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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15

The Book of Common Prayer and the Doctrine of Baptismal Regeneration

A commentary on the book “An Attempt to Determine the Sense of the Book of Common Prayer on the Doctrine of Baptismal Regeneration” (Seely), by Rev. J. N. Green Armytage of Lancaster.

From The Baptist Magazine, 1843

The present is an age eminently controversial on many subjects, but on none, perhaps, more so than on those which relate to religion. It is not without great hope that we regard the progress of modern controversy, and although the conflict be painful and afflictive we anticipate the most salutary and glorious results. In the history of our world the plan of divine providence is being rapidly developed,—the harvest is drawing nigh; but this general progress is perfectly compatible with alternations of light and darkness, just as the approach of the summer is consistent with sunshine and rain and with the changes of day and night.

The religious controversies of the age will end, we believe, in the discovery and triumph of truth, and in the eventual establishment of righteousness and peace. They seem to differ from similar controversies of any past age, in the fact that they are more general, being on such various topics, and carried on by such various parties, as to ensure, by the very number of the combatants and the subjects of dispute, a fair field and no favour.

As Baptists, downright nonconformists, the ultra-protestants, if men please so to term us, of the age in which we live, we can scarcely forbear a quiet, gentle, and we will say too good-natured, smile over the volume before us. It is, decidedly, a book worth reading, creditable to the author's intellectual vigour, and prompted, we do not doubt, by sterling sincerity and honesty of purpose. The Book of Common Prayer,—although, we confess, with our strictly Scriptural eyes we could never quite see it so,—we always supposed to be, in the estimation of its upholders, a clear, consistent, and explicit enunciation of Christian doctrine.

We thought that the book generally, and more especially the articles, were intended by certain civil and ecclesiastical functionaries, under whose authority they are published, "to conserve and maintain the church in unity of true religion and in the bond of peace, and not to suffer unnecessary disputations, altercations, or questions to be asked which may nourish faction both in the church and commonwealth." It is true that the wisdom of the means which were intended to promote this end always appeared to us rather dubious, but we never doubted that such was the design which the advocates of the Book of Common Prayer intended faithfully to promote. The book has now been in circulation for no less a space of time than two hundred and fifty years.

It might be a fair, and not altogether irrelevant question, to ask, whether it has answered its end? Whether within the church, whose especial unity and uniformity in faith and practice it was intended to promote. There be any result to compensate all the energy by which it has been defended and sustained, and the pains and penalties by which it has been enforced. If we can suppose our readers, in simple ignorance of ecclesiastical history and of the present condition of religious parties in these kingdoms, making such an inquiry, we are sure they would be astonished to discover in reply, that a book which was ordained to promote unity has ever since its introduction caused two kingdoms to ring with strife; is even now so little understood by its advocates.

It is quite necessary, two hundred and fifty years after its publication, to write treatises of considerable length and ability to explain its meaning in relation to some of the most important parts of Christian truth; and that even when these are written, not one half of the admirers of the prayer book will thank the labourer for his toil, or be at all satisfied with its results. And yet, however much astonishment the serious contemplation of them may awaken, these are facts which few will have the hardihood to deny, and none be able to disprove.

We submit, that by withdrawing the prayer-book altogether they could not do harm, and they might possibly do great good. Searchers for truth might then look right into the Scriptures themselves, rather than be encumbered with the imperfect inventions and second-hand thoughts of men of like passions with themselves.

Although for our own guidance it be a matter of little importance as to what is the exact meaning of the prayer book on certain solemn topics of which it ambiguously treats, yet we cannot be so far indifferent to the spiritual welfare of the thousands who in authority esteem it in dubious proximity with the words of inspiration, as to regard without interest any inquiry concerning what the prayer-book really does teach. We will therefore, as briefly as may be consistent with fairness, lay before our readers a statement of Mr. Armytage's theory on the subject of which he writes. It is one on which, if we mistake not, he represents more or less the opinions of many members of the English Church.

The author begins by citing those passages in the service of the church for the ministration of the public baptism of intents, which appear most plainly to assert the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. He discusses three modes of interpreting them, and proposes a fourth which he considers the true one. The first is that which supposes the positive efficacy of the sacraments, if rightly administered. It is the view of the tractarian party in Oxford, and of a very large portion of the clergy of the establishment. This theory Mr. Armytage explicitly and vigorously repudiates and opposes.

The second method of interpretation is that which supposes the ordinance of baptism to be intended to attest regeneration rather than to confer it; assuming that all subjects of baptism are already regenerate before coming to that ordinance. In treating of this theory our author experiences no difficulty in proving that it is not the theory of the prayer-book. He labours to show that it is not that of the Bible, by citing texts of Scripture which affirm baptism to be the means of conferring spiritual blessing.

This fact, it appears to us, may be admitted, without overturning the theory with which our author supposes it incompatible. We can see no reason why baptism may not be the sign of having received spiritual blessing, and the means of conferring it also. It remains for our author to prove,—and this is the most difficult task,—that the blessings before baptism are not regeneration, and that those which follow necessarily are.

The third theory is that which supposes the phrases of the baptismal service the language of charitable hope. With an honesty which we were glad to meet with, he plainly asserts the unreasonableness of such a hope in regard to the great majority of infants brought to receive baptism. His own theory we will allow him to explain in his own words:

"It appears that, according to Scripture and the Church of England, regeneration, or the new birth, is not either faith or repentance, or both of these together, however true and truly effected by divine grace they may be, but something more and greater; inasmuch as faith and repentance are necessary in order that by baptism regeneration may be obtained and experienced."…"My position is, that repentance and faith, sincere and true, are always the prerequisite qualifications; and baptism a divinely ordained, and therefore generally, though not universally, requisite means for obtaining spiritual regeneration; and that this spiritual regeneration consists in the remission of sins, adoption, the gift of the Holy Ghost, and salvation; according to Acts 2:38, and Mark 16:16. I am not denying, or doubting, that true repentance and faith are the special work of the Holy Spirit in the soul of man; but I am maintaining that these are not, in propriety of language, regeneration."

In expounding this theory, our author frequently and carefully guards his readers against any supposed necessary efficacy in the administration of baptism, confining himself to the definition of a sacrament as furnished by the Church of English, viz, that it is a sign, means, and pledge of spiritual blessing. Differing widely as we do from our author’s opinions regarding the extent to which the ordinance is to be administered, we find in part a correspondence between our own ideas of the nature and importance of Christian baptism and the theory which he propounds and advocates.

In our estimation baptism is not a meagre and trivial form, but in it, as in all acts of obedience to the will of Christ, there are blessing and life. The texts of Scripture in which baptism is spoken of as connected with spiritual blessing appear to us, whatever ambiguity may otherwise attach to them, plainly to teach that the administration of this Christian ordinance is intended not only to be a sign of blessings already received, but a means of communicating continued life and health to the soul. Entertaining this opinion, we still reject with abhorrence the doctrine of sacramental efficacy, and assign to obedience to the Christian institution of baptism no privilege distinct in kind from those which belong to every act of dutiful submission to the will and authority of the great Head of the church.

Granting, however, thus much in accordance with Mr. Armytage's theory, there yet remains the question as to whether the blessing received and communicated from heaven in baptism, rightly administered, is entitled to the distinct name of regeneration, or whether it be not of a more general nature. The theory of our author seems to us to analyze and divide what is incapable of analysis and division. The condition of a soul brought into communion with its God is described, as it appears to us, in the New Testament, by various words according as it is beheld in various aspects.

The condition which these words describe is but one and the same, though it receives different names. Faith, repentance, hope, pardon, new birth, life, salvation, and other terms, describe the condition of the soul according to various aspects and in relation to different objects. There is a unity belonging to all these which admits of their being distinguished, but not of their separation. A soul exercising true repentance must possess also true faith, and is already a partaker of regeneration.

The theory of Mr. Armvtage separates faith and salvation,—making the one a qualification for baptism, and the other a blessing bestowed in or after it. On what ground rests this separation, and why does man put asunder what God has joined together? There may be an order in the manifestation of these spiritual states, but the presence of the one is a sure index, without any intervening ritual observance, of the presence, or certain succession, of the others.

There is no text which especially and clearly connects the blessing of regeneration with baptism. The passage quoted by our author, in John 3:6, has no more certain reference to baptism than the words of our Lord to the woman of Samaria respecting the water that he would give her. Both these, together with Titus 3:6, refer to the cleansing operation of the Holy Spirit —the inward spiritual grace of which water baptism is the outward sign. Mr. Armytage must allow us, prepared as we are to grant that baptism is a means of conveying spiritual blessing to the believing and obedient subject, to deny that it is a means of specifically conferring regeneration, or that any such wide distinction exists as that which he supposes, between that phrase and others made use of to denote the presence and action of spiritual life.

There are other topics on which we are widely at variance with our author; especially that of the subjects of this Christian ordinance. Plainly does he assert that faith and repentance are necessary to baptism; candidly does he admit "that there is no positive injunction to baptize infants at all, nor is a single instance of the baptism of infants expressly recorded in the whole New Testament;" but yet does be labour to prove that the same principles which regulate the baptism of the adult are observed in that of the infant.

Every infant, according to him, "is in baptism federally regenerated with the Holy Ghost; he is no more than federally regenerated, because he is no more than federally penitent and faithful; has only given his solemn pledge and covenant promise, signed and sealed in baptism, unto God, that he will repent and believe." Yet, as our author honestly observes and feebly attempts to explain, the service of the church says God has regenerated the child, and he is made a member of Christ.

Whatever be our estimate of Mr. Armytage's theory as it regards its correspondence with scriptural truth, we have a firm conviction that it is contrary to the meaning of the authors of the prayer-book. We interpret that book according to its literal and grammatical sense, aided by the knowledge which we possess of the circumstances and opinions of its framers. It was prepared by men emerging from the darkness of popery, who had scarcely had time to rid themselves of the prolonged errors and prejudices of past ages.

We would not say that it is discreditable to their knowledge or piety, considering the position they occupied and the times in which they lived. Our regret is mingled with astonishment that the Common Book of Prayer should continue to entrammel so many men of strong and honest minds. It is indeed high time for the sons of true Christianity to put away childish things. Our anxiety for the church which Christ has purchased with his blood makes us eagerly long for the period when the green withes will be broken asunder (Jud. 16:7), and the servants of the Lord rejoice in the freedom and might of truth.