A debate arose among Reformed divines in the 1620s and 30s, particularly in England, over the issue of baptismal regeneration. A variety of interpretations of passages like Titus 3:5 and 1 Peter 3:21 were proposed and there was debate over how to interpret Augustine and even Calvin on this issue. In the past it was thought that this debate arose in response to Anabaptist arguments against the propriety of infant baptism. Jay Colier, however, has convincingly argued in his recent book, 1 that the debate was actually set off by the Synod of Dort, specifically the canon affirming the perseverance of all the saints. 2 Prior to Dort, Reformed confessions did not explicitly affirm the doctrine of perseverance, allowing some variation in how the doctrine was taught, though no one outright denied it.
As Colier notes:
While one may find a confession like the Irish Articles (1615) explicitly stating perseverance of all those who are regenerate and have true faith (Art. 38), many Reformed confessions, like the First Helvetic Confession (1536), simply don’t address the topic. Similarly, doctrinal standards like the Belgic Confession (1561) and the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), which many people find conducive to the perseverance of the saints, never clearly state it. And while the tenth chapter of the Second Helvetic Confession (1566) may be suggestive of perseverance of the saints when it identifies those engrafted in Christ by faith with the elect, it does not come out and say that those with true faith cannot lose it. Other confessions, like the Thirty-Nine Articles (1563), speak of the elect attaining everlasting felicity (Art. 17) without ever specifying that everyone with saving faith is elect. This path was even followed by the French Confession (1559) and the Confession of La Rochelle (1571), which were highly influenced by Calvin and the Reformers in Geneva. But the fact that so many Reformed confessions did not require adherence to the perseverance of the saints does not mean that the doctrine was not prominent. To the contrary, the fact that the confessions did not deny it allowed the doctrine to flourish among the Reformed. 3
In affirming and codifying the absolute perseverance of every saint, however, the Synod of Dort and its canons gave a greater sense of urgency to the issue, removing any gray area that would permit a general sort of regeneration for non-elect infants that might be lost when a child reaches maturity.
A related debate had to do with presumptive regeneration, specifically the question of when regeneration takes place in elect infants. Some placed the rationale for infant baptism in a presumption that regeneration has already taken place in elect infants, rather than in the efficacy of baptism itself. According to Witsius, the grace of election must go together with all of the other graces needed for perseverance in order for an elect infant to be truly saved. 4 So, all elect infants are regenerate in utero, and baptism is merely a seal of grace already given.
Reformed divines however, most certainly did not agree on the precise relationship that regeneration has to baptism for infants born to faithful parents. Campagius Vitringa, a Dutch theologian, stated precisely, “Our [theologians] do not agree amongst themselves on the order that baptism has with regard to regeneration.” 5 According to Witsius, there were at least four different opinions on this question among the Reformed.
Some think that regeneration takes place at different periods of time—it may be before, it may be at, or it may be after baptism. Others place it uniformly before baptism. Others teach that infants are baptized unto future regeneration, being incapable of it at the time. Indeed, many contend that God usually confers regeneration upon infants in the very act and moment of baptism. 6
It is worth noting that not all Reformed divines were happy with this diversity. According to Cornelius Burges, a Westminster divine, those who believe that baptism only signifies a future regeneration destroy the nature of the sacrament by separating the sign from the grace signified by it. 7
According to Johannes Maccovius, an influential Polish turned Dutch theologian and professor at the University of Franeker in Holland, regeneration and baptism occur at the same time for infants, though God is certainly not bound by any strict rule when it comes to his grace. Maccovius, a Dortian divine himself, does not address the debated issue of whether all infants (elect and non-elect) receive regenerating grace at baptism, but he affirms that both regeneration and justification happen at baptism for covenant infants.
Though Maccovius’s view may seem more akin to the Lutheran notion of baptismal regeneration, it is likely based on a judgment of charity, that is, an assumption that all covenant infants are elect until they demonstrate otherwise. It is important to note that the judgment of charity is not the same as presumptive regeneration. The debated issue here is when exactly regeneration takes place. What is presumed is that God will use baptism to bring about the regeneration of the infant because of His covenant promises to their parents. David Pareus, for example, was a very influential voice at Dort (though he was present only by letter), and he affirms that not all covenant infants are elect, yet one should use the judgment of charity to presume the best of each child, namely that each will receive the necessary spiritual graces in baptism:
We declare, however, that all children [infantes] of the Church are by baptism justified, regenerated through the Holy Spirit according to the little measure of their age, because of the same promise, which by the saving council of God, usually makes itself known in adulthood. 8
The following is my translation of a selection from “De Baptismo” in Maccovius’s Loci Communes (1650).
The same person is not always baptized with water and the Spirit at the same moment of time … But as the Lord is the freest agent, sometimes water Baptism is apart from Spirit Baptism, as the example of Simon Magus teaches (Acts 8:13ff). Sometimes the Holy Spirit is conferred before and after water Baptism, as in Acts 8:12 & 37-8. Sometimes Spirit Baptism follows immediately, as with infants. For even with infants, to whom belongs the kingdom of heaven, if you look at the divine arrangement [ordinationem], indeed Baptism and justification and Regeneration coincide because of the nature of the covenant: “I will be your God and the God of your children,” Gen. 17:7. But the effect of Baptism is only made known with clear evidence in its own time. For as [the seed] of the word, so also [is] the seed of the Sacraments. As long as the [seed] lies in the earth just as it was placed [there], so does the Lord appear to disperse his grace.
Sin remains in the person baptized with respect to the substance and the foundation of sin, and that on account of the state of nature; but it is removed on account of the state of the person, with respect to the guilt of sin [reatum], because it is not imputed to the faithful, “For there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Then it is mortified daily more and more, until at last it is thoroughly defeated and removed in death. 9