Presumptive Regeneration: An Untold Story
In my late teens and early twenties, I was part of the early so-called, “young, restless, and Reformed” movement. This meant, among other things, that I had to read some Geerhardus Vos, whom everyone at the time recommended as a must-read. As an undergraduate student at a Bible institute, I was well-prepared to handle Vos’s covenant theology. What I was completely unable to make sense of was the bit found at the end of his 1891 rectoral address on “The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology” at what is now Calvin Seminary. The following history of Reformed theology is a bit messy.
Near the end of this lecture, wherein Vos traced the role of the doctrine of the covenant in Reformed dogmatics—especially in contrast to Lutheran dogmatics—Vos turned to how God’s covenant relates to children, and how baptism fits into that scheme. He noted that Reformed theologians disagreed about “when the [covenant] promises are usually realized by regeneration in the children of the covenant.” The first view, “not only assumes that the children of the covenant who die before they reach the age of discretion, possess the Holy Spirit from their earliest childhood and so are born again and united to Christ, but also maintains this thesis as generally valid for the seed of the promise without distinction.” Within this first school, Vos cited Antonius Walaeus (about whom, at the time, all I knew was that he had a funny last name). Walaeus, a delegate to the Synod of Dordt and a long-time professor of theology at Leiden University, is cited by Vos as saying:
We reject the opinion of the Lutherans who tie the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit to the external water of baptism in such a way that, either it is present in the water itself or at least the principle of regeneration will only work in the administration of baptism. This, however, is opposed to all the places in Scripture, where faith and repentance and hence the beginning and seed of regeneration are antecedently required in the one who is baptized […]. Therefore, we do not bind the efficacy of baptism to the moment in which the body is sprinkled with external water; but we require with the Scriptures antecedent faith and repentance in the one who is baptized, at least according to the judgment of love, both in the infant children of covenant members, and in adults. For we maintain that in infants too the presence of the seed and the Spirit of faith and conversion is to be ascertained on the basis of divine blessing and the evangelical covenant.
I readily admit that when I first read this I was dumbfounded. Walaeus is saying that he denied baptismal regeneration (as argued by the Lutherans) because the Bible speaks about faith and repentance as presumed prerequisites for baptism. Therefore, he presumes that baptized infants already have the seed of faith. In short, he holds to presumptive regeneration. The rest of this post is the history of this Walaeus quote and how Vos came to find it.
Interestingly, the date of Vos’s lecture comes only a few years after the initial disputes over presumptive regeneration among the Dutch Secession Churches and the Churches of the Grieving, which united only one year after Vos’s essay. In the same year as Vos’s lecture (1891), it just so happened that Abraham Kuyper’s essay on “Calvinism and Confessional Revision” was translated by Vos himself and published in the American Presbyterian and Reformed Review. In this essay, Kuyper, being a leader among the Grieving Churches, makes his case for presumptive regeneration, appealing to various early modern Reformed writers including John Calvin and Gisbertus Voetius, one of the leading seventeenth century Dutch Reformed theologians.
At the same time this debate was happening in the Netherlands, Vos was writing letters to B.B. Warfield, Bavinck, and Kuyper asking questions related to the topic of covenant, election, baptism, etc. So, in February of 1891 (prior to his lecture), Vos asked, in a letter to Warfield, who happened to be the editor of the journal where Kuyper’s aforementioned essay was published, “Is Dr. Kuyper correct in representing his theory as the proper Calvinistic view of infant baptism? Did the older theologians really mean that baptism in each case presupposes regeneration as an accomplished fact?” Vos indicated in a letter dated only a month after the first letter he wrote to Warfield, that the latter had recommended Herman Witsius’s treatise On the Efficacy and Utility of Baptism. Vos wrote to Warfield: “I have secured a copy [of Witsius’s work] for perusal and hope to reach a more definite view.”
It is at this point where we return to Walaeus, because it is in Witsius’s treatise where we read: “I acknowledge the theologians of the Augsburg Confession [i.e., the Lutherans]; but their opinion is repudiated by our theologians, which I learned basically from childhood, from the Synopsis Purioris of the Leiden Professors, in its Disputation Concerning Baptism, of which Walaeus is the author.” Witsius went on to quote the exact two theses of Walaeus which Vos himself quotes in his essay on the covenant. In fact, if you compare the end of Vos’s lecture where he deals with infant baptism with Witsius’s own treatise on baptism, it is clear that Vos was cribbing from Witsius. And it is Walaeus’s quote which for Vos seemed to vindicate the orthodoxy of Kuyper’s presumptive regeneration position.
Two observations about Kuyper’s orthodoxy on presumptive regeneration are worth mentioning. First, curiously, in Bavinck’s own taxonomy of the early modern period, Walaeus was placed in the school of thought which teaches not “that all children born of believing parents had to be regarded—according to the judgment of charity—as regenerate until in their witness or walk they clearly manifested the contrary, or that at least the elect children were usually regenerated by the Spirit of God before baptism or even before birth” but rather that school which “did not dare to construe this regeneration before baptism as being the rule. They all without exception acknowledged that God’s grace is not bound to means and can also work regeneration in the heart of very young children, but they left open the question whether in the case of elect infants that regeneration occurred before, during, or also, sometimes even a great many years, after baptism.” In other words, Bavinck seemed to think that Walaeus denied presumptive regeneration. Yet this is clearly a misreading of Walaeus, and both Witsius and Vos rightly, at least in my judgment, placed Walaeus in the presumptive regeneration camp. And this leads me to my second point.
What concerned Vos the most about the debates in the Netherlands and in America over infant baptism was the sheer lack of historical awareness. Vos in two letters to Bavinck complained about certain Dutch Secession Church ministers who disapproved of Kuyper’s presumptive regeneration view: “My objection is not so much against the element of truth which lies therein, but against the one-sided presentation of this line of thought as the one and only Reformed view.” In his next letter to Bavinck, he continues: “More and more I come to understand that a lack of historical sense and historical denial can lead to dangerous things. Those who have thrown this matter of discord [over whether presumptive regeneration is a Reformed view] into our small church are as absolutistic as possible. There is only one Reformed opinion and that is theirs. They push the matter through and seem to have in mind that our church will put an end to the issue.” This short episode in the history of late 19th century debates over presumptive regeneration in Dutch Reformed circles is another reminder that the Reformed tradition is a bit wider and messier than one may have suspected. It is also a reminder that some early modern Reformed theologians agreed with the Baptist insistence upon baptism presuming faith and regeneration! Your move Baptists.
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).