The pioneers of the English Reformation were under a mix of Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, and Baptist influences that contributed to the various positions on baptismal salvation among them. The traditional Catholic doctrine of baptismal regeneration was firmly entrenched in the English State Church at the time of the Reformation. Henry VIII followed the baptismal views of the medieval Catholic theologians. The “Schoolmen agreed that the sign and grace necessarily concur except where prevented by insincerity or unbelief[.] . . . Certainly, a miraculous work is done when the external sign is administered. By virtue of the divine institution and the passion of Christ the baptismal sign and the baptismal grace do almost automatically concur. . . . The majority of medieval scholars, and many of their sixteenth-century admirers and successors, inclined to the most obvious and simple view that God had given to the water itself a regenerative force: the grace, or virtue, was in the water. Thomas himself favored this view, for which he could cite Augustine and Bede as venerable guarantors.[i] In the sixteenth century it found an exponent in Henry VIII. . . . As Henry VIII put it, quoting Hugo de Sancto Victore, ‘the sacrament of baptism cleanses internally.’[ii]”[iii] This view continued among later “High Church” Anglicans like Stephen Gardiner, who “asserted bluntly that we are all justified ‘in the sacrament of baptisme before we could talk of the justification we strive for.’”[iv] The opening prayer in the Anglican Baptismal Office included the words, “Who by the baptism of Thy well-beloved Son in the river Jordan didst sanctify water to the mystical washing away of sin.”[v] However, Lutheran and Reformed influences made the situation in the English Protestant State-church more complex:
The position in England was complicated. The earlier formularies used the language of medieval theology, and even the Prayer Book and Article might suggest a traditionalist understanding. The Article, for example, described baptism as an instrument, and referred to forgiveness as one of its benefits. But there is evidence that from quite an early period the baptismal forgiveness was understood by the Reformers in a Lutheran or Reformed sense rather than the Scholastic. The King’s Book is perhaps the one exception which confirms the general rule. Even the formularies themselves make this plain. The Ten Articles ascribe the forgiveness primarily to Christ Himself, and the Baptismal Office speaks of the benefits rather than the effects of the sacrament, and relates them in the first instance to the author of grace, and only secondarily to the means. The Homilies have exactly the same emphasis, for although it is boldly stated that baptized infants are washed from their sins, the washing is by virtue of the sacrifice of Christ and not of the sacrament. The Article certainly describes baptism as an efficacious sign, but it then shows clearly that its efficacy is not to cleanse from sin, but to sign and seal the divine promise of forgiveness. . . . The individual Anglicans were all anxious to maintain the traditional connection between baptism and forgiveness.”[vi]
While English Anglicanism never attained anything like theological uniformity in the Reformation era (or any subsequent period to the present day), Reformed views of baptismal salvation eventually became dominant:
It was the Reformed view which finally prevailed in England . . . Cranmer himself made it plain that in baptism infants do not believe either vicariously or actually, but sacramentally; i. e. they have the sign of faith. Philpot, too, did not think that infants may make any profession of present faith. The Elizabethans were if anything even more definite, for Whitaker disowned the Lutheran view in his controversy with Bellarmine, although he stressed the fact that his opponent was misrepresenting it. Rogers flatly denounced it as an error. . . . The Puritans, of course, took up the Reformed view with vigour.”[vii]
The Reformed doctrine found advocates in Cranmer, Jewel, Whitgift, and others. Bromiley explains their views well:
Whitgift believed that “Although the necessity of baptism is not so tied to the sacraments, that whosoever hath the external sign shall therefore be saved, yet it is so tied to them, that none can be saved that willingly and wittingly is void of them.”[viii] . . .
The statement of Jewel clearly reflects the language of the Prayer Book: “For this cause are infants baptized, because they are born in sin, and cannot become spiritual but by this new birth of water and of the Spirit.”[ix] . . . Jewel[x] . . . linked together the baptismal remission and the baptismal entry into newness of life in Christ and in the church of Christ. The emphasis is important, because it marks a return in Anglican teaching to the . . . patristic doctrine, and a rejection of the quasi-material conception of cleansing. Baptism was not merely an obliteration of past sin, but the giving of a new and divine life, an entry into the resurrection. The baptismal forgiveness was not as it were a literal washing of the soul from sin and its endowment with new grace and virtue. It was a forgiveness, and accompanying renewal, by identification in faith with the crucified and risen Redeemer.
The true grace of baptism was, in fact, the new creation of God in which by the divine promise and faith the old things are passed away and all things are become new. It was a genuine and full regeneration, an incorporation into Christ with all the benefits which that implied and involved. It was more than the formal uniting with Christ, or the change in external status, which might be presumed of all those who received the outward sign. For although the Reformers distinguished between the first regeneration of faith and the process of moral renovation in which we become by sight that which we are already by faith, regeneration itself was a deep and inward operation of the Holy Spirit; not a bare ontological change, but a renewal of the whole life by saving faith in Jesus Christ.[xi] . . .
Cranmer referred “to baptism as a receiving of the Holy Ghost and putting Christ upon us.”[xii] According to Cranmer, no greater reverence ought to be paid to the bread and wine than to the water, for the presence and ‘shewing’ of Christ are the same in both sacraments.”[xiii] . . . [T]he Holy Ghost was not given in the water or the font, but in the ministration.[xiv] The true baptismal transformation was not the transformation of the water, but “that wonderful change which God Almighty by his omnipotence worketh really in them that be baptized therewith.”[xv] . . . Cranmer . . . perceived that there is both an outward work of baptism and also an inward, but that the true baptism will include both: “Through baptism, in this world, the body is washed, and the soul is washed: the body outwardly, the soul inwardly: the work is one.”[xvi] [xvii] . . . Cranmer’s Catechism . . . related baptism directly to the regenerating activity of the Holy Spirit: “the Spirit works in faith and baptisme to make us new men agayne.”[xviii] In baptism the old life comes to an end with the identification of the believer with Christ’s death and the non-imputation of sin. But in baptism, too, a new life begins with the identification of the believer with Christ’s resurrection and the imputation of the whole righteousness of Christ: “baptism delivereth from death and the power of the devil, and gyveth salvation and everlastynge lyfe to all them that believe.”[xix] [xx] . . . Cranmer said that unbaptized infants of Christians could possibly be saved; he rejected “as impious the unscrupulous superstition of those who so entirely confine the grace of God the Holy Spirit to the elements of the sacraments as to affirm that no infant of Christians will obtain eternal salvation, who shall have died before he could be brought to baptism, which we consider to be far otherwise.”[xxi]
The main Anglican Reformers affirmed baptismal salvation, as the continental Reformed denominations did. They likewise joined with continental Reformed theology in rejecting the Catholic notion that all unbaptized infants of Christians were necessarily lost and in shifting the materialistic aspects of Catholic baptismal regeneration to an emphasis upon the imputation of the alien righteousness of Christ, in accordance with their Protestant understanding of justification.
Anglican documents of all sorts followed the position of the Anglican Reformers in affirming baptismal salvation. The binding 39 Articles affirm that as “by an instrument, they that receive baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; [and] the promises of the forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God, by the Holy Ghost are visibly signed and sealed.”[xxii] The 1662 Book of Common Prayer, in “The Ministration of Publick Baptism of Infants, to be Used in the Church,” requires the priest to pray, “by the Baptism of thy well-beloved Son Jesus Christ, in the river Jordan, [Thou, God] didst sanctify Water to the mystical washing away of sin . . . We call upon thee for this Infant, that he, coming to thy holy Baptism, may receive remission of his sins by spiritual regeneration. Receive him, 0 Lord, as thou hast promised . . . that this Infant may enjoy the everlasting benediction of thy heavenly washing, and may come to the eternal kingdom which thou hast promised by Christ our Lord. Amen.” The form for “The Ministration of Private Baptism of Children” requires the priest to “pour Water upon [the child], saying these words; ‘I baptize thee in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.’ Then, all kneeling down, the Minister shall give thanks unto God, and say, ‘We yield thee hearty thanks, most merciful Father, that it hath pleased thee to regenerate this Infant with thy Holy Spirit, to receive him for thine own Child by adoption, and to incorporate him into thy holy Church. And we humbly beseech thee to grant, that as he is now made partaker of the death of thy Son, so he may be also of his resurrection; and that finally, with the residue of thy Saints, he may inherit thine everlasting kingdom; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’” It further commends the “baptizing of [a] Child; who being born in original sin, and in the wrath of God, is now, by the laver of Regeneration in Baptism, received into the number of the children of God, and heirs of everlasting life.” While a great variety of issues were debated within the Anglican communion, the communication of saving grace through baptism was a point of general agreement.
[i] Pg. 185, Baptism, Bromiley, citing pgs. 344-346, La Théologie de Bellarmine, J. de la Serviere.
[ii] Pg. 172, Baptism, Bromiley, citing Assertio, pg. 100.
[iii] Pg. 172, 185, Baptism, Bromiley.
[iv] Pg. xiv, Baptism and the Anglican Reformers, Bromiley, pg. xiv; Gardiner cited from Letters (ed. Muller) pg. 407.
[v] Pg. 9, Baptism, Bromiley.
[vi] Pg. 174, Baptism, Bromiley.
[vii] Pg. 114-115, Baptism, Bromiley.
[viii] Pg. 61, Baptism, Bromiley, citing Whitgift, Parker Society, II, pg. 537.
[ix] Pg. 112, Baptism, Bromiley.
[x] Jewel, Parker Society Series, I, pg. 140-141.
[xi] Pg. 180-181, Baptism, Bromiley.
[xii] Pg. 11, Baptism, Bromiley, citing Cranmer, Parker Society Series, I, pg. 64.
[xiii] Pg. 13, Baptism, Bromiley, citing Cranmer, Works, ed. Jenkins, III, ppg. 10, 61f., 242.
[xiv] Cranmer, Parker Society Series, I, pg. 148.
[xv] Pg. 137, Cranmer, Parker Society Series II, pg. 180.
[xvi] Foxe, VI, pg. 457.
[xvii] Pg. 175, Baptism, Bromiley.
[xviii] Cranmer’s Catechism, pg. 122.
[xix] Cranmer’s Catechism, pg. 189.
[xx] Pg. 179, Baptism, Bromiley.
[xxi] Pg. 57, Baptism, Bromiley, citing Cranmer, Parker Society Series, II, pg. 60.
[xxii] Article XXVII.