Chapter 15. John Calvin and John Wesley on Infant Baptism
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John Calvin, the founder of the Presbyterian and some of the Reformed churches, based his principal argument for infant baptism on God’s covenant of grace in which he believed the children of Christian parents to be in a sense included. Nevertheless he did not hold that all children of Christians are in a real sense within God’s covenant of grace. He believed that there are non-elect (“reprobate”) infants who are not included in God’s grace nor are worthy-members of the Christian church, though they be born of Christian parents. The fact that in his opinion not all such infants are of the elect is ignored in his defence of infant baptism.
While Calvin baptized the children of church members, he taught that the children of unbelievers. Papists and heathen must not be baptized until they believe and confess their faith. But he himself and his leading coworkers were the children of Papist parents and were only in their infancy baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. Like Zwingli he made circumcision one of his principal arguments.
His teaching on the meaning and import of baptism is not favorable, in fact, to the practice of infant baptism. His position on the relation of the church to the state and rejection of the Voluntary Principle made infant baptism necessary.
William Farel, Calvin’s predecessor in Geneva and one of the principal Calvinist Reformers, in the first period of his labors clearly recognized believers’ baptism to be more scriptural than infant baptism. It is not improbable that in that period he rebaptized the converts from Romanism upon the confession of their faith. He says in 1527:
“Many people fail to see what it means to enlist under Christ, what it means to be willing to serve him, to place everything in subordination to the law of God, walking and continuing in newness of life … and hence are not willing in the presence of Christian people to be baptized in the water, and to proclaim openly that which they believe in their heart, that they may become dearer to the brethren and more closely bound to Christ by this solemn profession — a practice which ought to be observed by older persons who flee to us for refuge from the impious [Papists], if the various ordinances are to be rightly dispensed, as John the Baptist began and Christ taught.”
Among the prominent reformers in Christian history there is none whose attitude toward infant baptism was more inconsistent than that of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church. His position regarding this question is explained by his attitude toward the Church of England. His aim was to organize, within the English state-church, societies consisting of believers only. After toleration was denied them in the mother church, John Wesley nevertheless made that church his model, desiring to conform to it as much as possible in doctrine and practice. Even after their separation from the Church of England his followers never constituted a state church but continued to defend and practice infant baptism.