This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion. Article 27 states:
XXVII. Of Baptism
Baptism is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened, but it is also a sign of Regeneration or new Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed; Faith is confirmed, and Grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God. The Baptism of young Children is in any wise to be retained in the Church, as most agreeable with the institution of Christ.
Unlike some of the 39 Articles of Religion, Article 27 is worded in a way that is extremely pertinent to our 21st century theological situation. The doctrine of Baptism among our fellow Protestants has drastically changed over the centuries, so it is easy for us to lose track of what our historic tradition has received from the Early Church and held on to ever since.
It begins with a negative: Baptism is not just “a sign of profession, and mark of difference” by which a Christian is distinguished from a non-Christian. Practically speaking, this is almost the entirety of what many contemporary evangelicals believe. To be a Christian, they say, you simply need to have faith in Jesus Christ. Baptism is simply a sign or symbol of that new life, and so when we become believers we get baptized in order to declare our faith publicly. Article 27 says no, there’s much more to it than that.
Baptism is also “a sign of Regeneration or new Birth” and an “instrument” to bring about certain effects. While most evangelical protestants can affirm the first phrase, that Baptism is a sign or symbol of regeneration (our new life in Christ), we lose them at the second concept, an “instrument.” Historic biblical Christian teaching tells us that Baptism actually does something; it’s an instrument in the hands of God and the Church to bring about certain effects. And Article 27 lists four things that Baptism does:
- Baptism grafts people (who “receive it rightly” into the Church). This statement can be understood according to slightly different nuances. At the basic level, this affirms that despite its benefits, Baptism does not guarantee its recipient’s salvation. The gift of Holy Baptism must in some way and at some point “received rightly” by the individual; that is, faith in Jesus Christ must complete its good work. Some Anglicans get even more specific in their understanding of this phrase, arguing that even the benefits of Holy Baptism described in this Article are not automatically conferred by the act of Baptism unless the sacrament is received rightly. However one parses this out, the basic fact remains that all who are Baptized have become members of the Body of Christ, and are to be called Christian unless or until they specifically forsake the name of Christ.
- Baptism visibly signs and seals “the promises of forgiveness of sin, and our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost”. At face value, this means that the recipient of Holy Baptism is justified and adopted in the biblical sense. On its own, this phrase is a harsh contradiction with popular evangelicalism today, which attributes such benefits to individual “saving faith” which precedes Baptism. Even Calvinist theology would scorn such an assertion, hence the nuance they tend to make in the previous point. But the next effect of Baptism helps shed more light on this.
- In Baptism, “Faith is confirmed”. This may seem like a statement in accord with modern popular evangelicalism in a context where only adult believers are baptized, but considering Anglicans also baptize infants, this is an interesting statement. Since the Enlightenment, the concept of faith has been strongly associated with the mind and the will, as if only the mature thinker can truly be said to “have faith” in anything. But this does not accord either with the Scriptures or with reason. Take, for example, the preaching of St. Peter on the day of Pentecost: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:38-39). Consider also the severely mentally handicapped, who grow up never being able to understand Christianity with their intellect – are they incapable of having faith? Rather, we understand faith is a gift from God which manifests in the intellect if and when the intellect is sufficiently developed, but may be resident in the person’s heart regardless. In this light, Holy Baptism “confirms” the faith even of an infant. He or she is being raised in the knowledge and love of the Lord by the parents, their faith is said to be child’s, and so Baptism confirms that faith-by-association.
- In Baptism, “Grace [is] increased by virtue of prayer unto God”. The basic definition of a sacrament is a “means of grace,” and this statement clearly sets forth Baptism as a sacrament. “Prayer unto God” is given here as the means by which the sacrament works, thus reminding us that the baptismal water is not intrinsically magical, or are the formulaic words “I baptize you in the name of…” a magical incantation. Rather, the sacrament is effective by virtue of its prayerful nature. It is God who gives grace, as He has promised to answer such prayers.
Thus in this short Article we have a robust staring point in understanding the sacrament of Holy Baptism. Though to understand Anglican teachings more fully, one must also look at the Baptismal liturgy – what is said and prayed in that service – to get a more complete picture of what is going on in the act of Baptism, and what the status of the baptized person is.
Article 27 ends with a seemingly curt and abrupt sentence, that the baptism of infants is agreeable to the teachings of Christ. In some ways this can be frustrating to modern readers. Infant baptism is extensively derided by evangelical protestants today, written off as unbiblical, and considered pointless or meaningless or invalid. Many people who were baptized as infants and join an evangelical church later in life find themselves getting “rebaptized.” And yet, this Article provides no explanation or defense of infant baptism whatsoever. It would have been handy to have such a resource more readily at our disposal. But the power of this brief statement is this: the idea of adult-only baptism was such a fringe opinion in the 1500’s when this was written that it was even considered worth arguing over. All the English Reformers felt the need to say was that infant baptism was good and valid. What confidence we can find in such a brief declaration! We may feel outnumbered among Protestants on this issue today, but the testimony of history is mightily stacked in favor of infant baptism such that we need not feel threatened by popular fads to the contrary.