White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

Baptismal Regeneration and Ex Opere Operato

Published Wednesday, November 11, 2020 By Michael Lynch

Contemporary Reformed theologians, ministers, and congregants often misunderstand their early modern ancestors on the issue of baptismal regeneration. Such misunderstanding has come from two different sides of contemporary Reformed theology. On the one hand, there are those who claim that even the Westminster Confession teaches baptismal regeneration. Of course, were this the case—and it is not (although that will not be demonstrated here)—then the overwhelming majority of conservative Presbyterians would be out of step with their own confessional standard. On the other hand, some, fearing that their fellow Reformed ministers teach distinctly Roman Catholic doctrines, have argued that baptismal regeneration presupposes the Roman Catholic notion of ex opere operato sacramental efficacy. In this brief post, I want to address especially the latter opinion, with the hopes of carefully distinguishing the notion of baptismal regeneration from ex opere operato. Some Reformed theologians in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries did, in fact, argue for baptismal regeneration, but they all denied sacramental efficacy ex opere operato.

Baptismal Regeneration among the Early Modern Reformed

While assessing the positions on baptism can be somewhat difficult among some of the early reformers, though I am sympathetic to the reading of the Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Witsius, who thought that most of the early Reformed held to something like presumptive regeneration (baptism presumes the regeneration of the subject, whether of infants or adults), by the turn of the seventeenth century, there was a clear minority of Reformed who held to baptismal regeneration. By baptismal regeneration applied to infants, I mean the doctrine which holds that, at baptism, the baptized child receives the Holy Spirit and is brought into a state of salvation in accordance with his or her condition. Among the Reformed who held to this, there were some differences. Indeed, Bishop John Davenant, a delegate to the Synod of Dordt, along with fellow delegate Samuel Ward, taught that at baptism, all infants are forgiven of original guilt. Others, such as Westminster divine Cornelius Burgess, argued that the seed of regeneration imparted at baptism only extends to elect infants. Still, they all agreed that at baptism, saving grace is given by the Holy Spirit during infant baptism. This belief was common not just among some groups of Reformed theologians but also Roman Catholics and Lutherans. Baptismal regeneration was a popular belief in part because even its detractors generally admitted that it was Augustine’s own position on baptism.

Ex Opere Operato

One aspect of the Roman Catholic position on baptism which was universally condemned by the Reformed was their belief that baptism conferred saving grace ex opere operato. The phrase, which means something like “by virtue of the action,” is explicitly affirmed by the Council of Trent: “If anyone says that grace is not conferred by the sacraments ex opere operato but that faith in God’s promises is alone sufficient for obtaining grace, let him be anathema” (Can. 8). Generally speaking, Roman Catholics, although not completely unanimous on the exact nature of what it meant to call the sacramental efficacy ex opere operato, believed that the external application of the sacrament effected spiritual grace. In the case of baptism, water plays the role of a physical instrumental cause in the granting of saving grace.

Baptismal Regeneration and Ex Opere Operato

Given the discussion thus far, it might not be altogether obvious how it is that Reformed theologians, persuaded by the idea that the sacrament of baptism regenerates, could reject ex opere operato. For example, the eminent English Reformed theologian, William Whitaker (1548–1595), argued that the sacraments were “instrumental causes of grace” (Praelectiones [1624], 62). What precisely is the difference between those Reformed who taught baptismal regeneration and the ex opere operato baptismal efficacy?

Enter Samuel Ward, Davenant’s colleague at Dordt and later a professor of theology at Cambridge University. Ward, following Whitaker, insisted that the sacraments confer grace—even as instrumental causes of such grace. Yet, the distinction he made was that the sacraments do not confer such grace as a physical cause, but as a moral one:

We do not say that the sacraments confer grace by means of any imparted power or quality, either natural or supernatural, which is to confer grace by the mode of a physical cause, but […] they are efficacious signs of grace because divine power assists these sacraments to produce the effect of grace certainly and infallibly […] that they function as a cause sine qua non, or perhaps better, as an instrumental cause […], a moral instrument.

Ward, Opera, 44

The distinction between a moral and physical cause is a scholastic distinction used amongst early modern theologians. A physical or natural cause, as one Roman Catholic put it, “achieves its own effects by a power imparted by nature.” On the other hand, a moral cause does not “achieve its own effects by a physical action, nor does it exercise an influence over or produce certain qualities” (Melchior Cano, Opera, 488).

According to Ward, the sacraments, and in the case of baptism—water—imparts no saving grace as a physical cause might work. Hence, it does not ex opere operato effect grace. Instead grace is imparted by the sacrament only insofar as the sacrament is an occasion by which God imparts grace to the recipient of baptism. While the distinction might seem slight, the consequences are profound.

If sacraments effected grace ex opere operato, then that would mean that the water itself has spiritual efficacy. In other words, that which only God can do, namely remit sins, would be a quality of the water itself used in baptism. Moreover, it assumes the quite unreasonable supposition that something physical, such as water, can touch the soul. Yet, physical instrumental causes only have contact with other physical things. Finally, at least with regard to adults, if the sacraments work ex opere operato, then faith would not be an instrumental cause of grace relative to the sacraments. Paul, however, expressly teaches that those who receive the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner bring upon themselves damnation—not grace. Therefore, faith is the instrumental cause of the grace infused during the Lord’s Supper, not the external act itself ex opere operato.

In summary, then, those Reformed who taught baptismal regeneration did so not because they believed that the external act of baptism by water immediately and per se brought about regeneration, but because they believed that baptism was the occasion, consonant with God’s covenantal promise, for God’s saving grace to be given to the baptized. Put simply, all those who taught ex opere operato held to baptismal regeneration, but not all who taught baptismal regeneration held to sacramental efficacy ex opere operato.

More, of course, could be said. In fact, there is a fascinating trajectory of medieval and Roman Catholic—particularly Jesuit—theologians, who took a very similar approach to sacramental efficacy as Ward, et al. That occultic story must wait for another day.

Dr. Michael Lynch teaches language and humanities at Delaware Valley Classical School in New Castle, DE. He is the author of John Davenant’s Hypothetical Universalism (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

  • Michael Lynch