One of the several contentious issues that pits Anglican against Anglican today is the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. Unlike other controversies, such as the insights or errors of women’s ordination, or the insights or errors of adopting elements of the Pentecostal tradition into our own, the question of baptismal regeneration is actually directly addressed within our own formularies. The question surrounding baptism, thus, is not simply one of biblical interpretation, but also of the interpretation of our formulary documents. As with many controversies in any age, proponents of different views are often considered to be of different parties within the church, which often leads us to a stalemate in dialogue. The key, especially within our own Anglican tradition, is if we are able to find common ground before the separation of our respective parties, and in the case of baptismal regeneration we do have such examples of agreement.
One Thursday in early July of 1791, the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Moore preached at St. George’s Chapel in New York City, a sermon called The Doctrine of Regeneration Asserted and Explained. He would in a few years’ time go on to be the second bishop of New York in the newly-minted Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. Popular history may remember him better as the man who gave last communion to Alexander Hamilton in 1804 after moving him to repentance of his fatal duel.
This time period is particularly useful to us as it represents our church before the controversies of the Tractarian movement, yet benefits from the settlement after the Interregnum and Restoration and Glorious Revolution of the 17th century. Sometimes the 18th century is painted as a dry and bleak time for the Church of England and its newly-founded American counterpart, but others have shown that church life then was not as dead we might think.
Moore’s 1791 sermon on regeneration is a brief and accessible read for the modern eye, and gives us a valuable insight into what was likely the ordinary Anglican teaching on the subject of baptism. The outline is simple. He begins with a reading from Titus 3:5, and then explains its immediate context. Then he offers what my preaching professors call The Big Idea:
I mean, first, to call your attention to the natural state and condition of mankind; secondly, to explain the terms, the washing of Regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; and, lastly, to deduce some practical inferences from this important doctrine.
On the natural state and condition of mankind he cites the Scriptures, the Baptismal service in the Prayer Book, the Catechism, and Article IX to proclaim the doctrines of the fall, and of original sin. That established, he asks (not unlike a preacher today might ask):
Is there no way of restoration to the Divine Favour? Is there no method provided, by which men are to be taken out of their natural state, and made members of Christ’s Church, children of God, and heirs of the kingdom of Heaven?
This leads him to the doctrine of regeneration in holy baptism. And yet, he prefaces it with a request to “lay aside all prejudice and partiality, and simply attend to the doctrines of Scripture, and the avowed principles of our own and other reformed Churches.” He clearly expects some measure of resistance to this doctrine, making this a handy resource for Anglicans today where once again we find a number of opponents to this doctrine among our ranks.
In his defense of baptismal regeneration, Moore begins with a historical point that the Jews utilized baptism for the “regeneration or new-birth” of Gentiles into Israel. This, he argues, is the foundation for the words of our Lord himself, particularly in John 3, regarding the need to be born again by water and the spirit, and when Nicodemus fails to understand this Jesus is surprised. He paraphrases Jesus’ reply thus:
“Art thou a person, who might reasonably be supposed to be well acquainted with all the customs and common modes of speech of thine own nation, and yet knowest not, that to be born again signifies a translation, by the Rite of Baptism, from the world, into the Church of God?” In exact conformity to this doctrine, the Apostle, in the text, alluding to Baptism, calls it “the washing, or (as it might be more properly translated) the Laver of Regeneration.”
Moore, at this point, digs into our formularies for support. He cites Article XXVII on Holy Baptism, he cites the Baptismal Office in the Prayer Book – “We yield thee hearty thanks, most merciful Father, that it hath pleased thee to regenerate this infant with thy Holy Spirit, and to receive him for thine own child by adoption”, and then also refers to the Heidelberg Catechism, two Presbyterian Catechisms, and the Methodists’ Articles of Faith to demonstrate:
[W]hat an exact uniformity of doctrine runs thro’ all these instances which I have produced; and the sum of the whole is this, that man, as he comes into this world, is born in sin, and a child of wrath; that God, in mercy, hath provided a method to rescue him from this sad condition; that Baptism is the only instituted mode of taking us out of a wicked world, and making us children of God by adoption; and that those, whose natural state and condition is thus changed, are said to be regenerate, or born again.
Then he turns to the aforementioned opposition. Again, this is valuable to the 21st-century reader because these same objections are still even now raised against adherents of the historic doctrine. The first objection is that we attribute too much power to the rite of Baptism. This is answered by appeal to the Word of God, wherein the exact same significance is afforded to the sacrament. One of his examples is the miraculous call of St. Paul on the road to Damascus – despite his great encounter with the risen Christ, he still required Ananais, a minister of the Gospel, to come and administer the washing away of his sins. His Scriptural references are followed with a reference to the Creed and to the Prayer Book, which asserts in a concluding rubric “It is certain by God’s word, that the children which are baptised, dying before they commit actual sin, are undoubtedly saved.” If they can be saved, Moore points out, then baptism must have washed away the stain of original sin.
The second objection concerns the perennial issue of those who are baptized and ultimately turn away from God. Was the grace of God ever truly given? Was baptism any help for such a reprobate? Yes, he declares:
When baptised persons fall into sin, they are never, in the New Testament, exhorted to be regenerated, to be put into a new family. That is supposed [understood] to have been once done in Baptism. But, they are commanded to repent and turn unto God–to be converted from the evil of their ways; so that they may not lose their right to the blessings of the Gospel-covenant, into which they were admitted by Baptism, the Laver of Regeneration.
His sermon concludes with appeals to faith in Christ in light of his sure and certain work of grace in holy baptism, appeals to heartfelt worship and works out of love and gratitude, and appeals to earnest participation in the sacrament of Holy Communion for our continual nourishment and strengthening.
As may perhaps now be apparent, this is a helpful homily when it comes to the often-tricky issue of explaining to the 21st century Anglican the historic doctrine of baptismal regeneration. Many of us, these days, came from evangelical churches where baptism was treated merely as a sign of personal profession of faith, not a sacrament as such. In my admittedly-anecdotal personal observation, it is the sacramentality of baptism that is the final make-or-break doctrine for most evangelicals pondering the Canterbury Trail.
What this homily does, that many of our explanations today do not do, is to appeal to agreement on this matter with other Reformed Churches. Modern discourse on baptismal regeneration is typically weighed down with Anglo-Catholic baggage, a symptom of doctrinal drift since the Tractarians and the Oxford Movement. Moore shows us that we need not look to Rome, or Wittenburg, or even appeal to “historic Western Catholicism” to claim the language of baptismal regeneration, and proclaim the washing away of sin, original and actual, in the sacrament. We need not utilize loaded terms like ex opere operato, the Scriptures, the Articles of Religion, and the Prayer Book are together clear and sufficient. Thus where some today can be squeamish about our classical doctrine of baptism, homilies such as Moore’s can help us reclaim other ways of proclaiming the same truth the Church has always proclaimed since the beginning:
Repent and be baptised every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins.