Sunday, January 06, 2008

Ryle on Baptism

I thought it's worth posting the thoughts of J.C. Ryle, noted 19th century evangelical and Anglican Bishop of Liverpool on the question of infant baptism. These are taken from Knots Untied, chapter 5. I provide only an outline of his thought, and haven't changed the language where I'm quoting him directly. When he was writing, "man" was legitimately gender-inclusive.

What Baptism Is
  • Baptism is an ordinance appointed by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the continual admission of fresh members into His visible Church.
  • Baptism is an ordinance of great simplicity.
  • Baptism is an ordinance on which we may confidently expect the highest blessings, when it is rightly used (which right usage includes faith and prayer).
  • Baptism is an ordinance which is expressly named in the New Testament about 80 times.
  • Baptism is an ordinance which, according to Scripture, a man may receive, and yet get no good from it.
  • Baptism is an ordinance which in Apostolic times went together with the first beginnings of a man's religion.
  • Baptism is an ordinance which a man may never receive, and yet be a true Christian and be saved. The essential baptism is baptism of the Holy Spirit, given to the heart.
The Mode of Baptism

Ryle argues that the Bible does not come down clearly on the side of either sprinkling or immersion, and the BCP clearly allows either. He points out that there are clearly some situations where not everyone could be baptised by immersion (e.g. during a drought), but baptism should still be practiced, and hence that baptism by sprinkling is valid. He also points out that the verb baptizo is used of washing before a meal in Luke 11:38.

To whom ought baptism to be administered?

Ryle argues that both adult converts and children of Christians ought to be baptised. He gives the following arguments for children of Christians.

  • Children were admitted into the Old Testament Church by a formal ordinance.

The general tendency of the Gospel is to increase men's spiritual privileges and not to diminish them. Nothing, I believe, would astonish a Jewish convert so much as to tell him that his children could not be baptized! "If they are fit to receive circumcision," he would reply, "why are they not fit to receive baptism?" And my own firm conviction has long been that no Baptist could give him an answer... I never saw an argument against infant baptism that might not have been equally directed against infant circumcision.

  • The baptism of children is nowhere forbidden in the New Testament. Ryle points out that with so many of the early Church being Jews, they would naturally have assumed their children could be baptised unless it was commanded otherwise.
  • The baptism of households is specially mentioned in the New Testament, and children are not specifically excluded from that.
  • The behaviour of our Lord Jesus to little children, as recorded in the Gospels, is very peculiar and full of meaning.
  • Baptism of little children was a practice with which the Jews were perfectly familiar. When proselytes were received into the Jewish Church by baptism, before our Lord Jesus Christ came, their infants were received, and baptized with them, as a matter of course (ref Lightfoot).
  • Infant baptism was uniformly practiced by all the early Christians (with the single exception of perhaps Tertullian).
  • The vast majority of eminent Christians from the period of the Protestant Reformation down to the present day have maintained the rights of infants to be baptized.

Ryle then agrees that there is no specific command for infant baptism either, but in light of the above points it seems the more logical position for the early Church to hold without needing to be told. He gives the examples of admission of women to the Lord's Supper, which is nowhere commanded in the New Testament.

He then replies to the Baptist argument that only those who repent and believe should be baptized:

In reply to this argument, I ask to be shown a single text which says that nobody ought to be baptized until he repents and believes. I shall ask in vain... To assert that [the Biblical references to baptism] forbid anyone to be baptized unless he repents and believes is to put a meaning on the words that they were never meant to bear...

After all, will anyone tell us that an intelligent profession of repentance and faith is absolutely necessary to salvation? Would even the most rigid Baptist say that because infants cannot believe, all infants must be damned? ... Will any man dare to say that infants cannot receive grace and the Holy Ghost? John the Baptist, we know, was filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother's womb (Luke 1:15). Will anyone dare to tell us that infants cannot be elect - cannot be in the covenant - cannot have new hearts - cannot be born again - cannot go to heaven when they die? ... Yet surely those who may be members of the glorious Church above, may be admitted to the Church below! ... Those who can be capable of being baptized by the Holy Ghost, may surely be baptized with water!

What position baptism ought to hold in our religion
  • Don't despise it
  • Don't make an idol of it
  • Baptism is frequently mentioned in the New Testament, but nowhere near as frequently as some other big topics. It is important, but not the main thing.
  • Baptism is spoken of with deep reverence, and in close connection with the highest privileges and blessings.
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