Hodge on “The Validity of Romish Baptism”

As continuing education after the H&S on R. C. Baptism, I’ve been reading Hodge’s “On the Validity of Romish Baptism.” Hodge’s argument is hugely important in this debate, because after a vote of 169-8 (6 abstaining) against R.C. Baptism, Hodge’s arguments reversed the tide. His writing on this topic can be found in this Google Book, starting on page 191. As I read along, I find a whole bunch of bad arguments (note that I went into the debate convinced (and came out more convinced) that Catholics should be rebaptized).

Early on, Hodge recounts some history (p. 193).

When the controversy first arose in the Church about the baptism of heretics there were two extreme opinions Cyprian and those African bishops who were under his influence took the ground that the baptism of all those who separated from the outward communion of the Catholic Church whether for heresy or schism was null and void In this view the bishops of Asia Minor generally coincided a fact easily accounted for as all the heretics with whom they were in conflict denied the very essentials of the gospel.

Indeed, that is the easy case, but what we have to deal with is the case in which the trinity is upheld, but the gospel is denied. The eventual resolution of this controversy landed on rebaptism only in the event of problems with the Trinigy. But I echo Roger Wagner’s point, why do we draw the line at the Trinity, and not where Paul draws lines, at the Gospel?

A little later, Hodge references Calvin, who said:

[Baptism] is a sacred and immutable testimony of the grace of God, though it were administered by the devil, though all who may partake of it were ungodly and polluted as to their own persons. Baptism ever retains its own character, and is never contaminated by the vices of men.

Hodge concurs (p. 204):

The illustration used by Calvin derived from the fact that those circumcised by apostate priests under the old dispensation were never recircumcised or treated as not having received that rite by the inspired prophets.

But even though the Reformed often find analogy with circumcision to be helpful, this time it doesn’t work. On the one hand, the prophets do not recircumcise those who were circumcised by heretical ministers of a valid church. On the other hand, we also do not rebaptize those who were baptized by heretical ministers of a valid church. What we’re talking about here is “ministers” of a non-church. What happened when Israel ceased to be a church? Jewish circumcision became completely invalid — half the new testament is about that! Same thing; when Rome unchurched itself at Trent, its baptisms became invalid. (And BTW, how do you recircumcise somebody?)
Here’s another argument by Hodge (p. 207):

if we deny to any body of men [i.e. Rome] the character of a Church on account of its creed we thereby assert that no man holding that creed can be saved.

This is an interesting thought, but I think it fails, because we are (confessionally) not insisting that a valid baptism is required for salvation — or even that no Catholic can be saved. Rome is not a church, although there are undoubtedly elect within it. I would even say that Mormonism is not a church, and that there is every reason to think there at least some true believers in the Mormon “church”, those who read the Bible enough to understand they are sinners and trust in Christ for salvation. I.e. exactly the same as Rome: you can be saved in a Mormon “church”, if you avoid the erroneous official doctrines of the institutional leadership.
In addressing the question of the “churchness” of Rome, Hodge sets a very low bar (p. 208):

Any body of men therefore that retains the doctrine of the incarnation or that Jesus is the Son of God that sets him forth as the object of religious worship and confidence retains the vital principle of Christianity. Nothing can prevent the saving power of that truth when it is really embraced.

Really? The Incarnation is all that’s needed for salvation? And based on this (bad?) foundation, Hodge continues:

One of the speakers [of the General Assembly of 1845] did indeed say that, although there were true believers in the Church of Rome, they were not members of the visible Church; which is a contradiction in terms since the visible Church consists of all who profess the true religion or saving doctrine. The mere fact of their having faith and avowing it in their conversation and deportment makes them members of the visible Church in the true scriptural and Presbyterian though not in the Puseyite sense of the term.

So one truly saved person makes whatever religious organization he is in part of the visible Church? That can’t be right. Nobody can be saved outside of the visible church? WCF 25.2 continues beyond what Hodge quoted: “The visible Church…consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion;…out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.” There still remains the extraordinary possibility of salvation, i.e. in Rome, outside the visible church. The Protestant/Reformed formal principle (sola scriptura) is that the Word forms the Church, not the other way around. So if somebody is saved in the catholic church, it is not because of the church (and does not make Rome part of the visible church), but he is saved despite Rome, and because of the Word. He must have read the Bible on his own, which the Holy Spirit used as a means of grace.
Finally Hodge makes a good point (p. 210):

We rejoice therefore that the Assembly freely admits in their Minute that there are true believers in the Church of Rome. Indeed we are not sure that truth would not demand the admission that there were more of evangelical doctrine and of true religion in that Church than were to be found in the Church of England or in some of the Protestant Churches of the continent of Europe notwithstanding their orthodox creeds during their long declension in the last century.

 Recall above Roger Wagner’s objection that the Gospel should be the dividing line, not merely the Trinity. But if the Trinity is not sufficient for a valid baptism, it is at least necessary. So what do we do with liberal churches that reject the virgin birth, the resurrection, the divinity of Christ, and replace the Gospel of substitutionary atonement with the social gospel? If, as Machen so famously argued, Liberalism is a different religion than Christianity, then why do we accept their baptisms? Logically, if we reject the Catholic Church, then we must reject the PCUSA. So by the contrapositive, if we accept the PCUSA we must accept the Catholic Church.
But this is merely a pragmatic, not a theological argument, which is in a sense to beg the question and concede that we shouldn’t rebaptize Catholics because there’s just too many of them (including Luther and Calvin).

15 Responses

  1. Not to minimize any concerns about false churches, but it does seem by the gospel reasoning, as opposed to the Trinitarian reasoning, we trend strongly toward a lot of re-baptism. And if Belgic 34, which looks committed to Trinitarian reasoning, suggests anything it seems like re-baptism ought to be regarded with great caution.

    “For this reason we believe that anyone who aspires to reach eternal life ought to be baptized only once without ever repeating it– for we cannot be born twice… For that reason we detest the error of the Anabaptists who are not content with a single baptism once received…”

    So I wonder if gospel reasoning makes us practical Anabaptists, the kind that doesn’t re-baptize children but adults?

    • Yes, I admit that heading down this road leads to an amount of rebaptizing that is impractical and displeasing, but it is important to note that doesn’t make it wrong.

      But part of my point is, even just with Trinitarian reasoning, if we stick to it consistently, that gives us plenty of unexpected rebaptizing (i.e. PCUSA who have messed up Trinitarian doctrine in regards to virgin birth, historical resurrection, divinity of Christ, etc.).

      Why do we find it so easy to fence the table, but not the font?

  2. I would be the first in line to say that the Roman Church is not part of the visible church. That seems to indicate that their baptism is not valid.

    But it’s not as if the Roman Church has no connection whatsoever with the true church. Prior to the Reformation, it was the only church it was.

    If you think, as I do, that the Pope (all the Popes, not just one Pope) is the Antichrist, then the Church has been presided over by the Antichrist for over 1,000 years from the time of the rise of the papacy to the Reformation.

    If the Antichrist is reigning over the Church on earth as its king, and if everyone submits to him as king, then how can we say that this is the church of Christ anymore? Can we really say that the Church under the Pope prior to the Reformation is the true church?

    We might be tempted to say, no, it wasn’t the true church. In fact, for most of the history of the church, it got justification wrong. We might be tempted to say that for most of the church’s history, it hasn’t actually been the church at all.

    But the fact is, that was the only church there was. You have to locate the visible church somewhere.

    So this is why, yes, we can affirm that the Roman Church is NOT the true Church on the one hand, but sort of grudgingly admit that we kind of need to accept their baptisms, despite the irregularity of it.

    But we don’t just say that their baptisms are valid without any further comment. If Joe becomes a Christian tomorrow, I would not tell him to get baptized in the Roman Church but in a true Church. If a Presbyterian were to go get baptized in a Catholic Church, we might rightly bring him up on charges.

    But if a Roman Catholic becomes a Protestant and makes a true profession of faith – then I say that there’s every evidence in the world that the Lord used that person’s baptism as a means of grace. After all, here they are, exhibiting the fruit of grace.

    • Why not just draw the line at Trent, like we usually do, to say “This is the point where Rome unchurched herself”. Then there’s no problem with having no true church for 1000 years.

    • Because it ceased to be the true church long before that by reasonable standards. Trent is just when it became painfully obvious to even the most wishy washy observers that it wasn’t the true church anymore.

      I mean, in order to say of a church “this is a true church”, doesn’t it need to affirm that the Bible is the highest authority? But the Pope had more authority than Scripture LONG before the Reformation, long before Trent. The papal bull “Unam Sanctum” was written in 1301, and in it the Pope declared that it was necessary for salvation for every human creature to be brought under the authority of the Pope.

      Or how about how the Pope claimed the right to change the wording of the Nicene Creed without calling an ecumenical council, the famous “filioque” clause? Excommunicating the entire Eastern Church over silly matters and never repenting of that evil? (I realize it’s complicated, but surely there’s terrific unrepentant sin here involved in the Great Schism of 1054).

      Or how about the Avignon papacy fiasco in the 14th century, during which there were two competing popes, each of which had excommunicated the followers of his rival?

      Can it be the true Church if it has an ordained office of priest? Can it be the true church if they refused to hold worship services in the vulgar tongue? For centuries after no one spoke Latin anymore, worship services were conducted in a language that only the priest understood. That didn’t change until the 1960’s with Vatican 2! Can it be the true church that recognizes that the masses weren’t being taught anything by the preaching of the Word (since it wasn’t in a known tongue, a flagrant violation of 1Cor 12-14), so they resorted to teaching through the use of images in the places of worship?

      We could of course go on and on. The Roman Church ceased to be the true Church by any reasonable definition LONG before the Reformation. And yet, it was pretty much the only church there was for a lot of people.

      Surely we can’t deny that those who were baptized by priests in the corrupt Church of the 14th century were truly baptized? If they weren’t then it simply wasn’t possible to be baptized at that time. That doesn’t make sense.

      My point is that, while it certainly seems plausible to say that this isn’t the true Church and therefore they can’t truly baptize, it really isn’t that simple.

      Think of the time of Jesus. The Church at that time put the Son of God to death. It was the leaders of the Church that voted to do this. It’d be like if the General Assembly of the PCA or OPC voted to kill Jesus. Surely we wouldn’t say that this is the true Church! And yet at that time we HAVE to because there simply wasn’t anything else.

      So when we say “let’s draw the line at the Trinity”, we aren’t saying that any Church that believes in the Trinity is part of the true Church. We’re saying that any baptism that’s done as Jesus commanded (in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is a true baptism. We recognize that it’s irregular if it’s not done in a true Church, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valid. The sacrifices made in the Temple in the weeks leading up to the death of Christ were true sacrifices, even if the Church at that time wasn’t a true, pure Church.

      We confess that even today there are likely still some of the elect in the Roman Church. So that means that even if we say that this is not part of the true Church, we have to make a distinction between a Roman Catholic Church and, say, a Mosque or Hindu Temple. The Roman Church bears some connection to the true Church. It was the only Church for a very long time.

      All that is to say that whether or not we should accept Roman baptisms is a more complicated question than whether or not the Roman Catholic Church is part of the visible church. We should, even though it isn’t.

  3. Hi brothers! I just came by to see when the historic/paedo-communion vs romish/baptist-communion debate was coming up. :) Sorry that I won’t be there. I will, however, be worshipping with you on 12/18 and Christmas. I am looking forward to catching up.

    I had to comment on some stuff by Echo:

    I mean, in order to say of a church “this is a true church”, doesn’t it need to affirm that the Bible is the highest authority?

    To answer that question in the affirmative would be self-refuting since the scriptures nowhere state that a body of believers are not part of the true church unless said body affirms the scriptures to be the highest authority. And the notion itself is refuted by the fact that there were plenty of people in the true church before the scriptures could possibly have been affirmed as the highest authority because they hadn’t been canonized yet.

    Can it be the true Church if it has an ordained office of priest?

    Why not? Because having such an office is an error? God help us if that becomes the standard of who is and who is not part of the Church.

    We’re saying that any baptism that’s done as Jesus commanded (in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is a true baptism. We recognize that it’s irregular if it’s not done in a true Church, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valid.

    What? If it isn’t an ordained minister of the true church, it isn’t a true baptism. Just because some guy puts on a costume, splashes some water on some other guy and says the right words; that doesn’t make it a baptism. Even if his name is Joseph Smith.

  4. Or, which is why we shouldn’t say the Church at Rome is the “Synagogue of Satan”.

    I know you wish that the confession said this explicitly of Rome, but they refused, even when the opportunity arose (WCF 25.5). In fact, they stated the exact opposite (WCF 25.6).

    The WCF explicitly rejects the notion that only those churches that preach the pure gospel are true Christian churches (WCF 25.4). God help us if our own purity becomes the standard of membership in Christ’s Church. I thought it was His purity we were banking on?

    What I find so completely odd is when reformed folk say that there are true Christians in the church of Rome (which is the same as saying their baptisms can stand when they become protestants), but that the church of Rome is not a true Christian Church. You can’t have it both ways. The invisible church is a *subset* of the visible church, not completely separate from it. More or less visible, yes, but always visible.

    • I am always amazed at how you can wrest opposite meanings out of words. But it makes my job easier, because I don’t need to refute you, I can just let the words themselves do it. If anybody else ever reads these comments (which they probably wont’t) I’m happy for them to go read WCF 25.4 for themselves and try to reconcile your words to it.

      The invisible church is not a subset of the visible church. There is no ordinary means of salvation for those outside the visible church, but there are extraordinary means.

      The existence of true believers within Rome does not mean their baptisms are valid, it means their faith is valid.

  5. Germane is (was) this:

    In 1845 the General Assembly of the American Presbyterian Church declared that Roman Catholic baptism is not Christian baptism. But in the ecumenical twentieth century, that declaration was all but forgotten by American Presbyterians – deliberately so. The leading southern Presbyterian theologian of the nineteenth century, J. H. Thornwell, wrote a defense of the 1845 declaration that has never been refuted by any theologian – it has simply been ignored. The publication of this book is intended to end that ignorance.

    In an age when so-called Protestants favor tradition over Scripture, Thornwell reminds us of the Biblical truth: “We should not be deterred from admitting a Scriptural conclusion because it removes the structures of antiquity…. We are first to ascertain from Scripture what the true sacrament of baptism is, and then judge the practice of the church in every age by this standard…. The unbroken transmission of a visible Church in any line of succession is a figment of papists and prelatists. Conformity with the Scriptures, not ecclesiastical genealogy, is the true touchstone of a sound church.”


  6. […] few years back on The Validity of Roman Catholic Baptism (see here for audio, and the following two posts for discussion). I embolden some parts that I found […]

  7. I totally agree with you on the matter of romish baptisms being invalid,
    & came to my own independent view that this occurred post council of trent, before this point she was the catholic church apostate & tottering but post trent having anathematised the gospel & protestantism she became the catholic church reprobate & fallen, rome is the scarlet harlot, mystery babylon & a synagogue of satan. Rev 18:2 Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils,

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