Toplady is most famous now not for, e.g., his dispute with John Wesley or his translation of Zanchi on predestination that led to that dispute (see link above), but as a writer of hymns such as “Rock of Ages” and “A Debtor to Mercy Alone.”1
But Toplady is also the author of, among other things, a work entitled The Church of England Vindicated from the Charge of Arminianism; and the Case of Arminian Subscription Particularly Considered: in a Letter to the Rev. Dr. Nowell. Occasioned by Some Passages in that Gentleman’s Answer to the Author of Pietas Oxoniensis. In the course of attempting to rebut the Arminian charge that a Calvinistic soteriology with respect to election and perseverance is inconsistent with the Church of England’s view of baptism. Particularly, what of the relation between baptism and regeneration? Are they indissolubly linked? If so, then why do some of the baptized fall away?
Toplady introduces the topic as follows:
In farther opposition to the doctrines of predestination and perseverance, you appeal to our baptismal office….That part of it, on which you seem to lay the greatest stress, is, where the church appears to take the regeneration of the baptized for granted. From whence Arminians would endeavour to infer, that, since many baptized persons persist finally in sin, and maybe be supposed to perish at last, therefore the regenerate are not secured from absolute apostacy. (94, emphasis original, as elsewhere in this post)
Toplady agrees that “baptism is TYPICAL regeneration” and that it “incorporate[s]” a person “into the visible church.” He then continues:
From the maturest consideration of what our church has delivered concerning the nature and effect of this sacrament, it appears to me, that, in her judgment, the administration of Baptism is very frequently attended with the true, real, renovating influences of the Holy Ghost: which influences being internal, spiritual, and invisible, and consequently not to be discerned by the Baptizer; he is directed to acquaint the by-standers with the charitable hope of the church, both in his subsequent address to the sponsors, and in his presumptive thanksgiving to Almighty God. (94)
But “very frequently” does not mean “always,” so one’s account of baptism must be able to take account of the complexities found therein. Thus he says:
Yet, I can no where find, that the church pretends to tye the regenerating grace of the Spirit, to the bare administration of this ordinance: as if that infinitely glorious and absolutely independent Person always seconded the good intentions of the church, by invariably crowning that rite with real regeneration. The church of Rome, indeed, bawls out, that every sacrament does, ipso facto, confer grace ex opere operato, and curses them that will not believe it; as also, that Baptism impresses I know not what spiritual mark on the soul, even such a mark as can never be effaced: which assertion she likewise arms with a sting in the tail; pronouncing them accursed who deny it. But our own church has nothing like this. (94-5)
Toplady goes on to sketch the differences: for the Church of England, he says, baptism is “An outward and visible SIGN of an inward spiritual grace“; it is a “means“; it is a “pledge” that gives us assurance. “Baptism itself, therefore, is not regeneration, but a sign, or type of it” and must be accompanied by “the inward and spiritual grace,” which sometimes does not occur (all quotations from p. 95). He then draws the inference: “I conclude from hence, that, in the judgment of the church of England, Baptism and internal Regeneration (the former being, simply considered in itself, only a sign or symbol of the latter) are two distinct things” (96).
Because this is so, a high view of the administration of baptism coupled with the reality of apostasy does not overthrow predestination, in Toplady’s view:
[T]herefore, the subsequent apostacy of some baptized persons does not in the least (as Bishop Burnet would infer, and you from him) shake the doctrine either of immutable predestination on God’s part, or of infallible perseverance on the part of the truly regenerate. (96)
It is at this point that the issue of those dying in infancy arises. Thomas Nowell, the addressee of this work, had raised this point in the work to which Toplady is responding in order to show, one gathers, that regeneration goes hand-in-glove with baptism. The argument runs: baptism regenerates; a proof of this is that our church believes that all the baptized dying in infancy are regenerated. “Where then,” Nowell says, “is your doctrine of absolute, irrespective predestination, and reprobation, which would include children as well as adults, being as you represent it ‘an absolute choice of some in preference of others, even before the children are born, or have done good or evil'” (p. 110).
Toplady responds by saying (more or less) “distinguo“: that is, he distinguishes between infants in general and those dying in infancy, and then ups the ante, as it were, in his answer. He writes:
But, you observe, page 109, that, “With regard to infants, the Rubrick declares, It is certain by God’s word, that children, which are baptized, dying before they commit actual sin, are undoubtedly saved.” I firmly believe the same. Nay, I believe more. I am convinced, that the souls of All departed infants whatever, whether baptized or unbaptized, are with God in glory. And I think my belief warranted by an authority which cannot err, Matt. xviii. 14.–You have, therefore, no occasion to lug in children by the head and shoulders, page 110, and to ask, with an air of insult, where then is the “Doctrine of absolute, irrespective predestination, and reprobation, which would include children as well as adults?” I believe, that, in the decree of predestination to life, God hath included all whom he hath decreed to take away in infancy: and that the decree of reprobation has nothing to do with them. (96, bolding mine)
Mark here the way in which Toplady’s view about the salvation of all those dying in infancy follows as one possible inference (not the only possible inference) from the fact that baptism and regeneration are not indissolubly linked: one can be saved without it (contrast Augustine in the previous post). Toplady couples this with the authority of Matthew 18.14 (“So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish”[ESV]) and concludes that his belief that God predestines to life “all whom he hath decreed to take away in infancy” is warranted.
- The words of this hymn are wonderful, though I confess that I find it almost unsingable when set to Llangristiolous, as it is in the old Trinity Hymnal, a tune that strikes me awkward in itself and furthermore incompatible with the words themselves. The revised Trinity Hymnal uses the tune Trewen, though that too is in a minor key, which is perhaps a little odd given what Toplady is saying.