Era of Reform Baptism
Era of Reform

The rite of initiation into Christian faith and communion.

Baptism of Jesus, by Lucas Cranach

Four distinct patterns of baptismal theology and practice emerged from the era of reform. Liturgical practice among Protestants reflected these diverse understandings, while Roman Catholic practice was little changed.

Roman Catholic: The Council of Trent (1545-1563) reaffirmed the theology of baptism inherited from the middle ages. Among other things, this theology claimed that the unbaptized could not be saved. Since the Roman Catholic Church had adopted the practice of infant baptism as its norm, catechesis had ceased to play any real role in baptism. Renunciation of the devil, parental profession of faith, and the actual baptism with water were the most pronounced features of the Roman Catholic rite of baptism. Baptism was considered necessary for salvation. It was understood to cleanse the recipient from original sin and also to leave the baptizand free of actual sin.

Lutheran: Lutherans retained infant baptism but altered their understanding of its nature. Luther and other conservative Protestant reformers also quietly abandoned the notion that unbaptized infants are condemned without, they hoped, diminishing the importance of baptism. The Lutheran view of baptism is summarized in a listing of its benefits in Luther's Small Catechism: "In Baptism God forgives sin, delivers from death and the devil, and gives everlasting salvation to all who believe what he has promised." Lutherans maintained that baptism, functioning as a promise, simply bestowed these gifts. At the same time, the Lutherans insisted that these gifts can only be received by saving faith. Thus Luther typically argued that infants are capable of faith and that the presence of faith is a condition of effective baptism.

Reformed: The Reformed tradition retained the baptism of infants, but rejected or diminished the claim that baptism is contingent on the faith of the child baptized. For Zwingli baptism resulted in the incorporation of the child into the community of faith. For him the sacrament functioned as an initiatory sign analogous to circumcision in the Old Testament. John Calvin argued that the theme of baptism is incorporation into the faith and discipline of the church. In the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin maintained that three gifts are imparted in baptism: the sealing of the forgiveness of sins, impulses to reform the believer in newness of life, and communion with Christ.

Radical: The radical reformers rejected infant baptism and administered this rite only consequent to conscious repentance, faith, and conversion on the part of the recipient. While understandings of baptism differed considerably among various factions, most considered baptism as a profession of individual faith, as a covenant of membership in the believing congregation, and as a preparation for the possibility of martyrdom.

Anglican: The Church of England retained the baptism of infants, but the English reformation did not produce a distinct pattern of baptismal theology or practice. This is reflected in the Prayer Book of 1552 which contains a baptismal liturgy prepared by Thomas Cranmer. This rite implies some influence from Reformed theology. In practice Cranmer retains some of the inherited Roman Catholic form, rejects other portions of it, and seems in other instances to borrow from the Genevan reforms of John Calvin.

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