Baptism

Calvinists considered sacraments as prime examples of the means of grace expressive of the divine accommodation, but from the beginning the ideal of the covenanted church raised sacramental questions. Most of the ministers agreed that baptism, for instance, sealed the church covenant; they agreed also that it sealed the covenant of grace. But as Calvinists they had to avoid the appearance of suggesting that every baptized soul had an automatic claim to God's mercy, so they had to make some distinctions. It proved difficult to attain a consensus on what those distinctions implied.

Baptism, they said, depended entirely on ''the efficacy of the covenant.'' Its ''utmost power'' was ''to signifie, seale, and exhibit'' the spiritual good of the covenant of grace. The sacrament did not create the covenant; it did not enter infants into the covenant, for the covenant holiness of the children of covenanted saints existed prior to their baptism; and it did not seal to every infant all the covenant promises.87

The covenant of grace, Hooker explained, could be distinguished into a ''double covenant'': ''an inward and an outward.'' In the inward covenant stood the faithful elect, who by baptism were sealed for salvation. For others, however, the sacrament sealed only an external covenant membership, and since Hooker held that ''covenant grace is one thing, and saving grace is another,'' he was able to protect himself from insinuations that he overstated the efficacy of the sacrament.88

It sometimes appeared that the ministers could say only that baptism was a pledge and engagement to obedience, but they never intended to deny that baptism was a means of grace, and in the Cambridge Platform of 1648, they asserted explicitly that covenanted, baptized children were ''in a more hope-full way of attayning regenerating grace.'' John Cotton could caution that baptism was annexed only to an outward covenant and then turn around and proclaim that the outward covenant entitled the children of the faithful to the means by which the elect among them would eventually experience ''the grace of the new birth.'' Shepard could even say that the external covenant, sealed by baptism, was in some sense ''absolute'' and that therefore its baptismal seal also had an absolute quality. It was wrong to suppose that ''Circumcision and Baptism seal only conditionally.'' God gave to ''many'' baptized children ''such hearts as they shall not be able to refuse the good'' of the means of grace.89

Puritan parents therefore wished to present their children for baptismal sealing, hopeful that it would eventuate later in conversion. But the theology created practical problems, which emerged as early as i634, when Cotton allowed a grandfather — a church member — to claim the right of baptism for his grandchild, whose parents stood outside the church covenant. Cotton insisted that the grandfather promise to raise the child, but his action was an exception to his normal rule that an infant's right to baptism ordinarily came from the covenant of ''the next immediate parents (or of one of them at least).'' The clergy reached no consensus, and the problems intensified when many of the baptized grew to adulthood without attesting that God had converted their hearts. Could they bring their own infants for baptism? Or did their inability to testify to conversion indicate that they been cast from the covenant? Were their children to have no title to the means of grace? In 1657 the Court of Massachusetts convened the elders, who affirmed the permanent membership of children baptized in New England churches. The elders accorded such baptized but unconverted members the right, upon becoming parents, to have their offspring baptized.90

The decision so disturbed traditionalists that the court called a synod in 1662 to determine a final solution. The gathering reaffirmed the earlier decision. Only the regenerate could receive the Lord's Supper; only regenerate males could vote on church matters. But the baptized retained some church privileges even when they remained unregenerate: they could stand under the ''Watch, Discipline, and Government'' of the church, and they could present their children for baptism. The synod's defenders viewed the policy as the only way to maintain a commitment to both infant baptism and the principle of regenerate membership, which reserved the Lord's Supper for the converted. Critics of the decision would later charge the synod with having created a ''Half-Way Covenant.''91

In the ensuing debates, three issues divided the ministers. Proponents of the synod claimed that baptism sealed a permanent ''personal'' membership. Richard Mather, who wrote the major apologia, said that since the parents in question were "regularly baptized in their own persons,'' they remained "Church members in their own persons.'' Unless expelled for notorious sins, they therefore retained a right to at least some church privileges. But John Davenport of New Haven replied that "personall" members had to take hold of the covenant through "personall faith made visible.'' He thought that baptized children were only "mediate" members, whose standing in the church was incomplete and provisional until they underwent conversion. Their baptism alone conferred no right to bring their children for baptismal sealing.92

Proponents pointed out that baptism signified a promise. Jonathan Mitchell, successor to Thomas Shepard in Cambridge, reminded the dissenters that baptism sealed "unto the party baptized, all the good of the Covenant to be in season communicated and enjoyed.'' At the very least, added John Allin of Dedham, one had to assume that the promise was still extended to the unregen-erate second generation: "Yea are they not Baptized into Christ? Are not the Blood and Benefits of Christ Sealed up to them in Baptism?'' But Davenport replied that the Spirit was a "voluntary Agent, and therefore likened to the wind which bloweth where it listeth,'' impervious to coercion by covenants and covenant seals. He emphasized not the promise but the obligation signified by baptism: it bound "the infant-seed of Confederates to various Gospel duties.'' Under a strong "obligation" to perform their baptismal duties, the unregener-ate children of the second generation had failed.93

Defenders of the synod responded with typological exegesis. Since circumcision was a type for baptism, and since the circumcision with which Abraham sealed his covenant with God had continued through posterity, then baptism also conveyed a title to church privileges that did not evaporate over time. But some of the dissenters were no longer impressed by typological warrants. Charles Chauncy, the president of Harvard College, dismissed the "similitude." Even if the sacrament had been implicitly instituted in the rite of circumcision, he said, the typological analogy was worthless without an additional "explicit and plain'' command. Increase Mather opposed the synodical theologians on their own typological grounds, but Davenport shared Chaun-cy's skepticism: the types no longer convinced.94

The New England churches struggled over the halfway covenant for more than a century. The covenant theology divided them as much as it united them. But covenantalism, and the idea of accommodation implicit within it, balanced the principles of exclusion and inclusion within the church, nature and grace in the doctrine of salvation, and reason and revelation in the understanding of theological knowledge. Their scholastic maxim that revelation remained reasonable even as it stood always above reason and their definition of theology as a practical discipline represented the initial statement in America of assumptions that would define the course of American theology.

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