Proposed Form for the Baptism of Children Number 1

Two Forms for the Baptism of Children are presently under consideration by the CRC and proposed for adoption in 1976. In this article Rev. Henry B. Vanden Heuvel explains this situation that has led to questions and some confusion and he also evaluates Form Number One. In a following article he plans to evaluate Form Number 2 and also the proposed Form for Profession of Faith. Rev. Vanden Heuvel is pastor of the Bethel CRC in Sioux Center, Iowa.

It is sometimes erroneously thought that a desire to change the forms of baptism has only recently attracted the attention of the Christian Reformed Church. But this is clearly a misconception. However, it is also a misconception to assume that the Church has been concerned about the forms of baptism for many, many years.

It appears from the Acts of Synod that the question of the Form for Baptism dates back to 1963, which is not very long ago. The lirst overture Lhat carne to the attention of Synod regarding the form of baptism was in 1963 when Classis Kalamazoo overtured Synod to consider making a revision of the Baptismal Form. But this overture was not adopted because the grounds for the overture were considered too vague and without any definite suggestions for revision. However, that pioneer overture apparently sparked a good deal of liturgical thinking in the Church during the course of the following year.

The Acts of Synod of 1964 lists two different overtures requesting Synod to appoint a committee to revise the Form for Infant Baptism, and the Liturgical Committee that was engaged in the revision of the Form for the Lord‘s Supper, recommended that Synod appoint an ongoing Liturgical Committee for the purpose of reviewing all the liturgy of the Church. When Synod adopted the committee’s recommendation, although it was not ready to adopt the rather sweeping requests of the two overtures, it began the entire matter of liturgical revisions that we have inherited at this time.

Whether or not the present Liturgical Committee has exceeded its bounds is a question that many of us have debated and 1 suppose will continue to debate for some time. There is good reason, I believe, to view the decision of Synod in 1964 with some measure of concern, because of the nearly “blank check” that was given to this committee. 1 wonder whether the present situation was envisioned by that Synod. But, be that as it may, the concern of the present article and, hopefully, one to follow is for the proposed forms of baptism that are presently before the Church, and which will be placed before Synod next year.

Two Proposed Forms

It ought to be clearly before us what we are dealing with when we speak of the proposed forms for baptism. It seems to me that there is some confusion in the minds of people as to what is being presented to the churches. I have seen several articles that have appeared in our periodicals regarding the proposed forms for baptism, but generally speaking, there has not been an attempt to clarify exactly what the Liturgical Committee has done.

The Liturgical Committee is proposing two forms for infant baptism to the Church. The first form appeared in 1971 and is a complete revision of the present form for baptism. The Liturgical Committee requested that this Form be used in the churches for three years and a decision be reached at the meeting of Synod in 1974. Then in 1973, the Liturgical Committee presented a second Form for Infant Baptism, this one being a translation of the form that is presently found in the supplement of our Psalter Hymnal. This Form is not, according to the Committee, a total revision of the present form, but merely a new translation of the present Form placing it in more upto-date language. The Committee requested that this Form also be used by the churches and eventually adopted by Synod three years later, or 1976.

Since these two Forms were both placed in the Church by decision of Synod, and since both were to be used on a trial period with a view to eventual adoption, Synod in 1974 decided to make the trial period coincide and to place both these forms before the Synod in 1976 for final decision. This then is the current situation.

The purpose of this article and the next is to evaluate these two proposed forms for infant baptism. And I would like to deal with this by looking first at the totally new revision, and then next month at the translation of the present form.

The Formulary

The proposed Form Number One is divided into three parts, the Institution, the Promises, and Instruction. In the Institution part of the form, the Committee quotes Matthew 28:18–20 as the reason for baptism. This is similar, of course, to our Forms for the Celebration of the Lord‘s Supper in which the passage from I Corinthians 11 is quoted as the “institution” of the sacrament. This reference to the “institution” of baptism from the words of the Lord Jesus in Matthew 28 is a very good addition and change from the present Form. One of the overtures to Synod in the early history of the discussion on the Form for Baptism made reference to the fact that the present Form did not say anything about the Biblical institution of baptism. Obviously this addition is the Committee‘s response to that suggestion,

The second part of the revised Form for the Baptism of Children is called “The Promises.” Here the Committee refers to the promises of God proclaimed in His Word and confirmed in the sacrament of baptism. References are made to Genesis 17:7; Jeremiah 31:33, 34; Matthew 26:28; Acts 2:38, 39; 11 Timothy 2:11, 12 and II Corinthians 1:20. When one looks at these passages, the emphasis is clearly seen to be upon the Covenant of Grace, which is a most important fact in connection with infant baptism. However, no effort is made to prove that these promises of God are indeed confirmed by baptism. In the present form of baptism, one of the things that has often been criticized is the statement, “Since, then, baptism has come in the place of circumcision . . .” It has been alleged that no effort is made to prove that important statement. However, the form that is in the Psalter Hymnal, edition of 1957, added in parenthesis the reference to Colossians 2:11–13.

But here in this first proposed Form, there are statements which assume a most important relation· ship. The two passages which most clearly present this relationship are Genesis 17:7 and Acts 2:38, 39. Genesis 17:7 states the promise which God gives by way of the covenant to Abraham and his seed, the promise that He will be their God throughout their generations. And Acts 2:38, 39 relates this promise to baptism in very precise words when it says, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ unto the remission of your sins; and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For to you is the promise, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call unto him.” The other passages of Scripture that are suggested in this part of the proposed Form are beautiful and encouraging to the child of God, but in my opinion they do not prove the relation between the covenant and baptism.

The “Instruction” part of the proposed Form is the third part of the Formulary. The intention of this part of the Form is to present the teaching of Scripture concerning the sacrament of baptism. The opening statement after the one sentence introduction is a disappointment. It reads, “By the sign of baptism, God identifies us as his children, confirms all the promises of his covenant to us, and sets us apart for his service.” Surely the Committee could have stated the meaning of baptism in more clear, exciting, and certainly triumphant words than merely that “God identifies us as his children.Just what is meant by that word “identifies”? It is a rather colorless word to describe the beautiful meaning of baptism, The present Form uses the word “adoption” because that is the word the Bible uses to describe our relationship to God. And adoption is certainly a better word to use for this relationship than “identifies.” The Committee could have said something like, “By the sign of baptism, God shows that he has chosen and adopted us to be his children, and thus makes us recipients of all his promises.”

Following that opening statement, the Form proceeds to show how baptism does indeed identify us as God’s children, confirms all the promises of His covenant to us, and sets us apart for His scrvice. As one proceeds to read the paragraphs that will show these things, one finds himself looking in vain for substantiation for the statement made at the beginning of the section. The Committee relates baptism to the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ just as the present Form does. If these references to the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ are presented in order to show that God by baptism identifies us as His children, they certainly are not very clear. It would seem to me to be much better if the Committee in this part of the Form had said that God has adopted us, or taken us to Himself as His children by virtue of the fact that He has made an eternal covenant of grace with us. It is the covenant of grace that gives liS the reason that we are God’s children. Christ by His death, burial, and resurrection has confirmed that covenant, has made it effective for us. But it is not, strictly speaking, the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ that has adopted us. It is God’s covenant of grace that is the source of our adoption as His children. In my opinion the Committee leaves this relationship very vague and unclear.

The last paragraph in the “Instruction” deals with the question of infant baptism itself, Again reference is made to Acts 2:39, to Mark 10:16, and to I Corinthians 7:14. The Committee assumes the identity of circumcision and baptism, an identity that is clearly Scriptural, but which is not proved here. The present form at least refers the reader to Colossians 2:11–13 and alludes to Romans 4:11 when it says, “Therefore God formerly commanded to circumcise them, which was a seal of the covenant and of the righteousness of faith.”

When therefore one compares the “Instruction” in the proposed Form with the Formulary that is found in our present Form, he cannot help but note the weakness of the proposed Form. There is something that is almost superficial about this proposed Form. It lacks the weight, the maturity of expression that is found in the present Form. Further, the omission of reference to the Triune God in relationship to baptism is a serious weakness in this proposed form. Clearly the present Form gives great comfort to the parents of baptized children when it solidly relates baptism to the work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Prayer

The Prayer of Preparation is the next part of the proposed Form. Now it is true, I suppose, that there are weaknesses in the prayer found in the present Form for Baptism. But certainly that prayer has much more meaning than this proposed “Prayer of Preparation.”

The familiar words, “Thou who hast according to Thy severe judgment punished the unbelieving and unrepentant world with the flood, and hast according to Thy great mercy saved and protected believing Noah and his family; Thou who hast drowned the obstinate Pharaoh and all his hosts in the Red Sea and led Thy people Israel through the midst of the sea upon dry ground” are replaced in the proposed form. These are the words of the proposed revision, “We pray that You will never destroy us in our sin as with the Flood, but save us as believing Noah and spare us as the Israelites who walked safely through the sea.”

Since this first Form is a proposed revision, and not a translation, why did the Committee feel that it was necessary to include in this prayer references to Noah and the flood and the Israelites walking through the Red Sea? In my opinion, the Committee should have left it out altogether, rather than change it as they did. Is the point of the prayer in the present Form that God will not destroy us as in the Flood but save us as He did Noah? I doubt it. And is the point of the present Form that God would spare us as He did the Israelites who passed through the Red Sea? Again I don‘t think so. It appears to me that the present Form is pointing out the judgment of God against the sin of man, a judgment that has been removed for God’s people by way of the blood of Christ, and that baptism, whose water represents the blood of Christ, is a sign of the way in which both Noah and the Israelites escaped the judgment of God.

The Vows

The last part of this proposed form is called “The Vows.” This, of course, corresponds with the “Address to the Parents” that is found in the present Form. There have been references in other articles relative to the proposed forms to the anemic language of these vows. And clearly that criticism is justified.

The second question, for example, asks the parents, “Do you believe that your child, though sinful by nature . . . ?” The words “sinful by nature” obviously take the place of the words “conceived and born in sin and therefore subject to all manner of misery, yea to condemnation itself,” but is a very weak substitute for such a profound statement of our natural condition.

Further, the promise that is made by the parents leaves something to be desired. It asks, “Do you promise, in reliance on the Holy Spirit, to do all in your power to instruct this child in the Christian faith and to lead him by your example into the life of Christian discipleship?”

“Even though that question implies something that is certainly true, and we do desire parents to answer it affirmatively, to state the question in this way means that it may be construed to refer only to education by the parents. The words in the present Form, “. . . and cause them to be instructed therein to the utmost of your power,” give a Consistory the right and the duty to urge and encourage the parents of our covenant children to provide a Christian education not only at home and also at church, but more particularly also at the Christian school. However, this proposed Form removes that emphasis with its statement: “. . . to do all in your power to instruct this child in the Christian faith and to lead him by your example into the life of Christian discipleship.” This proposed formulation leaves parents the freedom to neglect the education of their children at the Christian school by claiming that they are taking care of this at home and at church. We cannot afford to diminish our emphasis on Christian Education in any way; especially in this time when more and more parents no longer feel the necessity nor see the dire need for and the blessings of such education also at the Christian school.

The addition of the charge to the congregation is somewhat of a puzzle. It is included in the part dealing with The Vows.It asks the congregation to “receive this child in love, pray for him, help care for his instruction in the faith, and encourage and sustain him in the fellowship of believers” (italics added). This is not practical nor is it within the scope of the congregation to do this. In a church where a dozen or more children are baptized in a year’s time, it is impossible to take this promise seriously. But neither is it within the scope of the congregation to make such a promise. The parents have the responsibility in the upbringing of their children. Of course, it is the task of the believing community to see to it that there are Christian Schools to aid in the training of the children, and it is the task of the Consistory to see to it that there is a catechism program for the spiritual development of the children. But when it comes right down to it, it is the parents who are responsible for the training of that child. There seems to be a harking back to the Roman Catholic idea of “sponsors” or “godparents” for the children when they arc presented for baptism. Yes, we as members of the congregation must and do pray for all the children, and we do pray that God will encourage them in the fellowship of believers. But we cannot practically do that according to the kind of promise that is made in this Form.

In conclusion then, it is my opinion that we are indeed the poorer if we replace the present Form with this proposed Form. If the present Form needs to be revised, that is one thing. If we could even be convinced that it should be replaced by something else, that is another thing. But surely this proposed Form is neither the revision that might be desired, nor the replacement that might be necessary.

(Next month: The proposed translation of the present Form of baptism.)