism is meant as a sign of that relation. If baptism is a burying and rising with Christ and a sealing of the Spirit for fruit and conviction, then it seems like a gross over-application of baptism — and distortion of baptism — to make it a sign of the infants “setting apart” in union with a member of the covenant. Baptism thus serves the function of circumcision for the infant, but it serves a rather different function for the adult.

  16. When the Church baptizes an infant, the Church (or parents) are saying, “He/She may be, or will be, saved.”

    Why is that all the Church can say? The parents present the child for baptism because they believe he or she belongs to the household of God and as such is saved. What baptism signifies and seals is thus the same for the adult and the infant. Infant baptism is not a sign of the infant merely being set apart in union with a member of the covenant. Rather, the covenant promise supplies the objective ground for believing that the child is already what in baptism he is named: one of the saints, buried with Christ and risen with him, adopted by God and indwelt by the Spirit. This presumption as made by the Church is no different in infant and adult baptism. The difference lies only in the ground for the presumption. I don’t know if that makes sense put so briefly, but if it helps, Nigel Lee, though on the extreme edge of the Reformed world, has put together a number of resources showing how this view is represented in the Reformed tradition.

  17. there is a “perhaps” for the infant, but it’s the same “perhaps” that’s there for the adult. As a Catholic, I agree with this point. In either case, faith must grow after baptism. I was reading something recently that said “you begin to understand it [the impact of one’s baptism] in the encounter with a living Christian companionship.” A living Christian companionship is no doubt the main reason for a resurgence of forms of community among Christians…

  18. One reason I am not Roman Catholic is the all-too-real pattern of “cultural” Catholics who go to church three times–once at their baptism, once at their wedding, once at their funeral. Calvinist paedobaptists can live with that pattern because infant baptism signifies God’s covenant with faithful parents; in the absence of the parent’s faith, it is not surprising to find a faithless child. But the Roman Catholic position sees infant baptism as a sacrament with real effect completely independent of the parental role. It’s hard to reconcile the big difference parental input makes with what I understand of Catholic sacramental theology.

    I’d truly appreciate more information on this point–I’m sure the Catholic teaching on the Fourth Commandment (honor your father and mother) deals with these realities. I’m aware of my own ignorance here!

  19. The parents present the child for baptism because they believe he or she belongs to the household of God and as such is saved.

    But what is the ground of this belief? Does baptism guarantee this salvation? You might as well be saying that every baptized infant is saved in the full extent of the term (as I’ve been using it), i.e., the infant will be with God forever in the consummation of the new creation. Given Reformed presups in the doctrine of election, I don’t see any other way. You can “presume” the infant is saved and treat him or her as such, but you cannot “believe” or “know” it.

    Of course, you can reject the classic Reformed position that baptism does not guarantee or indicate salvation, but I’m presuming that this is not a live option for the Reformed. Here’s my formula:

    Paedobaptism + Perseverance-of-the-saints + Baptism-does-not-indicate-saved = The-baptized-infant-may-be-saved.

  20. The Catholic believes in baptismal regeneration/salvation and rejects the Reformed doctrine of Perseverance, thus the Catholic is not in the same problem as the Reformed. The Catholic believes that baptism for the infant and for the adult does the same thing (both indicating and effecting salvation).

  21. 1. “…Catholic position sees infant baptism as a sacrament with real effect completely independent of the parental role.” No, this was the point of the quote that I cited before this comment: “you begin to understand it [the impact of one’s baptism] in the encounter with a living Christian companionship” (Julian Carron).

    Or here’s the CCC: “Baptism is the sacrament of faith. But faith needs the community of believers. It is only within the faith of the Church that each of the faithful can believe. The faith required for Baptism is not a perfect and mature faith, but a beginning that is called to develop.”

    2. The Catholic Church recognizes all Christian baptisms as valid, provided they follow the New Testament formula. So, this same dynamic should be verifiable even within Protestant communions.

  22. You can “presume” the infant is saved and treat him or her as such, but you cannot “believe” or “know” it.

    The case of the infant and the case of the adult are identical in this regard. The Church can no more “know” that the one is elect than it can know that the other is. And this does not matter, since it is not the place of the Church to pry morbidly into the hidden things of God. Thus all are admitted to baptism with the same presumption: that they are in fact what in the sacrament they are called. In the eyes of the Church the baptized infant is regenerate and elect, just as the baptized adult is regenerate and elect.

    At the end of the English baptismal office the priest prays:

    We yield thee most hearty thanks, most merciful Father, that it hath pleased thee to regenerate this Infant with thy Holy Spirit, to receive him for thine own Child by adoption, and to incorporate him into thy holy Church. etc.

    The prayer thanks God because before the Church the child is regenerate. The Church may be wrong to see the child as regenerate. She may equally be wrong to see a given baptized adult as regenerate. But unless and until the presumption is rebutted, that is what the Church sees.

  23. Thomas Boston, among the greatest of Scots Presbyterians, articulated the same view presented above.

    First, he accepted that only believers should be baptized:

    “If none have a right to baptism before the Lord but real saints, then none have a right to it before the church but visible saints.”

    Then, he explained how this view is consistent with infant baptism:

    “Now, all this doth no way prejudice the right of infants to baptism coram ecclesia; for the infants of visible believers are no less visible believers than they themselves are, seeing the Lord declares himself to be not only the believer’s God, but the God of his seed.”

    He cites various Reformed authorities in support of his position. The passage can be read in full here.

  24. I’m not locked into any one theological position (sometimes I get so openminded I worry that my brains might fall out), but I generally start with Reformed Baptist assumptions.

    As I understand the Reformed position, regeneration is a divine act that precedes human faith. God must transform a dead spirit into a living one before it can see the Kingdom of God; the heart of stone must become flesh before it can beat. I guess I can see how an infant’s baptism, if it REALLY resulted in regeneration, could make it possible for the little child to respond with true faith from the very beginning. In such a case, the “faith of a little child” might actually be “saving faith.”

    But the minute I go there, I get all tangled up again–because that makes the baptism of adult converts more or less impossible. If it takes “regeneration” for human eyes to see the Kingdom, the adult can’t be converted until he is baptized, and he can’t be baptized until he is converted.

    (This is the problem with trying to apply categories with specific meanings in one tradition to questions about another.)

    Here’s a question for the committee–is the adult convert to Catholicism “regenerate” when he decides to get baptized? Do you need to “see the Kingdom” to want to enter it?

  25. is the adult convert to Catholicism “regenerate” when he decides to get baptized? Do you need to “see the Kingdom” to want to enter it?

    CCC 1248 The catechumenate, or formation of catechumens, aims at bringing their conversion and faith to maturity, in response to the divine initiative and in union with an ecclesial community. The catechumenate is to be “a formation in the whole Christian life . . . during which the disciples will be joined to Christ their teacher. The catechumens should be properly initiated into the mystery of salvation and the practice of the evangelical virtues, and they should be introduced into the life of faith, liturgy, and charity of the People of God by successive sacred rites.”47

    1249 Catechumens “are already joined to the Church, they are already of the household of Christ, and are quite frequently already living a life of faith, hope, and charity.”48 “With love and solicitude mother Church already embraces them as her own.

    The new life in Christ begins as a seed among the weeds.

  26. John,

    I understand what you are saying, but adult and infant baptism still retain the crucial difference of, in the former, the believer confessing his salvation, and, in the latter, the Church confessing the infant’s salvation. The latter is still not known, even if presumed, while the former is not known to the Church but is known by the individual. The Church trusts the individual’s testimony, which she cannot do in the case of infant baptism.

    So, the issue comes back to what baptism is and who it is for. But, we’ve probably exhausted the issue for now. I’ve enjoyed it. You may like to check-out Paul Jewett’s Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace. Jewett was a professor at Fuller and even an ordained Presbyterian minister, but he eventually accepted the Baptist critique of paedobaptism. You can go to Google Books and and read large portions of the book.

  27. Kevin,

    I think the Church trusts God’s promises, but I agree we probably have exhausted the question for the time being. I’ll look into Jewett’s book. Thanks for the thoughtful interaction.

  28. Baptism is the marker of the people of God. Its function as such does not compete with but complements its signification of rebirth in Christ.

    Does God promise to save his people? Yes, all of them. So the question is: Who belongs to the people of God?

    The chosen people before the Lord consists of those known by God from eternity.

    But we cannot discern who is really elect and who isn’t. From our vantage point, the people of God consists simply of the believing community, those who appear (from our limited, earthbound perspective) to have a saving interest in Christ.

    Who then are we warranted to consider part of the believing community?

    Adult converts who make a credible profession of faith belong to the believing community.

    So too do the children of believers, by virtue of the covenant promise.

    As part of the community of the faithful, the children are themselves regarded as saints, regenerate and having faith according to their capacity.

    To deny them baptism is implicitly to deny, or at best to call into question, their status within the community. For you cannot be within the community and yet not be regarded as a saint; and you cannot be outside the community and yet be considered a saint.

  29. Thanks. I still have concerns about conflation of OT-covenant-circumcision-community thinking with the radical nature of NT baptism as death/resurrection with Christ. In my experience with Reformed covenant theology, this concern is not handled with much precision, if even taken seriously. And there’s the historical consideration (at least, according to Ferguson et al.) that infant baptism arose, not from familial-covenantal considerations, but from considerations of baptismal regeneration and the frailty of infant life.

  30. Yes. Thank you for a fascinating and helpful discussion. Because of this conversation I realize that what’s at stake is a different understanding of faith (at least that’s this Catholic’s perspective)…

  31. As this conversation appears to be winding down, let me just say what a rare pleasure it has been to be part of this kind of discussion. Thank God for the Church, the Word, the Holy Spirit, and the Internet! May each of us who has shared anything here grow in grace as we learn from Him and one another.

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