Archive E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism Responsa

No, You Cannot Kidnap Your Neighbor for Christ

This article has recently been making the rounds. Though the bizarre defense of this truly bizarre case of the institutional-church-as-Child-Protective-Services is ripe for so much–SO MUCH–trolling (for it opens up a hole for church power wide enough to drive a truck full of hostage children through), I shall restrain myself, though, given that the article valorizes the piety of the forcible seizure of children, it’s really, really difficult. πάθει μάθος and all that.

I only wish to focus here on one small piece of the problem, namely, the sacrament of baptism. For it is a deficient understanding, and a consequent overweighting, of the sacrament of baptism that leads in part to a situation like that one addressed in the article.

The misunderstanding to which I refer has to do with what baptism is: its connection to salvation and its proper subjects. Correspondingly, the points I wish to make are two: (1) the sacrament of baptism is an ordinance of the Abrahamic covenant of promise to God’s people, and therefore its proper subjects are professing Christians along with their children; and (2), baptism is not so connected to salvation that one cannot be saved without it.

We can take the Westminster Standards as a convenient guide for the doctrine of the sacrament.

Questions 94 and 95 of the Shorter Catechism set out the matter as follows:

94. What is Baptism?

Baptism is a Sacrament, wherein the washing with water, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, doth signify and seal our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord’s.

95. To whom is Baptism to be administered?

Baptism is not to be administered to any that are out of the visible Church, till they profess their faith in Christ, and obedience to him; but the infants of such as are members of the visible Church are to be baptized.

The Divines draw on the Pauline language for the Abrahamic covenant of circumcision to say that baptism, which replaces circumcision, “signifies” and “seals” one’s incorporation into Christ.

As an extension of the covenant with Abraham, baptism belongs–only–to God’s people. Thus Q. 95 is crucial for the point at issue. Far from being desirable to baptise those outside the visible church, therefore, it is actually impermissible to do so. Adults who come into the church must first profess their faith before receiving the sacrament. Then, by virtue of the covenant (recall that God promised to be God to “you and your children”), the children of such professing Christians may be baptized as well.

The Larger Catechism is slightly more expansive in making the same point, noting that it is not necessary that both parents of an infans baptizandus be believers, but it is necessary that at least one be:

166. Unto whom is Baptism to be administered?

Baptism is not to be administered to any that are out of the visible Church, and so strangers from the covenant of promise, till they profess their faith in Christ, and obedience to him; but infants descended from parents, either both or but one of them professing faith in Christ, and obedience to him, are in that respect, within the covenant, and to be baptized.

Again, the Confession of Faith 28.4:

Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one or both believing parents are to be baptized.

There are good Scriptural reasons for the view sketched above, summarizing, as it does, the way in which God has worked since the days of Genesis.

Why, then, would someone wish to baptize those outside the church? Because they see salvation–mistakenly–as so closely connected with it that there is an anxiety over the eternal state of those who die in infancy without it.

The Confession of Faith, it is true, teaches a version of extra ecclesiam nulla salus, in 25.2:

The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation as before under the law) consists of all those, throughout the world, that profess the true religion, and of their children; and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God,d out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

For our purposes, however, the key word in the above quotation is “ordinary,” an absolutely fundamental and necessary adjunct to the traditional formula. God does ordinarily work through the visible church to bring about the salvation of his people. But he is not bound to do so. This is made clear in the Confession’s statement about providence (5.3):

III. God, in his ordinary providence, maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at his pleasure.

This teaching is reflected in Westminster’s doctrine of baptism as well. Baptism is ordinarily a means of salvation (see WSC Q. 91), but it is one connected to the visible church, and God is free to save those outside the visible church without it. Thus the Confession of Faith 28.5:

Although it be a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated or saved without it, or that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated.

Recall the “ordinary” above: it may be customary for God to work in a particular way, but in the end he can work however he pleases. There is no need for us to take matters into our own hands, as it were, to try to force his–particularly when it comes to such a basic violation of the moral law in the forcible dismantling of families.

And indeed, in the case of those who die in infancy, whether inside or outside of the visible church, there are good grounds for thinking that they are all–all–looked on kindly by the Heavenly Father. I have written about this here, here, here, here, and here. B.B. Warfield’s The Development of the Doctrine of Infant Salvation is also a very helpful historical source.

Some within my own circles would demur from that last suggestion–but they would all agree that God is not bound, and that even if one were to consecrate Niagara Falls and frogmarch the world’s population through them it would not make the Maiden of the Mist the ark of salvation.

The desire to see one’s neighbor saved is never an excuse for breaking the natural or moral law. When it comes to our neighbors who are outside of the visible church, prayer is the true force majeure.


By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.