Does God Predestine Infant Baptisms?

Jan 9th, 2012 | By | Category: Blog Posts

When I was a Calvinist, I began to call myself a “Reformed Catholic.” I wanted to be Reformed, but I wanted to take the church and the sacraments seriously. Of course, if one follows the Westminster Confession, he cannot hold to an Anabaptistic understanding of sacraments. He is bound to hold that the sacraments have a sort of efficacy.

I believed in infant baptism but I did not then believe in baptismal regeneration. The reason for this was clear. Only the elect are regenerated. It is obvious that not everyone who is baptized as an infant demonstrates the behavior of regeneration in adulthood. Therefore, baptismal regeneration was, in my mind, false.

The guiding principle for me was that God’s positive decree of predestination sealed the number of the elect. The action of sacraments, then, could not be perfectly related to human salvation. I nonetheless recognized the language of the Westminster Confession regarding it’s moderate stance on regeneration and baptism. I did not assent to baptism as the “instrumental cause” of regeneration, which is the definition of the Council of Trent. The decree of predestination always held the preeminence.

One day, however, a PCA friend asked, “Well does not God predestine all those infant baptisms?” I had not thought of baptism in this light. Of course, God’s sovereignty included both decrees – that of each particular baptism and that of the salvation of the predestinate.

This forced me to meditate on the disconnect between the economy of salvation and the sacramental economy. If the two were entirely distinct, then the sacraments were superflous and completely unneeded. However, my ecclesiology was high enough to know that this conclusion was false. So this cause me to seek a way to see how “predestined baptisms” and “predestined people” could have some sort of connection.

Of coure, Catholicism has a very nuanced way of handling all of this. The Catholic Faith reveals how baptism is both efficacious and instrumental, but not a guarantee of final predestination. Ultimately, the answer if found in temporal chronology. Sanctifying grace is not something super-temporal (existing in God’s mind as His generic “favor”) but something that is placed into the human soul in time. Grace is a supernatural quality given to the soul. Since this giving happens in time, it can grow or decrease. It can come and it can go. The fact that grace is given in time provided the answer that I needed to solve this mystery.

I learned that the “ordo salutis” or “order of salvation” is not an abstraction but is actually lived out in each person’s life. It’s dynamic – just as human life is dynamic. To be honest, every moment is predestined. Every baptism is just as predestined as the eschaton or the predestined full number of the elect. This flattens out predestination and helps us to appreciate temporal order and chronology.

I hope this helpful and I hope that it generates some interesting conversation in the comments below. Please don’t hesitate to leave a comment.

Godspeed,

Taylor Marshall

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  1. Taylor,

    You seem to be linking a determinsitic “the predestined full number of the elect” with Catholic soteriology which would seem to be intrinsically non-deterministic viz human free choice. This would seem to be contradictory, unless God is keeping count and will take action afer a certain numer is reached. Could you elucidate?

    In the Spirit of the Unity of Christ’s Church,

    -Michael

  2. If memory serves me correctly, the 19th century high-church Reformed theologian John Williamson Nevin highlighted this tension between predestination and the sacraments in Calvin.

  3. Dear Michael,

    That’s a good question.

    God will not “take action” suddenly after a certain number is complete. God takes action for each and every salvation. Moreover, God already knows the number of the souls that will be saved and the number of those who will be damned.

    Catholic soteriology does teach the number of the elect. The Roman Canon (in the NO, it’s Eucharistic Prayer 1) prays:

    “et in electorum tuorum iubeas grege numerari” or “and order us to be numbered among the flock of your elect.”

    Predestination is a Pauline word and thus a Catholic word.

    ad Jesum per Mariam,
    Taylor Marshall

  4. Dear Dan Young,

    Yes, JW Nevin seems to have held to a high-Lutheran doctrine of baptism. The continental Reformed scholars were more inclined to this, whereas the English and Scottish Calvinists were revolting from Anglicanism and thus they tend to have lower views of baptism.

    Nevin may even have believed in baptismal regeneration. Perhaps others more familiar with his doctrine would know better. It’s been 10 years since I’ve read Nevin so I cannot be sure about it.

    ad Jesum per Mariam
    Taylor

  5. Michael, it depends on the emphasis. To deny either free will or predestination is heresy. How can both be true? How can God be man? How can the Trinity be One? How can God be Eucharist? All are mysteries and we can no more fit this rationally in our mind than we can put the entire ocean in a bucket. There have been Catholic attempts such as Molinism ( http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10437a.htm ), which even many Calvinists such as Alvin Plantinga or William Lane Craig subscribe to, but in the end its just speculation. Personally I don’t feel comfortable with Molinism because it seems to imply that God is a helpless machine that is trying to optimize his system of universes based on a set criteria.

    As for every baptism being predestined, it might be. But according to the Catechism, Catholics are judged more severely than non-Catholics so predestining baptism implies necessitating a harsher judgment on some people (especially Catholics who fall away and become Protestant). So I think it’s a bit problematic if you want to pin God down too much, just as its problematic if you want to rationally pin your spouse down too much.

  6. Anil,

    I am prepared to call this a mystery and of course if the Church in Her wisdom has said as much, then I defer to Her. Even the teacher I once had in the Westminster Catechism said as much in so many words.

    -Michael

  7. Wonderful article. The description of how grace is not super-temporal, that God’s grace is lived out and experienced (both in increases and decreases) in time, leaves Calvinism looking silly, and superstitious.

  8. I personally try to constantly keep in mind that this is one of the most evasive and mysterious aspects of the Christian religion. As correctly stated above in previous posts, it is a failure of man’s finite mind to fully understand the fundamental mystery of man’s existence in relation to God and the human condition…of how God can know what choices we will make from an eternal vantage point, while at the same time preserve man’s freedom to choose good, better, and best.

    God’s eternal gaze is mysterious (in the sense that we will never fully wrap our minds around it). This limitation of the finite mind is what led the Arians, Monotheletists, and Calvinist into unorthodox views. This is also obviously why it is imperative for any thinking Christian to lean upon Sacred Tradition…especially early Tradition. The denial of the universality of the salvific will of God and the restriction of the merits of Christ’s passion to the elect are only natural consequences of the fundamental principles of Calvin’s invented doctrine of predestinarianism.

    One book that has helped me tremendously with such mysteries is “Theology and Sanity” by Frank Sheed (Im sure its been read by most here). This book more than any other has helped my finite microbial mind somewhat tie it all together. This great apologetic work has at least helped me to gradually submit my imagination to the service of the intellect (and not the other way around).

    I also love Archbishop Sheen’s poetic and simplistic statement:

    “Ever since the days of Adam man has been hiding from God and saying God is hard to find. The truth is that in each heart there is a secret garden which God made uniquely for himself. The garden is like a safety deposit vault inasmuch as it has two keys. God has one key hence the soul cannot let in anyone else but God. The human heart has the other key hence not even God can get in without man’s consent. God is always at the garden gate with His key. We pretend to look for ours saying we cannot find it, but all the while it is in our hand did we but will to see it.”

    Great article!

  9. The tension between the efficacy of the sacraments and predestination is one of the main reasons for the Federal Vision in Presbyterianism. FV Presbyterians rightly understand the WCF to teach that the sacraments are effectual (WCF 27:3) yet the WCF also teaches in 3:7 a pretty rigid view of predestination. The purpose of the FV is to synthesize these two tensions. Some might hold a fairly conservative view and say that the sacraments are only effectual for the elect who are predestined unto eternal life. Other FV advocates say that everyone is regenerated by the sacrament of baptism but not all people persevere in this state (Steve Wilkins is one of the proponents of this view). It was from studying the FV view that the sacraments really are effectual that opened me up to Catholicism. Thanks Federal Vision!

  10. Rom. 3:1-4 seems to anticipate an objection such as this, does it not? God temporarlly blesses the reprobate who are under the external administration of his covenant, but if they ultimately fail to believe, it is their fault, and their failure does not denigrate God’s faithfulness or the promises he has annexed to his sacraments.

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